Andrew Steer is one of the most powerful people in climate philanthropy. Formerly the head of the World Resources Institute, he was the first public hire of the $10 billion Bezos Earth Fund. Started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the fund has reshaped the philanthropic landscape around climate. At $791 million, its first round of grants in 2020 equaled half of all climate grants awarded the year before. Steer—whose background I wrote about earlier this year—now helps direct this massive firehose of money. It’s a time-limited assignment: in line with the need to halve emissions by 2030 to limit the damage wreaked by climate change, the fund will spend all its funds during this “decisive decade,” as the World Bank veteran puts it.
I spoke with Steer last week to learn about the fund’s second and latest round of grants, the fund’s priorities and what’s next. See IP’s related story for more coverage and context. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Justice40 is potentially a huge sort of pivot for the federal government. We need to, and we want to, take climate justice and environmental justice seriously. It just seemed to us that this was an opportunity that needed to be seized. It’s actually a very difficult thing that the federal government has set itself to do. There are all kinds of definitional issues, but then there are all kinds of control issues—channeling funds, and so on.
We’ve been having some really interesting discussions, both with the administration, but then also, of course, with environmental justice groups. We obviously spent a lot of time talking to leaders of big groups, small groups, international groups, American groups, local groups. We knew the [Bezos Earth Fund’s] previous grantees, but also got to know a whole new set of people that are doing exciting work. We would talk to the administration, people like Shalanda Baker at the [Department of Energy], who is charged with thinking through Justice40. We had very good conversations with her and the White House, as well, a whole range of people there that are working on this.
With these latest gifts, the Bezos Earth Fund has given roughly 30% of its grants to date to environmental justice groups, which historically have gotten a tiny share of climate philanthropy. Are you targeting a certain level of support to such groups during the course of the fund?
No, we don’t have any particular target number. What we do have is target impact. The important thing to remember is that all of our projects, all of our grants, need to take climate justice seriously.
For example, in the previous round, $30 million was given to support WRI for creating the momentum to electrify the 480,000 school buses in this country. What does that have to do with climate justice? Well, it has actually a lot to do with it. If you come from a poor county, if you are from an area of color, you will go to school breathing air that is seven to 10 times less healthy than you would breathe even in your own home. And you are suffering air pollution the equivalent of seriously polluted cities, like New Delhi.
That’s just one example, but obviously, that applies internationally as well as it does in the United States. For example, the work that we are doing on monitoring land use change, for example. What’s the reason to do it? Actually, in Africa and many parts of the world, such data can be used to offset and countervail the extremely unfair impacts of environmental damage on poor communities. What we do target is the impact. We are not targeting particular percentages.
So do you have a target for impact versus funding? For instance, Justice40, as its name indicates, targets 40% of its benefits to disadvantaged communities.
We are not planning to do that, no. But again, we will be working strongly with these groups that we admire very much. It is morally quite wrong the way that disadvantaged areas have been adversely affected much worse than privileged areas by [environmental damage]. This is true all over the world; we’ve known it for a long time, it’s time something be done about it. But that’s not the only reason to invest. The other reason is that, actually… these front-line communities are in many, many instances the best-equipped to drive solutions. There are very, very strong reasons to engage like this, and that’s why Jeff Bezos is so committed to it.
What’s the fund’s approach to determining what to support?
We believe that there are actually no silver bullets. We believe that it’s a jigsaw puzzle. Basically, all the problems that we and many others are trying to address require different, often multi-stakeholder, coalitions to act. We simply want to figure out where we can be most helpful within that.
If you look at our early grants, you’ll see that, in some instances, it will require sort of basic research: the work that we’re supporting in the Salk Institute with crops, coaxing them to absorb more carbon. At the other end of the spectrum, it could be political lobbying and policy engagement. In between, a whole range of possible issues, from making markets, as we are, for example, with seaweed with [the World Wildlife Fund]. It could be monitoring, supporting satellite monitoring of methane emissions. In other areas, it could be helping to manage risks, to de-risk things. There’s a whole set of types of interventions. What we’re in the business of doing is really trying to think through where we could be most helpful.
The way we think about this decisive decade is that we obviously need to see some pretty radical changes in big sectors. It’s obvious we need to see radical changes in big sectors, it’s obvious we need to see radical change in energy, in the built environment, in food systems, in manufacturing and in consumption. Within each of those, there are maybe four or five sub-transitions. These, in and of themselves, are big: getting rid of the internal combustion engine, investing in the hydrogen economy, halving food loss and waste this decade, switching diets toward plant-based. There are about 40 or 50 such transitions.
The question is: Where are they on the journey? Some of them are doing great. Wind power in Texas doesn’t need any help from us. We need to learn from transitions that are going very well. Others might be stuck in the mud—and might need pretty robust engagement. It could be a lack of politics. Some will be needing that technological improvement. What we’re doing is using the Systems Change Lab to sort of monitor these transitions and take a fairly serious and diagnostic approach as to where we inject funds and how, and how much. It’s very early days for us; we’re still at the formative stage.
How are you approaching staffing a $10 billion fund from the ground up? How big are you now, and how big do you want or need to get?
We have no ambitions to become big. We would expect to, by the end of this year, maybe have 30 people on board. In addition to regular staff, we’re also benefiting from what we’re going to be calling Bezos Earth Fund fellows. Those are people who will have regular jobs, but will be available to advise us, often on the more scientific and highly technical aspects of things. We’re certainly not planning to become a large-staffed organization. We want to really maintain a flexible, very high-quality spirit of team.
The benefit of staying small but very high-quality in terms of staff is that one has to also then be a good team player outside of our organization. We want to be able to identify who out there has the best ideas—and we want to work with them. We’re willing to lead, but we’re also willing to follow. We want to be a good team player. We want to be able to inject funds and influence at whatever level is appropriate for the problem we’re trying to solve. We want to be able to do that flexibly and quickly and with impact.
Most of the fund’s giving so far has been to U.S.-based groups. Will that change? And if so, do you see yourself doing direct granting to international groups?
We are the Earth Fund. We are therefore committed to support activities around the world. If you think about three types of investments—one would be within the United States, for the United States: electrifying America’s school buses, Justice40.
There’s another set that would be for other countries. For example, in the first round, very exciting work by [the World Wildlife Fund] and [the Nature Conservancy] for work in Latin America. It’s important to recognize that because the funds may have gone to organizations that are based here, often, much of that money then gets dispersed to frontline organizations in Latin America, for example.
There’s a third bucket that is, if you like, the global public goods. Satellite technology to measure land use change and carbon flux. And that benefits the world. We don’t have targets for these three, but it’s a helpful way of thinking about things. I had much of my career internationally, and I think one of the reasons that Jeff kindly asked me to come and do this job is precisely because we do want to have an international impact. We certainly will be making grants to organizations outside of the United States.
The Biden administration has to date focused on accelerating the climate transition through investment rather than slowing or stopping new fossil fuel infrastructure. Does the Bezos Earth Fund see opposition to fossil fuel expansion as a priority?
That’s quite possible. Bear with us, these are early days. We are recruiting a director of energy. You’ll have to forgive us if at this stage, we don’t have sort of a 10-year strategy.
One way of thinking about this is the notion that we’re on a path and we know it’s not a smart path. It’s actually difficult incrementally to get to another path. It’s called path dependency, actually. A hundred years ago, we embarked on a path where we really designed our cities for automobiles rather than people. We’ve got all that locked in—capital and vested interests. To move from one path to another requires non-incremental change. We will be spending time thinking about how to encourage that.
The Bezos Earth Fund’s first round of grants was equal to half of all grants by climate philanthropy in 2019. That makes you an enormous player in the field. How do you think about that role?
I weigh it with a great spirit of humility, actually. And at the same time, we do want to ask ourselves the question: are there ways that we can operate because we are larger that can be helpful to the community as a whole? So on one level, a genuine spirit of humility—and a feeling of privilege to be stewards of this unbelievable gift. Just because it’s a lot of money doesn’t mean that we can be careless. We need to be good stewards of every dollar, and make sure that every dollar leverages real change.