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.
Even before the release of his book this week, Gates’s move into climate change has made waves—an interview on 60 Minutes, op-eds in Time magazine and The Guardian, and a podcast with actor Rashida Jones. Given Gates’s track record of success inserting himself into other policy debates—everything from US education to global health—it seems likely he will continue to take up oxygen in the climate discourse going forward.
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.
In his book, Gates several times praises the young people and activists who have energized climate politics—even drawing parallels to successful protests against the Vietnam War and divestment campaigns against South African apartheid. Yet Gates doesn’t seriously engage with these political movements, and seems oblivious to ways that they’ve pushed the mainstream conversation on climate change beyond the technical question of how to reduce carbon emissions—Gates’s narrow focus—to interrogate the political systems and economic models that, for example, channel climate change’s greatest impacts toward the poor and people of color.
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.”
Christine Nobiss, founder of the Indigenous-led Great Plains Action Society, points to recent reports that Bill Gates has become the largest farmland owner in the United States, holding 242,000 acres—a larger area of land than Bahrain or Singapore or Barbados can claim. Nobiss says this speaks to the Manifest Destiny mentality that has to be challenged in the political fight around climate change.
“Bill Gates is smart enough to understand—he’s smart, he can do the math—that no one single person needs that amount of land,” notes Nobiss. “He’s basically participating in the never-ending cycle of colonization.”
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.
Gates didn’t respond to several interview requests, but in his book, he actually does briefly acknowledge the ways his own wealth impacts climate change—and even concedes that he needs to make changes.
Not that Gates is going to give up his vast farmland. Nor is he going to sell any of his houses—including his 66,000-square-foot mansion outside Seattle. He’s also not going to get rid of his private jet—a Bombardier BD-700 Global Express that consumes 486 gallons of fuel each hour.
But, Bill Gates writes, he is going to start buying “sustainable jet fuel.”
Gates’s main credential related to climate change is as an investor. In 2015, he started a multibillion-dollar venture capital fund called Breakthrough Energy—recruiting a who’s who of the global super rich to join the fund: Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Michael Bloomberg, Jack Ma, Mukesh Ambani, and others.
This billionaire club boasts that its investments in new technologies can “lead the world to zero emissions,” but the fund’s portfolio includes companies whose impact on fighting climate change is largely hypothetical and in some cases highly dubious—like lab-cultured breast milk substitute and a hydrogen-powered airplane.
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).
Late last year, the US Department of Energy awarded TerraPower an $80 million contract to demonstrate its reactor design, and has a seven-year plan to potentially give hundreds of millions more.
While Gates’s personal $2 billion investment into new climate technologies puts him in a position to potentially profit from many of the solutions he offers in his book, it would be a mistake to imagine the fourth-richest man on Earth as being motivated by money. Rather, the primary function of Gates’s investments seems political—giving him a basis to claim relevancy in the climate policy debate. He’s putting his money where his mouth is, which means we should listen to him.
In many respects, that’s the entire modus operandi—or sleight of hand—of the Gates Foundation. Incorporated as a charity, the foundation is probably better understood as a political organization, one that uses its outsize resources to push public policy in line with Bill and Melinda Gates’s view of how the world should work (which is also sometimes in line with the Gates Foundation’s financial investments).
Though, of course, that’s not how Bill Gates sees it.
“I think more like an engineer than a political scientist, and I don’t have a solution to the politics of climate change,” Gates writes early in the book.
With no irony, the author goes on to write two chapters describing “policies that governments can adopt” to fight climate change—like supporting and subsidizing the kinds of companies in which he is invested.
The Great Divestment
In 2015, The Guardian launched a campaign to pressure the Gates Foundation to divest from fossil fuels, arguing that the charity’s financial support for oil and gas industries is at odds with its stated mission of improving human health and social progress.
At the time, Gates condemned calls for divestment as a “false solution.”
“I still feel this way today,” Gates writes in the book. “But I have come to realize that there are other reasons for me not to own the stocks of fossil-fuel companies—namely, I don’t want to profit if their stock prices go up because we don’t develop zero-carbon alternatives. I’d feel bad if I benefited from a delay in getting to zero.”
So, Gates writes, he completely divested from direct investments in oil and gas companies in 2019—both from his personal wealth ($124 billion) and his foundation’s endowment ($50 billion).
It would seem like a major victory for divestment campaigners, but Gates’s announcement has some important caveats.
His announcement comes years after many of his peers—philanthropies, celebrities, universities, companies—dumped fossil fuels, and at a time when the value of the industry is plummeting.
“Oil and gas hasn’t just underperformed, it’s been pretty much the worst possible place you could put your money,” Clark Williams-Derry, an analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, noted in an e-mail. “Over the past decade, it would have been far better not to invest at all than to buy fossil fuel stocks.”
Also, while Gates claims to have divested in 2019, his foundation’s tax filing from that year shows millions of dollars in direct investments in companies like Exxon, Chevron, and Japan Petroleum Exploration—and billions more in fossil-fuel-dependent industries like airlines, heavy machinery and automobiles. One of the foundation’s largest investments is a $1.6 billion stake in Caterpillar, whose outsize carbon emissions were recently the target of a shareholder resolution from the investor activist group As You Sow.
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.
The Gates Foundation’s investments are, by law, public information, but the details of Bill Gates’s private fortune remain behind lock and key. Gates has long refused to release tax records or financial information, making it impossible to verify if he really has divested.
Last month The Guardian’s wealth correspondent reported that Gates was teaming up with other large investors in a $4.7 billion bid for Signature Aviation, a leading provider of flight support for private jets—one the most polluting forms of travel, and one big reason that the transportation sector is responsible for 14 percent of global carbon emissions.
The Gates Foundation, Breakthrough Energy, and Bill Gates’s money managers all refused multiple requests for interviews and information.
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.
“Affluent individuals can emit several ten thousand times the amount of greenhouse gases attributed to the global poor,“ the paper noted. “This raises the question as to whether celebrity climate advocacy is even desirable. As some authors suggest, celebrity climate advocates contribute to controversy, undermining efforts to politically confront climate change.”
The study only looked at Gates’s jet travel, but might have also considered Gates’s emissions from his farmland, which includes large tracts of corn and soybeans, which typically goes to feed animals (often on factory farms)—a particularly carbon-intensive model of agriculture.
Gates’s farms have also attracted public criticism over the years for their environmental impacts. A citizens group in Florida in 2016 penned an op-ed about Gates’s impacts on waterways, saying his farms were “compromising the health and welfare of North Florida.”
John Quarterman, a farmer and Riverkeeper of the Suwannee River, which runs through Georgia and Florida, also raises sharp questions about Gates’s environmental impacts. When Gates acquires land, Quarterman notes, he seems to take a business-as-usual approach, keeping the existing—and unsustainable—agricultural production model little changed from previous owners.
“He himself has plenty of resources where he could have tried to fix the problems. Instead, all he did was tinker around the edges.” Quarterman said. “That’s my indictment.”
Editor’s Note: Disclosure: Four years ago Tim Schwab was employed as a researcher for Food & Water Watch, an NGO that works on agricultural and energy issues.