Jeff Bezos’ surprise pledge this week to donate $10 billion of his personal fortune to non-profits fighting climate change is one of the largest single philanthropic gifts in recent memory. Giving away about 7.7 percent of his net worth, currently estimated at $130 billion, is no small thing. It shows that climate change is a higher priority to Bezos than any other philanthropic initiative he funds, at least by the numbers.
But when you are the richest person in the world, leading the world’s largest online retailer and a pioneering space venture, there are a number of levers you can pull to affect change. Even with the major environmental initiatives announced by the company last year, critics and activists say Bezos could do more to curb the climate crisis by making more sweeping changes in business practices at the company he founded.
We connected with philanthropy and environmental experts to find out.
The Bezos Earth Fund: This week, Bezos unveiled his environmental plan in an Instagram post. He pledged to donate $10 billion in grants to “scientists, activists, NGOs — any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.” Bezos plans to provide the first grants this summer. Amazon and Bezos have declined to provide further details, but a source close to the fund told GeekWire that the donation model will likely mirror the Day 1 Families Fund. Under that initiative, Bezos provides grants to non-profits that help families experiencing homelessness. Bezos is unusually hands-off for a philanthropy funder, which some grant recipients have lauded. The grant program is one half of the $2 billion Day 1 Fund Bezos launched in 2018. The other arm of the program is developing a network of tuition-free Montessori preschools.
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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
Bezos’ impact: David Callahan, editor of Inside Philanthropy, called the donation “a game-changing amount of money that could dramatically expand work by nonprofits and scientists on climate change.”
It’s difficult to measure that impact, however, without more details about the fund. That’s according to Stacy Palmer, editor of the independent news organization The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
“$10 billion is a giant figure and so just by itself, that makes a big difference,” she said. “But if it’s $10 billion that’s going to be spent over 20 years, that’s really different than $10 billion spent in one year for immediate projects or for research or for advocacy.”
When asked about the timeline, the source close to the fund said Bezos is known for moving quickly and nimbly.
Christiana Figures, a climate change advocate who advises governments and international organizations around the world, celebrated Bezos’ pledge on Twitter.
Just returning from Antarctica where it is evident that financial commitments like this one are both necessary and urgent. Only one planet Earth. Hope this will inspire others to follow suit. @JeffBezos #GlobalOptimism https://t.co/EWPFPvFjCy
— Christiana Figueres (@CFigueres) February 18, 2020
Yes, but: Environmental activists claim Bezos could have a greater impact by changing the business practices at the company he founded. Critics have honed in Amazon’s cloud deals that help fossil fuel companies drill and produce oil more efficiently, in particular.
“The first step that Jeff Bezos should be taking is pulling Amazon out of all contracts and deals with the fossil fuel industry,” said Thanu Yakupitiyage, head of U.S. communications at 350.org, a global climate justice organization. “That should be the first step. Then I think climate and environmental advocates will actually take his $10 billion more seriously.”
Greenpeace issued a statement and Twitter thread, criticizing Amazon’s environmental impact and the company’s attempts to suppress employee activists.
“Amazon cannot be a climate champion and help the oil and gas industry drill for more oil, more efficiently,” said Greenpeace senior campaigner Elizabeth Jardim in a statement. “Amazon cannot claim to take the climate crisis seriously, and then threaten to fire employees who speak out on climate.”
Amazon’s annual carbon emissions make it one of “the top 150 or 200 emitters in the world,” Bruno Sarda, president of the environmental nonprofit CDP North America, told the New York Times last year.
Blue Origin did not respond to questions about its carbon footprint.
How the fund stacks up: The Bezos Earth Fund is one of the top three largest single philanthropic gifts in at least the past 20 years, according to Palmer. She said the donation tracks with the philanthropic history of another Seattle tech tycoon who has held the title of richest person in the world.
Like Bezos, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates spent decades building his company and accumulating wealth before turning to philanthropy in a more serious way. Both men faced criticism early on for their slow approach to philanthropy — and both started giving large sums as their companies faced antitrust scrutiny from federal regulators.
“With Bezos, it’s been really kind of slow,” Palmer said. “People have criticized him a lot for not giving very much, especially compared to his wealth … and people were like that about Gates, as well, when he first started giving,” Palmer said. “He gave to things that he knew about pretty well, things like libraries, spreading that kind of technology. It was minor, it was small compared to his wealth, and then all of a sudden he started giving in a big way.”
In context: Bezos’ announcement comes after months of Amazon employees agitating for more comprehensive environmental policies at the company. Amid the employee activism, Amazon announced new sustainability goals in September and unveiled its carbon footprint for the first time: 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent released in 2018.
The company pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040, a decade ahead of the deadline set by the Paris Accord. Amazon plans to use 80 percent renewable energy by 2030. The company is investing heavily in renewable energy sources, like wind power.
Amazon unveiled its Climate Pledge the day before employees walked out of the company’s Seattle headquarters to participate in the Global Climate Strike. Bezos announced his new fund the day before the airing of a Frontline exposé on the “Amazon Empire.”
Big picture: Environmental activists say the changes inside Amazon and Bezos’ new fund are not proportionate to the scale of the problem.
“Billionaires can pour billions of dollars into anything but really, it’s about what is going to be the effective solutions to the climate crisis, particularly given that we have about 10 years to really turn this around,” Yakupitiyage, of 350.org, said. “There are so many other options. Amazon could pay $10 billion in taxes to the government to fund the Green New Deal. We want to know how these private entities want to work on the overall economic transformation that we need in the U.S.”
The internal activist group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice celebrated the company’s climate pledge and Bezos Earth Fund — but said neither goes far enough in addressing the crisis.
“We applaud Jeff Bezos’ philanthropy, but one hand cannot give what the other is taking away,” the group said in a statement. “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?”