When Bill Gates was a nerdy kid growing up in Seattle, he gained neighborhood notoriety at Little League baseball games by doing standing jumps into garbage cans. At the time, few would have identified that skinny kid as the guy who would one day save the world.
The software industry Gates built certainly changed the universe of business and personal communication, while the fortune he has spent through the Gates Foundation has saved countless lives in developing countries. It is his latest endeavor, though, that could be the one that rescues us all.
On Monday, at the United Nations climate summit in Paris that has drawn together leaders from most of the countries on Earth, Gates unveiled his plan to create a multibillion-dollar fund to pay for research on clean and renewable energy. Teaming with 19 governments and 28 billionaires from 10 nations, Gates hopes to do what the planet’s politicians have failed to do up to this point: dramatically alter the global energy system to replace fossil fuels with power sources that do not contribute to climate change.
The vast majority of the world’s scientists -- excluding those in thrall to oil and coal companies -- have determined that the increasing level of CO2 in the atmosphere is the culprit in rising global temperatures. The evidence of this is becoming more and more obvious as polar ice caps melt, glaciers recede, the oceans get warmer and planetary weather patterns become more extreme. According to the scientists, if humanity continues with business as usual, the result will be calamitous: widespread drought and famine triggering massive, desperate human migrations, major cities and island nations flooded by rising seas, and the catastrophic extinction of countless terrestrial and oceanic species.
Most world leaders have accepted the scientific consensus and know it is their duty to do something while they still can to avoid the worst possible outcomes. That is why they have come together this week in Paris. However, it will be no surprise if narrow national interests override the common interest -- it always has before -- with the result that a final summit agreement falls well short of what is needed to stop the slide toward disaster.
President Obama has made climate change the signature issue of his final two years in office, but went into the Paris summit handicapped by the political opposition he faces at home. American delegates will be pushing for a climate plan that is not a formal treaty because the Obama administration knows it cannot get the two-thirds vote in the U.S. Senate needed to ratify a treaty. Anything less than a binding treaty, though, weakens any deal. Obama will also have a tough time following through with the inevitable pledge of American dollars to help pay for action on climate change. That spending would also need the approval of the Senate, as well as the House, and both houses of Congress are in the hands of a political party that pretends climate change is not real.
Some Republican politicians -- such as Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, who carried a snowball onto the Senate floor to prove it was cold outside -- seem to truly believe the science is wrong. Others, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, are mainly concerned with protecting the coal and oil industries that have funded their political careers. Whether their motivations stem from ignorance or immorality, conservative Republicans have the power to slow, if not stop, progress toward cleaner energy and lowered CO2 emissions.
Left to politics, the climate problem is likely only to get worse -- especially if Republicans get control of the presidency, as well as Congress -- but technological solutions might still save the day. That is what Gates is betting on. He is proposing a detour past politics. If he and his fellow billionaires, including California billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, can provide the seed money to pay for energy innovation and if forward-thinking entrepreneurs following in the footsteps of Tesla’s Elon Musk can show that clean energy is not only good for the planet but good for jobs and the economy, the old fossil-fuels-based business model will falter and die.
The only question is how long that process will take. Way too much time has already been wasted in denial, duplicity and demagoguery. The Gates initiative may be the prod that gets us to work building a new world energy regime before the old one takes us over a cliff.