How to spend Jeff Bezos’s climate change billions

The Amazon founder’s promise of $10bn won’t be enough on its own to prevent environmental catastrophe, but it could change the landscape

19th February, 2020
How to spend Jeff Bezos’s climate change billions
Jeff Bezos said of tackling climate change: “It’s going to take collective action from big companies, small companies, nation states, global organisations, and individuals.”

Jeff Bezos announced this week that he will commit $10 billion to fight climate change. That’s both a lot, and not much at all.

It’s a lot compared with other private climate funding. In fact, it’s more than anyone else is spending on climate. By comparison, the Hewlett Foundation, the single largest private climate funder before Bezos, gives about $100 million a year. Total private US climate giving is about $500 million. Bezos’s commitment, if run as a foundation, would double that amount — more if spent down over time, a good idea in itself.

It’s relatively small compared to the overall challenge. Even $10 billion, spent wisely, won’t “solve” climate change. The US government alone spends more than $2 billion a year on climate-related research funding. Transitioning the global economy away from fossil fuels takes orders of magnitude more.

Bezos, of course, knows that. His brief announcement of the $10 billion commitment said: “It’s going to take collective action from big companies, small companies, nation states, global organisations, and individuals.”

Looked at it slightly differently, it takes both policy and technology — guiding economic forces away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner alternatives. That, at least, is for cutting CO₂ and other greenhouse-gas emissions in the first place. Adapting to what’s already in store is another massive undertaking entirely.

‘Real possibility’

How, then, to spend the money? Bezos himself provides some guide, saying his money will fund “scientists, activists, NGOs — any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.”

The span of scientists and activists is a good start, and it implies two distinct strategies. First, actively engage in raw climate politics, especially in the US. The climate war is just that. That does not mean simply transactional politics. It takes a groundswell of support. Today’s youth-led uprising might well be just such as movement.

Nobody knows when that next opening for a big US federal climate policy push is, or whether the climate movement will be affected by the “3.5 per cent rule” – the idea that no social campaign supported by more than 3.5 per cent of the US population has failed.

But as Barack Obama told Jerry Seinfeld, politics is a lot like American football. That means two things: being ready for when there is an opening, and helping create that opening in the first place. Surely, $10 billion can help do both.

This is likely to entail creating a charity that can lobby directly. Yes, there is too much money in US politics. But given how time is not on our side, having the first grants go out this summer is not a day too soon. It might still be too late for this election cycle, but the calculus is simple, and it is very transactional: 51 per cent for an ambitious climate policy in the House of Representatives; 51 votes in the Senate, ideally 60. A climate champion in the White House, too, of course.

Raw politics

All that also means raw partisan politics. There are clearly some worthwhile efforts on the Republican side — and the final outcome may well involve some bipartisan support, but only some. Current Republican proposals of climate policy without pricing or regulating CO₂ won’t cut it.

Pushing climate policy to price carbon and to use public spending for a concerted push on research, development, deployment, demonstration and diffusion of new, cleaner, leaner technologies is the most high-leverage way to make $10 billion go even further. It might also take much less than $10 billion.

What to do with the rest? That’s the second priority, and it’s the one that directly includes the natural scientists on Bezos’s list of intended recipients: direct private philanthropy aimed at making individual alternatives to fossil energy cheaper.

That is also where things get hard, even compared with climate politics. There is no easy answer beyond also involving activists, NGOs and social scientists, well beyond just lab scientists. Technologies aren’t operating in a policy vacuum, after all.

Experimentation

The beauty of Bezos’s billions is that the money allows for quite a bit of experimentation, including the inevitable failures.

There are plenty of dangers along the way. One is to focus too much on one technology, or only one element in the long chain from idea to market. There is similar danger in distorting the overall climate policy and technology landscape with one person’s preferences. Imagine a crazed billionaire spending $1 billion on deploying solar geoengineering now. Serious research to the tune of $10 million or perhaps $20 million per year is more than justified. Even “just” $100 million could tilt advocacy much too quickly into one direction.

Similarly, Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All, has some potent critiques pointing to many more problems every step along the way. For one, the lack of democratic accountability of individual’s philanthropy is a real issue.

Huge burden

A further problem is the public subsidising philanthropic giving via tax breaks, without any direct say in how the money is spent.

It takes a lot of effort to spend money wisely. One oft-overlooked inefficiency in philanthropic giving is how much effort it takes to attract funds. Many recipients vying for limited funds almost surely means that those recipients try to outspend each other.

For some universities such as Harvard, famed for their fundraising prowess, that means hundreds of staffers working on fundraising strategies and events. Most university presidents and deans, and leaders of NGOs, spend more time on fundraising than on anything else.

It should indeed cost some money to get money. But if nothing else, Bezos’s $10 billion, at once doubling current US climate philanthropy, should take a huge burden off those vying for funds. That alone might make a large difference in the climate fight, where time is of the essence.

Bezos’s $10 billion alone cannot do it all. Nothing alone does. But despite all the very real limitations and problems, the one thing the climate movement needs to be able to do is take a win, and move on to the next level.

Gernot Wagner writes the Risky Climate column for Bloomberg Green. He teaches at New York University and is a co-author of Climate Shock

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