Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the richest person on the planet, has announced that he’ll donate $10 billion of his own money to fight climate change.
That raises two questions: Is philanthropy really the best way for Bezos to pursue that goal? And even if it is, how will he make sure he’s choosing recipients who will make effective use of the new funding?
“I want to work alongside others both to amplify known ways and to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share,” Bezos wrote in his Instagram announcement on Monday. “This global initiative will fund scientists, activists, NGOs — any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.”
That sounds good, and donating $10 billion to address the climate emergency is certainly a commendable action, although it’s worth noting that figure represents less than 8 percent of Bezos’s total net worth of $130 billion.
But the devil is, as they say, in the details. And Bezos’s announcement is very short on those. Some climate groups are far more effective than others, so depending on where exactly Bezos puts his money, he could have a vastly beneficial effect on the planet — or very little effect at all.
There is, however, something Bezos could do right now that would be guaranteed to have a vastly beneficial effect on our climate: He could clean house at his company. Amazon is a mega-polluter, and although Bezos has lately pledged to decrease its carbon footprint in response to pressure from inside and outside the company, there’s a whole lot more he could do.
The most effective actions Bezos could take to help the climate arguably have nothing to do with charity. He could make Amazon cut its carbon emissions much more quickly and stop working with oil and gas companies that use its technology to locate new fossil fuel deposits. That may not be as eye-catching as announcing a $10 billion gift on social media, but it would be a surefire win for the environment, whereas Bezos’s donations may or may not prove effective.
How Bezos could make Amazon more climate-friendly
In his announcement, Bezos wrote that his new Bezos Earth Fund will begin issuing grants this summer. He also said things like “climate change is the biggest threat to our planet” and “Earth is the one thing we all have in common — let’s protect it, together.”
What he did not mention is that his company is itself a big threat to the climate; it emitted more than 44 million metric tons of carbon in 2018 alone. That’s almost as much as a small country like Switzerland, Denmark, or Norway emits in a year.
Nor did he mention that hundreds of his own workers, going by the name Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, have been pushing the company to improve even though Amazon has reportedly threatened to fire them if they continue to speak out. These employee activists were less than impressed with Bezos’s announcement on Monday.
“We applaud Jeff Bezos’ philanthropy, but one hand cannot give what the other is taking away,” the group said in a statement. “The people of Earth need to know: When is Amazon going to stop helping oil & gas companies ravage Earth with still more oil and gas wells? When is Amazon going to stop funding climate-denying think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and climate-delaying policy?”
In addition to harming the environment through its fuel-guzzling delivery vehicles and its copious plastic packaging, Amazon has also sponsored the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank that promotes climate change denial. And through Amazon Web Services, the company continues to court oil and gas companies that use its technology to locate new fossil fuel deposits.
Of course, if Amazon Web Services were to cut ties with these companies, they would probably go to one of Amazon’s competitors, like Microsoft. But the planet would probably still benefit. For one thing, a move like this on Amazon’s part could shift industry norms, putting pressure on its competitors to cut ties with oil and gas companies, too. But even if that doesn’t happen, it’s worth noting that Microsoft already has more ambitious climate targets than Amazon does.
Greenpeace called out Bezos in a tweet on Monday, writing, “Why is Amazon providing advanced computing technologies to the oil and gas industry so it can discover and drill more oil, more efficiently? Jeff Bezos — if you want a climate safe future that OIL MUST STAY IN THE GROUND.”
Last year, a Greenpeace investigation also found that Amazon data centers in Virginia, where the bulk of the company’s cloud infrastructure is located, are powered by only 12 percent renewable energy.
To Amazon’s credit, the company has pledged to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 and to become carbon-neutral by 2040. To that end, it’s ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles (from a startup that Amazon invested millions in last year). But it could be working faster to clean up its act, and, crucially, it could stop working with oil and gas companies that are actively harming the climate.
How Bezos could effectively use donations to help the climate
Bezos’s decision to donate $10 billion comes at a time when many are debating whether billionaire philanthropy is actually a good way to improve the world, or whether it’s a gambit that mostly enables the ultrarich to burnish their images and exert influence.
Whether you like it or not, billionaire philanthropy exists. And if it’s going to keep existing, then we’d probably do well to figure out how donors’ resources can most effectively tackle our world’s biggest problems, including climate change.
When I interviewed a range of experts on how billionaires can best spend their money to help the climate, some, as you might expect, mentioned research and development for clean energy technologies. Groups like Founders Pledge, Giving Green, and ImpactMatters, which conduct rigorous research to find the most effective charities, have identified some of the best organizations in this space.
But other experts have pointed out that we already have a fair amount of good tech that can help us mitigate global warming. What we don’t have is political will. They say it’s most effective for billionaires to focus on the social and political conditions that would enable the tech to take root — for example, by building a robust climate activist movement or by getting Democrats elected to Congress and to the presidency.
“We’ve got some solutions available already, but we’re not deploying at anything like the speed we need — that’s the ongoing power of the fossil fuel industry at work,” Bill McKibben, the author of The End of Nature and co-founder of 350.org, told me. “The only way to break that power and change the politics of climate is to build a countervailing power. Our job — and it’s the key job — is to change the zeitgeist, people’s sense of what’s normal and natural and obvious. If we do that, all else will follow.”
McKibben pointed out that you don’t even need $1 billion, never mind $10 billion, to do this. “Look at the amount of good Greta Thunberg and her young colleagues have done while barely spending a nickel.”
Alan Robock, an environmental science professor at Rutgers University, agreed. “I always say it’s more important to change your leaders than to change your lightbulbs. We need government action, both in regulations and in incentives,” he told me. “The problem is the selfish fossil fuel industry, which has captured the Republican Party and the White House. So I would spend my billion dollars getting Democrats elected to Congress and the presidency. They would then enact the policies we need.”
Again, getting climate-friendly politicians into positions of power — Democrats or, for that matter, Republicans with a positive environmental agenda — would probably cost less than $10 billion. And it would likely be a very effective use of Bezos’s money.
On the other hand, it would potentially open him up to the critique that he’s undermining democracy by directing his massive private assets to exert public influence. Critics of billionaire philanthropy might say Bezos is doing everything he can to diminish the tax contribution he makes to zero, then declaring himself willing to solve a public problem in the manner and time of his own choosing, and then taking a further tax break for creating a new charitable entity.
As the political theorist Rob Reich has argued, “the citizens of the United States are collectively subsidizing, through foregone tax collection, the giving preferences of the wealthy.”
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, the North America director of 350.org, told me, “If I were a billionaire, I would first and foremost expect a hefty tax on my gross income that would allow the majority of Americans to live healthy and safe lives. One of the first places this financing should go is toward the Green New Deal.”
It was unclear from Bezos’s announcement whether any of his donation could go to political campaigns, and Amazon declined to answer Vox’s questions on the matter. However, the Instagram post did say that activists will be among the recipients. In theory, the grantees could range from the well-established 350.org to the fledgling Extinction Rebellion, an activist movement that uses nonviolent civil disobedience to demand governments do more to stave off mass extinction.
There’s evidence that focusing on movement-building is essential in the climate fight. For instance, Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth has argued that if you want to achieve systemic social change, you need to mobilize roughly 3.5 percent of the population, a finding that helped inspire Extinction Rebellion. That’s not an impossible proportion of people to get into the streets — particularly if the activists doing the work get funded.
It makes sense to fund activists and not only big research institutes or nonprofit organizations. Sometimes an organization has all the donations it knows what to do with, and more money won’t enable it to do more of what it’s good at. This factor, which experts call “room for funding,” will be important for Bezos to consider given that the sum he’s looking to spend is unusually large.
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