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For better or worse, billionaires now guide climate policy

Bill Gates and other ultra-wealthy businessmen are steering the energy transition toward their worldview and favored technologies

Australian mining executive Andrew Forrest, now investing heavily in green hydrogen production, tours the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., in September. (Chet Strange for The Washington Post)

A previous version of this article had two different figures listed as Jeff Bezos's net worth. According to Forbes, his net worth on Dec. 12 was $113 billion. This version has been updated.

They are not elected to any office. But in the fight against global warming, the world’s billionaires have more influence than many heads of state.

As government struggles to move quickly to contain greenhouse gases, ultrawealthy investors and philanthropists are increasingly grabbing the reins, using their fortunes to guide the transition to cleaner energy toward their favored projects and market strategies.

They are men with household names like Jeff Bezos (net worth: $113 billion, according to Forbes), Mike Bloomberg ($77 billion) and Bill Gates ($106 billion), along with other billionaires who have lower profiles but equally large climate ambition. Their role as shadow policymakers has grown amid the evolution of the Biden administration climate agenda and the recent U.N. Climate Change Conference in Egypt, known as COP27, where their projects were on prominent display.

“This kind of hobbyist approach has become a big factor in the way we are addressing climate change,” said David Victor, co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at the University of California at San Diego. “Is this the ideal way to do it? No. The ideal way would be large publicly oriented programs. But that is not happening anywhere in the world.”

“In some cases the billionaires are making real progress,” Victor said.

It is a growing point of tension in the climate movement, as the pursuits of billionaires come under heightened scrutiny more broadly. Some of the recent financial and philanthropic misadventures of figures such as crypto entrepreneur Sam Bankman-Fried and Tesla founder Elon Musk are leading the public to ask whether these people are as well-equipped to solve the planet’s problems as they claim — or if they are using their influence to steer public policy toward vanity projects.

Many of these men have benefited from the same industrialization they are now purporting to save us from. In a recent report, Oxfam International found that 125 billionaires create more emissions through their investments and lifestyle than all of France.

“They need to pay up, and not as philanthropy,” said Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a climate activist from the Philippines. “What they are doing is not solidarity or aid. They should not be praised for this. Their greed has caused the global climate crisis.”

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But billionaires are nevertheless stepping into the void, holding themselves out as uniquely well positioned financially and intellectually to meet a challenge that they say has become too big for government, burnishing their legacies as planet-savers along the way.

Bill Gates-backed innovations are in line to receive potentially billions of dollars of U.S. subsidies and push the energy transition toward new hydrogen, nuclear and carbon-capture technologies after the climate package the Microsoft founder helped champion was signed by President Biden over the summer. The Bezos Earth Fund, created by the Amazon founder (and Washington Post owner), is a key partner to the U.S. government in pursuit of controversial carbon trading programs as a potential climate solution.

Mike Bloomberg looms so large over international climate efforts that he has been named a U.N. special envoy on climate. Bloomberg Philanthropies has invested more than $1.5 billion into programs that move countries away from fossil fuels.

Billionaires are so intertwined with climate policy now that when Bloomberg mounted a 2020 presidential bid, he could not claim the climate billionaire lane for himself among the candidates. He had to share it with Tom Steyer, a fellow Democratic hopeful who made his fortune running a hedge fund.

The climate billionaires are not always reliable partners. Bankman-Fried had big plans to push climate action forward. But nonprofits that were promised funds from him are now scrambling for cash after his crypto empire collapsed, triggering federal investigations.

Musk, whose leadership at Tesla propelled the electric-vehicle revolution, said as Biden took office that he was “super fired up” to help the new administration advance its climate agenda. He then soured on it, dumping on the president’s proposals to invest big in EV charging and clean energy infrastructure.

Claims that global warming is a hoax or exaggerated have surged on Twitter, alarming climate scientists, since Musk bought it in October and gutted its content moderation policies.

Nevertheless, billionaire engagement in climate action is growing as nations lean evermore on private companies and philanthropists willing to make big — often financially risky — bets on decarbonization.

In the United States, in particular, an inability to muster the political support for robust regulations that limit emissions and force companies to reshape their operations has the government looking to billionaires to help redirect the economy to where mainstream science says it needs to go.

“You can’t expect every government to do everything or be on top of every issue,” Marc Benioff, chief executive of Salesforce, an enterprise software company, said in an interview. Benioff, an environmental philanthropist himself, has a net worth of nearly $6 billion, according to Forbes. “There always have been philanthropists and this has been the role of philanthropy for generations: to help put a light on places where there is a darkness.”

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“We can take on more risk and assume more failure than commercial organizations or governments or NGOs,” he said.

Benioff and Bezos are at the forefront of a U.S. initiative unveiled at the Egypt summit that puts faith in carbon trading to help solve the climate crisis. Carbon trading allows companies to pay a fee to compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions.

The Bezos Earth Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation were the Biden administration partners in creating the program U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry touts as crucial to fighting warming. “No government in the world has enough money to get this job done,” Kerry said at the program’s unveiling. “We will only succeed with a massive infusion of private capital.”

The initiative got mixed reviews in Egypt at a time when many studies, including a major new one commissioned by the United Nations, find the credits are too often a sham, covering up rather than mitigating the corporate contribution to global warming.

Kerry and the Bezos Earth Fund assure the new program will bring integrity to carbon credits, but critics said the initiative reflected an American approach to climate change that is unworthy of the moment. The Grassroots Global Justice Alliance dismissed it as “a new veneer on the same old market-based carbon credit programs that have never reduced emissions at the source.”

Officials at the Earth Fund declined to comment. Bezos is poised to invest tens of billions of dollars in the fight against warming — beyond the $10 billion he has already committed to the Earth Fund — after telling CNN last month it will be a major focus of his plan to give away most of his fortune.

Billionaires have long been active in global warming policy. But Biden’s signature on two landmark pieces of climate legislation — the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act — cements their role as the government’s partner.

An Australian mining magnate wants to save the planet with green hydrogen

A clear example is Australian mining executive Andrew Forrest, a billionaire who says he personally met with Biden and the lawmaker key to pushing the Inflation Reduction Act through Congress, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) to lobby for it. Forrest’s vision for solving the climate crisis leans heavily on green hydrogen, a technology still being developed, for gutting emissions from big industrial operations that analysts had warned was too costly to be used widespread before the end of the decade.

The Act changed that with subsidies for the technology so lucrative that Forrest, who placed big bets on it, is no longer an eccentric outlier in the quest to decarbonize heavy industry. The U.S. government has effectively anointed the billionaire chief executive of the Fortescue Metals Group — which creates more greenhouse gas emissions than many small countries — a key steward of that transition.

“It’s very hard for environmentalists to say this is a bad thing, even though our company is everything they love to hate,” Forrest said in an interview. “The company is investing in these technologies and creating massive green energy sites around the world, all committed as a galloping herd to help send the world green.”

Forrest, one of the richest men in Australia, will have stiff competition in the race to scale up green hydrogen from the richest man in India, billionaire Mukesh Ambani, who is leaning on Indian incentives to turn that country into a hub for the technology.

But no billionaire is more influential in charting the technological course of the transition than Gates, whose Breakthrough Energy organization is investing billions of dollars in dozens of next-generation clean-tech companies.

Many of them would fit right into sci-fi texts, making things like lab-cultivated meat, giant machines that vacuum carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and traveling wave nuclear reactors which create “a slow-moving chain reaction of concentric waves of fission” and use uranium 30 times more efficiently than current nuclear power technology. Another company Gates backs, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, is chasing fusion technology it hopes could ultimately provide limitless clean energy with almost zero pollution. “One glass of water will provide enough fusion fuel for one person’s lifetime,” the company predicts on its website. Bezos also invests in fusion.

The companies Breakthrough invests in are particularly well suited to claim lucrative subsidies in the act, which Gates aggressively lobbied lawmakers to pass. The billionaire says he will plow his investment profits back into climate work.

Mike Boots, executive vice president of Breakthrough, said in an email that although government’s role in confronting climate change is crucial, “companies, investors, and philanthropists must do more to ensure climate solutions can quickly go from breakthroughs in a lab to affordable solutions the entire world can access.”

Yet not everyone is pleased to see government following the lead of Gates on some investments, such as technologies that aim to capture carbon dioxide emitted by factories, vehicles, and agriculture operations and bury it.

“Carbon capture and storage is not a climate solution,” said Julia Levin, national climate program manager at Environmental Defense, a Canadian nonprofit. “Despite decades of research, billions of dollars of investment, carbon capture’s track record is of failure after expensive failure.”

Public money is getting poured into the technology, she said during a panel at the U.N. summit, because “governments are listening to the wrong people.”

Mikaela Loach also argued that the wrong people are charting the course for confronting climate change, at a forum in September in New York where the British climate activist said billionaires should not exist. The forum was hosted by the Gates Foundation, which paid Loach to speak. (She says she donated the fee to charity.)

“I could only show up in that space if I challenged it,” Loach wrote on Twitter.

She’s not the only billionaire-wary activist finding themselves in the climate billionaire orbit, in a sign of just how wide it has grown. Among the organizations that have received millions of dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is Oxfam — the same group calling out billionaires, including Gates, for the climate damage they are causing.

Tatiana Schlossberg in New York contributed to this report.