What should the Gates Foundation strategy on global warming be?

Environment and SciencePart 1 on my Salon article examined the key flaw in the strategy of the world’s biggest grantmaking foundation and asked “Can the problems of the developing world be solved by ignoring global warming?

Here I’d like to explore what the Foundation might do while remaining true to its mission of helping billions of people, those who “never even have the chance to live a healthy, productive life,” reach that opportunity themselves.

First, however, the key point bears repeating: On our current emissions path, those billions of people (and their descendents) have little hope no matter how many diseases the Foundation cures. As one 2008 paper, “Global Warming and Salt Water Intrusion: Bangladesh Perspective,” concludes (see “Rising sea salinates India’s Ganges“):

Global Warming has already started to hit the Bangladesh coastal areas. The salty sea water intrusion and its disastrous effects in landscape, ecology and human health already created widescale agony amongst the inhabitants of Bangladesh coastal belts….

A 3-foot rise by century’s end … would wreak havoc in Bangladesh on an apocalyptic, Atlantis-like scale, according to scientific projections and models.

A quarter of the country would be submerged…. As many as 30 million people would become refugees in their own land, many of them subsistence farmers with nothing to subsist on any longer.

And we are facing 5 feet of sea level rise by 2100.

If you don’t stop the desertification, then you end up with dozens of Darfurs. If you don’t stop the sea level rise, you end up with endless Atlantises. If you don’t stop and reverse the steadily rising emissions quickly, then you turn the ocean into one large, hot acidic dead zone. If the rich — who bear the responsibility the vast amount of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming to date — don’t use their vast wealth to cut global emissions sharply by mid-century and eliminate them entirely by century’s end, then we will be incalculably impoverishing the lives of the next hundred billion people to walk the earth this millennium in rich and poor countries alike.

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.

[For more on Lomborg and the flaws in his Copenhagen Consensus of economists, see “Voodoo Economists 4: The idiocy of crowds or, rather, the idiocy of (crowded) debates.”]

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.

For more on the Gates Foundation and Global Warming, see the series at by Richard Pauli.

22 Responses to What should the Gates Foundation strategy on global warming be?

  1. very small rabit says:

    Hello? Mr. Gates? Are you listening? Want to get in at the ground floor on the next Big Thing? Hello? HELLO?

  2. papertiger says:

    DHAKA (AFP) – New data shows that Bangladesh’s landmass is increasing, contradicting forecasts that the South Asian nation will be under the waves by the end of the century, experts say.

    Scientists from the Dhaka-based Center for Environment and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS) have studied 32 years of satellite images and say Bangladesh’s landmass has increased by 20 square kilometres (eight square miles) annually.

    Director of the US-based NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, professor James Hansen, paints an even grimmer picture, predicting the entire country could be under water by the end of the century.

    But Sarker said that while rising sea levels and river erosion were both claiming land in Bangladesh, many climate experts had failed to take into account new land being formed from the river sediment.

    “Satellite images dating back to 1973 and old maps earlier than that show some 1,000 square kilometres of land have risen from the sea,” Sarker said.

    A rise in sea level will offset this and slow the gains made by new territories, but there will still be an increase in land. We think that in the next 50 years we may get another 1,000 square kilometres of land.”

  3. David B. Benson says:

    Fund the planting of tens of billions of trees. Across the Sahel from the Atlantic to the Horn of Africa would be a good place to start.

    So would Haiti.

  4. Harrier says:

    Specifically, isn’t bamboo supposed to be a good carbon sink?

  5. Philip Boxell says:

    The Gates Foundation should educate since that is what we have failed to do so far and if not soon, we risk losing the planet. I say “risk” because that is what those who disagree with or deny the existence of climate change, and those who won’t move forcefully enough fail to understand. This is not about how much this or that will cost. We did not use monetary cost to decide on the Great Wars or what to do about the Depression or the Civil Rights Movement. On another blog here today we flog the Republicans and the deniers. But erstwhile Democrats and progressives share the blame in their silly notions of Live Earth concerts and we have time. That is, I think many of use believe the risk is now imminent and I think it will take more than the president’s most commendable science appointments and a congress that cannot avoid politics however hard it might try. Understanding climate change is a learned skill and the Foundation can help considerably with this effort.

  6. Pangolin says:

    The Gates foundation should be promoting rocket stoves and biochar agriculture by the use of direct demonstration units in every county-sized rural/agricultural area in the third world.

    Why these two technologies? Rocket stoves dramatically reduce the amount of biomass needed for home cooking fires. This takes pressure off woodlands and shrubbery and reduces deforestation. Also very importantly it reduces the smoke load on the lungs of women and children who use less efficient stoves reducing deaths and disability from lung disease.

    A possible by-product of rocket stoves is charcoal or biochar from things like corncobs and sorghum stalks. Incorporation of these chars into garden soils dramatically improves the abilities of tropical soils to percolate and retain water, retain nutrients, promote crop growth and build humus.

    Biochar can also be used to retain and neutralize nutrients and bacteria from human waste thereby reducing disease while at the same time improving soils with the product. Biochar readily absorbs and retains nitrates in urine and speeds the composting of feces. Human waste contamination is the worlds primary source of disease and disability.

    The rocket stove converts multiple problems to benefits. It reduces deforestation, reduces lung disease, reduces fuel seeking times (promoting education) and produces biochar if managed properly. The biochar can then store and neutralize human wastes, improve soils, decrease crop water requirements and sequester atmospheric carbon.

    If there’s something more important to the human race than spreading these two technologies I don’t know what it is.

  7. Thank you so much for the link Joe. I must say that I learn so much from your site.

    Things are unfolding so fast. You and your site seem to be on top of it all. Thanks especially for your superb style of carefully linking to source materials.

  8. Zane Lewis says:

    Pangolin Says:

    “A possible by-product of rocket stoves is charcoal or biochar…”

    Unfortunately Pangolin is wrong here. The rocket stove cuts down on smoke by burning at high temps with lots of available oxygen. Char productions is low temp combustion with restricted oxygen availability. Thus rocket stoves cannot be used to produce char without loosing the benefits of the rocket stove. :-)

  9. David B. Benson says:

    Harrier — By all means grow bamboo wherever it grows well.

    Good for pandas, too. :-)

  10. Mike D says:

    How about we stick to growing bamboo where bamboo belongs. Let’s not destroy ecosystems to save them.

  11. David B. Benson says:

    Mike D — That’s what I meant, mostly.

  12. Pangolin says:

    Actually I’m still correct. Rocket stoves will produce biochars (simply charred biomass) at various temperatures depending upon the movement of the flame front and the set-up of the stove. Since biochar isn’t as sensitive as some people would suggest to charcoal temperature rocket stove char still works. Many test pot’s and test plots of hobbyists on the internet that have used high temperatures charcoal (typically Cowboy brand charcoal) find that it works just fine with the one-time addition of an organic nitrogen fertilizer.

    There seems to be some irrational fear that somebody is advocating cutting down the worlds forest to produce biochar that has no foundation in reality. If nothing else my experience suggest that biochar soils are a perfect rooting medium for acorns. They love the stuff.

  13. Mike D says:

    David, sorry I am just really sensitive about invasive species, they are the bane of all my local ecosystems. Bamboo is actually very useful when grown commercially but steps need to be taken to prevent its spread outside of those zones.

  14. Gail says:

    eh, we will be lucky to have bamboo or anything else grow. Go back to this:
    It is happening on the East Coast of the US, but virtually no one is paying any attention. Basically the foresters and conservationists are in total denial because otherwise, their bread and butter is at stake.

    The vegetation here, some of it, will likely limp along for another year or maybe 5.

    But it is dying and the resulting desertification is not going to be pleasant.

  15. Harrier says:

    Ugh, things are moving too fast. I know we have the knowledge and will to solve this, but we’re running out of time.

  16. I support Joe’s recommendation of support of CSP. I would however like to emphasize that in the area of clean technologies that it would be helpful for the Foundation to keep two tracks in mind

    1) Clean technologies that are currently affordable in the developing world

    2) Clean technologies that are affordable with support in the developed world and will eventually be affordable in the developing world.

    Too many technology fans in the area of climate have insisted that the only worthy technological solutions are those that are NOW affordable all over the world. I’m afraid that this moral absolutism will hold back the stepwise development of clean technologies. If we had insisted that cell phones from their inception were affordable all over the world, they would never have evolved to be now affordable in most countries of the world.

  17. Pangolin says:

    The really great thing about concentrated solar power is that one you have the mirror system built you can put all sorts of things in front of the focal point. Those really big towers in Spain have focal point temperatures hot enough to crack water into hydrogen and oxygen gases.

    For smaller units steam coils or high temperature/efficiency solar cells can be put in the focal point. The MIT student designed solar concentrator dish also had the added advantage that all the materials used were off-the-shelf. No custom made curved mirrors or precision machined castings anywhere on the thing.

    So assuming somebody builds a solar concentrator dish and uses it to run a steam generator this year and cheap high temperature solar cells come on the market five years from now all they have to do is replace the target at the focal point. The basic material of the dish and mount still function. That’s the great thing about CSP; resilience.

  18. BrooksB says:

    In line with Michael Hoexter’s item 1:

    I would urge them to first concentrate on expanding/improving on proven, simple, cheap quick-to-implement techniques/technologies such as:

    The successful, very inexpensive solar cookers providing no-fuel cooking in Africa. They’re made by covering cardboard with tinfoil and work in tandem with insulated pots.

    They typically last for months. Details here:
    Look for PDF: Solar Cooker Project Evaluation, Iridimi Refugee Camp, Chad

    The cookers were used in conjunction with more efficient stoves; stoves used mainly when solar power to low or speed needed (unexpected guests).

    This type of project gives a virtually immediate and significant reduction in wood burning. Stove construction can become a local business.

  19. Emily says:

    If nothing else, Gates needs to get out of trying to push technological “solutions” onto poor farmers, especially those in africa. modern agriculture is only compounding the climate problem, as has been discussed before, and providing (at subsidized prices, at first) farmers with gm seeds that require fertilizers and/or herbicides is not the way to go.

    Gates would be better off using his money to address some of the structural changes that have put in place and reinforced the current systems that lead to people being poor and not having those opportunities. like, working to end US ag subsidies, working to reform land tenure policies, and working to raise awareness of better farm methods…

  20. David B. Benson says:

    Yes, and I’ll add encouraging eating less red meat, especially beef.

  21. Pangolin

    Interesting ideas about concentrated solar.

    An Israeli company called Zenith Solar has developed a CPV (concentrating photovoltaic) system that captures the heat from the water used to cool the solar cells. The result is combined hot water and electricity from PV. They claim 75% efficiency with this system.

    from their website:

    “In conventional CPV systems, the excess heat generated in the solar cell needs to be removed to avoid damaging the cell and to maintain high efficiency of electricity conversion. ZenithSolar utilizes the heat generated at the solar cell receiver to provide usable hot water heating, improving overall solar power conversion efficiency to 75% .”

    “The Zenith Solar`s `Optics in Plastic` is the key to manufacturing efficiency and superior product quality achievement. A 2800 ton injection molding press uses advanced custom thermoplastic composition developed by our scientists for reliable, stable and long life operation. Our solar dish are injection molded with multiple gate radius heated runners to ensure even material flow and minimal warpage with rapid fill.”

    “An ordinary photovoltaic cell, which is 10 by 10 centimeters, normally produces one watt of electricity. We managed to extract more than a thousand times more – 1,500 watts. In this way, the cost of a cell is 1,500 less, becoming almost nothing.”

    “No one has ever produced so much electricity from a solar cell at this strength.”

    If my memory serves me, they are using Emcore’s triple junction solar cells.

  22. In regard to Rocket Stoves. I hadn’t heard of them before, but I have heard of simple digesters for garbage etc. that convert the waste to methane for cooking. These are cheap individual household use devices. Using these instead of firewood for cooking could save a lot of trees, while improving the lives of people in third world countries.