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Bill Gates says key to beating climate change is energy innovation. Is it?

Bill Gates
By Thomas Hawk

Bill Gates was the keynote speaker for Seattle-based Climate Solutions‘ annual fund-raising breakfast today.

The gist of Gates’ message: The best way to fight climate change is to create forms of energy production that significantly reduce carbon emissions and are cheap enough to be of value to poor people worldwide.

“We need a breakthrough,” said the Microsoft co-founder and world’s leading philanthropist.

Climate change and supporting energy R&D is not, and likely will never be, a big focus for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he said, because these are likely best solved by the “capitalistic format” and government incentives supporting industrial innovation.

“The foundation looks at things that are ignored, no market for,” Gates said.

But finding a solution to climate change is critical to achieving success in all the other arenas of human development the philanthropy is interested in, he added, which is part of the reason why he has personally taken an interest in — and invested in — finding new technologies aimed at improving our energy use.

Gates wore a baseball cap, talked about his investment in new forms of nuclear power (see TerraPower, a project he’s doing with Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures company), threw a simple math equation up on the screen to explain the contributors to global carbon emissions but mostly enthused on the potential power for science, technology and capitalism to beat climate change.

“I love innovation, meeting with scientists and understanding the problems,” Gates said. Here’s Xconomy’s Luke Timmerman’s take on Gates talk from more of a tech business perspective.

Flickr, Roberto “pixjockey” Rizzato

Me too, but I can’t help but wonder if energy innovation really is the most fundamental solution to climate change. I’m no expert on climate change, but this kind of reminds of the original promise of nuclear energy — too cheap to meter. Energy innovation is critical, sure, but perhaps encouraging much more conservation and changes in rich world consumption behavior might be even more fundamental (and less theoretical).

The Seattle Times’ Kristi Heim covered Gates’ talk and went into more detail about precisely which kinds of technologies the Microsoft co-founder is interested, and which ones he is not (like home solar). Kristi notes that others questioned Gates focus on production rather than energy conservation.

About 70 percent of electricity produced in America goes to buildings and other physical infrastructure, said McKinstry CEO Dean Allen. “What we’ve learned is 50 percent of the energy our customers use in their facilities is pure waste.”

Grist’s David Roberts was even more critical, pointing out Gates’ blind spots and elaborating on why he basically thinks the world’s greatest philanthropist is just wrong when it comes to climate change.

Gates made a lot of jokes (and got laughs) when talking about the failure of governments and politicians to address climate change. At the same time, he called upon governments and politicians to do more, including provide industry with the financial incentives to innovate.

“It’s about jobs and innovation,” he said. The U.S. should be a leader in energy innovation, he said, as a means to leading in the fight against climate change.

Gates mentioned having met recently with venture capitalists and big energy honchos like Jeff Immelt, CEO at GE, to discuss how industry can help beat climate change. GE’s Immelt has pushed “green energy” and called for a modernized national energy policy — until now.

Most of the questions delivered to Gates by Climate Solutions’ board co-chair Jabe Blumenthal — who had suggested Gates join him in wearing a baseball hat because of some new stitches in his head — were simply aimed at asking Gates what he thinks about climate change and what he’s doing about it.

Perhaps someone else will dig a bit deeper into Gates’ claim that market-based energy innovation should be the highest priority in fighting climate change.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.