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Bezos infuses US$10 billion into climate fight

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Image credit: Brot Mandel / 123rf

The global fight against climate change is to receive a cash infusion to the tune of US$10 billion, courtesy of centibillionaire and tech magnate Jeff Bezos. However, the move has generated controversy.

Climate change is undeniably a major threat to global health and development. India stands to be hard-hit by any number of environmental catastrophes in the coming decades in the absence of decisive action. As previously reported by Health Issues India, “for India, a 1-2℃ temperature rise by 2050 is a best-case scenario if decisive action is taken now. Without action, temperatures could rise by up to 3℃. Such a scenario could have devastating effects on living standards for roughly 600 million Indians and cost India as much as 2.8 percent of its GDP by 2050, according to the World Bank.

“Even a temperature increase of just 1.5℃ could carry severe implications for India. The United Nations predicts a 1.5℃ rise in global temperatures by 2040. For India, impacts could conceivably result in mass displacement due to regions becoming uninhabitable, either through extreme temperatures or flooding due to rising sea levels. The mass migration that would ensue as a result of this displacement would strain food production and the availability of resources. This would be compounded by the effect of inclement climate patterns on crop quality and reserves of groundwater, entailing food and water shortages. Carbon dioxide pollution will only deplete crop quality further, causing malnutrition on an epidemic scale in the years to come.” 

With this in mind, Bezos’s pledge of US$10 billion in the form of the Bezos Earth Fund sounds on the face of it like a boon. In an Instagram post, Bezos said that “this global initiative will fund scientists, activists, NGOs [non-government organisations] – any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world…I’m committing $10 billion to start with and will begin issuing grants this summer.” 

Bezos – whose net worth of more than US$100 billion positions him as the world’s wealthiest man – has come under fire following the announcement of the pledge, however. Many have pointed to the business practices of Amazon – the tech colossus with which Bezos built his extraordinary fortune. Amazon Employees for Climate Justice in a statement released via Twitter “we applaud Jeff Bezos’ philanthropy, but one hand cannot give what the other is taking away. The people of Earth need to know: when is Amazon going to stop helping oil and gas companies ravage Earth with still more oil and gas wells?

“When is Amazon going to stop funding climate-denying think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and climate-delaying policy? When will Amazon take responsibility for the lungs of children near its warehouses by moving from diesel to all-electric trucking?” 

Bezos’s company Amazon has come under fire since the announcement of the Earth Fund over its environmental practices.

Greenpeace has criticised Bezos and his company. In a statement released earlier this week, Elizabeth Jardim, a senior campaigner at Greenpeace USA, acknowledged the Bezos Earth Fund” as “a welcome recognition of the serious threat of climate change.” Yet she went on to comment that “we have major concerns and questions based on Amazon’s environmental track record. It’s hypocritical to announce that climate change is the biggest threat to our planet while at the same time boosting the fossil fuel industry by providing advanced computing technologies to the oil and gas industry so that it can discover and drill more oil, more efficiently. 

“Amazon also still has work to do to ensure its growing network of data centers fully shifts away from fossil fuels, and the company must transparently report its energy use as Google and Apple do. Amazon cannot be a climate champion and help the oil and gas industry drill for more oil, more efficiently. Amazon cannot claim to take the climate crisis seriously, and then threaten to fire employees who speak out on climate. Amazon cannot move climate solutions forward while simultaneously contributing to climate denying think tanks and climate delaying politicians.” 

In The Guardian, Stefan Stern opined that “Amazon is a great devouring beast of a business which has had a massive and not exactly positive impact on the world’s environment.” Meanwhile, in Vox, Sigal Samuel writes “the devil is, as they say, in the details. And Bezos’s announcement is very short on those…depending on where exactly Bezos puts his money, he could have a vastly beneficial effect on the planet — or very little effect at all. 

“There is, however, something Bezos could do right now that would be guaranteed to have a vastly beneficial effect on our climate: He could clean house at his company. Amazon is a mega-polluter, and although Bezos has lately pledged to decrease its carbon footprint in response to pressure from inside and outside the company, there’s a whole lot more he could do…he could make Amazon cut its carbon emissions much more quickly and stop working with oil and gas companies that use its technology to locate new fossil fuel deposits. That may not be as eye-catching as announcing a $10 billion gift on social media, but it would be a surefire win for the environment, whereas Bezos’s donations may or may not prove effective.” Samuel notes that, in 2018, Amazon emitted 44 million metric tonnes of carbon. 

Others have raised logistical concerns about Bezos’s donation. In The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer acknowledges that “this gift is undeniably important. It could, by some estimates, virtually double the amount spent on climate change by American philanthropists today.” However, Meyer goes on to cite Great Circle Capital Advisors managing director Daniel Firger, who argues that “dropping a big, fat check into the water is not necessarily going to make the sharks all swim in the same direction. It’s going to be either a feeding frenzy or a total mess until things get sorted out, and unfortunately we don’t have time to waste.” 

Meyer goes on to note that “the deeper challenge has to do with scale and imagination. There are only so many nonprofits and experts working on climate change. If a successful group has an annual budget of $10 million, then giving it $50 million will not necessarily make it five times as effective. Many helpful projects are probably too small for Bezos.” 

While a US$10 billion infusion into the fight against climate change may provide clear benefits for the fight against climate change, commentators have raised relevant practical concerns and criticisms of Bezos’s company and how it operates. More is sure to come concerning the specifics of how US$10 billion Bezos has pledged will contribute in the fight against climate change. From there, we can ascertain exactly how the pledge will benefit the environment – but no better the benefits, the critiques raised about Amazon and Bezos should be addressed.

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