Bill Gates is an “imperfect messenger” on climate action, but his experience applies at an international level as well.

6 min readApr 16, 2021


In his recent book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”, Bill Gates refers to himself as an “imperfect messenger” on climates change. In a world that struggles with nuance and seems to specialise in attacking the person above their argument, Gates comes in for a lot of criticism for his air travel, his foundation’s history of investments in fossil fuel and living in a mansion house. Unsurprisingly, his stance attracts a lot of criticism from climate activists and a lot of what Twitter would refer to as “whatabout-ism.”

Gates acknowledges his carbon footprint is at odds with his message of decarbonisation and preventing climate change, but remains committed to spreading the word. He claims that it’s not like he’s simply shouting about climate change and doing nothing. When confronted with the argument that he’s the problem, not the cure to climate breakdown, he points to his “gold standard” $7,000,000 a year carbon offsetting efforts and the funding he is pouring into encouraging the technologies that may help avoid climate disaster. In his view, he is in a position where he can make a disproportionate contribution to the issues facing the planet and has decided to take the lead.

With all human activities, especially radical change, there will always be a range of actors along a spectrum. Some people embraced the internet, others dismissed it. The majority of us began to use the web as it became a pervasive fact of life, or when it added tangible value to their lives.

This pattern is repeated throughout history. There were early adopters of iron tools over bronze, tractors over horses and cloud computing over on-premises infrastructure. In each case, pioneers have led the way, the majority move when something is obvious, but deniers and vested interests may not. Some may even act against the change. We can all too easily imagine a metallurgist specialising in smelting bronze railing against the evil ways of early ironworkers!

The same thing is happening with climate action. Some people are forcing the agenda, others are lagging behind. Some are just trying to do their bit, whilst others are trying to outperform their fair share of the task. Many are doing nothing, are unable to do anything or are in complete denial. It’s many shades of grey, or perhaps “green” would be a better analogy!

A similar story can be told at an international level. The UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), will be hosted by the UK in Glasgow in November this year, Covid permitting. Ahead of this conference, negotiations are already underway as Britain tries to broker a deal amongst the participating nations.

These negotiations for COP26 are to broker more ambitious carbon reduction targets for the nations of the world, building on those agreed in the Paris Climate Agreement signed in 2015. The revised targets were supposed to have been agreed last year, but the talks ran into difficulty and the participants decided to postpone the difficult decisions.

The international arguments cover much the same ground as for individuals and, like Bill Gates, many nations find themselves in the position of being “imperfect messengers.”

The UK are conference hosts, in conjunction with the Italians, and are definitely imperfect messengers. Some industrialising nations, the biggest of which are China and India, think that developed nations, such as the US and the UK, should make greater sacrifices than those nations that did not industrialise at the turn of the last century. Put simply, why shouldn’t India burn coal now when the UK dug up and burnt a huge amount of the world’s fossil fuel budget back in the 19th and 20th century? Is it morally right to deny development to the billions of Indians and Chinese because there’s no carbon budget?

Alongside this argument, some countries, especially the low-lying island nations, are in no position to affect the outcome. This may be, for them, an existential threat.

Other nations are content to see how things develop or may have political situations that act in a counter-productive manner, such as we’ve seen in the US over the last four years and are seeing in Brazil at the moment.

Finally, there are some nations that predict that they will become net-beneficiaries of climate change. For example, Russia may see moderate climate change opening up northern sea routes and allowing agriculture in the massive Siberian landmass.

Each nation has its own red lines and objectives that will inform its stance and will negotiate accordingly.

These arguments will run and run.

Much like getting agreement amongst a group of individuals, international agreements are hard. The actors involved have great autonomy and often unclear motives. A few things are clear though; a level playing field agreement is very unlikely to emerge and, for their own reasons, some nations will be more or less committed. As each nation state works for its best interests, we can be certain that a range of commitments will emerge along the spectrum of action we discussed earlier.

The problem is that the risk of miscalculation is great. By focussing on the minimum each nation should achieve, we open up the possibility that, should nations renege, act dishonestly or simply fail, we may be faced with runaway climate change.

To mitigate this risk, we need the richest and most developed nations to become real pioneers. We need the richest nations to outperform, to decarbonise at a rate far beyond those agreed in international conferences. We need to reach net-zero carbon emissions in short order and then move onto the even more ambitious target of negative emissions. This way those nations will counter the risk of inaction, obstruction or failure across the community of nations.

To be melodramatic, those nations committed to combatting climate change need to safeguard the planet for humanity and for many of the species on it by stepping up and solving the problem.

But I hear you say, what about the “freeloader” effect?

Will nations see that they can step back and avoid potentially harmful damage to their economies by letting the pioneer nations absorb the pain?

Probably, but there are some things that can be done about. Climate change doesn’t live in a vacuum. Most nations have diplomatic and economic pressure points that can used to influence their behaviour and this approach may be used to mitigate the freeloader effect. It won’t solve the problem entirely for all nations, but we live in an imperfect world and can only do what we can do.

We have to accept that, along the spectrum of actions taken by nations, there will be some freeloading added into the mix.

But this shouldn’t stop those most committed nations from leading the way. The stakes are too high. The freeloader effect is a fact of life, whether amongst individuals or nations states. Why would we let some perceived benchmark of fairness prevent us from doing what is needed?

The simple truth is that it’s time for those nations who are progressive on climate action to step up and solve the problem for the world.

We need Manhattan Projects, Apollo Programmes and wartime levels of effort to solve climate change for the world. If we don’t take this action, then we can be certain that the catastrophic effects being forecast by the scientific community will come to pass.

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