Why Does the Gates Foundation Not Fund Climate Change Research?

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.

One Response to Why Does the Gates Foundation Not Fund Climate Change Research?

  1. Sumit Pareek March 25, 2017 at 9:04 PM #

    Hi zac5089,

    Wow, what a concept. I’m actually v glad I came across this post because the intersecting topics are really interesting to me. I’m taking a chemical engineering class that discusses energy technologies (both new and existing, their impact, the extent of their survival, etc), and my thesis is related to using effective collaboration to combat malaria prevention through global health and built environment design and construction (through an engineering standpoint). I’m using the Gates Foundation as a case study, so this post actually had me thinking!

    From a global health perspective, I think the investment into new and emerging technologies is more significant than those existing because the creation of a sustainable, long-term technology require dynamic communication. I say dynamic because the problems associated with global health are consistently emerging, which require new scientific research, on-the-field testing, and culturally-appropriate design for success. So, in that manner, investing in new solutions is definitely the way to go.

    From an energy engineering perspective, the heavy increased funding into existing over new (and vice versa) uses of technology definitely seems spotty. Based on what I have learned, it seems like the major proven energy reserves may not last after 25 years, but those unproven (not proven to be physically available yet) could last 20 times more. So, it seems profitable to be investing in tweaking current technologies so that these numbers increase. In fact, alternative resources seem to all have their own respective problems (like solar and wind turbines that you mentioned) as well as incoming types of methods like innovative fuel cells, ocean energy, and electric power – all having common issues with scalability from cost or design. If money is to be invested into solving those two problems, the idea seems more valuable.

    I think that global health organizations as impactful as Gates must rely heavily on the structure of their mission statement, because they often fall back to their “strategic priorities,” (http://www.gatesfoundation.org/How-We-Work – nice site for possible thesis topic excursion). Since they first commit to a direct area of social and medical need, it makes sense that the Gates Foundation would stick to this rule when approving one grant over another. This is why it would be reasonable to tackle the symptoms of the problem you mentioned because it more accurately falls under their mission for direct impact. Considering they invest in NGOs, universities, research institutions, and other private organizations, it seems interesting that public/private sector collaboration isn’t more apparent.

    If you’re still reading, this was really interesting! This comment is longer than some of our peers’ actual blog posts, so my bad for that. But definitely my favorite informative blog to-date.

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar