When Jeff Bezos — Amazon’s CEO and the richest person alive — announced his new $10 billion Bezos Earth Fund on Tuesday, he said he would start doling out that cash to scientists, NGOs, and activists as early as this summer. There aren’t a ton of details yet about what kind of charitable giving the Bezos Earth Fund will be focused on, but researchers and advocacy groups have a few ideas for how all that green could be spent.
We spoke with leading environmental organizations and scientists about what that $10 billion could accomplish. While it represents just under 8 percent of Bezos’ net worth, the sum alone is 10 times as much as foundations across the globe gave in 2018 to try to stop climate change. In the US, just $500 million in grants is given to climate efforts each year, Noah Deich, executive director of the nonprofit Carbon 180, told.
“Climate change was a tiny, tiny fraction of philanthropy and I think compared to its importance, it’s just way out of proportion,” Philip Duffy, the president and executive director of the Woods Hole Research Center, said. “So this is a really, really welcome development.”
While the funding could be a huge windfall for some, other activists pointed out that Bezos’ efforts to stop the dangerous effects of climate change might be better pointed inward — at what Amazon could be doing to minimize its damage to the environment.
“Bezos is a tycoon whose company is inherently unsustainable and damaging to the planet and people,” Sen Oglesby, 17-year-old finance coordinator for the activist group Extinction Rebellion Youth New York, said in an email . “While this sum of money is huge, it comes with the caveat that Amazon continues to exacerbate the issue Bezos is donating to fix.”
Investing in science
How much climate change can we handle? That’s a central question to the climate crisis, according to Duffy. Researchers need to understand what the world will look like under differing degrees of warming. Which cities will be underwater? How big of a punch will future superstorms pack? The answers to those questions can help people figure out how to adapt to the altered world.
“The research should be aimed at understanding the big, big threats,” Duffy says. That includes extreme weather, vanishing ice sheets pushing sea levels up, and greenhouse gases from melting permafrost amplifying global warming.
An international consortium to track and reduce greenhouse gas emissions could be another use of Bezos’ money, according to Rob Jackson, a professor at Stanford and chair of the Global Carbon Project research program. His response to Bezos’ announcement was “gratitude and excitement, whether I see a penny of it or not.”
Powering NGO projects
Plenty of groups are already working out ways to alleviate the worst effects of fires, floods, and other disasters made worse by climate change.
Some groups want to pull planet-heating gases out of the air. That could come through nature-based solutions like preserving and restoring forests. $1 could plant one new tree in a damaged forest, the Arbor Day Foundation said. Other massive tree-planting campaigns have garnered high-profile endorsements from YouTube stars, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Donald Trump, and The World Economic Forum.
Bezos’ cash could also potentially go a long way toward making devices that remove carbon dioxide from emissions as they waft out of smokestacks or draw it down directly from the atmosphere. Microsoft made an eyebrow-raising announcement just last month to spend $1 billion to remove all of the carbon dioxide it has emitted since the company was founded. While that was dramatic, Bezos funneling his cash into this arena could be an even bigger catalyst. $10 billion could help get close to avoiding 1 Gt of carbon dioxide emissions, which would be a 20-fold jump in how much carbon is captured and stored globally each year, according to CarbFix, a carbon storage initiative funded by the European Union.
The surest way to slow down climate change is to stop burning as many fossil fuels in the first place. To avoid worst-case scenarios, the world needs to cut emissions in half by 2030 and nearly eliminate them by 2050, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. To do that, Bezos’ money could speed the shift to wind and solar energy, build the infrastructure and batteries needed for clean power, and build a new generation of electric cars, according to the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council.
Activists aren’t as impressed
Amazon employees and activists have long sought to hold Amazon accountable for its environmental footprint. That includes the air pollution it generates to get packages from distribution centers to online shoppers’ front doors. They’ve also criticized Amazon for providing cloud services to fossil fuel companies. Environmental organization 350.org and Amazon Employees for Climate Justice both responded to Bezos’ announcement by urging him to fulfill demands to slash Amazon’s greenhouse gas emissions and stop doing business with Big Oil and Gas.
“While Bezos’s announcement yesterday is a testament to the power of neighbors, workers, small business owners, and others who demanded change from Amazon, we are not satisfied with modest philanthropy from the richest man on planet Earth,” Dania Rajendra, director of the Athena coalition, which brings together organizations pushing back against the company’s labor and environmental practices. “Instead of applauding Amazon hypocritically throwing money at a crisis the corporation is exacerbating in the first place, our communities will hold them accountable.”
Despite the criticism, activist groups haven’t ruled out accepting some of Bezos’ cash. “It’s better his extreme wealth sits with organizations like the Climate Justice Alliance and Sunrise than in some offshore tax haven,” Stephen O’Hanlon, communications director of the climate activist group Sunrise Movement, said in an email.
Extinction Rebellion Youth NYC, who called Bezos a “tycoon,” pointed out that a grant from Bezos’ fund could go toward legal support for activists who were arrested during their direct actions. The group raised $5,000 to fund protests during New York City’s Fashion Week earlier this month. “For youth groups especially, even a fraction of that money could accomplish more than imaginable,” Extinction Rebellion’s Oglesby says.