If you had a billion dollars and wanted to do something about climate change, what would you do? For a handful of people, that is not a rhetorical question. An Instagram post earlier this month from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — announcing he had scattered $791m across various climate charities — is the latest in a trend that includes Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg. And there’s more on the way — Bezos’s donations are “just the beginning” of his $10bn Bezos Earth Fund.
But the interesting thing about this exercise is that, even for the most privileged minds on the planet, it is not obvious how to approach the task. Is it better to invest in technologies that may take years to mature — or to spend money on clean energy in developing countries, which can cut pollution immediately? Or perhaps political spending is the most effective approach, to push policy in a climate-friendly direction? Or would you just start building sea walls to prepare for the inevitable?
Each billionaire takes their own tack. Gates has gone down the technology route, backing projects that range from nuclear fusion to molten-salt batteries. He has also invested his time in writing and talking about the subject, and has a book on climate change coming out next year. Bloomberg has focused on the political side, including spending more than $170m on a campaign to close coal-fired power plants; its success is part of the reason US carbon emissions have fallen in recent years.
Bezos is the most recent arrival to this club and his approach has also been the blandest. He cut five cheques of $100m to five of the biggest, most established green groups in the US and distributed smaller amounts to a few others, including $30m for research into storing carbon in plant roots.
It’s a nice gesture, but it feels like exactly that — the sort of cheque-writing exercise that middle-class Americans usually save for the end of the year to maximise tax deductions. For Bezos, chief executive of Amazon, routinely celebrated as one of the most disruptive innovators on earth, his climate donations are distinctly lacking in either disruption or innovation.
Recent events at Amazon make Bezos’s giving look a bit defensive. In September 2019, employees began staging walkouts to protest the company’s climate policies, creating a major image problem. Some of the employees’ demands have been met — Amazon adopted a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2040.
It is also buying tens of thousands of electric vehicles and promises that half of its shipping operations will be carbon-free by the end of this decade. And the company has purchased naming rights to a Seattle sports stadium and called it — in case you missed the point — the Climate Pledge Arena.
But none of this quite masks the fact that Amazon has been much slower to act on climate than other tech rivals such as Google and Microsoft. Its carbon emissions are still vast: in 2019, Amazon emitted 51 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (including its offices, warehouses and delivery vehicles). That’s more than the country of Sweden.
Matthew Nisbet, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston who studies this area, says Bezos is now the largest single source of climate giving in the world — creating a “giant climate change halo”. But that halo is not always merited, he says: such large gifts could pose a conflict of interest for environmental charities, which might otherwise be more critical of Amazon’s environmental record. (The recipients of Bezos’s grants all deny this, saying they have strict policies to avoid any conflict of interest.)
Even if Bezos is not trying to buy off his critics or placate his employees, there is one clear shortcoming in his approach: he has thrown money at the problem, but hasn’t apparently matched that with strategy. Nor has he spoken or written much about the issue — at least not when compared with other climate billionaires.
Contrast his recent 160-word Instagram post with the thousands of words written by Gates. Likewise, Bloomberg is highly invested in his climate work — and can be seen trudging around the UN climate conferences every year, giving slightly jet-lagged speeches.
Indeed, looking back at Bezos’s speeches and interviews in recent years, there are hints that the Amazon boss’s real passion is for something else entirely — getting off this planet altogether. A lifelong space obsessive, he invests about $1bn a year in his space company, Blue Origin, and has described it as the “most important work I’m doing”.
His vision is that humans will one day inhabit space, living in big orbiting colonies. “We will have to leave this planet,” he has said, pointing to our growing population. His idea is that heavy industry will also move into space, leaving some light manufacturing behind on Earth — along with any humans who want to stay. But Bezos himself hopes to be on that rocket ship. Despite the grand ambitions of the Bezos Earth Fund, would you really trust the planet to someone who is already thinking of leaving it behind?
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