09 Dec Bill Gates Takes On Climate Change With Nudges and a Powerful Rolodex
LE BOURGET, France — When Bill Gates arrived at the Élysée Palace to meet the French president François Hollande and other officials in June, he brought a message.
Mr. Gates told Mr. Hollande that energy innovation needed to be a top agenda item at the climate change conference now taking place in this airport suburb outside Paris. For years, Mr. Gates had prodded governments to increase spending on research and development of clean technologies. He had sunk $1 billion of his own fortune into start-ups working on new kinds of batteries and nuclear reactors.
“Honestly, I’ve been a bit surprised that the climate talks historically haven’t had R.&D. on the agenda in any way, shape or form,” Mr. Gates, 60, said in an interview last week on the sidelines of the summit meeting, which ends on Friday.
The June tête-à-tête helped accelerate a sequence of events that led to one of the biggest public-private partnerships to tackle climate change, unveiled at the conference. Mr. Gates, who made billions from Microsoft before remaking himself as a philanthropist, was a linchpin of the effort, acting as an envoy between the worlds of business and policy.
His role in sealing the deal offers a peek into how the inner circles of governments and industry intersect. It also underscores how a handful of the world’s wealthiest people can stand with heads of state to spotlight a social, economic and policy issue on the global stage. For Mr. Gates, the world’s richest person and co-chairman of the biggest private foundation, it is another sign of how his vast foreign aid operation and status as a technology icon have turned him into a uniquely influential global diplomat.
Mr. Gates was drawn into the effort after the June meeting with Mr. Hollande and separate discussions with White House staff members in the summer. Mr. Hollande and President Obama saw the tech mogul as a potential catalyst for achieving broad political and diplomatic goals at the climate conference. In particular, Mr. Gates’s renown in India as a tech founder and philanthropist gave the French and American governments a key emissary to get the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, on board with their climate goals.
Mr. Hollande and Mr. Obama agreed to work with Mr. Gates to assemble a coalition of governments to double their spending on energy research and development. For added heft, Mr. Gates volunteered to organize a group of billionaires to fund clean-technology start-ups. He reached out to his extensive network, including Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Jack Ma of Alibaba and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, all of whom agreed to participate.