Jeff Bezos at Amazon Spheres grand opening in Seattle, 2018. Seattle City Council from Seattle, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Jeff Bezos at Amazon Spheres grand opening in Seattle, 2018. Seattle City Council from Seattle, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this year, ClimateWorks Foundation released its best guesses at how much money individuals and foundations are giving to avert climate catastrophe. By its count, in 2019, every foundation grant on the issue in the entire world totaled more than $1.6 billion. Individual giving brought the overall total to maybe $9 billion, but possibly only half that, given uncertainties in the data.

Looming over that analysis was Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. In February, he had announced in a 127-word Instagram post that he was going to spend $10 billion to fight climate change. He did not say how fast the money would go out the door. But even if he spent it at the foundation payout rate of 5%—i.e., the slowest rate conceivable given the urgency of the threat—he would give out $500 million a year, making him the largest single climate funder in the world.

As the climate world awaited more details of this potentially game-changing funding shift, only legal filings shed any glimmer of light on the proceedings. His post had promised the first grants would be issued this summer, but as COVID-19 presumably kept him and his company busy (and drove record profits), that deadline came and went. Frustration with Bezos swelled along with his fortune, as Amazon has provided the world’s richest person with a windfall during the pandemic. Meanwhile, one report found that most of his personal political donations have gone to Senate Republicans, a consistent obstacle to climate action.

This week, Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic reported the first details of Bezos’s climate giving, citing two anonymous sources who work in climate philanthropy. And so far, it seems the fund’s strategy is unfolding as could be expected—huge chunks of money going to big green NGOs, mostly white-led, that have dominated the environmental funding space for decades.

Bezos will give $100 million each to five international green groups, according to Meyer’s report. Recipients include four of the most well-known and well-funded environmental groups in the world, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, as well as the World Resources Institute. The Nature Conservancy, the largest of the groups, raised more than $1 billion in total revenue and support in 2019.

Bezos will also give between $10 million to $50 million each to four smaller groups, including two of the most influential organizations in the small world of climate philanthropy, ClimateWorks and the Energy Foundation, as well as the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Union of Concerned Scientists, reports Meyer.

Even more funding is reportedly on the way. “This list does not reflect the complete range of organizations that the Earth Fund has been speaking with and that will be receiving grants from the fund in this initial round—stay tuned,” an Earth Fund spokesperson told Meyer.

No surprises

For someone who has reshaped American and global commerce by doing things differently, it is notable that Bezos’s first round of climate philanthropy—which totals as much as $700 million, or 7% of his total pledge—appears to focus on the largest and most established players in the space. While these traditional environmental groups still hold great sway in the field, this round of giving feels almost like it’s from another decade—the days when polar bears and glaciers dominated climate discourse instead of the economic and justice lens that dominates today. (The Union of Concerned Scientists, NRDC and ClimateWorks declined to comment, while other recipients did not respond to a request for comment by press time.)

While subsequent details could reveal a wider portfolio, these initial commitments suggest Bezos favors a more technocratic, environmentalist lens on climate action, and is not persuaded by the growing number of more intersectional and movement-focused strategies in the climate space. So-called big greens loom large and do important work in the environmental field, having won many legal and policy victories in conservation and pollution reduction over the decades. But they largely represent a moderate, industry-friendly approach that has thus far failed to yield lasting results in U.S. climate policy. EDF is the environmental group of choice for corporate America, and for a decade, The Nature Conservancy’s CEO was a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who favored private sector solutions (he stepped down from the organization last year in the wake of a scandal over discriminatory treatment of employees, especially women).

Meanwhile, younger and more radical efforts like the Sunrise Movement, 350.org, and a range of local-level fossil fuel divestment and climate justice movements have seized the climate narrative. Of course, given Bezos’s background running a tech giant, the services Amazon provides to major industries, and the company’s checkered history with organized labor efforts, a preference for tech- and business-oriented approaches by its founder comes as little surprise.

Setting aside the debate over the efficacy of these grantees, Bezos’s huge support for them will likely widen funding disparities in the field that have been a source of frustration for many years, unless his future giving takes a substantially different tack. As Naeema Muhammed of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN) memorably said in a 2017 report on climate funding: “The big green groups can get any amount of money that they request, but the groups that are on the ground—the ones that are down in the trenches—we get the crumbs off the table.”

There are some understandable reasons Bezos might have gone this direction. For one, the groups chosen almost all operate internationally. At a time when some climate funders have cut back or even ceased funding work in the United States, citing the political environment or the relative opportunities elsewhere, Bezos may be calculating that projects in other parts of the world offer the best leverage for his dollars. Also, Bezos needs to move a lot of money. Conventional wisdom dictates that only a very large organization can quickly absorb and leverage a nine-figure gift.

Yet, as we’ve previously highlighted, there are also a growing number of environmental justice networks and intermediary funds—the Solutions Project, the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, Climate Justice Alliance, Heartland Fund, and others—that support donors in parceling out funds to smaller-scale frontline organizations. Large foundations like MacArthur have been challenging their past assumptions that only groups with large budgets can handle large grants, which inherently skews giving toward already well-heeled groups. Further, emerging mega-donors like Jack Dorsey and MacKenzie Scott are demonstrating that it’s apparently quite easy to move large amounts to many smaller recipients (although Scott’s climate giving so far has tread a similarly well-worn path).

It should be acknowledged that some of the named recipients do engage in advocacy and policy work, albeit largely with a different lens than grassroots and frontline groups. ClimateWorks and the Energy Foundation fund such work, and perhaps Bezos’s funding will support more such efforts.

Finally, it’s impossible to ponder Bezos’s philanthropy without acknowledging that it presents a sobering reminder of today’s staggering levels of inequality. As my colleague Tate Williams observed upon the original announcement of Bezos’s $10 billion pledge, it represented both “too little of his accumulated wealth and too much potential influence.”

Bezos and Amazon’s history with the recipients 

For the richest man in the world, Bezos has only recently become serious about philanthropy. As recently as six years ago, a $20 million commitment was his biggest contribution to date. Subsequent gifts have, like this one, come sporadically, typically announced via social media. But through that philanthropy and other interactions, he does have history with several of the named organizations.

For The Nature Conservancy, which has a long list of corporate partnerships, this new gift is not even the first time it’s received $100 million from the Bezos sphere of influence. In September, Amazon donated that sum to the multinational nonprofit to form the Right Now Climate Fund, which aims to restore and protect forests, wetlands and peatlands to help pull carbon from the atmosphere.

The first gift from that fund went to the conservancy and two partners to help owners of small and mid-sized forests earn money on carbon credit markets. The gifts are part of a broader push by Amazon to reach “net zero carbon” emissions by 2040, though a report in the MIT Technology Review warned that the efforts may overstate potential savings and lack sufficient tracking.

One of the grantees, the NRDC, has actually publicly challenged Bezos and Amazon, albeit on very narrow grounds. The organization has an active petition letter addressed to the CEO that urges him to ban the sale of “neonic” pesticides on his company’s platform in order to protect the nation’s bees and biodiversity.

Another of Bezos’s chosen recipients has argued for a greater focus on advocacy and policy. After the Bezos Earth Fund was announced, Rachel Cleetus, the policy director with the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the tech publication Protocol that Bezos should consider using the funds not just to improve access to clean energy and build climate resilience, but to advocate for “strong federal climate policies.”

What’s next?

Our skepticism toward Bezos becoming a climate champion persists. The wealth he has managed to accumulate—$191 billion, by Forbes count—comes with its own footprint. Amazon emitted 51 million metric tons of carbon dioxide last year, equal to 13 coal-burning power plants running for a year. Pressure has led Bezos to pledge to zero out that impact, a step most of the company’s high-performing tech peers have also taken, but that’s just one measure of its broader impact.

To take a few examples: The company sells services to the oil and gas industry to improve their exploration projects. Its one-click shopping platform undergirds a model of consumption that seems increasingly incompatible with a low-carbon future. It paid $0 in federal taxes in 2019.

It is a reminder that no matter what gifts Bezos makes to mitigate climate change, no matter how large they are relative to the field, his greatest potential impact is with Amazon. It is also, clearly, his greatest focus. If Bezos considers philanthropy a priority, he hides it well. His gifts have come in fits and starts. Some announcements have appeared timed to coincide with poor publicity or legal issues.

At this point, we still have precious few details about the Bezos Earth Fund, yet every sign so far suggests it will do exactly what you would expect. Heck, we knew enough in February. As my colleague wrote then, “There’s a very good chance we end up with… big chunks of money going to the same large, global NGOs that dominate green giving.” In other words, fund the largely business-friendly approaches to climate change taken by the biggest players in the field, efforts that are unlikely to bite back at Bezos or Amazon.

Maybe future announcements will show some of the daring Bezos is known for in the business sector. Heck, Bezos has enough money—and the field is so lightly funded—that he could support every type of effort in the climate space and still have money left over to work on new frontiers, as well. The signs so far, however, point to doubling down on familiar players.

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