Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has found himself a new cause: climate change. It took him quite a while to discover the biggest threat to the planet but, then again, for years he did not believe in the Internet either. His gift for foreseeing trends has kind of let him down after he became one of the richest guys on the planet.
That said, when Gates speaks, the world listens. So his presentation at TED 2010 made headlines and is currently one of the hot topics in the blogo- and twittersphere.
Gates wants the world to “innovate to zero”, that is to invest in technology (preferably in which he has a stake) to reach a zero-carbon economy by 2050. His presentation (to be seen here) promoted one of his latest investments as the key to doing that: the Terrapower traveling wave nuclear reactor.
At first sight, Gates becoming the next Al Gore (is he trying to get the 2011 Nobel Prize?) is good for the sustainability community, no? So why am I not convinced?
First of all, unlike Alex Steffen on WorldChanging, Gates focusing in on climate will just add to the story that “global weirding” (again one of those great Friedman phrases) is the most important problem facing the planet. As I have explained in other posts, it is NOT. It is just the tip of the iceberg of a way of life (of consuming and producing) which is unsustainable when it starts to be imitated by the world’s most populated new economic giants.
Secondly, as to be expected from the IT geek, his religious belief that technology will save us is touching but hardly believable. We might wish that “the Force be with us” but that does not make it so. Like carbon capture and storage, the Terrapower reactor (a nicer name for the failed “fast breeder” according to some) is still more of a dream than commercial reality. Without serious changes in lifestyle and behavior we will not beat “The Empire” as Luke Skywalker knew very well. “Be afraid, be very afraid”, we will have to face our deepest fears.
David Roberts of the Grist (“Why Bill Gates is wrong“) has a great analysis of why innovation always seems to mean development of new technology instead of innovation in our social systems: “the way we live together now, the way we govern ourselves, the way we arrange our physical spaces and our commerce, the way we do economics and measure prosperity—all these have to be changed in creative ways if we want to achieve the goal of sustainable prosperity. All these changes require … wait for it … innovation. Innovations in the way we think, interact, and structure our lives require just as much imagination, intelligence, persistence, and funding as innovations in technology”.
Thirdly, we have to suspect the real motives behind Bill Gates’ conversion to the climate cause. Joe Romm on his blog Climate Progress is very clear about this. Commenting on another recent climate contribution of Bill Gates (“Why we need innovation, not insulation”), Romm summarises it as follows: “Bill Gates disses energy efficiency, renewables , and near-term climate action while embracing the magical thinking of Bjorn Lomborg (and George Bush)”. Why? “The only conclusion is that Gates doesn’t actually want to have any market-based policies that stimulate deployment of technology …. He just wants a straight government handout for research”.
So, it is probably not the “energy miracles” but the “magic of money” dear Bill is hoping for? The future will tell.