How Bill Gates and Peabody Energy Share Vision For Coal Powered Future Through Views of Bjorn Lomborg

No doubt a few eyebrows were raised and possibly some palms smashed against faces earlier this year when the richest person on the planet came out in qualified support of policies to burn massive amounts of coal in the developing world.

In June, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates took to his GatesNotes blog to promote the views of Danish political scientist Dr Bjorn Lomborg.

Gates opined that “as we push to get serious about confronting climate change” it was wrong for rich countries to tell developing countries that they should cut back on burning fossil fuels. He wrote:

For one thing, poor countries represent a small part of the carbon-emissions problem. And they desperately need cheap sources of energy now to fuel the economic growth that lifts families out of poverty. They can’t afford today’s expensive clean energy solutions, and we can’t expect them wait for the technology to get cheaper.

Gates urged people to consider the view of Lomborg and his think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus CenterAlongside the blog post were two “GatesNotes” branded videos where Lomborg presented his arguments. 

In the videos Lomborg said it was “hypocritical” for the developed world to try and deny poor countries access to fossil fuels when so much of the developed world is still fueled on them. Lomborg also linked the issue of reducing the impacts of indoor air pollution to increasing use of fossil fuels. 

In the video, Lomborg said:

The solution to indoor air pollution is very, very simple. It’s getting people access to modern energy and typically that’s electricity and that’s going to mean fossil fuels for those three billion people who don’t have access. We have a very clear moral imperative to make sure that people don’t cook with dirty fuels and make sure those people get out of poverty and have a decent life.

The World Health Organization says indoor air pollution caused by the burning of fuels like wood, dung and coal (Lomborg didn’t mention coal) kills about four million people a year.

While Lomborg argued that the “simple” solution to indoor air pollution is access to coal-powered electricity, the more immediate solution is access to cleaner-burning cooking stoves, according to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

Radha Muthia, the executive director of the alliance, wrote to the New York Times in December last year after the newspaper had published a column where Lomborg had again argued that while more efficient cooking stoves “could help” what the world really needed were “low cost fossil fuels” – chiefly, coal.

Muthia wrote that “fossil fuels are not the only solution” and that the “stakes are too high” to rest on Lomborg’s assumption.

Lomborg the Contrarian Favourite

Lomborg is a favourite for climate science contrarians and deniers because he has consistently claimed that the economic impacts of human-caused climate change are positive and will remain so until towards the end of this century.

As I have written in The Guardian, in my view Lomborg manages to sustain this position by low-balling estimates of climate impacts and underplaying the disproportionately negative effects of climate change on poor countries.

But DeSmogBlog has discovered that Bill Gates’ support for Lomborg likely extends beyond a qualified endorsement on a blog and the production of two slick videos. What's more, Gates now curiously joins America's biggest coal company, Peabody Energy, on a list of those happy to provide a forum for Lomborg's controversial and risky view of the future. 

New Venture Fund

The New Venture Fund is a Washington DC-based charity that works with donors to fund and create major projects “to realize social and environmental change”.

An NVF associate confirmed to DeSmogBlog that the fund had donated $250,000 in 2014 to the Copenhagen Consensus Center’s Post-2015 Consensus Project.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave $10.6 million to the New Venture Fund (NVF) in 2014 for “global policy and advocacy” projects and many millions more for education projects.

The Gates Foundation has confirmed to DeSmogBlog that Lomborg had applied to the organisation for funds and that the foundation had referred Lomborg on to the New Venture Fund.

A Gates foundation spokesperson said: “The foundation provides New Venture Fund with guidelines, and New Venture Fund makes all funding decisions for individual grant applications that they receive. 

We can confirm that Dr. Lomborg was referred by the foundation to NVF. Any subsequent decision to fund Dr. Lomborg or the Copenhagen Consensus Center would have been made by NVF.”

In my opinion, the fact that Lomborg went to the NVF with a referral under his arm from the foundation of the world’s richest person would surely have held some sway, especially when considering how the Gates Foundation is one of NVF's major benefactors.

A previous DeSmogBlog report into the funding of Lomborg’s think tank found only a small slice of its income could be traced by searching US tax forms. DeSmogBlog found that of the $4.3 million of donations accepted since the CCC was registered in the US in 2008, only about $520,000 was publicly declared.

The CCC says it does not accept money from the fossil fuel industry and that donations do not influence its research. The CCC has carried out several projects where it has ranked global issues in order of priority and has consistently placed efforts to cut fossil fuel emissions close to the bottom.

The CCC’s Post-2015 Consensus project, which benefitted from the NVF grant, has already begun to release reports on some of the major global issues – including climate change and energy. 

The project is focused on influencing the development of the United Nation’s next set of goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals which run out next year and, by extension, will influence the destination of billions of dollars in aid money over the coming decades.

On energy, the CCC says that a goal to double the amount of renewable energy being used around the world is “ineffective” but does advocate for the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies.

On climate change, the Copenhagen Center analysis essentially repeats a long-held view from Lomborg that the only money worth spending on climate is in research and development on “green energy” to make it cheaper. (Analysts point out that existing renewable energy technologies have been on a rapid cost reduction curve for many years.)

The CCC’s climate analysis says any targets focused on cutting emissions or reducing the amount of greenhouse gases per unit of economic output (carbon intensity) are also ineffective. Money should be spent on ways to adapt to the impacts of climate change instead, it says.

Peabody Energy and Energy Poverty

Lomborg’s statements on energy poverty cover similar ground to those being pushed by Peabody Energy, America’s largest coal company, in its “Advanced Energy for Life” campaign.

The campaign, developed by PR company Burson-Marsteller, is an attempt by Peabody to hijack the real issue of energy poverty in the developing world in the interests of selling more coal.

Peabody has been using its PR strategy to try and influence upcoming G20 talks in Brisbane in November. 

Bjorn Lomborg will be flying to Brisbane to appear at a Peabody Energy-sponsored event on November 12, just three days before world leaders gather in the city for the G20 leaders summit.

The “Global Café” event – organised by the city’s promotional arm Brisbane Marketing – is tagged as a look at “Powering Future Economies” and has Peabody as its sole main sponsor.

Yet neither Brisbane Marketing, the Copenhagen Consensus Center or Peabody itself was willing to say if the coal company had made a request for Lomborg to attend.

A Brisbane Marketing spokesperson told DeSmogBlog it was “not appropriate” to comment on who referred individual speakers, adding: “Brisbane Marketing sought speaker recommendations from a wide group of experts and stakeholders including event sponsors. All speakers have been judged on their merits and the contribution they will be able to make to the debate at the Global Cafe.”

A Peabody Energy spokesperson also declined to state how much the coal company had paid to sponsor the event or if it had any role in either recommending or requesting that Dr Lomborg appear.

The spokesperson added: “Peabody looks forward to a dialogue about the urgent need to address energy poverty at a unique thought leadership event in our Australian headquarters city. As a sponsor of the event, Peabody is indirectly sponsoring a broad range of speakers and would expect our funding to support a variety of views.”

DeSmogBlog asked the Copenhagen Consensus Center if Peabody had requested Lomborg’s attendance.

Roland Mathiasson
, Executive Vice President at the 
Copenhagen Consensus Center, said the think tank “receives 100s of requests for speaking engagements for Dr Lomborg from different speaking agencies, universities and conference organizers all over the world,” but the center “does not discriminate between organizers, and their sponsors”.

He said a standard speaking engagement contract stated that Lomborg's message “will in no way be changed or modified”.

He said the center was paying Lomborg’s expenses but did not respond when DeSmogBlog asked if Lomborg or the center would receive a fee for his appearance.

Appearing alongside Lomborg will be John Connor, CEO of The Climate Institute which is notably part of a group of NGOs advocating for more investment and development of carbon capture and storage technologies.

Connor told DeSmogBlog that he considers Peabody’s “energy poverty” campaign to be an “extremely thin veneer” that lacks any credible evidence.

As for Bill Gates, the world’s richest man now curiously stands alongside America’s biggest coal company as a supporter of the views of Bjorn Lomborg that a key to lifting the world’s poorest from poverty is through burning coal. 

But with coal as the world’s biggest contributor to human-caused climate change, it seems to be an extraordinarily high stakes game with the world's poorest being turned into gambling chips.