What should the Gates Foundation strategy on global warming be?

Part 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.