Climate Philanthropy: Born of Benevolence or Self-Interest, Does it Really Matter?

The world’s richest man and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos has decided to throw his wealth behind the climate change battle in a bid to save our environment. The Amazon CEO took to Instagram to announce a new fund to back scientists, activists and organizations working to mitigate the impact of climate change across the globe.

The initiative, called the Bezos Earth Fund, will see Bezos commit $10 billion “to start” and will begin giving out grants this summer. “Climate change is the biggest threat to our planet,” Bezos said in the post. “I want to work alongside others both to amplify known ways and to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change.”

Now this announcement has predictably created a lot of ripples across the business world and environment-friendly circles alike. His donation is one of the biggest philanthropic donations ever made and certainly the largest that has been made towards climate action. And thus Jeff Bezos has joined the growing number of billionaires and multinationals who have donated large sums of money towards climate action.

Related Post: Why Billionaire Climate Philanthropists Will Always Be Part of the Problem

Democratic candidate Mike Bloomberg– abillionaire and climate philanthropist– speaking with supporters at a campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona before leaving the presidential race and endorsing Joe Biden. Credit: Gage Skidmore.

So what is the issue here? Glad you asked.

An underlying thread for these donations have been the fact that wealthy people who make them; and in most cases the companies they own or control often play (and indeed continue to play) outsized roles in damaging the planet. Whether it comes in the form of their company’s carbon emissions, in the climate-unfriendly causes the donors support or their investments in carbon-emitting sectors, it all boils down to this group of people extending a gift to the climate movement with one hand, and taking steps to invalidate the gift with the other hand. Sort of like gifting someone with a bag of salt and accompanying it with rain.

This issue begs the following questions– where should we stand in the face of such manner of climate philanthropy? Does our environment benefit from these huge donations in any way? Does it not matter that the donors still keep up with their support of environmental unfriendly projects?

Now the majority of the eco-community seem to agree that we should regard the donations as fruits of the poisoned tree; harmful despite its attractiveness and should be turned down accordingly. This position is not without merit. Amazon is a huge carbon emitter and even after the donation made by its founder and CEO, it remains so. Adding to this are the attempts of the company to resist calls for immediate climate action by its employees. All of which makes Bezos’ donation seem more like a strategic move to buy the company much needed climate-friendly credentials rather than a serious attempt to fix the climate problem.

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My position on the matter is much simpler because it hinges on the truth. Companies are designed for profit. They therefore typically act in self-interest and I suspect they always will. Founders and brands in the sustainability industry, while they might have the good of the planet in mind are still business people and I bet many would like to grow and become Amazons if they had the opportunity. My point here is that in an ideal world, Amazon would pay for all their emissions; the aviation industry will suspend flights till such a time that our world is safe again and each one of us will use and recycle all our plastic packages to save our oceans. The world is most certainly not ideal or we wouldn’t have a climate crisis in the first place.

Related Post: Individuals in the Developed World Consume More of the Earth’s Resources. Here’s How to Consume Less…

When you approach this debate from my perspective, you’ll begin to realize these are political arguments. I mean, the United States is currently having an existential crisis about the existence of billionaires within its borders, so quite naturally, the actions of billionaires are being ranked as some of the most pressing issues for discussion today. The result is that in a time where climate research and action needs all the help and funding it can get, people seem far more concerned with whether Jeff Bezos should be allowed to donate money or not, and whether this action is benevolent or not. In doing so, the masses have put politics before any benefits that the world could gain from such donations.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that Bezos can and should tweak his company to do better, but I am incredibly appreciative of his generous donation, the largest received by the climate action movement so far. Take a second to look at it from my perspective. As an inhabitant of one of many developing nations, fully expected to bear the brunt of climate change and with our governments literally sitting on their asses; I do not care for all the reasons (wrong or right) why Jeff Bezos is a billionaire in the first place, whether billionaires should even exist or how the equal distribution of wealth should have been achieved by now to make our world perfect.

Credit: Distel.co.

I only care that we all do whatever we can do to save our world (because no action is too small in my opinion), and I believe that weighing the efforts of wealthy donors against the moral codes of a group of people amounts to a waste of time that we really cannot afford. Another reason why I welcome these philanthropic donations is because I believe in the law of unintended consequences. Put differently, the fact that Bezos might have made the donation out of selfish interests does not mean that his contribution cannot yield results that will immensely benefit the entire planet.

In 2019, British-American chemist and professor Michael Stanley Whittingham received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work in lithium-ion battery which formed the basis upon which today’s renewable energy industry has been built. Now, according to Whittingham most of the research was done in the 16 years he spent at Exxon Research and Engineering Co., where he received the patent for a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. According to the Nobel Committee, his work “… created the right conditions for a wireless and fossil fuel-free society, and so brought the greatest benefit to humankind.” Turns out, the lithium-ion battery, which will be the undoing of the fossil fuels industry, was in fact funded by the industry. 

In the end, it will boil down to the “my sustainability is better than your sustainability” principle (that we have discussed in length here). We say that Jeff Bezos is rich and should help in fighting the climate crises as well as we do. But then when Jeff Bezos donates to help in climate action; we sit on the sidelines and debate whether his contribution is ‘right’ because he isn’t helping in the same way we are, or hasn’t shut down his carbon emitting company, or whatever else people decide is the ‘right’ way to help fight climate change.

Related Post: “I’m More Sustainable Than You.” How Did the Eco Community Become So Intolerant and Competitive?

I have been a lawyer for some years now and I know what it feels like to stick to your guns over certain issues in a case. So much so that you forget that the case is about the client. In this case, the planet is the client. The right approach here is to accept the value of the donation and all such donations while still recognizing the need for the donors to do better. These two things are not mutually exclusive and I don’t think we are doing the best by the planet if we say and do otherwise.

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Feature image of Jeff Bezos founder and CEO of Amazon.com and Blue Origin, speaking during an event at Space Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida for the announcement that Blue Origin will build rockets at Exploration Park at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Looking on is Rick Scott, Florida governor. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett.

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