Bezos largest donor to climate action

This week, on Nov. 16, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos became the biggest private donor of climate action. The $10 billion fund, called the Bezos Earth Fund, sent out its first grants of $791 million to 16 different environmental organizations. The grants will back research and efforts to reduce carbon emissions that are said to be human-caused climate change.

Additionally, they also focus on adding eco-friendly jobs and restoring wildlife. This contribution makes Bezos the world’s biggest backer of climate activism. He single-handedly raised the total amount of climate-related charitable funding in the US by around 11%.

In February of 2020, Bezos referred to climate change as “the biggest threat to our planet.” And, in another post, he said “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.”

The earth’s second-richest person, Bill Gates, has regularly written about climate on his Gates Notes blog. This year the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the world’s largest private foundations, also added climate action to its to-do list.

Are the motives correct?

But not surprisingly, Bezos generosity also brought criticism.

Angela Mahecha Adrar, executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance commented on it. “This is representative of the kind of leadership Bezos is providing, which is big and clumsy and misinformed.” The donations, she said, are “big investments in outdated, conservation-style organizations that are not resolving climate at the rate we need.”

Who will get the money?

The organizations set to receive the donations all have solid reputations for climate action. The largest grants will go to Washington DC environmental groups, including the World Resources Institute (WRI), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). But according to critics, the list of familiar organizations is precisely the problem.

It’s true that five $100 million donations from Bezos went to well-established organizations. But grants were also given to lesser-known groups too. Included are those focused on environmental justice, like The Solutions Project, Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice, and Dream Corps’ Green for All.

Most of the bigger organizations focus on tech-savvy approaches to curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Of those, there are two emissions-monitoring satellite systems, electric school buses, and carbon capture on farms and forests.

While these are perfectly worthy enterprises, they don’t focus on labor issues and climate justice. They are the issues that tend to be priorities for the smaller, grassroots groups. Of the $791 million, $151 million will go to groups classified by the Earth Fund as focused on climate justice issues.

Bezos stated in an Instagram post, that he spent the past several months learning about the grantees’ work in depth. He said that they’re “working on innovative, ambitious and needle-moving solutions” to climate action. The $791 million worth of grants issued Monday is “just the beginning” of the Earth Fund’s $10 billion commitment, Bezos said.

Other reasons for donations to climate action?

Early this year, thousands of Amazon workers signed an open letter to Bezos and Amazon’s board of directors, pressuring them to end contracts with oil and gas companies, end support to climate-change-denying lawmakers, and set measurable goals.

There is the issue that Amazon’s 10,000-mile supply chain gives it a huge carbon footprint. Its businesses produced 51.17 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2019. While that was a 15% increase from the previous year, Amazon’s net sales rose 22% over the same period. Given these figures, its “carbon intensity,” the carbon dioxide produced per dollar of sales did decrease.

amazon jet with boxes

But Matthew Nisbet, a professor of environmental communication at Northeastern University who has studied climate philanthropy commented. He claims it’s not clear the donations will do enough to offset the impact of Amazon’s own operations. The Earth Fund, he thinks, is designed to “help distract away from concerns about Amazon’s track record on labor rights and emissions.”

Nevertheless, Bezos has recently made climate-oriented goals a key focus at Amazon. In addition, The Amazon Climate Pledge objective is to make its businesses “net carbon zero” by the year 2040. The Climate Pledge is separate from the Bezos Earth Fund. The company is transparent about its emissions. Amazon has also purchased electric delivery vans and invested $10 million to help conserve or restore forests in the U.S. Northeast.

Another part of its pledge involves the purchase of 100,000 more emissions-free electric vehicles from Rivian. Amazon is investing hundreds of millions of dollars into the Michigan-based company.

green electric vehicles for climate action
Amazon Prime electric van rendering by Rivian

Bezos donations a conflict of interest?

Matthew Nisbet added that accepting Amazon-related grant funding sets up potential conflicts of interest for organizations big and small. Especially those who are addressing labor rights and climate justice. These are said to be of equal or greater significance than reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and climate action.

“The organizations that are best able to hold Bezos accountable for his climate track record are now taking a significant portion of their income from Bezos.” Jenny Powers, a spokesperson for NRDC, said in an email that “we have not, nor would we ever, consider accepting funds that in any way impede our ability to pursue advocacy that’s essential to our mission and goals.”

For a nonprofit, it can be difficult to say no to the money, regardless of the source. But these gifts, even if they are spread over five years, will make up a major portion of the groups’ revenues.

The donations will be used for good, but is it enough?

It can be seen that many times, money donated doesn’t have a pure agenda, but the organizations need to stick to their mission regardless. Interestingly, all of the recipient groups are 501(c)3 nonprofits. Meaning, they are legally prohibited from being involved in political campaigns, or even appearing biased.

Time will tell what the motivation for this is, but on the surface, it seems like a move in the right direction. It rightfully can be said that it is overdue for someone with the power and amount of money that Bezos has.


Written by Jay Weaver, published 11/28/2020

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