In 2019, Bill Gates came to the Cambridge Union to be awarded the annual Hawking Fellowship. In 2020, he became the media’s go-to pandemic analyst. Now, in 2021, he’s released a book, titled How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. All these things are evidence of his widespread adoration, and influence over global health, technology, and public policy. The question now is, can this billionaire really be trusted to solve the climate crisis?

However, before we address the climate question, we must explore how he reached such influential status. 20 years ago, Bill Gates found himself in the middle of a lengthy federal lawsuit against Microsoft, which had a disastrous impact on his public perception. His videotaped testimony in particular, “was a disaster.” It was also at this time that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) was founded, the motives for which were widely questioned. So what changed?

This transformation was no doubt helped by Gates’ extensive funding (over $250m) of various media organisations, including the BBC, and the Guardian. So while he is applauded for pledging to donate his money away, the reality is that he is wealthier than ever before, all whilst avoiding taxes of up to $14b through his foundation, and benefitting from the positive media attention given to his philanthropy. It seems then, that “the most controversial industry captain can transform his public image from tech villain to benevolent philanthropist.

The most controversial industry captain can transform his public image from tech villain to benevolent philanthropist

Philanthropy has also given Gates immense global influence. The BMGF is the largest private foundation in the world, the second biggest donor in global health (alongside the UK), and the second largest donor to the WHO. Gates also regularly meets with various heads of state. Many have argued that he has a disproportionate influence over international bodies, including the WHO in particular. The BMGF’s donations have real implications on people, where negative outcomes are ignored and contentious donation recipients are generally unquestioned. No matter the intentions, such a level of individual power without accountability is problematic, especially when the BMGF uses its influence to promote neoliberal economic policies and corporate globalisation, both of which put profit over people.

The ideology at the heart of Gates’ philanthropy can be described as ‘philanthrocapitalism’, where the key principles of capitalism are applied to philanthropy, primarily by increasingly favouring for-profit businesses rather than the public sector. The BMGF has given charitable donations of more than $2b to major for-profit corporations. Although this enriches Western corporations, it is not clear that this approach to global development works for those it is supposed to benefit. For instance, Gates’s claimed successes in poverty reduction are inconsistent with the increase in absolute global poverty numbers since 1981.

"Gates’ dismissiveness of short term emission reduction targets justifies the continued burning of fossil fuels, and risks decisive action being taken too late"Patrick Hendry / Unsplash

Although Gates’ philanthropy is not wholly benevolent, having such an influential figure proactively pushing for climate action could be hugely beneficial, though this depends upon the solutions he advocates for. Gates’s ‘solution’ centres around increasing innovation to develop new zero carbon technologies while bringing down their green premiums. However, this is reliant on years of research and development at the public’s expense, followed by rapid roll out through the private sector – such hopes are ultimately a pipe dream, because technological transitions take far too long to be feasible with net zero by 2050. Instead, we need to focus on existing technologies, alongside social transitions, which historically take ~40 years less than technological ones.

Additionally, Gates’ dismissiveness of short term emission reduction targets justifies the continued burning of fossil fuels, and risks decisive action being taken too late. The financially feasible and pragmatic short term solution should be the rapid roll out of current renewable energy technology, such as wind and solar power (for example, see Costa Rica). Whilst critics point to their intermittency, it has been shown that renewables, combined with existing storage solutions, could power 100% of the grid. Yet, by focusing on unproven energy technologies, Gates severely underestimates the potential of established zero-carbon technology, and instead, advocates for more risky alternatives that might not work, delay prompt climate action, and could have serious, irreversible side effects.

One of these ‘risky alternatives’ that Gates funds is geo-engineering: speculative, technological methods for drastically altering the global climate to reduce warming effects, which is also gaining traction at Cambridge. Solar radiation management is among the most prominent of these methods, and involves spraying aerosols into the atmosphere in an attempt to replicate the temporary cooling effects of volcanic eruptions. There are grave concerns with this technology, including its efficacy, temporality, undemocratic implementation, and the numerous risks it presents. Critically, none of these side-effects can be tested without actual global implementation, thus potentially locking us into the consequences for generations to come.

“There is a clear consensus that we need to act urgently, and that any further delays in acting on the climate will have devastating consequences”

However, the real battle against the climate crisis is not a technological one, but rather, a political one, against those that stand to benefit from downplaying its effects and delaying action. Climate activist movements such as Extinction Rebellion and the divestment movement have played a significant role in exposing the lies of the fossil fuel industry, and in shifting the conversation towards urgent action. However, Gates finds no place for this, suggesting that activists are wasting their time. In his book, he also declares that he does not have a political solution to climate change, to which Michael E. Mann rebuts “the politics are the problem buddy. If you don’t have a prescription of how to solve that, then you don’t have a solution and perhaps your solution might be taking us down the wrong path.”

Ultimately, Gates’s technological ‘solutions’ to the climate crisis are flawed, because they do not fundamentally change anything about the way our society functions. In doing so, they justify the status quo, based on destructive extractivism and excessive consumption. For instance, Gates’ solution for the emissions caused by aviation is to replace jet fuels with biofuels – but this is a replacement, not a solution. It does not address the root causes, and is likely to cause more problems that it solves. It’s evident that Gates has the most to lose from more radical solutions to the climate crisis, which attempt to address our capitalist society’s obsession with economic growth, its ignorance of ecological boundaries, and its inherent inequalities. Gates does not want a new normal. He wants very much the same normal - just with less carbon emissions.


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More so, Gates’ new book is dangerous, because the proposed “solutions” get unparalleled, positive coverage in the media, without being subject to any of the necessary scrutiny - simply because it is Gates presenting them. Furthermore, by asserting himself as the global climate expert, Gates discredits and distracts from the democratic institutions and processes that are needed to address the climate crisis. Should we trust Gates on climate? Certainly not, if we want the swift actions necessary to remain below 1.5°C of warming. Instead, we must actively push for democratic decision-making that centres on global climate justice.

There is a clear consensus that we need to act urgently, and that any further delays in acting on the climate will have devastating consequences. This is best achieved via pathways to net zero based on currently available technology, rather than mainstream pathways that are only possible based on speculative technological fixes. Recent research has also shown that the absolute decoupling of economic growth from carbon emissions is “highly unlikely” to be achieved at the rate necessary to prevent a 1.5°C rise. Thus, we need a swift and radical societal transformation, which focusses on reduced consumption and economic activity in the Global North, whilst prioritising human wellbeing, and supporting necessary development in the Global South. It won’t be easy, but such a transformation is both possible and necessary to avoid a climate disaster. We all have a critical role to play in making this happen by rejecting consumerism and building movements calling for radical system change. Just don’t expect the billionaires, Bill Gates included, to be so supportive.