Don’t let grim headlines obscure the progress on climate change

The second reason is that, in a world with limited resources, innovations allow us to magnify the impact of our efforts. Consider what has happened in public health over the past two decades: We’ve cut in half the number of children who die before the age of five. Although it’s true that global health funding went up, that’s not the only reason for the dramatic change. It’s also because advances in science and policy drove down the cost of vaccines and made it possible to immunize far more children—and because the world spent its limited resources on the most effective ways to save lives.

Cars and power plants get the most attention, but emissions come from lots of different human activities. This chart breaks them down:

In conversations about helping people in poor countries adapt to a warmer world, health and development don’t usually come up. But they should. They’re inextricably linked.

A warmer climate is creating more habitable places for insects and the diseases they carry. Oxitec has developed a gene (left) that when placed in a male mosquito (right) will drive down the mosquito population in a specific area.

Of course, I think health and development would need to be priorities even if they had nothing to do with climate change. But they have a lot to do with it. People in poor countries will be in the best position to survive a warming climate if they are healthy and on a strong financial footing. And as countries’ economies grow, they’ll be able to afford the clean-energy solutions that will get the world to net-zero emissions. Clean energy will only reach the scale we need if its price comes down and if incomes go up. Otherwise, countries will be stuck in debt or reliant on the limited and unpredictable aid money that flows from rich countries.

Now, there are some other adaptation strategies that should be used around the world; for example, countries need to shore up defenses against rising sea levels. They also need stronger early warning systems: The fires in Maui and floods in Libya would have killed fewer people if warning systems had been in place.

But by maintaining efforts to improve the world’s health and development, we’ll ensure that progress on climate change has the greatest possible impact for human welfare.  We won’t just keep the planet livable—we’ll make it a better place to live.

You can read more about the Gates Foundation’s approach to helping people adapt to climate change on our website.

What to do next

There are several steps the world can take to speed up the pace of innovation, make sure it benefits the world’s poorest people, and cushion the blow from rising temperatures.

Philanthropists, governments, and companies should make big bets now that will help crucial innovations—including clean hydrogen, electricity transmission, and carbon removal—get developed and deployed as quickly as possible. Funding clean-energy research not only gives us new tools to reduce emissions, it also creates jobs and makes clean energy cheaper for everyone. It’s estimated that the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act will create more than 170,000 clean energy jobs, including electricians, mechanics, construction workers, technicians, and support staff.

Companies and governments—and individuals who can afford it—should use their purchasing power to create demand for low-carbon products such as electric vehicles, alternative meats, and electric heat pumps, which will attract more innovators and ultimately drive prices down.

Grants—and loans with the lowest interest rates—should go to low-income countries so they have the best opportunity to adapt successfully to climate change. Right now, the poorest countries in the world are borrowing money and then getting saddled with debt payments to adapt to climate change that they did not cause. This is not fair or effective—and it’s leaving them with less money to help their own people.

The world also needs to accelerate research on crop varieties that can withstand climate shocks. To make these crops affordable for smallholder farmers, countries should meet the commitment they made in 2021 and double the amount of funding for adaptation by 2025. This should include fully funding the network of agricultural research groups known as CGIAR.

Finally, we should elevate health and development as a priority alongside climate. That means fully funding basic health care in low-income countries. And from now on, every COP should have a day dedicated to health—as COP28 does—where the world reviews progress on the Sustainable Development Goals and focuses on the people who will be hit hardest by climate change.  

When COVID struck, the world wasn’t ready. The limited money that was available to help came at the expense of other lifesaving efforts—causing a major setback for nutrition, polio, malaria, and immunization. We should learn from this mistake and respond to the risk of a climate disaster equitably while we regain and maintain our progress on these other priorities. By investing in innovation that works for everyone, we can tackle the world’s biggest threats to human lives and livelihoods and get closer to a truly equitable world.