The idea is simple.
People burn fossil fuels. The fuels emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If that carbon lingers in the air, it causes greenhousing and contributes to global warming; if it gets absorbed by the ocean, it acidifies the water and wrecks the marine food chain.
So the key is to put less carbon into the atmosphere. Most policies, accordingly, focus on preventing people from burning fuels. But what if the fossil fuels were never taken out of the ground in the first place?
In the most recent issue of The Atlantic, Bill Gates explains why he is devoting $2 billion toward an energy-research venture-capital fund. “The only reason I’m optimistic about [climate change] is because of innovation," he says. “If you told me that innovation had been frozen and we just have today’s technologies, will the world run the climate-change experiment? You bet we will.”
The only way to evade dangerous levels of global warming, he believes, is by finding and funding a low-emissions power source, then deploying it across the world at scale. By investing in technology, Gates argues that he can provide many times his money’s worth to humanity as a whole.
It’s a risky strategy. Gates’s teams may hit upon cold fusion or something like it, or his VC fund could fizzle out with little to show. If he really does believe that humanity is running out of time to meaningfully affect the climate system—and there, science agrees with him—he’s picked an awfully scattershot form of intervention.