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.”
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.
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. Given the influence of the Koch brothers and the rest of the fossil-fuel industry, the political fight over climate policy is in desperate need of a bottomless benefactor.
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