IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Jeff Bezos' climate change philanthropy has quite a few (hidden) strings attached

The wealthy have a clear incentive to make minor tweaks to the existing system instead of overhauling it to create a truly sustainable society.
Image: Jeff Bezos and the environment
Adrian Lam / NBC News

On Feb. 17, Amazon CEO and occasional richest-man-in-the-world Jeff Bezos announced he was committing $10 billion — 7 to 8 percent of his massive fortune — to an initiative to combat climate change, dubbed the Bezos Earth Fund. Exactly how the funds will be distributed remains to be seen, but Bezos claims money will start flowing this summer in the form of grants to scientists, activists and nonprofit groups for "any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world." It's quite a reversal for the billionaire, who once declared, "The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel."

Bezos' change of heart aligns him with other powerful people. Last year, former Republican New York mayor and current candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination Mike Bloomberg pledged $500 million to shut down coal plants across the United States. Goldman Sachs, the reviled investment bank, said it will invest $750 billion in "sustainable finance projects" over 10 years. And earlier this month, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has around $47 billion in its ever-growing endowment, added climate change to its philanthropic priorities.

It might seem that having wealthy individuals and multinational corporations promising so much money for climate initiatives would be a good thing. But it's much more complicated than just rich people trying to make the planet a better place. Anand Giridharadas, author of "Winner Takes All," has emerged as one of the chief critics of this recent spate of billionaire philanthropy. Giridharadas writes that for all their talk of changing the world through charitable giving, what elites offer is a "fake change" that seeks "to maintain the system that causes many of the problems they try to fix — and their helpfulness is part of how they pull it off. Thus their do-gooding is an accomplice to greater, if more invisible, harm."

In practice, that means it's hard to trust Bezos' pledge when Amazon, the source of his wealth, has been aggressively courting oil and gas companies with its cloud computing services and threatened workers who campaigned for stronger climate action with dismissal. Its push for ever-faster delivery times, as little as one to two days in parts of the country, also comes with an environmental cost.

Then there's the bigger question of why philanthropists are suddenly focusing on the environment. Part of the reason billionaires can swoop in and position themselves as the saviors on so many different issues — climate change being the latest — is that government has failed to take bold action. In the United States, President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement, rolled back plenty of environmental regulations and opened Alaska's wildlife refuge to oil and gas exploration, among other backward measures, but even officials at the lower levels of government aren't doing enough.

Part of the reason billionaires can swoop in and position themselves as the saviors is that government has failed to take bold action.

But U.S. officials are far from the only offenders. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got some good press for implementing a carbon tax, but his government isn't on track to meet its Paris targets, either. Canada also nationalized a pipeline that would increase emissions and facilitate an expansion of Alberta's oil sands, and it is still dealing with crippling rail blockades after federal police forced indigenous land defenders out of the way of yet another pipeline. Meanwhile, politicians in Australia's right-wing government continue to oppose climate action, even in the face of record fires, and the European Union is funding new gas projects despite declaring a climate emergency.

But this lack of vision is not inherent to the public sphere. Rather, Giridharadas argues, it's the product of a broken system captured by notions of "business fundamentalism" and "market worship," in which even those in the public sector believe that the capitalist class must chart the path forward. This is largely the product of a mindset promoted by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and brought into the Democratic Party by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, which devalues the role of government in favor of the private sector.

In 2019, the 500 richest people in the world increased their wealth by $1.2 trillion, an increase of 25 percent in a single year. Also relevant: The richest 10 percent of people worldwide are responsible for nearly half of global emissions. Yet the tax rate paid by American billionaires fell below that of the working class in 2018 — and all their philanthropy actually reduces the tax they pay. Amazon, one of the most valuable companies in the world, paid no federal tax in 2018, instead receiving a $129 million tax refund.

That transfer of wealth has limited the ability of government to respond to social problems while increasing the economic power of billionaires. To some, that may seem like a good thing — we've been told for decades that the private sector is more efficient. But as Giridharadas says: "There is enormous moral difference between five guys deciding to do something and a city deciding to do something. This is something I think you wouldn't have had to explain to people 100 years or 200 years ago when we actually had more faith in the idea of democratic action." By leaving so much to billionaires, democracy is eroded.

The truth is that, in the face of a challenge as immense as climate change, government action is necessary if we want to ensure that our planet remains livable for future generations. In the past, large-scale social and economic transformations have always required government action, whether it was $500 billion to build the Interstate highway system, the creation of the Federal Housing Authority to subsidize homeownership and the suburbanization of the country or, as Sen. Bernie Sanders talked about recently at CNN's Nevada town hall, the restructuring of the U.S. economy to defeat fascism in World War II. These kinds of massive structural changes could not be accomplished by the private sector alone; Bezos' $10 billion wouldn't even cover the cost of New York City's Second Avenue Subway line, let alone a large-scale transformation of the entire country.

This is because, as Giridharadas writes, "changing the world asks more than giving back. It also takes giving something up." That something is the power and wealth billionaires have derived from an economy that privileges growth at all costs and has caused inequality to soar and accelerated the climate crisis. But the wealthy have a clear incentive to make minor tweaks to the existing system instead of overhauling it to create a truly sustainable society. They profit from the world as it is, not as it could be.

That's why billionaires' donations will never be enough. The highways, the suburbs and the victory against the Nazis — just to provide a few examples — are products not of the private sector but of government action. Through state spending, regulatory powers and the tax code, the government set the framework and priorities that businesses then responded to — and if we have any hope of cutting emissions in half by 2030, as the scientists tell us we need to do, we'll need the government to use its power to reset the rules once again.

The Bezos Earth Fund may help shepherd along some new technologies, but billionaire philanthropy will not alter the regulatory structure that created the problem in the first place. For that, we need the government to redirect subsidies from fossil fuels to renewables, change the tax code to penalize unsustainable industries, alter regulations to encourage denser development and ultimately set a framework that's more favorable to workers and communities that have been left behind these past few decades. That's why, regardless of what billionaires do, we need a Green New Deal to chart the path forward.