The billionaire’s new book, a bid to be taken seriously as a climate campaigner, has attracted the usual worshipful coverage. When will the media realize that with Gates you have to follow the money?
By Tim Schwab
During the pandemic, Bill Gates’s personal fortune has increased by an impressive $20 billion, but even these gains pale in comparison to his soaring political influence—as the news media has widely trumpeted his leadership on Covid-19, praising his charitable donations or extolling him as a “visionary” who predicted the outbreak.
It’s a highly questionable narrative, one that ignores widespread controversy over the way Gates made his fortune and how he chooses to spend it, but which nonetheless has delivered a windfall of political capital for our philanthropist in chief—which he is now spending down.
“I expect to spend much of my time in 2021 talking with leaders around the world about both climate change and Covid-19,” Gates notes in his new book, How To Avoid A Climate Disaster, which seems destined to be a best seller.
If so, he proceeds from a precarious position, not just because of his thin credentials, untested solutions, and stunning financial conflicts of interest, but because his undemocratic assertion of power—no one appointed or elected him as the world’s new climate czar—comes at precisely the time when democratic institutions have become essential to solving climate change.
Anthony Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice for the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, notes that even Joe Biden—a “centrist, neoliberal president”—understands that issues like equity and justice are central to climate change, as is evident in a recent executive order that mentions the term “environmental justice” 27 times. In Gates’s 250-page book, the term is completely absent.
“These billionaires, the best they could do, some would say, would be to be stop their foundations and pay their fair share of taxes,” says Rogers-Wright, noting how new tax revenues could help fund democratically devised solutions. “If Gates really wants to be effective and in a way that lifts up equity…[he should be] really listening to people who are being impacted the most and scaling up their solutions, rather than coming in with a parachute and with an air of white savior-ism that actually in some cases causes more harm than good.”
And Gates’s landholdings, Nobiss notes, are intrinsically linked to climate change because agriculture is a leading source of carbon emissions. Nobiss and Rogers-Wright both proposed that Gates give away his farmland—as an act of reparations and to ensure that the acres are put into sustainable food production.
In some ways, Gates’s book could be read as a long-winded advertisement for his investments, because he devotes many pages to promoting the need for new technologies to fight climate change. At one point, Gates even calls on the US government to become a co-investor in advanced nuclear energy companies, like the one he founded, TerraPower (which has yet to put any energy into the power grid).
The charity even reports having a $5.3 million bond holding in Energy Transfer Operating, which is a partial owner of the Dakota Access pipeline—the subject of a very high-profile divestment campaign.
According to a 2019 academic study looking at extreme carbon emissions from the jet-setting elite, Bill Gates’s extensive travel by private jet likely makes him one of the world’s top carbon contributors—a veritable super emitter. In the list of 10 celebrities investigated—including Jennifer Lopez, Paris Hilton, and Oprah Winfrey—Gates was the source of the most emissions.