The Bezos Earth Fund: Saving the climate or saving face?

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Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, set up a massive $10 billion fund to support tackling climate change back in February 2020. Eve Clark looks at who has been selected to receive the funding, and what the fund represents.

The Bezos Earth Fund is the biggest sum of money ever donated to battling the climate crisis. Bezos’ $10 billion greatly surpasses the $4 billion donated by 29 different philanthropic organisations in 2018. After 9 months, Bezos has now released the 16 recipients of the first $791 million donation. 

Bezos announced the first recipients on Instagram, stating they were organisations ‘working on innovative, ambitious, and needle-moving solutions’, who he was ‘inspired by’ and ‘excited to help them scale.’ Among the list of recipients getting $100 million was the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). They are using the fund money for protecting and restoring mangroves, developing new markets for seaweed, and protecting forest ecosystems. All three of these methods have a considerable focus on sustainability, and, as WWF have stated, aim to ‘harness the power of nature to stabilize the climate crisis.’ WWF stated they were ‘profoundly grateful for this transformational investment, and the impact this commitment will have on millions of people around the world.’ 

“The fund does not erase Bezos and Amazon’s climate accountability, as possibly was intended, and seems unlikely to reach frontline climate activists”

Another recipient of $100 million is the World Resource Institute, who plan to deploy a satellite with the grant money. This will allow carbon emissions and land use changes to be monitored. They have also set up a grant which aims to electrify 450,000 school buses in the US by 2030. Also receiving $100 million, is the Environmental Defense Fund. They are planning to use the money to launch a satellite called MethaneSAT, which will allow sources of methane pollution to be located and measured around the world. This data will be made available to the public.  The Environmental Defense Fund stated, ‘We thank the Bezos Earth Fund for the trust placed in us. The Bezos Earth Fund gifts provide vital momentum to EDF and many others at a time when awareness must be turned into dramatic action.’

Looking at the list of 16 recipients, it is clear Bezos’ donations are mainly being sent to well-established organisations. The fund, as Bezos stated, is an opportunity to ‘scale’ up the ability of environmental organisations to take large-scale and effective action in the climate crisis. There is absolutely no doubt that the donations Bezos has made provide an extraordinary opportunity for the recipient organisations to make a tangible difference. Funding and money are so necessary to climate action. But many critics have argued, if his focus for the fund is to ‘help them scale’, Bezos’ donations would have more impact with smaller, grassroots organisations, who tend to get less funding from other places. 

It’s also clear that the majority of the recipients are organisations focused on scientific research, with only $151 million of the fund being donated to climate justice issues. Critics of the fund have recognised this as a serious omission. In his original post on Instagram, where he announced the Bezos Earth Fund, Bezos said he ‘wants to work alongside others both to amplify known ways and to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share.’ So, clearly Bezos’ focus is on scientific action. The impact of environmental grassroot organisations often is on a local level and targets communities who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. It seems Bezos’ money will never reach these frontline organisations.  

“It seems Bezos wants his name associated with climate activism”

This seems a particularly significant omission to the fund when considering Amazon’s track record with labour rights. Amazon has been criticised numerous times for poor worker’s rights and global working conditions, including by Amnesty International. For example, it has been previously claimed that Amazon has threatened workers who try to speak up about Amazon’s contribution to the climate crisis with losing their job. This is the central hypocrisy at the heart of the Bezos Earth Fund. Although his statement when announcing the Bezos Earth Fund placed a heavy emphasis on the importance of action, the action the fund facilitates is not related to his company Amazon, where there would be a huge potential to make serious change. Amazon as a company has been heavily criticised for contributing to the climate crisis. In 2019, the total carbon footprint of Amazon was 51.17 million metric tons, which is equivalent to 13 coal-fired plants being used for an entire year. 

‘Concealment at scale is the secret to Amazon’s success. Out of sight is a ruthless game of regulatory arbitrage, as Amazon installs itself in low-tax jurisdictions and exploits legal loopholes around the world.’
people protesting in aid of amazon worker rights// The Guardian

It could be argued that the Bezos Earth Fund is a donation from an individual, an act of philanthropy, and therefore Bezos’ relationship to Amazon should not influence his donation to climate activism. However, Bezos’ name is inextricably bound up with that of his company Amazon. As founder and CEO, his name will always be associated with Amazon. His name is not hidden from the donation either, ‘Bezos’ making its way into the name of the fund. It is hard not to read this as an attempt for recognition. It seems Bezos wants his name associated with climate activism. 

This therefore begs the question of what the motivation behind the fund is. It’s hard to read it as coincidence that the fund was announced soon after Amazon had been widely criticised for its huge carbon emissions, on par with oil and gas companies. If we look at the fund in this light, it seems to be a performative act, one to satisfy the public’s concern with climate change, and to better the image of Amazon. Arguably, this is an act of greenwashing. It distracts the public from the role Amazon itself plays in climate change. This is reflected in the list of recipients Bezos has chosen, the majority being well-known organisations. 

The fund does not erase Bezos and Amazon’s climate accountability, as possibly was intended, and seems unlikely to reach frontline climate activists. However, the Bezos Earth Fund still provides a huge opportunity to support the environment. Many of the 16 recipient organisations have already outlined detailed plans for how they will put the fund money to good use. It is yet to be seen exactly how and when these plans will be put into action, and the extent to which they will help our planet. Here’s hoping change can be made.

Header image credit: The Guardian