Why Won’t the Gates Foundation Divest?

640px-Bill_Gates,_WEF_2009_Davos

Divestment is cool. Bill Gates, apparently, is not, and his foundation is behind the times by continuing to invest in risky fossil fuels.

In the environmental movement, few campaigns are doing as well as divestment, the move to get institutions to remove their investments from fossil fuels. Earlier this month, we reported on the big news that California’s state pension fund – one of the largest public funds in the world – was going to divest entirely from dirty coal. This was followed shortly thereafter by news that the University of California and the California Academy of Sciences would divest as well.

These are big victories for the main reason that they are not obvious, low-hanging fruit targets. Government pension fund managers are not naturally inclined to care about climate change. It was active, tenacious organizing, youth pressure, and effective lobbying that allowed this to happen.

Unfortunately, Grist has found a laggard in a foundation that claims to have fighting climate change as one of its biggest priorities, but won’t tie its investments to its rhetoric. Bill Gates’ reasoning is quite astounding.

“If you think divestment alone is a solution,” Gates said in an interview with the Atlantic, “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.”

If what he says is true, and only a few people in society are owners of fossil fuels, unfortunately, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — which, credit be given, does some amazing work to fight diseases and help spread technology around the world — is one of them.

But this is beyond the point, which Gates misses completely. Firstly, divestment can have an impact. When large banks such as Barclay’s say they won’t invest in coal-fired power plants anymore, that is big. Gates is right that divestment isn’t going to bankrupt any fossil fuel companies (cheaper renewables and clean-energy regulations will take care of that, as they are already doing to dirty coal). But it makes a real impact on their bottom line. Trust me, companies are taking notice.

Secondly, there is the moral factor. Divestment is about building a movement, and making it clear that fossil fuels are morally reprehensible. Any self-respecting institution that cares about climate can — and should — divest. In the end, this will give more space for real climate action, driven by both socially responsible companies and governments.

Bill Gates is, sadly, behind the times. That is why the divestment campaign is gearing up to target his foundation directly. Expect more news from Seattle. My bet’s that Gates will come to his senses sooner than later.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons/World Economic Forum

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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