Thursday, April 1, 2021


Once they have made their money, there is a long history among America’s great entrepreneurs of using their wealth to do good works.

The Mellons, Carnegies, Rockefellers and Fords have done a great deal for the country in this; some of it was pure altruism, but in other cases, it was likely done to mitigate the impact of anti-trust suits. I am sure that Bill Gates comes down on the side of altruism, and he has done some great things in fighting disease in Africa and seems generally to have been a real force for good in the world. However, for a guy who is so focused in his business dealings, he is all over the page in his approach to climate change.

Take, for example, this quote from a recent interview: “On the personal front, I am doing a lot more,” Mr. Gates wrote. “I am driving electric cars. I have solar panels at my house. I eat synthetic meat (some of the time!). I buy green aviation fuel. I pay for direct air capture by Climeworks. I help finance electric heat pumps in low-cost housing to replace natural gas.”

When asked about how technology could help stop climate change, Mr. Gates replied, “future generations will need to rely on ‘a lot of technologies,’ including synthetic meat, energy storage, new ways of making building materials.” This is well meaning, but even the Gates’ fortune is finite. At this point, Mr. Gates is making the mistake of trying to be strong everywhere while being strong nowhere. With more focus, he might really be able to make a difference.

There are two areas where Mr. Gates could have a decisive impact if he concentrated his resources on them. The first is safe nuclear power — including fusion — he is already spending in that area, but not enough to make a dramatic difference. The electricity for the electric cars will have to come from someplace; solar and wind will not be able to provide all of it. Safe fusion is the Holy Grail in this area, but it needs more in the way of private investment to realize its potential.

The second area is carbon scrubbing. The idea here is to plant millions of artificial trees that capture carbon in the same way that real trees do, but they can be placed in areas where real trees cannot grow. The advantage here is that — instead of preventing carbon from getting into the atmosphere — these artificial trees would take it out.

Perhaps the process could create usable carbon residue. The science has been proven, but the cost is currently prohibitive. If we could reduce the cost to $10 a “tree,” we could address the carbon problem with billions instead of the trillions it will take to quickly compensate for the job losses caused by the sudden disappearance of millions of petroleum and coal-based jobs called for in the Paris Climate Accords.

At the present time, there is no incentive to explore carbon scrubbing because the climate change debate is dominated by those who are ideologically wedded to the notion that the excess of carbon in the atmosphere can only be eliminated by destroying the petroleum and coal industries near-immediately. Climate activists consider the millions of jobs worldwide that would be lost to be someone else’s problem.

Mr. Gates could incentivize carbon scrubbing research by offering a prize of $500 million to $1 billion to someone who comes up with cheap and viable scrubbing solution. The entrepreneurial Thomas Edisons of this generation requires a goal to shoot for, and Mr. Gates could provide it.

I have mentioned this approach in these pages before, but such a prize is not likely within the intellectual range of the federal government. This would be a win-win proposition for Mr. Gates. If no one can produce, he loses no money; but if someone hits paydirt, he can get even richer and feel he is saving the planet at the same time.

There is nothing wrong with pursuing alternative energy. Someday — whether in a hundred or a thousand years — coal, oil and natural gas will eventually run out. However, managing that transition in a way that will not cause a global depression will be one of the great policy issues for the rest of the century. None of this precludes Mr. Gates from pursuing his own personal effort to reduce his carbon footprint, but a consolidation of his efforts on a grander could make a real difference for the planet’s future.

• Gary Anderson lectures on Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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