Can Billionaires Really Save Us from Climate Disaster?

Jeff Bezos is my neighbor. Kind of. I’m 98 percent sure I saw him at my local Seattle post office over the holidays.

Yeah right, you might say. Don’t all well-dressed bald men look basically the same in a mask? Doesn’t he have people who could stand in line for him? 

Well, consider this: Bezos probably has more time to run errands these days, because he just stepped back from his CEO role at Amazon to focus on personal projects and philanthropy, including the Earth Fund, a $10 billion contribution to fighting climate change that he announced this time last year. 

Given that we’re neighbors, I feel like I can level with him about how he should make the world better with his money and free time (TL;DR: not spaceships).

First, he should think about how much power the Earth Fund has and how it fits into the big picture of environmental funding. For context, $10 billion is about what the United States has historically spent annually on climate-related research and development, and it’s also around 5 percent of Bezos’s wealth

One dude spending as much as the government can have big, cascading impacts on the future of the planet. A relatively tiny spend for someone like Bezos could alter the course of how we address climate change and what we focus on globally. 

That’s becoming more true as the wealthiest people in the world accrue even more money and spend more of it on their favorite conservation and climate solutions. (In the year since he announced the Earth Fund, Bezos has amassed another $75 billion.) Bezos is far from the only example, though: Swiss medical-device developer Hansjörg Wyss committed $1 billion to land and water conservation in 2018. In 2019, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged $500 million toward a campaign to close coal-fired power plants. This month, Elon Musk donated $100 million toward a prize for carbon-capture ideas. Hedge-fund manager and former presidential candidate Tom Steyer has injected millions into climate-friendly political campaigns over the years. And my other Seattle neighbors, Bill and Melinda Gates, have invested heavily in green energy and become thought leaders in how to address the climate crisis. (Bill has a new book out this month called How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need.)

But do we really want billionaires deciding where and how to protect the environment? Unlike government funding, donations come with minimal accountability and no guaranteed public oversight. And a frequent problem with philanthropy is that donor interest and societal need are not often the same thing, and the former has more power. “The impact of philanthropy doesn’t always correlate with the size of the giving,” says Heather Grady, a vice president at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. “Because it’s voluntary, funders can spend a lot of money that has virtually no impact—it’s not what’s needed but what they’re interested in.”

We’ve seen how that arbitrary, emotional giving plays out in the outdoor world. In the 2020 book Billionaire Wilderness, sociologist Justin Farrell looks at inequality in the recreation haven of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He shows how the area has some of the nation’s highest rates of charitable giving, but notes that the funds largely go to arts organizations and private-lands trusts that donors have personal connections to—instead of pressing but less sexy issues like social services or housing. 

In other words, large sums of money give people the ability to gatekeep decision-making, but because of their personal bias, that doesn’t necessarily play out well for the greater good. “It’s not that hard to give away a bunch of money, it’s not that hard to do it with that equity lens, but you have to change systems of power and privilege and make sure that dollars get into the hands of people who know best how to use it,” says Kate Roosevelt, executive vice president of Campbell and Company, a Seattle-based philanthropy-research firm.

Farrell also shows that giving can be a greenwashing distraction from the huge carbon footprint these figures and their companies are responsible for. It’s impossible to untangle Bezos’s wealth from its source, the behemoth company that made him rich and which emits more carbon each year than, say, Portugal. And we can assume that his personal footprint is large, too. According to a United Nations report, the top 1 percent of income earners in the world account for 15 percent of emissions. That’s more than the 3.5 billion people in the bottom half. 

A relatively tiny spend for someone like Bezos could alter the course of how we address climate change and what we focus on globally. 

But billionaire philanthropy isn’t going anywhere, and it’s obviously a good thing that some in the one percent are realizing the urgency of the climate crisis. In his original statement about the Earth Fund, Bezos acknowledged that “climate change is the biggest threat to our planet” and said that he wants 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.” Taking him at his word that he wants to help, it’s worth examining how his donations could have the biggest and most equitable impact.

Let’s start with how the Earth Fund has deployed its resources so far. In November, Bezos announced the first round of the organization’s grants: $791 million to 17 groups, including $100 million each to the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund. Yes, that’s a lot of money. Yes, those places are doing important, crucial work. And yes, that money will help them do more. But they’re also among the most established, well-funded environmental organizations, they all do similar kinds of conservation work, and most of them already have budgets in the hundreds of millions. 

The Climate Justice Alliance, a collective of community-based environmental NGOs, released a statement in December railing the Earth Fund for reinforcing existing biases in the environmental world and using money to virtue-signal instead of taking valuable strides. “Less than a quarter of the first-round grants will go to intermediary funds that support thousands of grassroots communities cultivating solutions on the frontlines of the climate emergency,” the statement read. “The inequities couldn’t be more striking.” The alliance wasn’t alone in its anger and frustration. According to Grady of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, well-placed donations to smaller organizations can have exponential impacts. 

Bezos’s funding could have been transformational. And maybe it still will be. But the first round of donations were largely maudlin and uncreative. “The most effective philanthropy occurs when philanthropists seek out strong leaders in all kinds of organizations, then give them a bunch of money unrestricted and say, ‘I trust you.’ But the tendency has been to go with large groups,” Campbell and Company’s Roosevelt says. “That leaves out a huge swath of small organizations, often led by and serving people of color.” 

Those organizations are trying to raise their collective voice. The day after Bezos announced he was stepping back from Amazon to focus on doing good, the Donors of Color network, a group of philanthropists of color, released the Climate Funders Justice Pledge. It asks philanthropists to pledge 30 percent of their giving to BIPOC-led environmental organizations, who have historically only received 1.3 percent of the total donations given to climate organizations, according to a study from the New School. Large funders like the Kresge Foundation have already signed on. The Earth Fund should sign on, too. 

“There is the potential to be funding environmental issues at such a higher level of effectiveness if you find the key community organization and let them lead,” says Savitha Pathi, deputy director of Climate Solutions, a Seattle-based energy-policy nonprofit. That’s what billionaires like Bezos can easily do if they want their money to make the biggest difference. 

There also needs to be transparency about who’s making the decisions and who they’re interacting with. In his November post announcing the Earth Fund’s first round of donations, Bezos mentioned a “group of incredibly smart people” who were guiding his decisions. Pathi says no one outside of Bezos’s inner circle knows who that is exactly. For past initiatives, like his $2 billion homelessness directive, members of Bezos’s team cold-called people they knew to figure out who to donate to, instead of opening up a public channel. That’s problematic, because it limits the scope of who could be reached and the scale at which it could have impact.

So what would I have actually said to Bezos from six feet away at the post office? Limit your own impact. Make sure your team looks outside of its sphere and opens the doors to people and organizations on the front lines of climate change who might otherwise have been outside the conversation. You have an incredible amount of power and money. Money makes change, and we are running out of time.

An earlier version of this story misstated that $10 billion was to 0.5 percent of Jeff Bezos’s wealth. We’ve updated the story to reflect that it is, in fact, 5 percent of his wealth. Outside regrets the error.

Lead Photo: Alex Wong/Getty

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