In response to Bill Gates recent speech calling climate change the most urgent threat to humankind, I somewhat sourly wrote: “The fate of the planet continues to reside in the entirely dysfunctional U.S. Senate, and not even the world’s richest man can change that fact.”
But of course that’s not even remotely true. As the world’s richest man, Bill Gates has the power to exert great influence over the political process in the U.S. Here are some of the things Gates could do:
* Set up a political action committee to steer money to candidates who favor climate change legislation
* Fund advertising campaigns pushing the benefits of clean energy in swing states
* Spend funds lobbying for a policy framework that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions
* Use his personal clout to arrange one-on-one meetings with key legislators
* Use his fame and credibility to argue for the urgency of climate change by, for example, writing op-eds, appearing on Sunday morning talk shows, and serving as a talking head during periodic flare-ups of climate change denialism
In short, Bill Gates could do a ton of good by taking a page from the oil companies and a page from Al Gore, using his massive wealth as a lever to move U.S. political institutions in a favorable direction. (It’s quite possible that Gates is already doing a number of these things, although certainly his public persona is studiously apolitical.)
None of this is meant to be a dig. Gates is a technologist, and it makes sense for him to focus on the areas of his expertise. Frankly, politics is a highly frustrating endeavor, an arena that doesn’t reward good ideas so much as it privileges the most powerful voices. And by jumping into the fray, Gates would risk becoming a highly polarizing figure, a prospect no one in his right mind would relish.
But as I’m so often reminded these days, nothing else matters very much if we can’t move the needle politically. It doesn’t matter if you change your light bulbs, and it doesn’t matter if Bill Gates grounds his private plane. The march of technology certainly matters, but it can’t come fast enough to save us if we don’t start laying the policy groundwork. Perhaps Bill Gates is as frustrated about this fact as I am. If he honestly believes that climate change is the greatest challenge we face, he would do well to make the U.S. Senate his highest priority.