Ten billion, schmen schmillion

Why I'm taking Jeff Bezos's $10 billion climate pledge with several grains of salt.

(Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Amazon)

Look, I’m not saying it’s not cool that the richest man in the world is going to to give $10 billion to help fight the climate crisis. It’s cool. It’s great. I’m happy. Can you hear how happy I am?

It’s great that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos wants to save the world. If you didn’t see, yesterday Bezos announced a plan to create the Bezos Earth Fund—a $10 billion global initiative aiming to fund “any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.”

Bezos called climate change “the biggest threat to our planet.” He told the truth, and that’s good. He also said “We can save Earth,” which is also true and a good thing to say.

Today, I’m thrilled to announce I am launching the Bezos Earth Fund.⁣⁣⁣
Climate change is the biggest threat to our planet. I want to work alongside others both to amplify known ways and to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share. This global initiative will fund scientists, activists, NGOs — any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world. We can save Earth. It’s going to take collective action from big companies, small companies, nation states, global organizations, and individuals. ⁣⁣⁣
I’m committing $10 billion to start and will begin issuing grants this summer. Earth is the one thing we all have in common — let’s protect it, together.⁣⁣⁣
- Jeff
February 17, 2020

$10 billion is also a lot of money, and it looks like it’s going to go entirely to charitable giving. We don’t know what work it’s going to fund yet, but this could do a lot of good in the world.

But if Bezos wants the PR glory of being a climate hero, he should look elsewhere. He’s not going to get it here.

Here are some things I’m keeping in mind when assessing Bezos’s climate pledge.

Bezos holds disproportionate responsibility for climate change — he *should* be giving away money.

Readers of this newsletter tend to be concerned about climate change, and feel personally responsible for it. They also take lots of action in their everyday lives to assuage that guilt. They do this by donating to non-profits, participating in activism, and making climate-conscious purchasing decisions. (This is awesome, by the way!)

But I also know that readers of this newsletter hold far less responsibility for climate change than people like Bezos, whose company has a carbon footprint that’s near-equivalent to the emissions of Switzerland or Denmark. (And that’s just Amazon’s self-reported carbon footprint; the actual footprint is arguably far bigger).

Bezos also holds unique responsibility for climate change by fostering a culture of unhinged consumerism—that is, a culture where everyone feels comfortable buying a lot of stuff and expecting that stuff to appear on our doorsteps almost immediately. According to one study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, up to 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to the products and services we consume.

So when I’m assessing Jeff Bezos’s climate philanthropy, I’m not assessing it the same way I would assess the philanthropic efforts of an average person. I’m not going to applaud it for simply existing. Jeff Bezos is currently fueling the climate crisis, far more than you or I—and he’s making a lot of money doing it. He should be doing far more than you or I to help fix this problem.

The question is, how does a $10 billion donation from Bezos compare to a donation by you or I?

Is this an adequate climate pledge compared to Bezos’s responsibility?

Generosity is a spectrum — and $10 billion isn’t that much to Jeff Bezos

Something I like to do when assessing big climate pledges—philanthropy in particular—is figure out what an equivalent donation would mean for a normal person. When Chevron donated $1 million to Australian wildfire relief, for example, I did a post showing how that was equivalent to the average American giving $4 to the cause.

Jeff Bezos is obviously not a normal person—he is the richest man in the world, with a net worth of $130 billion. In comparison, here are the median net worths of various age groups in America:

  • Under 35: $11,100

  • 35-44: $59,800

  • 45-54: $124,200

  • 55-64: $187,300

  • 65-74: $224,100

  • 75+: $264,800

(Note: I’m using median instead of average because I think it’s a better indicator of the normal, everyday person; the mathematical “average” net worth of Americans tends to skew pretty high because of a few super-rich people).

A $10 billion pledge amounts to approximately 7.7 percent of Bezos’s net worth. For a normal young person in America, under 35 years old, this is the equivalent of donating $847.

Here’s a list of what a $10 billion donation would mean for various age groups in America, based on their median net worth.

  • Under 35: $847

  • 35-44: $4,604

  • 45-54: $9,563

  • 55-64: $14,422

  • 65-74: $17,255

  • 75+: $20,389

In other words, no matter the age group, a $10 billion donation from Bezos to fight climate change is still worth less than the average parent spends to send their kid to college.

If an average person Bezos’s age (59) spent $14,442 on philanthropy to help solve the climate crisis, that would probably be seen as quite generous. But the average person doesn’t hold massive responsibility for the climate crisis.

Think about how much young people do on a daily basis to fight the climate crisis. Just yesterday, more than 150 middle- and high-schoolers used their holiday to protest at the U.S. Capitol, demanding climate action. 20 people, including 6 minors, were arrested. This effort alone is probably worth a few hundred dollars of their time—and a few hundred dollars is a lot for them.

Does Bezos’s donation match that effort?

We don’t actually know where Bezos's money is going

$10 billion has the potential to do a lot of good. But what is Bezos’s definition of “good?”

Like BP’s grand pledge to go carbon neutral by 2050, Bezos’s grand pledge to donate $10 billion to the climate effort comes with few specifics. Bezos did not specify which groups he’d be funding, and said only that the $10 billion fund would begin issuing grants this summer.

This is important, because “fighting climate change” is an ambiguous term. There are many ways to fight climate change, and climate activists argue about them all the time. Should we be scaling up nuclear power? Developing new carbon capture technologies? Or putting all our efforts into a radical, transformational Green New Deal?

Ideally, in a democracy, voters would get to decide how to solve society’s most complex problems. But because Jeff Bezos has $10 billion, he will get enormous say in how we address this enormous, collective crisis.

Bezos may hold disproportionate responsibility for the climate crisis, but he’s not going to be disproportionately harmed by it. Do we trust him to make critical decisions that will affect society’s most vulnerable?

We do know where Bezos’s money is *not* going

In Bezos’ announcement, he said solving climate is “going to take collective action from big companies, small companies, nation states, global organizations, and individuals.”

One of those big companies is Amazon. But Bezos’s announcement made no mention of Amazon.

A good source for criticism on this point is Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. As Verge reported last month, the group of a few hundred Amazon employees have been pushing for Amazon to change its business practices to become more climate-friendly. They’ve been “speaking out against their employer’s record on climate change, risking being fired to defy a company-wide ban against such public criticism.”

“As history has taught us, true visionaries stand up against entrenched systems, often at great cost to themselves,” the group said in a statement yesterday. “We applaud Jeff Bezos’ philanthropy, but one hand cannot give what the other is taking away.

The people of Earth need to know: When is Amazon going to stop helping oil & gas companies ravage Earth with still more oil and gas wells? When is Amazon going to stop funding climate-denying think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and climate-delaying policy? When will Amazon take responsibility for the lungs of children near its warehouses by moving from diesel to all-electric trucking?

Why did Amazon threaten to fire employees who were sounding the alarm about Amazon’s role in the climate crisis and our oil and gas business? What this shows is that employees speaking out works — we need more of that right now. Will Jeff Bezos show us true leadership or will he continue to be complicit in the acceleration of the climate crisis, while supposedly trying to help?

Billionaires use philanthropy to boost reputation and avoid regulation

There are many good thinkers out there who have argued against billionaire philanthropy as a way to solve problems in a democracy. For more on that, see Dylan Matthews’s piece in Vox on the subject. I won’t get into all of it here; it’ll take forever.

What I will say briefly is that philanthropy is itself a PR strategy. As the Guardian has reported, it provides “companies with a moral cover to act in quite exploitative and socially damaging ways.” Fossil fuel companies have been using environmental philanthropy as a strategy to downplay the need for environmental regulation for years.

But we’re living in a world where climate activism is getting louder every day. Fossil fuel companies—and Amazon—are under immense pressure to change their ways. Bezos’s announcement yesterday is a clear indication that he’s trying to quiet the noise.

All the more reason to stay loud.

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