Billionaires to the rescue? No thanks

With our billionaire overlords queueing up to be the first into space or to colonise some real estate on Mars, I thought it was an opportune moment to file a piece in the Business Post taking a cold look at the phenomenon that a diet of movies has prepared us all for: the benign hyper-rich swooping in to save the world. After all, what could possibly go wrong? If that sounds like the ultimate fiction, then grab your popcorn and read on…

HEROES WITH super powers have long been a staple of Hollywood movies. The actual super power some, such as Iron Man and Batman, possess is extreme wealth. These billionaire playboy vigilantes aim to save the world with ingenious, expensive gadgets.

Life now appears to be imitating art with the emergence of not one but three actual billionaire would-be superheroes, this time on the most exciting quest of all: to rescue Earth from the ravages of climate chaos.

The motley cast, comprising Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Mars-bound entrepreneur Elon Musk have all pitched in some cash and pinned their reputations on finding solutions to the global climate crisis.

Gates’ recently published book, “How to avoid a climate disaster” attracted massive media attention, placing the author at the centre of the global debate on possible solutions. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently added climate change as a priority to its nearly $50 billion fund.

Jeff Bezos has set up the eponymous Bezos Earth Fund, with a budget of $10 billion, which he plans to disburse on climate-related projects by 2030. He says it will support “any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world”. This commitment sits a little uneasily with moves by Amazon last year to fire employees for speaking out on environmental issues.

Meanwhile, Tesla founder Elon Musk has pitched up a more modest $100 million to fund a competition to develop novel carbon-reduction technologies, and is a vocal supporter of a carbon tax to tackle what he calls an “unpriced externality”, i.e. the uncontrolled dumping of emissions into the atmosphere.

So, can the billionaire boys’ club really succeed on climate where even sovereign states have failed? One reason many states have struggled to respond is dwindling tax revenues due to widespread tax avoidance by the hyper-rich. Amazon filed record sales in Europe last year of €43.8 billion, but paid no corporation tax whatever on this income.

A 2019 investigation found that six Silicon Valley tech giants had collectively avoided over $100 billion in taxes, with Amazon top of the list. In the US, the share of corporate income tax as a percentage of GDP has plunged from around six per cent in 1950 to barely one per cent last year.

But surely billionaire philanthropy can at least to some extent offset their reluctance to contribute to the general tax funding that allows governments pay for schools, healthcare, public services, libraries, policing and infrastructure? The best advice here may be to beware of geeks bearing gifts.

In her book “No such thing as a free gift”, author Linsey McGoey uses the term “philanthrocapitalism” to describe the core motivation at play. “The new philanthropists are increasingly proud, triumphant even, about the private economic fortunes to be made through embracing philanthrocapitalism. Not only is it no longer necessary to ‘disguise’ or minimise self-interest; self-interest is championed as the best rationale for helping others”, according to McGoey.

Aside from motivation, there is also the key issue of competence. Bill Gates admits he only twigged climate change as an issue in 2006. He is not a climate expert, in any sense of the word, and specialists have questioned many of the “solutions” he promotes.

Gates places most of his hopes in gee-whizz future techno-fixes, including entirely untested and potentially cataclysmic global geoengineering projects, while being oddly dismissive both of renewable energy and of the impact of climate activists like Greta Thunberg in drawing attention to the crisis.

Gates admits to having no political solution to climate change, a stance ridiculed by prominent climatologist Prof Michael Mann. He wrote of Gates: “the politics are the problem, buddy. If you don’t have a prescription of how to solve that, then you don’t have a solution”.

Irrespective of their particular pet technologies, what all the new billionaire climate advocates have in common is their staunch defence of the status quo – a world of extremes, where the 26 richest people own as many assets as the 3.8 billion comprising the poorer half of the global population.

And over the last year, as the number living in poverty doubled to over 500 million worldwide due to the covid pandemic, the wealth of the world’s 2,365 billionaires ballooned by an astonishing $4 trillion, or 54 per cent.

The notion that billionaires can, without dismantling the rigged system that allows them to vacuum up an ever increasing share of the world’s wealth and resources, lead us towards climate salvation is further challenged by the fact that the richest one per cent of the world’s population produce more carbon emissions than the poorest 50 per cent.

Over the last quarter century, emissions from the wealthy elites have increased at three times the rate of the world’s poorest. As influential economist Thomas Piketty noted: “A drastic reduction in the purchasing power of the richest would in itself have a substantial impact on the reduction of emissions at global level”.

The philanthropic forays of the world’s super-rich have also proved useful in laundering their reputations. In the 1990s, Bill Gates was widely portrayed as an evil tech villain and monopolist. His Gates Foundation has since disbursed some $250 million in grants to a wide range of media outlets.

According to investigative reporter Tim Schwab, the Gates Foundation “has long used its charitable giving to shape the public discourse on everything from global health to education to agriculture”. And, more recently, climate change.

“Insofar as journalists are supposed to scrutinize wealth and power, Gates should probably be one of the most investigated people on earth – not the most admired”, Schwab added.

The apparent philanthropic largesse of Bezos, Gates et al. may serve to discourage media and environmental NGO beneficiaries from asking awkward questions about gross inequality and its oversized role in fuelling the climate crisis.

As public trust in both politics and society itself falters, it is perhaps no surprise to see the rise of the cult of charismatic billionaires whose genius, pluck and benevolence will magically solve our greatest crises, as corrupt politicians bicker and dither. This beguilingly attractive idea is in reality the ultimate fiction.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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