Climate activists are wasting their time lobbying investors to ditch fossil fuel stocks, according to Bill Gates, the billionaire Microsoft co-founder who is one of the world’s most prominent philanthropists.
Those who want to change the world would do better to put their money and energy behind the disruptive technologies that slow carbon emissions and help people adapt to a warming world, Mr Gates told the Financial Times.
“Divestment, to date, probably has reduced about zero tonnes of emissions. It’s not like you’ve capital-starved [the] people making steel and gasoline,” he said. “I don’t know the mechanism of action where divestment [keeps] emissions [from] going up every year. I’m just too damn numeric.”
Pension funds, the Church of England and even a vehicle for the Rockefeller family’s oil fortune are among a growing group of investors that have divested their fossil fuel holdings in recent years, driven by a belief that finance can be a tool to combat climate change.
However, Mr Gates questioned the divestment movement’s “theory of change”, arguing that investors who want to use their money to promote progress will have better results by funding innovative businesses such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, two alternative protein companies he has backed.
“When I’m taking billions of dollars and creating breakthrough energy ventures and funding only companies who, if they’re successful, reduce greenhouse gases by 0.5%, then I actually do see a cause and effect type thing,” he said.
Activists said arguments against fossil fuel divestment miss a larger point. The idea is not to starve companies of capital but to remove their “social licence to operate” and make it easier for governments to act on climate issues by breaking the fossil fuel companies’ hold on politicians, according to US-based climate group 350.org, which has signed up more than 1,100 investors to pledge to eliminate or reduce their fossil fuel holdings.
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The theory is based on the movement to divest from South Africa in the 1980s, according to Richard Brooks, divestment campaigns co-ordinator at 350.org. “We looked at campaigns that created real change,” he said. “The taking down of the apartheid system was linked to the divestment movement. It wasn’t the sole contributor but it was definitely a contributing factor.”
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Tuesday released its new “Goalkeepers” report, which sets out to gauge the world’s progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015.
At next week’s meeting of the UN General Assembly, world leaders and business groups will pledge to hit these goals by 2030. However, the Gates Foundation argues that these promises are unrealistic on the current trajectory. “We’re nowhere near improving fast enough to reach those goals,” Mr Gates said.
The Goalkeepers report says the response to climate change needs to go beyond limiting emissions to helping the world adapt to warming that has already occurred.
“It is a terrible injustice that the people who suffer the most are the poorest farmers in the world. They didn’t do anything to cause climate change, but because they rely on rain for their livelihoods, they are at the front lines of coping with it.”
After talking to the FT, Mr Gates was reported by The New Yorker to have made a $2m donation to the MIT Media Lab at the behest of convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein.
Mr Gates declined several requests for a follow-up interview. A spokesman said: “Epstein was introduced to Bill Gates as someone who was interested in helping grow philanthropy. Although Epstein pursued Gates aggressively, any account of a business partnership or personal relationship between the two is simply not true. And any claim that Epstein controlled any programmatic or personal grantmaking for Bill Gates is completely false.”
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