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KUOW's environment beat brings you stories on the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, alternative energy, the health of the Puget Sound, coal transportation and more. We're also partnered with several stations across the Northwest to bring you environmental news via EarthFix.

Climate Activists Call On Gates Foundation To Do More

Activists deliver a petition asking the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to divest from fossil fuels.
KUOW Photo/John Ryan
Activists deliver a petition asking the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to divest from fossil fuels.

While the world's richest man was meeting with world leaders in Paris at the global climate summit, climate activists marched on his foundation's Seattle headquarters Monday.

World leaders had gathered in Paris to hash out a deal to start stabilizing the global climate, and world billionaires there announced their contribution to the effort. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, CEO Jeff Bezos, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and dozens of others are financing a private venture called the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.

Their announcement was matched by 20 nations' pledges to double government spending over five years in support of "clean energy" research.

"We need the basic research, but we have to pair that with people who are willing to fund high-risk, breakthrough energy companies," Gates said in a video announcing the billionaires' $7 billion fund to support risky investments in clean energy.

"That's what gives us a chance of having a solution that really lets us not have to give up energy usage and yet not damage the environment," he said.

Green groups welcomed both announcements. But many of them have argued for decades that the world doesn't need a technological breakthrough to fight climate change but a break in the logjam of climate-unfriendly policymaking in places like Paris and Washington, D.C.

They want governments and investors to stop supporting the coal and oil companies whose products are fueling climate change and whose lobbying efforts have helped forestall pollution controls.

Environmental groups have been urging the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to take its money out of fossil fuel companies.

In recent years, the Gates Foundation -- the world's wealthiest philanthropic organization, with an endowment of $41 billion -- has had up to $1.4 billion invested in those companies.

At some point during the 2014 fiscal year, tax filings posted in November reveal, the foundation quietly sold off much of its energy portfolio, including some $800 million in ExxonMobil stock, as The Seattle Times reported.

ExxonMobil iscurrently under investigation by New York's attorney general for misleading the public and investors about the risks of climate change. ExxonMobil spokespeople have denied suppressing company scientists' climate change research.

"It really appears they're moving in the right direction, but they still have a significant investment amount in fossil fuels," Bruce Amundson with Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility said of the Gates Foundation while walking to its headquarters.

"We're asking them to go the next step -- and stop supporting entities that are damaging the health of the globe -- when their mission is public health."

Amundson, a family physician in Spokane, said rapid climate change will undermine much of the good work the Gates Foundation does to fight public health problems like malnutrition and malaria.

"It's affecting the expansion of infectious diseases in new territories as the temperatures of the globe rise," Amundson said. "It's already creating death and morbidity in the globe. So we see climate change as fundamentally a public health crisis."

Gates Foundation spokesperson Leonora Diller declined to comment on the foundation's investments or provide contact information for anyone who could. In an email, she said investment decisions are handled by a separate entity called the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust. The trust is run by Bill and Melinda Gates themselves with a team of outside investment managers and has no spokespeople.

"They typically do not comment on their investments," Diller wrote.

Year started with KUOW: 2009