The heat is on Bill Gates

He now works to solve humanity's greatest problems with his foundation -- yet has no program to curb global warming. That does not compute.

Published March 9, 2009 11:55AM (EDT)

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the richest foundation in the world, has taken on the noble challenge of helping billions of people, those who "never even have the chance to live a healthy, productive life," reach that opportunity themselves.

In the face of that daunting task, which has proven such an intractable challenge for national governments and international aid agencies, Bill Gates retains the techno-optimism that drove his unbridled success at Microsoft. In July 2008, Gates went from being full-time at Microsoft to working full-time at the foundation with his wife, Melinda. With about $30 billion in assets as of January, the Gates are targeting U.S. education, childhood deaths, malaria, polio, AIDS and agriculture in poor countries.

On their Web site, Bill and Melinda state that if "scientific and technological advances" are focused on the problems of developing nations, "then within this century billions of people will grow up healthier, get a better education, and gain the power to lift themselves out of poverty." Bill and Melinda go on to make Pollyanna, Pangloss and Paula Abdul seem like realists:

We're so hopeful about the potential for rapid progress that we've decided the foundation will spend all its money in the next 100 years. In this century, our world has the opportunity to fulfill the great human promise that all lives have equal value.

Currently the foundation is giving away some $3 billion a year, or under 1/100th of 1 percent of world GDP. By the year 2100, it will have spent itself out of existence, having apparently solved the developing world's biggest problems.

Now, you might think a foundation focusing on third-world "sustainable" development would devote some significant portion of its resources toward preventing catastrophic global warming. After all, on our current emissions path, we will have destroyed a livable climate by 2100. Most every independent scientific and economic analysis says the developing world will suffer horribly. This goes double for the region Gates is focusing much of the foundation's resources on -- Africa, a continent facing climate-driven desertification in the north and the south, a continent with huge coastal populations.

But, in fact, the Gates Foundation has no program to help prevent global warming. Back in 2006, when Gates first announced that he planned to spend most of his time running the foundation, Newsweek raised the climate change issue in an interview:

Q: I know you're concerned about global warming. Will the foundation become involved with that?

A: I'm already reading some books on energy and the environment, but I will read a lot more two years from now and think whether there's something the foundation should do in those areas. The angle I'll have when I'll look at most things is, What about the 4 billion poorest people? What about energy and environmental issues for them?

Here's what Gates should have learned by now about the key energy and environmental issues facing the 4 billion poorest people. Using a "middle of the road" greenhouse gas emissions scenario, a study in Science found that for the more than 5 billion people who will be living in the tropics and subtropics by 2100, growing-season temperatures "will exceed the most extreme seasonal temperatures recorded from 1900 to 2006." The authors conclude: "Half of world's population could face climate-driven food crisis by 2100."

A study led by MIT economists found that "the median poor country's income will be about 50 percent lower than it would be had there been no climate change." And that was based on a 3-degree C warming by 2100, about half the warming we are currently on track to reach. A further study led by scientists from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that several regions would see rainfall reductions "comparable to those of the Dust Bowl era." Worse, unlike the Dust Bowl, which lasted a decade or two, this climate change would be "largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop."

In other words, large parts of Southeast Asia, eastern South America, western Australia, Southern Africa and northern Africa would simply turn to desert. Indeed, nearly a third of the planet could be in permanent extreme drought by 2100, according to the U.K.'s Hadley Center.

And don't expect rich countries to come to the rescue. In 2100, we'll be dealing with the same catastrophes, as well as with over a billion environmental refugees fleeing flooded and uninhabitable lands.

Foundations will thus be among the critical enterprises needed to help the poorer countries by 2100. But after two years of study, the most visible climate change project that Gates is eyeing is one that contributes to global warming. The Calgary Herald reported in 2008 that Gates and Warren Buffet, who has poured his own billions into the Gates Foundation, visited our neighbor to the north to investigate the booming hub of Canadian tar sands "with investment in mind."

The tar sands are an environmental abomination that require huge amounts of natural gas to produce fuel with far higher life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions than oil. They have rightly been called by Greenpeace the "biggest global warming crime ever seen."

So why shouldn't the Gates Foundation spend all of its vast resources on the myriad immediate problems developing countries face?

To begin with, it's impossible to "fulfill the great human promise" for the 4 billion poorest people if we don't avert the impending climate catastrophe. Second, Gates himself has acknowledged the inadequacy of an exclusive focus on concerns like childhood deaths. Consider what he wrote in his first annual letter about his work at the foundation, an open letter written at the urging of Buffet, who issues his own annual letter, after his donation doubled the foundation's resources:

We thought it would be a shame to help save a child from rotavirus if she would still be chronically undernourished and never be able to earn or save money ... This is why the foundation added our Global Development Program to complement the Global Health group two years ago. We are working in areas like financial services, including savings and insurance.

Gates understands that simply saving lives is not a complete strategy. He understands that it is important to make investments that transcend immediate health concerns and focus on long-term well-being.

But Gates appears to only partially understand global warming. The foundation has made a massive investment in improving agriculture, with a goal of helping "150 million of the poorest farming households in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia triple their incomes by 2025." Yet here are the only comments he offers on global warming in his open letter:

A big challenge in achieving this goal [of tripling incomes] is that climate change will be making weather conditions more extreme -- triggering both droughts and floods -- in the tropical areas where most of the poor live. The negative effects will fall almost entirely on the poor, even though they did not cause the problem. I hope that the increased public interest in reducing climate change will also increase the political will to provide aid that will help the poor mitigate its negative effects. It is interesting how often the impact of climate change is illustrated by talking about the problems the polar bears will face rather than the much greater number of poor people who will die unless significant investments are made to help them.

Yes, climate change causes weather conditions to get more extreme. But it fundamentally changes the climate, causing drought-prone subtropical zones to become deserts for 1,000 years or more. It causes inland glaciers, which act as a principal reservoir for water for 1 billion people in South Asia, to disappear entirely.

Apparently Gates hasn't paid attention to how increasingly desperate the warnings of the leading climate scientists have become. If he had, he would know that advocates of climate action are most definitely not more concerned with polar bears than poor people. The United Nations Environment Program warns that the "scale of climate change as recorded in Northern Darfur is almost unprecedented, and its impacts are closely linked to conflict in the region, as desertification has added significantly to the stress on traditional agricultural and pastoral livelihoods."

Compare Gates' words to those of Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who spent the last few years becoming an expert on both clean energy and climate science. Chu recently explained to the Los Angeles Times what happens to even a rich area when its relatively arid parts see a drop in precipitation and a severe loss in snowpack:

You're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California. When you lose 70 percent of your water in the mountains, I don't see how agriculture can continue. California produces 20 percent of the agriculture in the United States. I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going.

America faces desertification from Kansas and Oklahoma starting in a few decades -- conditions similar to the Dust Bowl, but lasting for a thousand years. "I don't think the American public has grasped in its gut what could happen," Chu said. "I'm hoping that the American people will wake up."

Don't get me wrong. It's tremendous that Gates and Buffet have decided to use their vast wealth to help those least able to help themselves. And I certainly wouldn't have them spend most of their money on clean energy and climate action. But to spend nothing on it puts them in the ostrich camp with people like the debunked Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg.

Lomborg famously assembled a group of international economists who concluded that of all the major problems in the world, spending money to prevent global warming "would be the poorest use of our money." But Lomborg stacked his group with economists who opposed near-term climate action, who don't understand that strong, immediate action to stop and reverse global warming is the sine qua non for preserving a livable climate for the next 1,000 years, for avoiding dozens of Darfurs.

So what am I suggesting Gates do? First, he, his wife and Buffet should make a major effort to educate themselves on the latest climate science, talking to leading climate realists like the president's science advisor John Holdren, and the nation's top climate scientist, NASA's James Hansen. They should also focus on climate solutions appropriate for poor countries.

If they haven't already, they should read "Design to Win: Philanthropy's Role in the Fight Against Global Warming," funded by six foundations whose work was overseen by leading scientists and energy technologists. The report details clean energy strategies for China and India, and how to implement market-based solutions to preserve tropical forests in Africa, Asia and South America.

Since the Gates Foundation has seen the benefits of making U.S. investments in education, the options for action are almost limitless. One leading foundation, which works in the area of international development, on issues similar to those of the Gates Foundation, is contemplating a major effort to help develop a consensus-based process to speed the transition to a smart green grid in the United States.

Gates does not have to enter the messy political realm to make a major contribution. As a technology junkie who has built his foundation around technological fixes, he could champion transformational clean technologies, like concentrated solar thermal power (CSP), what I have called the "technology that will save humanity." A small piece of the north African desert could provide that continent (and Europe) with all of its electricity, sustainably, forever. Indeed, one of the big advantages of CSP is that it operates best in deserts. Employed near coasts, CSP can simultaneously provide clean power and desalinated water, another critical component for developing countries in a climate-changing world.

Even devoting a mere 15 percent of his current grant-making to clean energy strategies, a $500 million annual investment, would make Gates the leading grant-maker in this area. His leadership would focus the global climate effort on sustainable development for the poorest. And it would underscore the commitment that he and his wife have to spend out all the foundation's money by 2100. Which is just when the world's poor will need it most if we don't act now to preserve a livable climate.

By Joseph Romm

Joseph Romm is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he oversees He is the author of "Hell and High Water: Global Warming -- The Solution and the Politics." Romm served as acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy in 1997. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from MIT.

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