How Bill Gates can end climate change

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.

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  1. Woody - February 24, 2010

    What a great piece, Adam! It would be great if the Gates would come to the realization that the Sierra Club did years ago, namely, that all their efforts in other areas will ultimately be rendered of little consequence if climate change is not quickly and effectively abated. Climate change should become the paramount focus of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. How can we send him and his wife this message in a way that they will see that it is a clear imperative for their goals?

  2. Jesse - February 24, 2010

    While I agree with you that the US Senate is an immovable stone blocking the path of meaningful climate change legislation in this country, I don’t share your optimism that even the vast funding of Bill Gates would be enough to move the needle. He’s a tech guy, so he should put the money where it matters: in tech. Here’s an idea of how a billionaire could make a dent in the climate: How about starting a large non-profit ESCO to compete with Chevron, Schneider Electric, and Johnson Controls to effect energy efficiency in buildings?

  3. Lisa - February 24, 2010

    Swing states?! Are you kidding? We have Massachusetts solidly in the BLUE and we can’t even get Cape Wind approved. It’s been in the “review” process for a decade based on every bit of nonsense thinking available. Meanwhile, RED states like TEXAS and some of the midwest states have windmills springing up all over OR plan to do so. It’s all about MONEY!

  4. Adam Stein - February 24, 2010

    This is a bit off topic, but what the hey —
    I see semi-regular comments holding up Cape Wind as representative of the failure of environmental legislation in the U.S. And while I sort of agree in the particular — Cape Wind should be built, and the lack of progress says a lot about America’s crazy regulatory framework — I’m leery about focusing too much on this one particular issue.
    The thing is, Texas’ policy isn’t that great either. It’s nice that they’re funneling tons of money into wind, but supporting the wind industry isn’t the same as having a coherent energy policy that puts us on a path to solving global warming.
    So, I still think action in the U.S. Senate is key. You’re right that I shouldn’t have referred to swing states — the concept doesn’t really make sense in this context — so much as on states with swing senators who are potentially persuadable on climate change.

  5. Woody - February 24, 2010

    MA isn’t solidly in the blue–the dem senate candidate went on vacation just before the election and she screwed up massively in a now very famous radio interview, PLUS MA already has universal healthcare legislation, so that issue was not a factor as it is in most of the rest of the country. Re Cape Wind, it”s a very atypical wind energy project in that it is proposed to be in an extremely visually sensitive place. While I grew up on Nantucket Sound, where it would be sited, I support the project. However, I think the resistance to it by some is totally understandable.

  6. Spencer - February 25, 2010

    Sad, but true.

  7. Tom P - February 25, 2010

    Since, as Thomas Friedman and many other prominent environmental writers consensually agree, I agree that bold, creative apolitical measures should be explored. A public appeal to power brokers, chief among them, Bill Gates, would at least send a reverberating message throughout the political establishment that would serve notice that they, as a group, are “not going to take it anymore”.
    As President Obama opined some months back, the credibility gap is alive and well and no more in evidence than on the topic of climate change. Sure, the politicians want to be “green” and speak the language but what do they actually do? As they receive constant cross messages from Big Energy and campaign contributions, our leaders have clearly failed us on this topic. Shame on them that gamble with our future in the name of political stalemate.
    Bring on the alternative ideas to alternative energy. We need to.

  8. Lisa - February 25, 2010

    I guess I riled up a few comments – I never meant to say failure of Cape Wind was due to ENVIRONMENTAL laws, au contraire, “Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound” was started by some coal guy. So it’s about money – wrapping itself up in “enviro” talk… I love views of the ocean as much as anyone – from a boat, the shore or whatever, but c’mon, you’ve seen one fogged in seaside, you’ve pretty much seen them all… and if it’s fish/sea animals anyone is worried about, then ease up on so much fishing, if anything, the platforms for the windmills would likely create habitats. As for Mass being Blue or not – no state is 100%, for sure. And that Dem candidate last time really didn’t appeal to a lot of people for a number of reasons. Mass is home to the original “tea party”, so we’ve always been independent thinkers and a Republican the likes of a Bill Weld or a few others can easily win here. But in general, my point was – it’s not about red or blue for these innovative projects, b/c plenty of red states have windmills, it’s about getting real choices to people. I’ve been hearing bits about Google and others have all this stuff ready to go to build a smart grid – with real time monitoring – so when electricity rates spike up – you can shut your own power off… well for heavens sake – come install it in my house! Better still, get one of those fuel cells deals in here and get me off the grid altogether. Ultimately, that is my plan, but even with grants, etc., there are things that make that difficult at present. So anyway, I love innovative ideas as much as the next person – just get them into the hands of people who will USE them and they’ll create their own wildfire of adoption.