Future Tense

How Much Can Jeff Bezos’ $10 Billion Do to Fight Climate Change?

Jeff Bezos gestures with open arms as he speaks on a black stage.
Bezos at Amazon’s annual Smbhav event in New Delhi on Jan. 15. Sajjad Hussain/Getty Images

Jeff Bezos is an easy target for the ire of anyone concerned about the climate crisis. Over the past year, Amazon employees have protested and publicly criticized the company’s role in contributing to climate change. When Amazon finally released a report with its carbon emissions in September 2019, it revealed that in 2018, its enterprise-wide carbon footprint totaled 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. These pollution rates—which arise from shipping, packaging, and the data centers that support Amazon Web Services—rival those of a small country or a large power company. While Bezos has responded to rising criticism with Amazon’s “Climate Pledge,” the company is still, as Deborah Gallagher, a professor of the practice of environmental policy at Duke, puts it, “a catalyst to increase consumption.”

On Monday, however, Bezos announced on Instagram that he’s giving at least $10 billion to fight climate change. It’s the first time Bezos, who has done relatively little philanthropy in the past compared with other billionaires, has publicly committed significant personal funds to address the climate crisis. The new Bezos Earth Fund is unrelated to Amazon.

Regardless of the criticisms of his company—and even of Bezos as an individual—it seems uncontroversial that $10 billion is, well, a lot of money. But climate change is a global crisis, and one that requires sustained, meaningful investments, so how much is $10 billion in the grand scheme of things?

“My first reaction is that $10 billion is not going to solve climate change, but that $10 billion is more money than is usually being put into climate change,” said Kenneth Gillingham, a Yale professor. In 2015–16, he also served as senior economist for energy and the environment at the White House Council of Economic Advisers. He added that it’s on the order of what international institutions routinely cobble together for the environment. (The U.N.’s Green Climate Fund, for instance, was recently replenished with $9.8 billion from developed nations.)

Even some who criticize Bezos have acknowledged the significance of the commitment. Lindsay Meiman, senior U.S. communications specialist at international environmental organization 350.org, told me she sees the pledge as “an incredible amount of money.” Meiman said that $10 billion could kick-start the Green New Deal. (Meiman also argued that, if companies like Amazon paid their fair share of taxes, the government could get the Green New Deal off the ground—a sentiment that’s echoed in 350.org’s official statement in response to Bezos’ announcement). But as Gallagher pointed out, just one or two climate-related disasters would exhaust the Bezos money. Hurricane Sandy, for instance, caused at least $70 billion in damages.

Where the money will go is currently unclear, but Bezos said Monday that he will start issuing grants in the summer to scientists, activists, and nongovernmental organizations. Yale professor Daniel Esty, who is the former commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, expects to see this money go toward innovation in public engagement, new technologies, policy frameworks, and clean energy financing. Gillingham thinks a significant portion of the money will go to scientific research that can improve our knowledge of the effects of climate change. “Even a fraction of $10 billion will make an enormous difference there,” Gillingham said, “because it doesn’t take that much money to fund scientists at the end of the day.” He then expects funding to go to activists and NGOs to communicate these findings to the public.

Gallagher, meanwhile, expects Bezos to provide large sums of money to underresourced communities and the environmental NGOs supporting them in order to respond to climate disasters.

Scientific research and infrastructure would be relatively “safe” investments—they’d allow Bezos to address the climate crisis without directly interfering with our normal carbon-consuming lifestyles, including buying things from Amazon (and, as Gallagher mentioned, allowing Amazon Web Services to keep operating). It’s less likely that Bezos will donate with an eye for political mobilization, which would presumably affect his businesses negatively. He could fund groups like 350.org, but why would he support a group whose spokesperson told me that “the demand to make polluters pay for the climate crisis is only going to get louder”?

For now, it’s worth noting that the announcement doesn’t highlight technological solutions, which are the usual route for billionaires who want to address the climate crisis within the existing framework of the market. (Think plant-based burgers.) Instead, Bezos’ wording is surprisingly “action-oriented,” as Gillingham pointed out.

The bottom line is that Bezos’ investment is a pretty significant resource in the fight against the climate crisis. But this only highlights the fact that an individual—in this case, the wealthiest man in the world—has a disproportionate say in how we address the crisis.

Some experts, such as Esty, don’t take issue with this. “I salute Jeff Bezos for making a commitment on this scale,” he said. “One can always raise questions about whether the money is going to be spent well. … But this is always the case—not only in philanthropy but in political processes.” Gillingham is also inclined to see this move as positive, though he noted that “because it’s coming from an individual, that individual’s idiosyncratic views of what’s going to make the most difference are going to entirely determine how the money is spent.”

Others are much more skeptical. Amazon Employees for Climate Justice remains dissatisfied. In a statement, the group called out Bezos’ hypocrisy, since his company continues to support oil and gas companies, funds climate-denying think tanks, and uses diesel trucking. Gallagher believes it is a prime example of “strategic philanthropy,” which directs attention away from the consumption engine Amazon perpetuates. Activist groups also see it as a kind of smoke screen. “Bezos’ decision to spend less than 10 cents of every dollar he has to confront ecological collapse won’t solve the problem,” said Stephen O’Hanlon, the communications director of the Sunrise Movement, “and the system that allows him to amass such extreme wealth in the first place is a big reason why our society didn’t solve the climate crisis 40 years ago when scientists first discovered the problem.”

Ultimately, Gallagher said, the Bezos Earth Fund “sends a signal that powerful corporations and powerful men, [especially] billionaires, can have the power to direct how we might respond to climate change in their interests.” What you take away from that depends on your views on what most philanthropy can be boiled down to: whether you believe individual action can—or should—step in when public policy falls short.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.