Bill Gates vs. Global Warming

How much can one man—even the world’s richest man—really accomplish in the fight against climate change?

WPA / OEM / SSSCCC / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

“Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I will move the world,” said Archimedes. With due respect to antiquity's greatest mathematician, “moving the world” seems like a less daunting challenge than keeping it from overheating. And yet, that's what Bill Gates wants to do, using for leverage the weight of his name and $2 billion invested in early-stage clean-energy research.

In an interview in The Atlantic, Gates explains that keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius will require carbon-emission reductions of 80 percent by 2050. Existing international agreements won’t get us there. Neither will existing technologies. Instead, says Gates, we need a price on carbon and—crucially—heavy investment in moon-shot energy research and development.

Gates announced these plans in June, and the reaction has been mixed. Some energy experts accuse him of looking to the horizon at precisely the moment when existing technologies demand our support. What’s needed isn’t so much breakthroughs, they say, as commercial funding and scale. Others celebrate Gates’s far-sightedness. Existing and near-market technologies have fundamental limitations. They’re vitally important, but only a beginning—and research funding for next-generation energy sources is woefully inadequate.

The U.S. Department of Energy spent just $5.2 billion this year on R&D, less than the U.S. National Institutes of Health spends on cancer alone. Gates’s $2 billion is less a promise of gee-whiz breakthroughs than a statement. What Gates really wants is the U.S. government to double or even triple its energy-research funding.

“Gates isn't under any illusions that he's going to discover a silver bullet that is going to transform everything,” says the Yale University environmental historian Paul Sabin. “He sees himself as embedded in the network and system that is structured by government policy. He is trying to shift that system.”

The question is whether he can.

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Recent history abounds with examples of rich, influential people who sought social, scientific, and technological transformation. But each of them differs from Gates in important ways.

The most obvious precedents are overtly political. Ours is a golden age of wealth-purchasing influence; and if Tom Steyer's $57 million in campaign donations didn't move the needle for climate during the last elections, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers have found better returns on their own investments. Gates, however, tends to be apolitical, at least in terms of directly spending on the electoral process. His money goes to labs and companies, not politicians' pockets.

In the scientific realm, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, a noted philanthropist in his own right, co-founded the Allen Insitute for Brain Science in 2003. Allen has given $500 million to the Institute, which conducts basic research into neurological function; its leaders helped catalyze the BRAIN Initiative, the high-profile federal effort to develop new neuroscience tools. That, however, was a lower-stakes game than energy innovation. Existing brain-imaging tools were already regarded as primitive and there wasn't much opposition.

In the 20th century, feminist philanthropist Katherine McCormick almost single-handedly funded development of the first birth-control bill. And before her, Mary Lasker co-founded the Lasker foundation with her husband, Albert, to support medical research. The Lasker foundation funded research directly, and similar to Gates, also pushed for expanded federal funding. Indeed, Mary Lasker is widely recognized as the motivating force behind the 1971 National Cancer Act, which launched the so-called war on that disease.

Gates could learn a thing or two from Lasker, who put up her own money, but also deployed considerable social finesse. She overhauled the American Cancer Society, brought scientists to Congress to explain their work, and enlisted the help of celebrities. Among them was legendary advice columnist Ann Landers, who used her own influence to organize a public letter-writing campaign that sent 500,000 missives to Congress.

Compared to global warming, though, cancer research is a relatively easy sell. The disease is ubiquitous, not a slow-motion disaster that in any given instance—droughts and superstorms and heat waves—can be technically fine-printed as only possibly influenced by climate change.

Nor was cancer so politically thorny, with one party reflexively unlikely to support significant government spending on it. Birth control pills were extremely controversial, but the demand was vast and obvious. The bad news for Gates: Neither cancer research or birth control required a radical reworking of society’s social and technical fundaments, as does energy research.

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Bill Gates is often understood as a technocrat. Among the criticisms of the Gates Foundation is a tendency to emphasize technical solutions while downplaying the complex systemic nature of problems—vaccines rather than health infrastructures, meals-in-a-packet rather than the underlying social causes of malnutrition.

It's easy to think he'll make a similar mistake with energy.

Worth noting, though, is the Gates Foundation's role in developing the Common Core Standards. The foundation put $200 million into the effort, spreading the money between historically-opposed teacher’s unions and business groups, and helping states collaborate on an issue that traditionally threatened their independence. The foundation’s success was achieved as much by social engineering as investment. On the other hand, Gates's role has figured in backlash to Common Core, with some critics portraying the standards as technocratic back-room fiat.

In announcing his financial support for energy research, Gates has talked systems: carbon pricing, the needs of utility companies and regulators, the perspective of poor countries that are home to most of humanity and reluctant to make economic sacrifices that rich countries didn't.

He's also absorbed the counsel of Vaclav Smil, the sustainability analyst whose books Gates considers must-reads, and who believes in both the urgency of energy breakthroughs and the profound difficulty of revolution. “It's the most massive undertaking,” says Smil. “Five thousand years from now, we will not be burning lots of coal and oil. The transition has to happen—but it will happen in complex, piecemeal, tricky ways. You can't just invent it. Energy is an all-encompassing problem. It requires everything, and we are not good at changing everything in our society.”

Smil is pessimistic that it will happen in the next several decades. Yet even as we talked, the Department of Energy hosted a day-long meeting of policymakers, investors, and researchers to discuss near- and long-term goals. The meeting, said Dan Reicher, the director of Stanford University's Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance and a key player in the Obama Administration's new clean-energy investment program, was directly prompted by Gates's pronouncements and the discussion they've sparked.

“I think Gates has already caused the Obama administration to consider higher funding levels for energy research,” said Reicher. “The bigger issue is whether Congress would approve an increase.”

Reicher, who formerly was Assistant Secretary of Energy under President Clinton and led Google’s climate and energy initiative, chaired the meeting. He described it as a healthy debate between the energy community's many camps. There were calls for early-stage funding of hundreds of different companies and ideas; for long-horizon development of a few especially promising ones; for reinvigorated attention to immediately attainable goals, particularly investments to help companies go from working prototypes to large-scale demonstrations and deployment.

Talk turned to infrastructure improvements and policy incentives, market devices and finance models. It was an all-of-the-above meeting, as it ought to be. We need both breakthroughs and steady, up-the-curve enhancements, hardware and software. The only points of fundamental agreement were the urgency of climate change and government's crucial importance.

As for the rest, it's a complicated and very human state of affairs, with lots of moving parts and pressures and perspectives. The appropriate role of each will be negotiated in coming months and years. It’s a vitally important dialogue, and it has started. Everyone is present, including Bill Gates. Whatever technologies his investments yield, they've already shaped the conversation.