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The carbon footprints of the rich and activist

Photo illustration of Bill Gates, Al Gore, Bill McKibben and Greta Thunberg
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: John Lamparski, Inga Kjer, Michael Buckner, Neilson Barnard (all Getty)

Not all carbon footprints are created equally.

Driving the news: Famous, rich and activist people face acute scrutiny given their ability to influence the masses. With that in mind, I explored the travel and consumption habits of four notable people supporting action on climate change: Greta Thunberg, Bill Gates, Bill McKibben and Al Gore.

Why it matters: Individual behavior tackling climate change is getting greater attention as inaction on the matter persists among governments. A recent peer-reviewed study found that people are more likely to listen to others calling for action on climate change if they personally have lower carbon footprints.

Greta Thunberg

The teenage Swedish activist is inspiring a social movement around the world on climate change in just a year’s time.

A core part of her message is how she eschews activities that emit a lot of greenhouse gas emissions, most notably flying (she’s also vegan). She sailed to and from Europe on carbon-free sailing boats over the course of weeks.

  • She had to scramble to find such a ride back across the Atlantic after the United Nations climate conference — underway now in Madrid — was relocated there from Chile.
  • Had she hopped on a plane in a pinch, it would have looked far worse than, say, when Bill Gates uses his private jet, according to Gernot Wagner, a New York University professor who has written a book on the topic of individual action and climate change.

“Her activism and identity is tied to this core message," said Wagner of Thunberg's carbon-free lifestyle. "On the one hand, she is leading by example, walking the talk. On the other hand, she clearly realizes that climate is a much broader, systemic problem."

Bill Gates

The opposite of Thunberg is Gates. He is one of the richest people in the world with a huge house and a private jet. He’s also one of the biggest and deepest-pocketed investors in clean-energy technologies.

During an interview over the summer, I asked Gates what he does to lower his own carbon footprint. His initial response was one of incredulity.

“I am investing in climate change very broadly and substantial amounts of money,” said Gates, according to previously unpublished parts of our talk. “I don’t think there is anyone doing more, but if there is, congratulations to whoever that is.”

Gates, a big hamburger fan, said, somewhat jokingly: “My hamburger is no bigger than anyone else’s.”

  • He noted he’s a big investor in several fake-meat companies, including Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.
  • Their missions are rooted in the idea that the world should eat less real beef given its big carbon footprint.
  • I asked him if he eats a lot of Impossible burgers. His answer: “The percentage of burgers that are Impossible is not that high — but it will be.”

Does Gates’ high beef intake and private jet undercut his message? “I would strongly argue no,” Wagner said. “Bill Gates is not claiming that moral high ground.”

Al Gore

The former vice president has faced by far the most accusations of hypocrisy for being a climate activist while living a rich and carbon-intensive lifestyle, according to a peer-reviewed 2018 study on the topic.

“He recognizes how important these everyday choices are, while spending most of his time working to catalyze a global effort to change laws and policies,” a spokesperson for Gore said.

  • The former vice president doesn’t own a private jet and offsets travel for himself and staff through a program that cancels out your carbon footprint by ostensibly preventing emissions elsewhere (like planting trees or supporting renewable energy).
  • A vegan for six years, Gore is now touting the experiments his Tennessee farm is conducting to try to make agriculture and livestock more climate-friendly.

Bill McKibben

As founder of the grassroots environmental group 350.org, McKibben is one of the world’s most polarizing, prolific and vocal environmental activists.

In a 2016 article, McKibben discussed his evolution on this question of personal behavior — having gone from thinking it’s an important part to far less so, given that experts agree systemic change is needed. He said he had “abandoned” efforts to fly less.

  • “I've spent much of the last decade in frenetic travel, much of it on airplanes,” he wrote then.

Today, McKibben says the most important thing people can do is call for political change. He is, however, flying less than he did in the recent past.

  • “I give a couple of hundred talks a year via Skype — not only does it beat getting on an airplane for a lot of reasons, there's also the sense that the medium becomes the message,” McKibben said by email. “So, you lose something in terms of firsthand contact with people and gain something in terms of communicating the idea that the world needs to change.”

The bottom line: Systemic change is needed, but in the meantime, learning about the carbon footprints of people like this are instructive, no matter what they are.

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