Gates Foundation strategy raises key question: Can the problems of the developing world be solved by ignoring global warming?

Environment and ScienceSalon has published my article on the biggest flaw in the strategy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I’m going to expand on that article in a two-parter here.

The timing could not be better with the Tom Friedman “Ponzi scheme” discussion. For while the the richest foundation in the world certainly has taken on the noblest and greatest of challenges — to help billions of people who “never even have the chance to live a healthy, productive life” reach that opportunity themselves — its efforts are ultimately doomed to fail if we don’t stop catastrophic warming.

Also, the two men who have donated much of their vast wealth to make it possible, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, are Exhibits One and Two of the “very serious people who are perceived as essentially nonpartisan opinion leaders” who must speak out on climate change if we are to avert the worst (see “Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 7: The harsh lessons of the financial bailout “).

Yet when we saw them together last summer, they were touring the Ponzi Canadian tar sands, as The Calgary Herald reported (see here):

A source said Gates and Buffett, who in recent months said he favours investing in the Canadian oil sands because it offers a secure supply of oil for the United States, visited the booming hub to satisfy “their own curiosity” but also “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.” The Catholic bishop whose diocese extends over the tar sands posted a scathing pastoral letter in January that challenges the “moral legitimacy” of tar sands production.

Let’s look at the Gates Foundation’s strategy, and why, despite the noblest of intentions, it is not sustainable (even though, if you search “sustainable” on the Foundation website, you get 96 hits).

In the face of the daunting task of helping the world’s poor, 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.

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 was the Canadian tar sands, as noted.

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.So how might Gates spend some of his Foundation’s money if he were to become a climate realist?

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I will expand on my recommendations in the Salon piece.

19 Responses to Gates Foundation strategy raises key question: Can the problems of the developing world be solved by ignoring global warming?

  1. TL says:

    Yes, happy to find this blog via Friedman and the NYT. Good stuff. Hopefully, if your platform is to have any impact on turning heads, why not spend more time on the effects of global population growth as it is the one and only, “numero uno contributor”, to the madness that is “global warming”/”climate change”. If we do not address global population growth all else is a waste of time. One more thing. Why is it that no one ever seriously addresses the issue of “life style”/”rate of consumption” by the “haves” as well as the naive intentions to raise the “have nots” to the same unsustainable levels as the “haves”.?

  2. Joe says:

    I don’t tend to address population growth because no one has really figured out policies to address it and most of the population growth we will have over the next three decades is pretty much set in stone and there is an expectation that population will level off in the second half of this century.

    As for your other questions, I do intend to address them more in the coming months.

  3. Russ says:

    For some even more sinister evidence regarding Gates’ real intentions for the world’s poor:

    Seed Monopolists
    February 18, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    From “Planting Seeds” in The Guardian in January:

    “Bill and Melinda Gates hate controversy, but the world’s top philanthropists do seem to be moving ever deeper into political lobbying. They’ve just given the Danforth plant science centre in St Louis $5.4m (£3.8m) to help them persuade African and other poor countries to “overcome regulatory hurdles” and allow the field testing of bio-fortified GM crops. So what is Danforth? Just a “charity” set up and funded by Monsanto.”

    From Wikipedia:

    “The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a secure seedbank located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen near the town of Longyearbyen in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago. The facility was established to preserve a wide variety of plant seeds from locations worldwide in an underground cavern. The Seed Vault holds duplicate samples, or “spare” copies, of seeds held in genebanks worldwide. The Seed Vault will provide insurance against the loss of seeds in genebanks, as well as a refuge for seeds in the case of large scale regional or global crises. The island of Spitsbergen is about 1,120 kilometres (700 mi) from the North Pole.”

    The Gates Foundation has also donated $34.6 million to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, along with contributions from DuPont and the Rockefeller Foundation.

    Now why would the Gates Foundation want to use its resources to force indigenous farmers to destroy their seed supply while the Foundation was financing the ultimate seed bank?

    Think about it…

    Also (on a different topic, but might as well mention it while I’m here), for anyone who’s interested in the state of current studies on the effect of fossil fuel depletion on future carbon concentrations and climate change, Ugo Bardi, who’s been following this, just posted a survey at The Oil Drum:

    There’s only been a handful of studies so far, and the results are certainly not conclusive, but it’s an important consideration, most of all politically.

  4. HamBrown says:

    I would echo what TL says. It is true that population growth may be already baked in, but the negative role of the Bush Administration and the Catholic Church has impaired the world’s ability to even address the issue on the margin. So, one would think that an enlightened population policy might be a part of a “wedge”.

    TL’s comment on “lifestyle/consumption” is an issue that has not even been touched on in addressing the depression we are entering into. We cannot just get everyone to spend again. We need to start thinking about what a sustainable microeconomy would in fact look like.

  5. jorleh says:

    Gates and Buffet are great humanists. The more we must wonder their blind spot as to the real science. They are giving Aspirin to a dying patient with pneumonia to cure the patient´s fever. I can´t understand the complexity of the human brain.

  6. Yonah says:

    Tangentially, I think it would be useful to see more description of what is actually happening already.

    For instance, you refer to a report on recorded climate change in Darfur, but there’s nothing in that paragraph or in the link that really says “THIS IS WHAT IS HAPPENING.” We want people to understand what happens and how much worse it could get, but descriptions of what is happening tend to be sketchy and move swiftly to predictions and “how do we deal with this?” so how are people supposed to understand the reality? Reality is what hits home with people.

    Climate Change 101 as presented in the media shouldn’t be theory of climate change and what we need to do about it (as at present) but much more graphic stuff about “this is desertification.” I think most people don’t really get what that’s like. People need to see stuff like the glacier pics everyone uses, but more comprehensive.

    Posts or links to posts/articles on observed effects, rather than links to studies or news articles about fires and water shortages – events in context, that is – would be jolly useful. Would you mind? Cheers.

  7. Great post, Joe, on another important issue.

    I first started reading about the Gates Foundation and their blind spot when it comes to climate change from fellow blogger Richard Pauli, who I first met through his comments here on Climate Progress.

    Pauli has been blogging about the Gates Foundation and the implications of global warming on their work for about a month now. I’ve read four different posts on his The Boy Who Denied Wolf blog, starting with:—13.html

    He’s exchange emails with the Foundation on this subject and his series is well worth reading.

  8. Brian D says:

    TL may find this argument interesting. The point isn’t population, but rather consumption. And there are worse consumption criminals than population.

  9. BrooksB says:

    Thank you for weighing in on the lack of consideration of climate change on their basic goals. Here’s hoping your clout will effect a change.

    I’m also concerned it’s possible that neither of the Gates have read Frances Moore Lappe’s “World Hunger: Twelve Myths”. My recollection is the key finding was that educating women has been the only consistently successful solution to hunger and population growth. The articles I’ve read haven’t mentioned such education as a primary goal.

  10. Ronald says:

    Well, consumption, but it’s carbon fueled energy consumption that is bad. If we changed our source of energy from carbon based fuels to non and low carbon based, that would go a long way to the reduced greenhouse gas emissions. (duh)

    And from the McKinsey and Company, that would take somewhere around 0.4 to 1.6 percent of GNP. That’s doable as concerned to the engineering and economics, but the politics, not so easy.

  11. Sasparilla says:

    A great article Joe. Thank you for doing what you do.

    Now off to Salon to go see what you think they could do.

    I have a feeling the Bill and Warren just aren’t aware of what’s been coming out of the scientific community over the last 3 years – they’re 100% in their busy little worlds – just like most of the US population doesn’t know this stuff (and many don’t want to). Hopefully Gates and Co will get it at some point and start working on it.

  12. justus says:

    File under ‘Inadvertently Hilarious’:

    “Indeed, nearly a third of the planet could be in permanent extreme doubt by 2100…”

    I think you meant “permanent extreme drought’? Not that you’re wrong…

    Thanks for another great post, Joe.

  13. Russ says:

    Why, praytell, is a comment I posted at 8:30AM still “awaiting moderation”?

    I thought it might have been because it includes links, but clearly that’s not it since others with links have appeared since.

    [JR: You had two links, which is automatic moderation the way things are set up (for fear of spam). And I’m sorry I didn’t look over my comments sooner this morning!]

  14. paulm says:

    …”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.”

    This is a point that irks me also…they are an important indicator of the state of the health of the world but some times they are over used by climate scientist.

  15. paulm says:

    Bill Gates is one of these individuals who doesn’t deny AGW, but just does not realize or did not realize how serious it is. I think that will be changing in the next few months.

  16. Thanks Joe and Creative Greenius,

    Now in its last days – the Seattle Post Intelligencer newspaper published an opinion piece titled: Prodding the Sacred Cow

  17. Roger says:

    Thanks, Joe, for raising this very interesting Gates Foundation issue.

    Gates’ brilliance, but apparent lack of understanding of climate change has been bugging me for months. I don’t have the quote in front of me, but recall him being quoted as saying something like “Climate change is a serious problem, but fortunately we have a long time to deal with it.”(!)

    A deeper understanding of the nature of what we’re dealing with would have Gates saying “Climate change is the most serious problem faced by humans today, it will impact the poor most severely.” “Every day that passes without taking aggressive action to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy translates into additional suffering and deaths.”

    The following is not an endorsement, but perhaps an interesting story: I recently bought an audio CD course from The Teaching Company called “Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity.” Two interesting aspects: 1) An early lecture points out that the human brain did not evolve in a way that allows it to easily comprehend anything that isn’t readily obvious in a fairly short time period, i.e., something such as climate change; and 2) When I bought the course I was told that Bill Gates liked it. So, If your’re reading this Bill, you should really listen soon to another great course they have, called “Earth’s Changing Climate.” In 12 half hour lectures you’ll end up knowing more than 95 to 99% of the population about this possibly climactic, and clearly critical-to-understand subject. Please listen!

    Others, beyond Bill, would do well to educate themselves as well. By my estimation, the U.S. government is spending far more to educate people about how to switch to digital TV, than they are to educate people about how or why to switch to alternative energy. Oh well, at least we’ll hopefully all have sharp pictures of mindless entertainment while the water rises (or sinks) due to that strange “wild weather” we’re having!

  18. Joseph says:

    Its articles like these which make me embarrassed to call myself an environmentalist. I think the main reason people despise us because of articles like these, where we feel the need to tell another person what to do with their own charitable contributions.
    For Bill Gates, it seems like you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Despite giving away his wealth, he seems to have to hear from people trying to shame him into giving his funds for their own projects. How about you write an article about the 400 other billionaires in the world, who instead spend their wealth on yachts or private art collections?
    Also, this article reeks of condescension. Just because Joe has a PhD, and Bill is a college dropout, doesn’t mean Joe is more intelligent than Bill. So enough with the arrogance.
    If you start your own foundation with your own funds, you can spend it as you wish. Barring that, don’t insult a man who is trying to do some good in this world, just because it doesn’t fit your ideology or standards.

  19. Phurba Sherpa says:

    I think this issue as well should be responded if he thinks that he is now on the way to global development. Please think a while what global warming and climate change would bring about to the livelihood of the marginal people like ours in Nepal who never have contributed for this changes and can do nothing else except facing this catastrophism.
    So to implement the mitigating measures and to build up the resilience of this immense change an immediate action needs to be launched.

    What can be done???