Salon has published my article on the biggest flaw in the strategy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I’m going to expand on that article in a two-parter here.

The timing could not be better with the Tom Friedman “Ponzi scheme” discussion. For while the the richest foundation in the world certainly has taken on the noblest and greatest of challenges — to help billions of people who “never even have the chance to live a healthy, productive life” (see here) reach that opportunity themselves — its efforts are ultimately doomed to fail if we don’t stop catastrophic warming.

Also, the two men who have donated much of their vast wealth to make it possible, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, are Exhibits One and Two of the “very serious people who are perceived as essentially nonpartisan opinion leaders” who must speak out on climate change if we are to avert the worst (see here).

Yet when we saw them together last summer, they were touring the Ponzi Canadian tar sands, as The Calgary Herald reported (see here):

A source said Gates and Buffett, who in recent months said he favors investing in the Canadian oil sands because it offers a secure supply of oil for the United States, visited the booming hub to satisfy “their own curiosity” but also “with investment in mind.

The tar sands are an environmental abomination that require huge amounts of natural gas to produce fuel with far higher life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions than oil. They have rightly been called by Greenpeace the “biggest global warming crime ever seen.” The Catholic bishop whose diocese extends over the tar sands posted a scathing pastoral letter in January that challenges the “moral legitimacy” of tar sands production.

Let’s look at the Gates Foundation’s strategy, and why, despite the noblest of intentions, it is not sustainable (even though, if you search “sustainable” on the Foundation website, you get 96 hits). In the face of the daunting task of helping the world’s poor, which has proven such an intractable challenge for national governments and international aid agencies, Bill Gates retains the techno-optimism that drove his unbridled success at Microsoft. In July 2008, Gates went from being full-time at Microsoft to working full-time at the foundation with his wife, Melinda. With about $30 billion in assets as of January, the Gates are targeting U.S. education, childhood deaths, malaria, polio, AIDS and agriculture in poor countries.

On their Web site, Bill and Melinda state that if “scientific and technological advances” are focused on the problems of developing nations, “then within this century billions of people will grow up healthier, get a better education, and gain the power to lift themselves out of poverty.” Bill and Melinda go on to make Pollyanna, Pangloss and Paula Abdul seem like realists:

We’re so hopeful about the potential for rapid progress that we’ve decided the foundation will spend all its money in the next 100 years. In this century, our world has the opportunity to fulfill the great human promise that all lives have equal value.

Now, you might think a foundation focusing on third-world “sustainable” development would devote some significant portion of its resources toward preventing catastrophic global warming. After all, on our current emissions path, we will have destroyed a livable climate by 2100. Most every independent scientific and economic analysis says the developing world will suffer horribly. This goes double for the region Gates is focusing much of the foundation’s resources on — Africa, a continent facing climate-driven desertification in the north and the south, a continent with huge coastal populations.

But, in fact, the Gates Foundation has no program to help prevent global warming. Back in 2006, when Gates first announced that he planned to spend most of his time running the foundation, Newsweek raised the climate change issue in an interview:

Q: I know you’re concerned about global warming. Will the foundation become involved with that?

A: I’m already reading some books on energy and the environment, but I will read a lot more two years from now and think whether there’s something the foundation should do in those areas. The angle I’ll have when I’ll look at most things is, What about the 4 billion poorest people? What about energy and environmental issues for them?

Here’s what Gates should have learned by now about the key energy and environmental issues facing the 4 billion poorest people. Using a “middle of the road” greenhouse gas emissions scenario, a study in Science found that for the more than 5 billion people who will be living in the tropics and subtropics by 2100, growing-season temperatures “will exceed the most extreme seasonal temperatures recorded from 1900 to 2006.” The authors conclude: “Half of world’s population could face climate-driven food crisis by 2100.”

A study [PDF] led by MIT economists found that “the median poor country’s income will be about 50 percent lower than it would be had there been no climate change.” And that was based on a 3-degree C warming by 2100, about half the warming we are currently on track to reach. A further study led by scientists from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that several regions would see rainfall reductions “comparable to those of the Dust Bowl era.” Worse, unlike the Dust Bowl, which lasted a decade or two, this climate change would be “largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop.”

In other words, large parts of Southeast Asia, eastern South America, western Australia, Southern Africa and northern Africa would simply turn to desert. Indeed, nearly a third of the planet could be in permanent extreme doubt by 2100, according to the U.K.’s Hadley Center.

And don’t expect rich countries to come to the rescue. In 2100, we’ll be dealing with the same catastrophes, as well as with over a billion environmental refugees fleeing flooded and uninhabitable lands.

Foundations will thus be among the critical enterprises needed to help the poorer countries by 2100. But after two years of study, the most visible climate change project that Gates is eyeing was the Canadian tar sands, as noted.

So why shouldn’t the Gates Foundation spend all of its vast resources on the myriad immediate problems developing countries face?

To begin with, it’s impossible to “fulfill the great human promise” for the 4 billion poorest people if we don’t avert the impending climate catastrophe. Second, Gates himself has acknowledged the inadequacy of an exclusive focus on concerns like childhood deaths. Consider what he wrote in his first annual letter about his work at the foundation, an open letter written at the urging of Buffet, who issues his own annual letter, after his donation doubled the foundation’s resources:

We thought it would be a shame to help save a child from rotav
irus if she would still be chronically undernourished and never be able to earn or save money … This is why the foundation added our Global Development Program to complement the Global Health group two years ago. We are working in areas like financial services, including savings and insurance.

Gates understands that simply saving lives is not a complete strategy. He understands that it is important to make investments that transcend immediate health concerns and focus on long-term well-being.

But Gates appears to only partially understand global warming. The foundation has made a massive investment in improving agriculture, with a goal of helping “150 million of the poorest farming households in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia triple their incomes by 2025.” Yet here are the only comments he offers on global warming in his open letter:

A big challenge in achieving this goal [of tripling incomes] is that climate change will be making weather conditions more extreme — triggering both droughts and floods — in the tropical areas where most of the poor live. The negative effects will fall almost entirely on the poor, even though they did not cause the problem. I hope that the increased public interest in reducing climate change will also increase the political will to provide aid that will help the poor mitigate its negative effects. It is interesting how often the impact of climate change is illustrated by talking about the problems the polar bears will face rather than the much greater number of poor people who will die unless significant investments are made to help them.

Yes, climate change causes weather conditions to get more extreme. But it fundamentally changes the climate, causing drought-prone subtropical zones to become deserts for 1,000 years or more. It causes inland glaciers, which act as a principal reservoir for water for 1 billion people in South Asia, to disappear entirely.

Apparently Gates hasn’t paid attention to how increasingly desperate the warnings of the leading climate scientists have become. If he had, he would know that advocates of climate action are most definitely not more concerned with polar bears than poor people. The United Nations Environment Program warns that the “scale of climate change as recorded in Northern Darfur is almost unprecedented, and its impacts are closely linked to conflict in the region, as desertification has added significantly to the stress on traditional agricultural and pastoral livelihoods.”

Compare Gates’ words to those of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who spent the last few years becoming an expert on both clean energy and climate science. Chu recently explained to the Los Angeles Times what happens to even a rich area when its relatively arid parts see a drop in precipitation and a severe loss in snowpack:

You’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California. When you lose 70 percent of your water in the mountains, I don’t see how agriculture can continue. California produces 20 percent of the agriculture in the United States. I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going.

America faces desertification from Kansas and Oklahoma starting in a few decades — conditions similar to the Dust Bowl, but lasting for a thousand years. “I don’t think the American public has grasped in its gut what could happen,” Chu said. “I’m hoping that the American people will wake up.”

Don’t get me wrong. It’s tremendous that Gates and Buffet have decided to use their vast wealth to help those least able to help themselves. And I certainly wouldn’t have them spend most of their money on clean energy and climate action. So how might Gates spend some of his Foundation’s money if he were to become a climate realist?

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I will expand on my recommendations in the Salon piece.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.