Bezos haters gonna hate. It goes with the territory when you’re the world’s richest person in a time of Digital Gilded Age inequality.
But this week, through his Bezos Earth Fund, he also became the biggest private supporter of climate action.
The $10 billion fund gave out its first round of grants, $791 million to 16 environmental organizations. The grants will finance research and implementation of efforts to reduce carbon emissions that are generating human-caused climate change, as well as adding green jobs and restoring wildlife.
Bill Gates, the planet’s second richest person, has written regularly on climate and constructive responses to our existential crisis on his Gates Notes blog. And this year the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the world’s largest private foundations, added climate change to its priorities.
But on the individual funding level, the Amazon founder is the leader.
Not surprisingly, the move also brought criticism.
“This is representative of the kind of leadership Bezos is providing, which is big and clumsy and misinformed,” Angela Mahecha Adrar, executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance, told the news site Quartz. The money, she said, amounted to “big investments in outdated, conservation-style organizations that are not resolving climate at the rate we need.”
No member of that alliance, which consists of 70 groups, received Earth Fund grants.
It’s true that five $100 million donations from Bezos went to established organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy. But grants were also given to lesser known groups, including those focused on environmental justice. Among them: The Solutions Project, Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice, and Dream Corps’ Green for All.
Then there’s the issue that Amazon’s role in the 10,000-mile supply chain gives it a Bigfoot footprint in causing climate change. Its businesses emitted 51.17 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2019, the equivalent of 13 coal-burning power stations running a year. It was also a 15% increase from the previous year.
To be fair, however, Amazon’s net sales rose 22% over the same period, so its “carbon intensity” — the carbon dioxide produced per dollar of sales — did decrease. The company said it is investing to cut carbon immediately and in the long term. “We have already seen an improvement in the carbon intensity of our business in 2019 as a result of operational efficiencies such as energy efficiency technologies in fulfillment centers and alternative vehicle pilots.”
The company is transparent about its emissions. And it has pledged to make its businesses “net carbon zero” by 2040.
That means balancing human-caused greenhouse gas emissions with removing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere, both through technological leaps and more energy efficiency. It’s an important step toward reaching the goals of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Paris climate accords.
The Amazon Climate Pledge is separate from the Bezos Earth Fund. (Microsoft has also established a $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund).
Despite the criticism, Bezos’ giving is a critical first step, especially when the United States government is mostly paralyzed in addressing climate change. Under President Donald Trump, from opening drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to rolling back emission standards, we’ve gone backward.
When Joe Biden becomes president, he can use executive orders to reverse the most destructive environmental policies of the Trump administration. He can rejoin the Paris accords and make other constructive moves on his own.
But if the Senate remains under Republican control, with the House having lost Democratic seats in the no-Blue-Wave election, a Green New Deal will remain aspirational. And we continue to lose precious time in addressing the crisis.
This is no coincidence. The fossil fuel industry lavishly funded Republican candidates, who spread lies that Biden would immediately stop fracking.
The Koch brothers established a massive, well-funded effort to spread misinformation about the reality of human-caused climate change. Big oil companies spent years and billions of dollars denying climate change and funding politicians to do their bidding. Most notorious among them is ExxonMobil, which understood the magnitude of the gathering crisis 40 years ago.
According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of U.S. respondents say the government should do more on climate. Yet thanks to the efforts listed above, their desires aren’t reflected in our politics, especially the Congress.
Too bad for us. Only massive federal investments and policy changes could do what’s most important: Keep more carbon in the ground. Yes, that includes taxing it.
One important federal leap would be building high-speed rail. Running between relatively close city pairs (Houston-Dallas, Phoenix-Los Angeles) and corridors (Vancouver, B.C.-Seattle-Portland), these trains would reduce airline flights — huge carbon emitters — and free up airliners for longer trips.
Like so many decarbonizing projects, this would create large numbers of construction and operating jobs. Other policies could ease the transition from oil and gas through retraining people for advanced green jobs.
Scare tactics of the fossil fuel lobby would have you believe any change from the status quo will cost money and jobs. That your cars will be confiscated, air travel forbidden and livestock banned! (None of those are true.)
We won’t be getting off oil and gas anytime soon — it would be a gradual shift. Those fuels are needed in the construction of much green infrastructure.
In reality, the costs of climate change are here, now (remember the skies this past summer from forest fires, and no, they were not primarily caused by lack of thinning). Estimates say unaddressed climate change could cost billions and whack a large amount from the U.S. economy in the decades ahead.
But for now, the minority of bitter-ender deniers of climate science and cynical politicians bought off by fossil fuel interests constitute a veto elite looming over our future. They are the equivalent of those refusing to wear masks during the pandemic.
That leaves us with billionaires led by Jeff Bezos, along with the policies of some blue states, especially California, and the activists working at the grassroots level.
It’s not nearly enough. I tremble to wonder what climate disasters it will take to change the paralysis.