Philanthropy in itself, of course, isn’t a bad thing, and Bezos should be applauded for contributing to one of the most important causes in the world. Yet the power that billionaire philanthropists can wield—not to mention the income inequality surrounding it—has faced significant backlash, as noted in a recent WIRED profile of Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff who has made hundreds of millions in donations. Benioff’s entire fortune isn’t even worth what Bezos pledged “to start” to his Earth Fund. That one man with one check can reshape the fight against climate change for years, if not decades, by signing away not even a tenth of his personal fortune is terrifying.
It means he gets to decide what issues and projects may be prioritized over others. For example, it’s not clear if Bezos will be willing to fight the fossil fuel industry directly, which Amazon counts as an important customer. When Bezos announced an ambitious new plan for his company to reduce its carbon footprint in September, the CEO said Amazon’s cloud computing division would nonetheless continue working with oil and gas providers.
“Anyone who’s serious about taking on climate change has to be serious about taking on the fossil fuel industry, because they’re the ones blocking progress,” says Bill McKibben, a prominent environmentalist and the founder of the climate change organization 350.org. For the Amazon CEO to directly oppose his counterparts in another industry, McKibben adds, “That would require a kind of class betrayal on Bezos’ part—it will be interesting to see if he’s capable of it.”
Nearly every researcher WIRED spoke to emphasized they wanted Bezos to take a hands-off approach, refraining from letting his ego dictate where the money goes, as plenty of rich men have in the past. Some worried that Bezos, a billionaire enthralled by space travel, might focus on flashy futuristic innovations rather than what can be done quickly to stall the planet from getting hotter.
“Will Bezos truly be wise and humble and put this money in the hands of people who have really been thinking about this a long time or not? I don’t know,” says Jonathan Foley, an environmental scientist and the executive director of Project Drawdown, which studies solutions to climate change. “But the potential is high.”
Foley thinks the Bezos Earth Fund should invest quickly in solutions that already exist today. Millions of natural gas furnaces across the country could be replaced with energy-efficient heat pumps, for example, or harmful gas leaks could be plugged. “If Bezos could focus $10 billion on critical technologies that are available right now, he could make them scale, he could make them cheap, he could make them widespread,” notes Foley. “Now is better than new.”
Leah Stokes, a professor studying climate and environmental politics at UC Santa Barbara, hopes Bezos uses the funds to strategically involve governments, which Amazon would benefit from too. New public infrastructure projects could help to optimize its logistics networks for delivering packages, for example. There are also plenty of more fundamental benefits. “If you think about these big Silicon Valley companies, they’re all on the coast,” says Stokes. “They’re all going to be affected by sea level rise, that’s not going to be good for their corporations.”
Climate change, in many ways, is a structural issue. Solving it will require cooperation on a global scale, and sacrificing short-term benefits for the broader future of humanity. “We need to think about why we’re facing such a dire climate crisis in the first place,” says Justin Farrell, a sociology professor at Yale University and the author of the forthcoming book Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West. “Who has benefited from the destruction of the Earth and the climate?”
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