Bill Gates, photo: Village Global

OPINION: Why don’t these billionaire philanthropists like Gates just stop their foundations and pay their fair share of taxes

The media everywhere has been fawning over Bill Gates and his new book, How To Avoid A Climate Disaster. But should we really be listening to the world’s third wealthiest man for advice? If his suggestions and plans of action were wise and useful then maybe…

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has an estimated net worth of $129 billion. His incalculable possessions, hugely destructive habits, and the massive investments of his opaque charitable trust, do everything to contradict his message that he’s the man with the plan to solve climate change.

The fundamental point is that the richer you are, the bigger your ecological footprint. There’s no escaping it.

The Gates’ fossil footprint

Bill and Melinda Gates’ home in Medina, Washington, which cost over $60 million to build, covers more than 6100 square metres of floor space and contains $80,000 worth of computer screens, garages for 23 cars, a home theatre for 20 guests, six kitchens, and 24 bathrooms. Gates reportedly pays to have sand imported from St Lucia in the Caribbean to the shore surrounding it.

He has plenty of other homes too, including a vacation ranch in Wellington, Florida, and the 28-acre Rancho Paseana, California, not to mention strings of hotels, three private jets, and a collection of expensive cars.

Among the many $22.34 billion investments of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust, most of them are decidedly not in low carbon enterprises:

  • AutoNation (they sell plain old cars)
  • Berkshire Hathaway (a holding company for a multitude of businesses)
  • Coca-Cola FEMSA (known for depleting aquifers and ruining health)
  • Deere & Co (diesel engine manufacturers).

This is just scratching the surface. Journalist Tim Schwab, who has made it a mission to investigate Gate’s wealth and influence, has discovered his investments in fossil fuel companies:

Gates claims to have divested from fossil fuel companies in 2019, but his foundation’s tax filing from that year shows millions of dollars in direct investments in companies like Exxon, Chevron, and Japan Petroleum Exploration.

Billions more are invested in fossil-fuel-dependent industries like airlines, heavy machinery and automobiles.

There’s a $1.6 billion stake in Caterpillar, for example, which makes diesel-guzzling plant used in mining.

He is chairman of TerraPower, a nuclear reactor design company which has put no energy into the power grid.

In October 2020, the United States Department of Energy gave TerraPower a grant of $400 million rising to $4 billion over the next seven years towards building a demonstration reactor.

For reasons like this, Schwab calls Gates’ book “a long-winded advertisement for his investments”. Gates uses it to appeal to the US government to become a co-investor in TerraPower.

The blind spot

What is astonishing is the uncritical attitude of the media to Gates’ outpourings.

The Financial Times last Saturday devoted the front page and a half of its Life & Arts supplement, to his “Green Manifesto”, without comment or criticism: it was free advertorial. Who else would get this treatment?

Not long into the piece Gates pontificates, “The problem is simple. We can’t afford to release more greenhouse gasses.”

Naturally, he doesn’t include himself in this “we” because if he did he would have to completely change his behaviour and lifestyle, something that he seems incapable of doing.

This massive blind spot to his vision is also a blind spot to the media. The vast majority is in denial about his wealth.

We want someone to come and lead us to salvation from the dire future we appear to be heading for. Of course, it should be a rich white man! Who else?

But just as an alcoholic can’t rely on a whiskey distillery for a cure, we shouldn’t put our faith in the super-rich – because they are a huge part of this problem.

Like most of the industrial-business sector, Gates imagines that the solution to climate change is technological. It can never be just that, it’s system change, it’s behavioural.

In a much-publicised interview he did on 60 Minutes Gates hyped up “advanced nuclear” fusion, SMRs and all the other tech marvels he is promoting. His interviewer, Anderson Cooper, completely ignorant of the subject, lapped it up, and failed to point out that none of these are proven technologies.

Gates the philanthropist

Being one of the top philanthropists in the USA, having donated billions to charity, gives Gates a powerful platform for his views. He sits on world stages amongst experts in the field who have been either democratically elected or appointed because they are experts.

What is Gates’ experience or qualifications to talk about climate change?

Charles Dickens used his writings to attack injustice in Victorian times. He was especially scathing of rich individuals who styled themselves as philanthropists but whose charitable acts did more to serve their own vanity than deserving causes.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in his novel Bleak House, where he puts in the mouth of one character the following aphorism: “There were two classes of charitable people; one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.”

He satirises the former with Mrs Jellyby and Mrs Pardiggle, both of whom practice philanthropy – but at the expense of others.

For both, philanthropy is more of a profession than born of genuine motivations to help. Philanthropy has become Gates’ profession, and his motivation is to assuage his guilt at the size of his wealth and ecological footprint, and to wield power. Dickens would have a field day.

Can it be a coincidence that his charitable donations and investments in finding vaccines for the coronavirus, have seen his personal fortune rise $20 billion dollars as a result. That’s not philanthropy, it’s profiteering. 

Tim Schwab again, in the above article, quotes Anthony Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice for the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, as saying “These billionaires, the best they could do, some would say, would be to be stop their foundations and pay their fair share of taxes”.

He observes 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 saviour-ism that actually in some cases causes more harm than good.”

Christine Nobiss, founder of the indigenous people’s Great Plains Action Society, claims that Bill Gates has become the largest farmland owner in the United States. He owns nearly 100,000 hectares and is not farming it regeneratively or even sustainably. “He’s basically participating in the never-ending cycle of colonisation,” Nobiss says.

The world’s most frequent flyer?

Flying is one of the worst things you can do for the climate change, right?

In a 2019 study of 10 celebrities and their flying habits, Celebrities, air travel, and social norms, Gates came top with the most emissions, beating Jennifer Lopez, Paris Hilton, and Oprah Winfrey.

No wonder he would like the sustainable aviation fuel he dreams of in his book, and a neat way of offsetting all his carbon guilt.

Let’s face it, would you rely on McDonald’s to make the world go vegan, or Putin to bring world peace?

So why listen to Bill Gates, a man with a carbon footprint the size of a small country?

Then there is the question of climate justice. In his book he never questions the political systems and economic models that result in climate change’s greatest impacts being on the poor and people of colour.

There would be only one way for him to escape these financial conflicts of interest: let him lead by example.

Let him give away all his money to the world’s poor with no strings attached. Let him live in a small apartment on $100 a week. Let him see the world from the point of view of a climate refugee – and say nothing about it.

When he’s done all that, I’ll follow him.

9 replies on “Why Bill Gates can’t save the world”

  1. Just like any other extreme view, this view is damaging to the conversation.
    Gates himself has admitted he is an imperfect messenger, but he is at least using his position to create more awareness and has directed resources to the climate problem.
    The idea that everyone who wants to be an activist needs to be vegan, never fly, never turn on a light if it’s connected to fossil fuels – basically just move to a Cave and try not to breathe – is idiotic. We need more “imperfect environmentalists not a few perfect ones.

    1. The Fifth Estate is not suggesting that Gates should be shut down because of his wealth. It’s exciting when we see the world’s big investors and wealthy, influential people come over to our side. We are completely agnostic about the reasons for climate action. We care only that it happens. And fast.

      The real problem with Gates is not his wealth, but his ideas. These need to be carefully scrutinised and editorialised precisely because of his vast influence with governments and followers. Climate scientist Michael Mann for instance says, “@BillGates is too pessimistic [about] renewable energy [and] his continued dalliance w/ risky geoengineering schemes makes me uncomfortable.”

      Another problem is the SOURCE of his wealth. Agree with our writer David here: How hard is it for someone so wealthy to divest from activities that make things worse for the planet? We expect our super funds and universities to do so.

      What some people are missing is that this is an opinion piece, not an editorial stance by TFE. And what people think and feel about how to go about climate action is critically important because bringing everyone with us is the only way we can achieve success. So we need more opinions discussed openly and honestly, not shoved under the carpet.

      1. This is only my opinion as well, but as an experienced environmentalist, it’s upsetting to see this type of articles that go after the people and not their ideas. Similar things have others done with Greta.

        Gates is not perfect, his ideas are not perfect -and we should be debating them – and he will probably benefit from the investments he is making in the sustainability space as anyone who is jumping on that train should.

        And, the source of every millionaire wealth as well as the source of Australia’s wealth, is tainted by fossil fuels, slavery and modern slavery, biodegradation, etc., the difference is not everyone is using their wealth and voice to tackle the problem.

        The idea of divesting is also very simplistic, there might be more impact from the pressure he can put on the boards of those companies than from simply walking away with the money. One answer does not always fits all.

        It would be more interesting to see a debate on how to decarbonise his portfolio, whether any of his startups/technologies have a future and how they can or cannot be part of the climate solutions.

        1. HI Adam I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. We try to accommodate a wide range of opinions and debate in these pages. Even those we don’t always agree with because we set out to be a platform not, a rule book. And that’s especially important now because how we tackle climate change is about to get a whole lot more complex. It was simple when the main challenge was to convince the world it was happening. People were either aligned or not. And I agree we definitely want people like Bill Gates with all his influence and wealth on our side. Even if he’s not perfect. And yes, none of us are. But I also think it’s important to look at people like Gates critically, precisely because of his enormous influence.

  2. Thanks for your excellent article, David.

    While it’s good to see Gates pushing for climate action, his approach is, unsurprisingly in his case, focussed on the alleged need for technological breakthroughs and research and development to achieve them. In reality, about 75% of global emissions could be reduced to zero by using existing technologies: energy efficiency technologies, wind, solar, hydro (both once-through and pumped), batteries and electric vehicles. Most of these technologies are economically viable now—the exceptions, batteries and electric vehicles, are likely to become generally competitive in five years of so as their markets continue to grow.

    Research and development are mainly needed for lowering the cost of producing ‘green’ hydrogen for long-distance air, sea and road transport and for industrial uses, and for cutting emissions from agriculture.

    Unfortunately, Gates does a disservice to climate mitigation in pushing unproven nuclear energy technologies and uneconomical carbon capture and storage, which would only take financial resources away from the clean, safe, economical, proven technologies.

    Finally, as a technologist who has benefitted from the neoliberal economic system, Gates is unlikely to question the notion of endless growth on a finite planet.

  3. Thank you David for your exceptional article. I have been wondering how long it would take someone in the media to final investigate the facts on Bill Gates very non-sustainable and non-climate friendly lifestyle and investments. For years I have watched his very obvious green washing and hypocrisy and have been astounded that no one has ever had the courage to call him out. I guess the power of the billions keeps the mainstream media in line. It makes me very grateful to you for your article & to the fifth estate for publishing it.

  4. Ad hominem, Latin for “to the man”, is when an argument is rebutted by attacking the person making it rather than the argument itself. It is another informal logical fallacy.
    The logical structure of an ad hominem is as follows:

    Person A makes a claim X.
    Person B attacks person A.
    Therefore, X is wrong.

    I find this argument a complete waste of 5 minutes of my life. We need more billionaires to follow Gates, not less.
    If I was a billionaire I wouldn’t give my money to the government, would you? Just look at what the Trump administration would have done with Gates tax revenue if he gave it all to Trump!
    What evidence is there that any of the ‘facts’ spouted in this piece are actually facts? People also write crap about Gates being involved in a conspiracy theory to control the world through vaccinations or 5G, but we all know that’s garbage.

  5. The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, says he wants the next election to be a referendum on inequality as well as climate action because the coronavirus pandemic has meant ordinary people have suffered while billionaires and big corporations are making out like bandits. Before the pandemic, workers’ share of income in Australia had sunk to the lowest level in history, while corporate profits reached record highs. Bandt went on to say that very wealthy Australians often have coal interests, while international billionaires own power stations in Australia powered by fossil fuels which is unfortunately correct and made worse by the fact that Australia has a disproportionate share of the world’s billionaires. We have 0.33% of the world’s population and 1.8% of all billionaires. However what Adam neglected to mention was that most billionaires made their money primarily in the finance and property sectors. In fact according to the Peterson Institute 31% of Australian billionaires were in this category which is three times the proportion in Europe (10%) and well above the US figure (27% including of course Trump) Considering that both the finance (banking) and development industries have been linked to numerous types of corruption this does not inspire confidence. For example Westpac managed to negotiate a $1.3b fine for money laundering, ANZ as well as Com bank ($700m fine) were also involved. It gets worse. Indias rich are the most philanthropic but as a percentage of net worth the UK’s rich donate more followed by the US. China’s billionaires are also from property but include biotechnology and electronics and their philanthropy may soon overtake all of these with a sudden growth in donations after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. Australia doesn’t do so well, in fact in an article published in CRIKEY in 2018 Daniel Petre suggested that drug dealers donate a higher percentage of their earnings than our super rich. But let’s be fair, they do donate to political parties thus ensuring our democracy remains strong.

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