Response to Bill Gates Quotes in Guardian

A friend recently sent me this Guardian article. In it, Bill Gates does two things: he says that solar power is overhyped, and he says that divestment is a waste of activists’ energy.

With respect to divestment:

Mr. Gates says, “If you think divestment alone is a solution, I worry you’re taking whatever desire people have to solve this problem and kind of using up their idealism and energy on something that won’t emit less carbon – because only a few people in society are the owners of the equity of coal or oil companies. As long as there’s no carbon tax and that stuff is legal, everybody should be able to drive around.”

I confess, this logic confused me a little. Nobody thinks that divestment alone will solve climate change. Divestment is one of many tools needed to move our country from fossil fuels to environmentally sound sources of energy.  Divestment works by stigmatizing dirty energy companies for their toxic business models. This helps create the political space for more substantive policy responses to climate change — like the carbon tax Mr. Gates praises.

A campaigner summed this up well: “No one claims that divestment alone will solve the climate crisis, but it’s also clear that we won’t get anywhere unless we weaken the political power of the fossil fuel industry. If you want to see climate action, you simply cannot continue to invest in companies that are planning to burn five times more coal, oil and gas than our climate can take.”

It’s also worth mentioning that these approaches — divestment and, say, a carbon tax and clean air regulations — are far from mutually exclusive. Divestment doesn’t involve some sort of trade-off, or stop DC Council from bringing solar to the District and reducing pollution. DC can do both, and should. Part of the purpose of divestment is to galvanize further climate change action, so the approaches are, if anything, complementary.

Second — although it is a bit tangential to divestment — regarding Mr. Gates’ comment about solar technology:

Mr. Gates is correct that it gets dark at night (read the piece), and that solar energy is not yet competitive with, say, coal in all parts of the U.S.  Here Mr. Gates’ buried the lede: despite the fact that solar photovoltaic electricity doesn’t produce energy half of the day, solar is nevertheless already cheaper than grid energy in Washington, D.C. and 41 other U.S. cities.

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Solar is also cheaper than current retail electricity in other countries, including Australia, the Philippines, India, France, Chile and Japan.  (Many countries don’t subsidize fossil fuel extraction with taxpayer money like we do–which distorts fossil fuel-solar price comparisons).  The growth of solar installations has outpaced even optimistic expert projections from a few years ago.

It’s also worth remembering that Mr. Gates is pouring money into renewable research — including the batteries that store solar power, as the article mentions. His statement about how solar isn’t ubiquitous yet is true, but he himself is investing to change that, and asking government to do the same.

Finally, as with divestment, nobody is saying that solar alone will address all our energy needs. Of course it will take a healthy mix of renewable sources, improved efficiency, and strong, smart policy. Perhaps divestment makes Mr. Gates uncomfortable because he is heavily invested in these polluting industries. Like many billionaires, he probably doesn’t think too hard about the fact that he’s (quietly) taking with one hand, and giving (ostentatiously) with the other.

Strawmen aside, what Bill Gates thinks isn’t really relevant to what needs doing in DC.  Among many other things: We need to clean our air and our water.  We need to get our energy from renewable sources.  And — to build the political will needed to overcome fossil fuel companies’ opposition to these public goods — we need to divest from fossil fuels.

By Pete Rodrigue, October 22, 2015

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