Welcome to climate’s Billionaire Bois Club

Climate Voices

Welcome to climate’s Billionaire Bois Club

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Men with deep pockets are skewing climate policy. The fate of the world shouldn’t be in their hands.

The climate discourse is rife with men jockeying for position — you’ve got yoursad bois,” with their apocalyptic pronouncements, and your “glad bois” (a.k.a. debate-me bros) with the message that climate change isn’t really so bad and we can adapt our way out of it. You’ve got men who think population is the problem and men who think population is the solution. And of course, there are always the old school climate-denier dudes. 

All have made their mark on the story of climate change, but the far more influential climate boys are the billionaire bois, also known as Space Karens, carbon bros — take your pick. In the Billionaire Bois Club, Bill Gates is swinging big on nuclear and carbon capture, and Elon Musk is dropping $100 million on carbon capture. While Jeff Bezos is bolstering mostly long-standing environmental organizations with his $10 billion Earth Fund, he’s also investing in other companies, including one that does carbon capture from cement production with Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund. Bezos and Musk also have their space escape hatches

The Silicon Valley climate club is certainly not the first generation of elites to use philanthropy to simultaneously dodge taxes and set agendas, but they are potentially the most dangerous. Which is not a judgment about the promise of carbon capture so much as an indictment of society’s willingness to let billionaires decide our fate at a time when the window of opportunity is closing and bad decisions will hurt for centuries.

The Silicon Valley climate club is certainly not the first generation of elites to use philanthropy to simultaneously dodge taxes and set agendas, but they are potentially the most dangerous.

The problem with wealthy people donating to pet causes is that it tips the scales in one direction or another. And while in the art world, that might spur particular trends or keep certain types of artists out of museums, on climate the fate of the human species hangs in the balance, so leaving it up to the whims of rich people seems that much more ridiculous. These investments chart a course on climate that may or may not be informed by science — and one that is fundamentally undemocratic. It also applies the exact same mindset and structure that created catastrophic climate change in the first place to solving the problem, namely, putting a bunch of rich white guys in charge and allowing them to pick the “solutions” that best preserve their wealth and power. 

Instead of investing in carbon capture, Amazon, for example, could stop selling services to oil and gas companies. Musk could create a prize for designing a sustainable lithium supply chain. Gates could encourage Microsoft to stop using its tech to enable oil companies to drill more and faster. All of them could pay more in taxes and let scientific consensus chart the course.

Instead of investing in carbon capture, Amazon, for example, could stop selling services to oil and gas companies.

Because tech billionaires have opted to pick their own winners on climate, they have already encouraged a turn toward carbon capture tech across both government and society. Gates’ investments helped spur Amazon’s and now Musk’s. There will no doubt be more. In parallel, oil companies have shifted their attention to carbon capture as well, in part because it could help them justify continued carbon emissions for a while longer and in part because one of the first applications of carbon capture tech is enhanced oil recovery. In short, they inject CO2 into the ground to help grab more oil out, a climate miracle! With all that private sector investment, now the government has come around to making carbon capture a priority too. 

And don’t get me wrong, that may well be a good path to be on. My problem isn’t with carbon capture tech, that’s another story. My problem is that we didn’t come to this priority because that’s where the science and research led. We came to it because billionaires said so. Climate change is, at its root, a power problem, and I’m not talking about energy sources. It’s the power structure, not the power source. A structure that enables a few people and companies to make decisions that condemn the entire human race to catastrophe is flawed to the core. Using that same structure to solve the problem is destined to fail, and we don’t have time to learn that lesson once again. 

Written by

Amy Westervelt

Amy Westervelt is a longtime climate journalist who also runs the climate-focused podcast network Critical Frequency, which produces and distributes Drilled, Hot Take, Inherited and more.