When our group was touring the Visitor Center of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, a sign caught my eye. The header read “Why Don’t We Fund Climate Change Research?” and underneath, this explanation was offered:
Climate change affects everyone—especially the world’s poorest people. But we don’t fund alternative energy sources because we believe the private marketplace is the best place for innovation. The chance to make a profit encourages entrepreneurs to invest in new solutions.
We focus on neglected problems created by climate change, like famine and drought.
My instinct was to challenge the premise of this argument that the private marketplace is the only way to fund innovative solutions. There are various mechanisms the government uses to incentivize corporations’ behavior, especially when the private sector is believed to not be fully internalizing the negative externalities of its activities.
The federal government heavily subsidizes solar panels and wind turbines to encourage businesses to invest in cleaner sources of energy and consumers to power their homes more efficiently. Some governments, including Canada’s and California’s, have imposed a carbon tax to disincentive coal usage and set strict renewable energy standards.
My point is that the public sector has demonstrated it can play a positive role in enabling the widespread use of clean energy to combat climate change. Perhaps the role of foundations is less defined, but surely there is more foundations can do than confront merely the symptoms of the problem.
One of our speakers worked as an analyst at the Gates Foundation for their Financial Services for the Poor program. He said that he had originally been hired by the foundation as a consultant to propose recommendations for the implementation of its microfinance efforts. He wrote his white paper using C.K. Prahaled’s book, Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits, a book Gates praised for its “intriguing blueprint for how to fight poverty with profitability.”
Clearly this is not the first cause that the Foundation has approached through the lens of private and public sector collaboration. In late 2016 it was announced that Bill Gates would head a $1 Billion clean energy venture fund. Though Gates has been celebrated for the leadership he showed in conceiving the fund and enlisting other wealthy investors, he has also been criticized for only focusing on investment in new technologies and not deployment of existing technologies. Perhaps the latter goal could be the focus of the Foundation.
I bring up these arguments with the recognition that I must soon decide my Schreyer Thesis topic. Perhaps crafting a plan for the Foundation to maximize its climate change involvement by advancing policy efforts throughout the world would be an interesting topic to explore.