A few weeks ago, the wealthiest man on the planet announced a $10 billion fund for action on climate change: the Bezos Earth Fund.
In a short-on-specifics Instagram post, Jeff Bezos wrote that, beginning this summer, his global initiative will give money to “scientists, activists, NGOs—any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.” Noting that any meaningful action to “save Earth” will require “collective action” from governments, corporations big and small, organizations and individuals, Bezos wrote, “Earth is the one thing we all have in common—let’s protect it, together.”
Great, $10 billion is a lot of money (though it’s only about 8 percent of Bezos’s total wealth), and more than double what 29 philanthropic organizations pledged in 2018. To groups on the front lines, the money promises to be transformative. And, as Bezos wrote, fighting climate change—mitigating its worst effects or adapting to it—will take the combined efforts of everyone. No gift or action is too small.
Yet his promise, though it lends itself to easy readings—It’s fantastic! It’s greenwashing!—is complicated.
The pledge presents an enormous possibility for breakthroughs in climate-change mitigation and adaptation. But it’s also depressing that it is seen as so meaningful—because it reminds us that our elected leaders have not been doing their jobs. The pledge and what it suggests also reveal a lot about what the rich owe to society, the contradictions of capitalism in a time of crisis, and how the demand for moral consistency in the climate movement undermines the movement itself and emboldens its detractors.
It’s hard not to be cynical about such a gift when we see that the outspoken hyper-rich still enjoy a reality on earth apart from ours. Just a week earlier, Bezos dropped $165 million on a Beverly Hills “home.”(Who knows what the carbon footprint is on that?) And then there’s Amazon, which paid $0 in taxes as recently as two years ago.
It’s also tempting to say that it might be much more effective for Bezos to devote some of that $10 billion to creating a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, and electing Democratic governors and state legislatures (since state governments are where a lot of climate policy is actually made).
The Big Picture
But there are good arguments to be made for Bezos’s pledge, especially given the existential threat posed by climate change—made even more dire by the actions of the Trump administration, which has rolled back some of our strongest environmental protections, demonized climate science in the federal government, and championed the wholesale giveaway of public land to fossil-fuel development.
A lot more money does need to go into research and development to find solutions for the problems we face, and those investments are often too risky for governments, so business and philanthropy can help. Technologists like Bill Gates, and, presumably, Bezos, believe that these kinds of breakthroughs are what will save the earth, both in terms of reducing emissions and in helping us adapt to the changes that are coming. If combined with existing technology, including renewable energy and natural solutions, it’s hard not to agree.
(As an aside, it is dangerous to assume that, like Matt Damon in The Martian, we can simply science our way out of this reality. Maybe. Maybe not. But while we continue with business as usual, fingers crossed that carbon capture will deliver us from evil, the seas grow more acidic, the ice is melting, the world is getting hotter and drier, floods are growing more severe, and people are suffering, right now.)
Several billionaires have been working on this issue for a while—Bezos is just the latest example. Gates, who is set to publish a climate-change book next year, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, started Breakthrough Energy, a group consisting mainly of billionaires (Bezos among them), which advocates for clean-energy companies and is the umbrella organization for a $1 billion fund that invests in clean-energy technology. Gates has long urged climate mitigation and adaptation, and last year the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation collaborated with the World Bank and several governments to create a $790 million initiative to help small farmers adapt to the climate emergency.
Michael Bloomberg has taken a different approach, focusing primarily on policy. The Beyond Coal campaign, undertaken with the Sierra Club and funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, is at least partly responsible for closing more than 300 coal-fired power plants across the country. In addition, Bloomberg has funded Beyond Carbon, and has spearheaded America’s Pledge, an initiative to try to hold cities, states, and businesses to the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Many other billionaires and their companies—BlackRock, Salesforce—are getting on board, recognizing that climate change is an enormous business opportunity, and that doing nothing is much more expensive.
And Then There’s the Day Job …
Much thornier than Bezos’s pledge is figuring out how to understand it within the context of how he made his billions—Amazon—and his other pet project, Blue Origin, the space-exploration company.
Amazon sells us everything. Last year, Amazon’s revenue was $280.52 billion. Its business depends on our buying and using more—more stuff, more data, more food, more everything. Like many companies, only bigger, Amazon is defined by growth, by scalability, and by its cannibalization of markets and companies.
Bezos knows he has a problem, however. Over the past year, he’s been trying to improve the company’s image—many of its employees walked out one day to protest its terrible record on climate and the environment. At an event presenting Amazon’s sustainability goals in 2019, Bezos announced the Climate Pledge, a commitment for companies to meet the terms of the Paris climate accord 10 years early, reaching net-zero emissions by 2040. Amazon, he said, would achieve this goal by doing things such as purchasing 100,000 electric vans for delivery, powering its operations with renewable energy, and purchasing carbon offsets to make up the difference, among other efforts.
All good. But last year, Amazon also released its carbon footprint for the first time—44 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent, including indirect emissions. That would have put it in ninth place on the 2019 Greenhouse 100 Polluters Index, based on 2017 data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency. Ahead of ExxonMobil—and that is only for its U.S. emissions. (Since the ranking includes only direct emissions from fossil-fuel and power companies, not all of the biggest national emitters, like Walmart, are included on the list.)
His promise, though it lends itself to easy readings—It’s fantastic! It’s greenwashing!—is complicated.
Many of those who study climate change—not just scientists but also economists and policy specialists—think that we may not be able to grow infinitely, at least not in terms of material consumption. We live on a finite planet with a finite amount of space and non-renewable resources. And yet, our entire economic system is predicated on endless consumption. And so is Amazon. As a global society, we measure success in terms of G.D.P., and we have not yet managed to decouple growth in G.D.P. from growth in emissions. In order to “preserve the natural world” and “save Earth,” we may have to redefine what success looks like (and/or have a carbon tax and implement a rational social cost of carbon).
But if your ultimate vision is to transfer human civilization to space, then maybe it doesn’t matter what Earth’s limits are. Let’s mine the moon! And this is, in fact, the ultimate vision of Bezos’s side hustle, Blue Origin. Based on the work of his Princeton professor Gerard O’Neill, Blue Origin is based on the belief that humanity will eventually exhaust the earth’s resources and to survive we will have to live in large modules orbiting the planet. Other modules will contain heavy industry; Earth will simply be re-zoned “residential and light industry.” (O.K. It’s not a vision I share, but to each his own orbital module.)
In the Beginning …
Still, Jeff Bezos is giving $10 billion to climate change, and it’s right to acknowledge the impact it can make. It’s also important to look closely at a pledge like this because it matters whether it’s just greenwashing—Bezos looks good, while Amazon’s emissions rise in tandem with the piles of boxes that fleets of trucks deliver to us every hour—or it’s actually meaningful. And because climate mitigation and adaptation will take efforts from all of us, every cent counts.
At the same time, I am also frustrated by the impulse to criticize someone for doing something. No one can do everything, and no one can do it all at once. Everyone, even Bezos, has to start somewhere. The tendency toward skepticism, if not outright cynicism, in regard to climate initiatives (myself included) is so often destructive. As I have traveled around the country to speak about my book, Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have, about the hidden consequences of much of our stuff (not the consequences of individual behavior, but rather the systemic effects), I am often asked what my clothes are made of, whether or not I eat red meat, what the carbon footprint of my book is. I recognize that no one wants to be lectured by hypocrites, but it’s impossible not to have any impact at all, and individuals are not to blame for having been born into a world that uses fossil fuels.
Demanding moral consistency/absolutism from those fighting climate change is a tactic the fossil-fuel industry and deniers use to discredit a message that is hurtful to their profits, electoral prospects, or worldview. When these questions come from those inside the movement, it’s proof that we have internalized that strategy. It’s possible to care and still eat red meat or fly in an airplane, because the world runs on fossil fuels and it is hard, by individual behavioral changes alone, to fix that. Demanding consistency of a species that famously contradicts itself is self-defeating. It turns away those who might be interested or are just starting to care; it makes people feel guilty or accused before they even begin.
None of that means that it’s O.K. to circle the Earth in private jets while shoveling in filet mignon—we should all try to lessen our impact. But we shouldn’t feel individually guilty for climate change; we should feel collectively responsible for building a better world.
Yes, we can all do more. Progress isn’t all or nothing—it zigs and zags. A pledge of $10 billion might not be enough to save Earth, but it will certainly help.
Tatiana Schlossberg is the author of Inconspicuous Consumption