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.