The battle against climate change suddenly has a new champion amidst a stunning leadership crisis. Better late than never.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has emerged from the back of the pack to take the lead where other capitalists have been afraid to lead or follow. The world’s richest man committed $10 billion of his personal fortune to set up the new Bezos Earth Fund, which would support “scientists, activists, NGOs—any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.”
The announcement is light on details, but climate experts say it’s a massive investment and a tremendous opportunity that could give the warming planet a fighting chance. Hopefully, it will fund solutions, not meaningless studies and smokescreens.
Ten billion dollars is an unfathomable amount of money for climate change research and activism. It dwarfs the $4 billion that 29 philanthropic organizations pledged to fighting climate change in 2018, in what was called the largest investment of its kind at the time. It’s so much money that it will likely be difficult to spend on existing researchers and organizations, as The Atlantic noted.
“It will shape the whole nature of the climate movement,” says Robert J. Brulle, a professor emeritus at Drexel University studying politics and the environment. “There’s going to be this mad rush of cash.”
Brulle’s research on spending by opponents of the climate movement helps put the Bezos Earth Fund into perspective. From 2000 to 2016, he found, electric utilities, fossil fuel companies, and the transportation sector collectively spent over $1.2 billion on climate change lobbying. Another study found that from 1986 to 2015, five of the largest fossil fuel firms together spent at least $3.6 billion on corporate promotion advertisements in the US.
It’s not just the amount that matters, but how Bezos team invest the money. As CEO of Amazon, Bezos hasn’t exactly led the charge on progressive corporate policies around climate change and the environment. The company has been criticized for years by environmental groups like Greenpeace over its business practices and lack of transparency; the nonprofit CDP told Bloomberg News last year that it was one of the biggest carbon emitters in the world outside the fossil fuel industry.
In that context, it’s easy to see Bezos’ commitment as a shrewd political move meant to pacify his workforce, or atonement for the environmental sins that made him the richest man in the world—a rank he would still hold even minus the $10 billion. Bezos had previously given relatively little of his fortune to charity, choosing instead to spend on efforts like Blue Origin, his space travel company. With one pledge, the CEO immediately joins the philanthropic ranks of tech titans like Bill Gates, who has donated over $45 billion through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
It’s not clear if Bezos will be willing to fight the fossil fuel industry directly, which Amazon counts as an important customer. When Bezos announced an ambitious new plan for his company to reduce its carbon footprint in September, the CEO said Amazon’s cloud computing division would nonetheless continue working with oil and gas providers.
“Anyone who’s serious about taking on climate change has to be serious about taking on the fossil fuel industry, because they’re the ones blocking progress,” says Bill McKibben, a prominent environmentalist and the founder of the climate change organization 350.org. For the Amazon CEO to directly oppose his counterparts in another industry, McKibben adds, “That would require a kind of class betrayal on Bezos’ part—it will be interesting to see if he’s capable of it.”
Environmental experts have suggested that the Bezos Earth Fund should invest quickly in solutions that already exist today. Millions of natural gas furnaces across the country could be replaced with energy-efficient heat pumps, for example, or harmful gas leaks could be plugged. Forest conservation and reforestation also are easy steps that are part of the answer. Ending government subsidies to oil companies can level the playing field for alternative energy supplies. Where there is a will, there is a way forward. Answers begin with the truth and obstruction isn’t an option.
“If Bezos could focus $10 billion on critical technologies that are available right now, he could make them scale, he could make them cheap, he could make them widespread,” notes Foley. “Now is better than new.”
Leah Stokes, a professor studying climate and environmental politics at UC Santa Barbara, hopes Bezos uses the funds to strategically involve governments, which Amazon would benefit from too. New public infrastructure projects could help to optimize its logistics networks for delivering packages, for example. There are also plenty of more fundamental benefits. “If you think about these big Silicon Valley companies, they’re all on the coast,” says Stokes. “They’re all going to be affected by sea level rise, that’s not going to be good for their corporations.”
Even as Bezos funds his initiative, Amazon has a strong interest in shaping the climate debate, so that whatever government response eventually emerges doesn’t injure its business. (To cover its right flank, last year the company co-sponsored the annual gala of a climate-denying think tank.) After all, Amazon’s constellation of servers has a massive carbon footprint, about the same as that of a wealthy European nation; the company is transforming global patterns of consumption, so that cheap goods can almost instantaneously arrive at any doorstep. Even if Amazon aims to slash its own emissions, it’s creating an economy that seems likely to undermine its stated goal of carbon neutrality. A reasonable debate about planetary future would at least question the wisdom of the same-day delivery of plastic tchotchkes made in China. Then there are the policies that permit companies, like Amazon, to pay virtually nothing in taxes—revenue that would ideally fund, say, a Green New Deal. It hardly seems likely that the Bezos Earth Foundation will seek to erode the very basis of the fortune that funds it.
A skeptical response to the Bezos Earth Fund doesn’t preclude the hope that it will do real good. Michael Bloomberg’s climate philanthropy has played an important role in shutting down coal-fired power plants. And unlike Obama-era policy, Bloomberg’s efforts have proved difficult for the Trump administration to roll back. Perhaps Bezos will find similarly effective vehicles for injecting his money.