Whether you like it or not, billionaire philanthropy exists. And if it’s going to keep existing, then we’d probably do well to figure out how donors’ resources can most effectively tackle our world’s biggest problems.
That includes our most urgent problem of all: climate change.
Some megadonors are already trying to help us avert the climate crisis. Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, and Tom Steyer, the environmental philanthropist turned presidential candidate, have each donated millions to the cause. So have major foundations like the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. According to the Open Philanthropy Project, “overall American philanthropic funding for climate change activities appears to be on the order of several hundred million dollars per year.”
But are the wealthy spending their money well? Are the billions they’re donating going to the best climate change causes? Should a billionaire who cares deeply about the climate sink money into developing clean energy technologies, say, or are they better off trying to get a Democrat elected president?
To get some insight into this, I reached out to nine top climate experts — scientists, activists, policy entrepreneurs — in the US and asked them to let their imaginations run loose: Pretend you’re a billionaire. What would be the most effective way to spend your fortune to fix climate change?
We wanted to get a wide range of views, from the familiar to some on the margins of the conversation. I got an incredible array of responses. Some experts are convinced that nuclear power is the solution; others are convinced that’s too dangerous. The same goes for solar geoengineering, a controversial idea that involves injecting aerosols into the high atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space and make for a cooler planet.
Other experts have more out-of-the-box ideas. One proposes making his home state, Kansas, into a poster child for wind-generated electricity. Another suggests building a nuclear reactor in her own backyard.
Still others say it’s most effective to focus their billions not on the technologies that could mitigate global warming but on the social and political conditions that would enable those technologies to take root: Build a zeitgeist-changing climate movement. Educate girls and empower women. Prioritize those who are most vulnerable to climate change, like indigenous communities and people of color. Get Democrats elected to Congress — and to the presidency.
The experts didn’t arrive at anything like a consensus, but their creative ideas can help us think through our options. (That’s important, because sometimes climate policies with the most potential are the most neglected.) Their responses, edited for clarity and length, are below.
Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and co-founder of 350.org
I’d spend the money helping build the climate movement. My logic goes like this: We’ve got some solutions available already but we’re not deploying at anything like the speed we need — that’s the ongoing power of the fossil fuel industry at work. The only way to break that power and change the politics of climate is to build a countervailing power. It’s happening now, but it needs to happen quicker.
And truthfully, it doesn’t take a billion dollars. Look at the amount of good Greta Thunberg and her young colleagues have done while barely spending a nickel. Money would help, but really, we need all the non-billionaires out there just to join in. Our job — and it’s the key job — is to change the zeitgeist, people’s sense of what’s normal and natural and obvious. If we do that, all else will follow.
Jessica Lovering, energy program director, the Breakthrough Institute
Realistically, if I’m trying to use my money to get the most gains for climate, I’d set up a competitive prize to demonstrate small, factory-produced nuclear reactors. Companies would need to demonstrate that their design met a certain list of safety and security conditions, but once they’d qualified, I’d select a few diverse designs and fund the first build for each.
I’d expect some of these companies to fail or some of the concepts to prove not worth pursuing, but that’s why a diversity of designs is needed. To maximize innovation and learning effects, my fund could provide low-cost financing to qualified designs, and then use the revenue to fund more demonstrations later on. There are already five companies beginning pre-application activities with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the US, so there should be several options to choose from.
However, if I was more of an eccentric billionaire, I might just purchase my own micro nuclear reactor and have it built in my backyard. Even at a first-of-a-kind cost double today’s nuclear reactors, a two-megawatt reactor would only cost roughly $30 million. I’d want to set up a power purchase agreement with the local utility or community to make sure the electricity (enough for about 2,000 homes) would get used. But the larger goal would be to demonstrate the technology in my literal backyard, hopefully opening up the site to tours that would get people familiar with the concept and the benefits of small, community-sized nuclear power.
Nuclear power is often ignored in the climate agenda, yet small and advanced nuclear technologies have the potential to accelerate clean energy deployment while complementing variable renewable energy.
Ashok Gupta, senior energy economist, Natural Resources Defense Council
If I had $1 billion to invest to address climate change, I’d focus on making the state of Kansas, where I currently live, into a model state for clean energy. One advantage of choosing Kansas is that it’s got the highest percentage of wind-generated electricity. I’d build on this to help make the case for climate solutions in a more conservative part of the country and to ramp up political support for ongoing action at the local, state, and national level.
The focus of the investments would be on what can be done over the next five years to achieve the 2025 Paris targets, and on solutions that are available today that are not being scaled up fast enough. The investments would also help reduce market risks associated with transitions. And they’d include support for local partners in order to build sustained relationships on the ground necessary for the long journey.
To be specific, I’d invest 20 percent of my $1 billion to accelerate the transition to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2025 with a focus on storage; 10 percent to advance electrification of space and water heating in buildings; 10 percent to incentivize investments in energy efficiency and clean energy in affordable housing; 20 percent to promote electric vehicle usage and distributed generation that are integrated with policies that promote better use of electric grid; 20 percent for efforts in the agricultural sector to enhance carbon sequestration; and 20 percent for partners on the ground, from community colleges to religious institutions to elected leaders.
Alan Robock, environmental science professor, Rutgers University
I always say it’s more important to change your leaders than to change your lightbulbs. We need government action, both in regulations and in incentives. The clear solution is a gradually increasing carbon tax, and the best one would be a fee and dividend scheme, where all the money collected would be returned to each citizen equally so that if you emit less than the average carbon dioxide, you would earn money each year.
If this were implemented and people could plan on it, it would be a huge incentive to both create technology that would allow us to live our lives without emitting fossil fuels and to use that technology and not emit carbon dioxide.
The problem is the selfish fossil fuel industry, which has captured the Republican Party and the White House. So I would spend my billion dollars getting Democrats elected to Congress and the presidency. They would then enact the policies we need.
Carbon dioxide removal (one flavor of geoengineering) will also be needed, and we need research on that to make it cheaper. A price on carbon will accelerate this. Solar radiation management (the other flavor of geoengineering) needs more research, but for now it looks too risky to ever use.
We also need more work on adaptation to the inevitable global warming that is coming. But we can rapidly transition to an energy system powered by the wind and sun, with a robust grid and better energy storage, which will limit the global warming we’ll see in our future. Nuclear power is too expensive and dangerous, and we don’t need it.
Kate Marvel, associate climate research scientist, Columbia University and NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
If I were a billionaire, I would try to stop being one as soon as possible by investing everything in girls’ schools and women’s leadership.
Even though there are huge differences in emissions per capita across different countries, decreasing population growth means fewer emitters. Historically, when girls are educated and women have economic opportunities and full control over their reproductive choices, fertility rates fall. That’s why the nonprofit Project Drawdown has named family planning and educating girls among its top solutions for climate change.
But as a scientist, I also know that women’s contributions are so much more important than demography. There is no silver bullet for climate change — there’s not even a silver buckshot. Confronting climate change will take constant innovation, leadership, creativity, and courage at every level of government, in the private sector, and in science and technology. We can’t afford to waste the talents of half the population.
Kerry Emanuel, atmospheric science professor, MIT
I would invest heavily in Generation IV fission reactors [new high-temperature, fuel-efficient reactors expected to be deployed in the 2030s]. France, Sweden, Switzerland, and Belgium were able to switch to nearly carbon-free electricity in less than a dozen years and they did so using combinations of hydro and nuclear power. By contrast, only a handful of small nations, like Denmark, have been able to partially replace fossil fuel-based electricity with solar and wind, and they rely heavily on energy from neighboring countries to fill in when the wind stops blowing and the sun is not shining. Nuclear is the only option for providing highly reliable, carbon-free electricity 24/7.
Nuclear is the safest form of energy production we have ever developed. Only one accident has led to significant loss of life from radiation, and that was Chernobyl, a plant that had no containment building. We will never build another plant of that design. Even with that accident included, nuclear has the lowest mortality per kilowatt hour of generation.
The Generation IV reactors will be even safer. Waste disposal is a sociopolitical issue, not a technical problem. And while upfront capital costs are large, lifetime costs are small, so nuclear is an attractive investment for those with less-than-tiny attention spans.
We are standing on the sidelines while China and Russia are exporting nuclear power plants, aiming to capture a potential $6 trillion annual energy market. So if I were a billionaire, I would invest heavily in a nuclear marketing campaign to counter the flow of disinformation about nuclear power emanating from the fossil fuel industry and some environmental groups. This is the only viable route to decarbonizing our economy and stopping global warming.
Adrienne Hollis, senior climate justice and health scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists
I’d spend my money on two focus areas: community-building and resiliency opportunities. The majority of environmental justice and frontline communities lack the capacity to address climate change — to ensure that people vote, to engage in meetings that allow them to share approaches that have been successful at the state and local level, to formulate actions together. I’d develop funding mechanisms that would allow community organizations not just to survive but to thrive.
And I would assist them in actions they identify that will make them resilient in the face of climate change. That includes free access to renewable energy opportunities and assistance for low-income residents with their energy needs so that they won’t have to exist at the whim of the electric companies or live under the constant threat of having their power interrupted, particularly during times of extreme weather. I’d assist in repairing and updating infrastructure, and relocating communities away from flood-prone areas or away from hazardous facilities where existing conditions are exacerbated by climate change.
Kelly Wanser, principal director, Marine Cloud Brightening Project
Right now, we have slow-moving solutions to a fast-moving problem. Climate impacts are outpacing most predictions, with potentially devastating effects over the next 10-30 years. The massive reduction in emissions required to arrest global warming involves industrial transformations that generally take 50 years or more, while methods for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are still in development and may take decades to scale.
US and UK scientific assessments found that the most viable way to reduce warming within a decade or two is to slightly increase the reflection of sunlight from the atmosphere by dispersing natural particles in the stratosphere or into ocean clouds. This process, known as solar climate intervention or geoengineering, has proven controversial. Fears and misperceptions have inhibited funding such that today the global level of investment in this research is effectively zero.
But modest investment in technology development, model simulations, and small-scale experiments could help determine whether these are potential emergency options or too dangerous to consider. Funding from courageous philanthropists could catalyze geoengineering innovation and provide a critical bridge to government efforts, and very possibly to a safe future.
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, North America director, 350.org
If I were a billionaire, I would first and foremost expect a hefty tax on my gross income that would allow the majority of Americans to live healthy and safe lives.
One of the first places this financing should go is toward the Green New Deal, prioritizing people of color, indigenous people, and workers who are transitioning away from the fossil fuel industry. This means fighting to get climate reparations into the hands of impacted communities, fully funding current fossil fuel workers’ pension funds, and more.
In addition to the Green New Deal, I would support litigation to hold fossil fuel executives accountable for their destruction and ensure the damages sought go toward the most vulnerable communities. It’s time to give the resources to those who need them most.
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