Bill Gates wants you to know he really cares about climate change. Last month the philanthropic foundation he runs with his wife Melinda added climate and gender equality to its top priorities. “Climate change is one of the most difficult challenges the world has ever taken on,” Gates explained at the time. “But I believe we can avoid a climate catastrophe if we take steps now to reduce emissions and find ways to adapt to a warmer world.”
The world’s second richest man, whose net worth is around $105 billion according to Forbes, is currently working on a book called How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, which comes out next February. And Gates is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on technologies like a solar oven that creates cement, steel and glass without releasing emissions. When people talk about billionaires who have used their wealth to benefit humanity, Gates is usually at the top of the list, and he's using his fortune to support the battle against the climate crisis.
But the Microsoft co-founder has also profited from some of the world’s dirtiest fossil fuels. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust owns $11 billion worth of shares in Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate run by his friend Warren Buffett, whose investments in coal-burning utilities and other polluting activities in 2018 released emissions equivalent to burning 21 billion gallons of gasoline, according to Bloomberg.
The Gates Foundation Trust also owns 17 million shares—worth $1.54 billion as of February—of Canadian National Railway Company, which in recent years has become a major transporter of oil from Canada’s tar sands, one of the world’s most climate-damaging oil sources. The Gates Foundation declined to comment about how these investment decisions, which are made by Gates’ wealth manager Michael Larson, fit with the billionaire’s goal of fighting the climate emergency, directing VICE to contact Gates' investment company, which did not respond.
“It’s frustrating to me when I see Bill Gates held up as this hero of climate change when you know that he’s benefitting from all of these investments that are directly contributing to climate change,” said Justin Mikulka, a contributor to the climate outlet Desmog and author of Bomb Trains, about the oil-by-rail industry Gates’ money helps support.
Gates, via his foundation’s trust, has a portion of his vast fortune invested in 14 publicly traded companies. Of those, the largest investment by far is in Berkshire Hathaway, which is roughly 50 percent of the trust’s portfolio. The Gates Foundation Trust owns more than 50 million shares of Berkshire, a sprawling company that owns brands like Dairy Queen, Fruit of the Loom, and GEICO. It is a sizable supporter of renewable energy. But Berkshire is also heavily invested in coal-burning utilities—so much so that the company was responsible directly or indirectly for 189 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 according to the emissions monitoring group CDP, more than the entire state of New York.
The Gates Foundation Trust’s investment in Canadian National Railway Company, or CN Rail as it is also known, has an even more clear connection to climate. “The main thing with the rail industry is people don’t understand how closely it is linked to the fossil fuel industry,” Mikulka said.
Last year, CN Rail’s shipments of oil grew from 150,000 barrels per day in April to 200,000 barrels in June, a surge that resulted in the company earning a record CAD $4 billion in revenues. CN Rail’s oil business is doing so well because the pipelines that transport oil from the tar sands in northern Canada to international markets are mostly full, and new pipelines have faced delays and opposition from indigenous people and climate activists.
Shipping oil by rail is more expensive for tar sands producers, but better for them than not being able to transport their oil at all. Oil rail shipments grew 88 percent across the U.S. in 2018, due in large part to shipments from Canada. And CN Rail this year expects “significant year-over-year growth in crude carloads.” So the Gates Foundation Trust’s investment is helping fuel expansion of an industry whose 81 million tons of emissions in 2018 are equivalent to Paris’s annual emissions.
One of the most obvious steps Gates could take if he is truly serious about fixing the climate emergency would be directing his foundation’s trust to divest from its investments in Berkshire Hathaway and CN Rail. But that is not a tactic the billionaire is enthusiastic about.
“If you think divestment alone is a solution, I worry you’re taking whatever desire people have to solve this problem and kind of using up their idealism and energy on something that won’t emit less carbon—because only a few people in society are the owners of the equity of coal or oil companies,” Gates said in 2015, not mentioning that his foundation’s endowment is invested in companies that burn coal and transport oil.
Last year he repeated this argument, telling the Financial Times that “Divestment, to date, probably has reduced about zero tonnes of emissions.”
That is not a consensus view however. Banks and other institutions cutting off support for coal could be making it more difficult for the industry to expand. Others think Gates is missing the larger point of divestment—to weaken the influence of fossil fuel companies. But in any case, reporting on Gates and his comments on climate hardly ever mentions his financial links to industries and companies that are horrible for the climate.
“Most of the headlines you see about Bill Gates will be that his latest solar venture is making good progress or that he’s supporting somewhat controversial climate change solutions like geoengineering,” Mikulka said. “But rarely do you see the fact that he’s profiting and has been for a long time from things like supporting the Canadian tar sands industry.”
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Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter.