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Climate Change and the New Congress: Bill Gates to the Rescue?

Can foundations help keep the U.S. avoid becoming a spoiler on the environment?

November 11, 2014

Credit: LehaKoK

The success of the Republicans in last week’s Congressional elections represents a crucial moment for everyone concerned about climate change. Next year’s planned meeting in Paris was supposed to deliver a global deal. That is now an empty event that might as well be cancelled.

President Obama can no doubt come up with some fine phrases, but there is no chance of formal congressional approval for any agreement which is reached.

If the United States won’t sign up, neither will India nor many other emerging economies. For them, climate change rightly or wrongly is not the priority.

That does not augur well for the key idea of forward movement on climate change, having the world’s major economies move together in a synchronized process of decarbonization.

Past climate negotiations have been useless

The lack of substance in the climate negotiations has been obvious for some time. Even Europe, the area of the world most focused on achieving the holy grail of a global deal, has been failing to live up to its own internal commitments.

Europe itself has been unable to set an effective carbon price. Despite having promised to commit money to test projects five years ago, it has done almost nothing to advance the technology of carbon capture and storage (CCS), which is one of the few ways in which emissions could be managed.

Given the seriousness of the messages contained in last week’s report from the International Panel on Climate Change, one might expect a greater sense of urgency.

The IPCC’s conclusions could hardly be clearer. There is a human impact on the climate because of the use of fossil fuels and there is a very serious risk of climate change and volatility.

You would have to be a very convinced denier of the science behind climate change to say that nothing should be done. Equally, you would have to be blind to present reality to believe that a global deal is going to be agreed and implemented in time to avert the risks.

A new approach is badly needed

What is essential is to come up with a practical answer, almost certainly led by a technical advance which would enable the world to shift to a low carbon economy.

Carbon capture is neither easy nor quick. Only one plant is in operation – in Canada. For real progress on this front, thousands of these plants are needed.

Otherwise, there are few options for carbon to be removed as increasing volumes of coal and natural gas are consumed across the world.

Given that reality, though, CCS seems unlikely to be the answer. Renewables and other low carbon sources of energy supply such as nuclear power offer another way forward, but in most cases they are very expensive and require high levels of subsidy.

While some developed countries might be able to afford the high prices, most of the world’s energy users cannot. If renewables are too expensive, consumers will stick with coal, including the billions in China and India.

The question is how to make renewables cheap enough to penetrate the markets that matter.

If not governments, then who?

If governments can’t or won’t solve the problem, maybe someone else can? One group with the resources to do so are the major international charitable foundations, most of which are headquartered in the United States.

They have money — the top 20 foundations have combined assets of more than $ 200 billion and there are many smaller institutions that could also contribute.

Here, therefore, is the challenge to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (with its current endowment of $42.3 billion) and to other similar institutions led by George Soros, Warren Buffett, Chuck Feeney and others:

Why not bundle resources and offer secure funding of maybe $10-20 billion for a period of five to 10 years, to a selected number of individuals and groups with the aim of bringing about the necessary scientific and technical leap?

The offer could be open and global – and would be managed by a panel of the best scientists available. In addition, why not offer a prize for the most successful innovation which achieves a material and lasting reduction in emissions?

What matters is not just the funding — which, however, must be substantial — but the sense of mission. Too many funding grants made by too many foundations are worthy but lack focus, and hence, real impetus for change.

Storage for the future

Personally, I think the best option is to direct research to electricity storage which would transform the economics of renewables and turn the energy market upside down.

If we obtained the ability to capture and store solar and wind power for use whenever and wherever needed, that would end the problems of intermittency and remove the requirement for subsidies.

The work being done at MIT and Harvard among other institutions is fascinating, but the scale is too small. The use being made of energy storage at power stations in California in recent weeks is very encouraging but again not big enough in scope to meet the full challenge.

We need investment on the scale and with the focus of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo program which took man to the moon. Storage may not be the right answer; there could be other technologies.

But the solution lies in developing a small number of competing projects, which if successful could make a difference at a global level.

Could the international foundations achieve this? No one can guarantee success, but it is essential that they make the effort. My colleague Jonathan Grant, the Director of the Policy Institute at Kings College London, reminds us of an interesting fact.

It was funding by institutions in the U.S. and the UK, including the Wellcome Trust, which enabled great scientists on both sides of the Atlantic to pursue their work on the genome — a comparably brilliant breakthrough which is producing enormous benefits to mankind.

Foundations must change

The foundations could fund the work, but they will also have to break out of the straitjacket of bureaucracy which reduces them to process-driven organizations, wary of risk and failure.

The recent track record of most of these foundations is very disappointing. Too often, their trustees seem to lack vision and are concerned only with preserving the capital value of the funds they control and trying to make sure individual grant recipients tick the right boxes.

Too often, they look for certainty of success. This is surely the wrong approach. Those who made the money on which these institutions were created did not succeed through excess caution or by indulging in orgies of form filling — they took chances.

A program focused on finding a low cost, low carbon solution to the challenge of global warming might fail. International foundations have to accept that failure is a fundamental and unavoidable part of the process of innovation and change. But if they don’t try they certainly won’t succeed.

If the institutions of government can’t solve climate change, it is time to give someone else a chance. The Republican victory could, ironically, prove to be an invaluable wake-up call.

One road to one solution – the COP meeting in Paris next year — is closed. Let’s accept that reality and find another.


Strange bedfellows: The Republican Congress will make joint cause with China and India on the environment.

If the institutions of government can’t solve climate change, it is time to give someone else a chance.

The Republican victory could, ironically, prove to be a wake-up call on climate.