We cannot trust billionaire philanthropists to lead the way on climate action

This article first appeared on Online Opinion

We should not trust tech billionaires to solve the world’s climate problem, David Aeurbach recently wrote in Slate. His focus was on the fact that not just these great entrepreneurs, but all of us, must tackle climate change. However, there are some other, and more concerning reasons why we should be sceptical of the billionaire entrepreneurial climate action drive.

At the opening of the Paris Climate Summit (COP21), with the blessing of the White House, Bill Gates announced the Breakthrough Energy Coalition (BEA), with an ambitious goal to deal with climate change. 24 billionaire philanthropists have joined in the BEA. They include Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos.

Simultaneously 19 governments, including the United States, China and India, announce “Mission Innovation”, a project that will involve tax-payer money to explore and invent new ways to develop low carbon energy.

Not surprisingly, the two organisations will work in tandem. The billionaire philanthropists plan a public-private partnership between governments, research institutions, and investors that will focus on new energy methods especially for developing countries.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

I would be churlish to criticise the efforts of such generous givers as Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Mark Zuckerberg. But I’m going to do it, anyway.

For a start, this twin project is directed at researching new forms of low carbon energy. A lot of money therefore is to go into trying out new plans, that exist at best, only in blueprint form. Yet already there are in operation large scale and small scale renewable energy projects that could be deployed. In particular, small scale solar energy is very well suited to being deployed in rural India, Africa, and other developing nations, as well as in Australia and other developed nations. It is happening now. Projects such as Barefoot Power have operated for years now, bringing affordable solar power to millions of rural poor in Africa, Asia Pacific, India and the Americas.

The energy need now for poor countries is deployment of existing technologies, not years of research and testing of so far non-existent ones.

Next, what avenues of research will the BEA pursue? Bill Gates gave a clue, in his launch speech on November 29:

The renewable technologies we have today, like wind and solar, have made a lot of progress and could be one path to a zero-carbon energy future. But given the scale of the challenge, we need to be exploring many different paths-and that means we also need to invent new approaches.

Other clues:

  • The one and only University that has joined BEA is the University of California, which runs the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, well known for its nuclear research.
  • Bill Gates is co-founder and current Chairman of the innovative nuclear energy company TerraPower Gates has a long term history of enthusiasm for small nuclear power reactors. Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, USA’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission has tightened the rules for new reactors. Fortunately for Mr Gates, China is less fussy about this, so Gates has been able to do a deal with the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC). TerraPower and CNNC will build the first small 600 MW unit in China, and later deploy these nuclear reactors globally.

I don’t doubt that Bill Gates is sincere in his goal of reducing greenhouse gases. It’s just that I have reservations about Small Nuclear Reactors having any impact on global warming.

If Small Nuclear Reactors did in fact reduce greenhouse gases, the world would need thousands of them to be up and running quickly, but they’re still at the planning stage. They’re supposed to be much safer than conventional nuclear reactors, but still produce radioactive wastes, and are targets for terrorism. Each and every one of them would need 24 hour guarding. It gets expensive.

One can only wonder at the cast of mind of the Gates, Branson, and Zuckerbergs of this world. It seems to me that they have a particularly American outlook – one that happily blends personal profit with the public good. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that. And they have a charming, boyish sense of adventure, which finds it most attractive to do something really new. Old no- profit programs like “Barefoot Power” just don’t have that rakish appeal.

Australia has a few like-minded people, such as Barry Brook, and Ben Heard, who are keen to become part of this exciting “new nuclear” venture.

Of course, Gates and co. are not alone in this rather fantastic enthusiasm. The term selected “Breakthrough Energy Initiative” gives the game away. For many years now, America’s Breakthrough Institute has lobbied and publicised “new nuclear” as the solution for climate change. The Breakthrough Institute has many well-meaning and enthusiastic environmentalists as members. Its philosophy, expressed in “The Ecomodernist Manifesto” is full of beautiful motherhood statements about climate and environment, and only a few paragraphs about new nuclear technology.

This Manifesto, by the way, appears as a Submission to the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission.

The effect of the Breakthrough Institute, over the years, has been to slow down action on reducing the use of fossil fuels. It has also aimed to discredit renewable energy.

Bill Gates and co have been amazingly successful in their ventures. (We won’t count Richard Branson’s space travel disaster). Being rich and successful adventurers does not necessarily prove them to be wise. There are many aspects to the challenge of climate change, of which they may not be aware. I certainly agree with David Aeurbach that we should not rely trust tech billionaires to give the lead in solving the world’s climate problem.

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