Is Bezos's $10 billion pledge as generous as it seems?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

What’s happening

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced he would commit $10 billion of his own money “to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change.” The Bezos Earth Fund will finance scientists, activists and organizations working to “preserve and protect the natural world.”

Bezos, the world’s richest man, is estimated to be worth more than $130 billion. The $10 billion investment represents roughly 8 percent of his net worth. The fund’s announcement didn’t offer details on how the money will be spent, but news reports suggest it won’t go toward any for-profit enterprises. 

The announcement comes after months of criticism from a group of Amazon employees over the company’s role in contributing to climate change, like the emissions from its enormous fleet of delivery trucks and the cloud computing support it provides oil companies.

Why there’s debate

Bezos’s pledge is one of the largest charitable gifts ever. The $10 billion is about five times the amount the U.S. government spends on climate research every year. If effectively spent, it could accelerate the development of technologies that the world desperately needs to limit its dependence on harmful fossil fuels and implement those solutions at a large scale, some climate experts say. Others argue that having the money come from a single benefactor can cut out waste and inefficiency that can hold back government-funded research.

Critics have accused Bezos of hypocrisy for pledging money to combat climate change that he earned from running a company that perpetuates the problem. Changing Amazon’s behavior, they argue, would have a more meaningful impact on the environment than funding research. Others take issue with the amount of power Bezos’s billions give him to shape how the world responds to climate change — something critics say should be decided by society as a whole.

Some experts say the efficacy of the pledge depends entirely on the details of the projects the fund selects and whether any of the money goes toward creating political support for pro-climate policies. 

What’s next

Bezos said the fund will start distributing grants this summer. He has also launched an effort to reduce Amazon’s environmental impact by beginning to use electric delivery vans by 2021 and pledging to make the company carbon-neutral by 2040.

Perspectives

Supporters

The fund could be a huge boost to efforts to combat climate change

“Let’s be frank: It’s a good announcement, and if it works as described, it could fund great work.” — Jody Serrano, Gizmodo

The money could help projects make the leap from research to the real world

“This kind of funding could play a role in bridging the ‘valley of death’ between development and commercialization of new green technologies.” — Maddie Stone, Protocol

The money creates a margin for error in climate science

“The beauty of Bezos’s billions is that the money allows for quite a bit of experimentation, including the inevitable failures.” — Gernot Wagner, Bloomberg

Bezos also deserves credit for the changes he’s making at Amazon

“If Amazon can reduce its carbon emissions to zero in a few decades, it could potentially do more to fight climate change than the scientists and organizations receiving Bezos’s new grants. Either way, he has staked his claim to be a leading force in combating one of the major threats to our planet.” — Greg Hudson, The Hill

Skeptics

The details make the difference 

“Bezos should receive precisely zero praise for this until he releases more details. What's the timeline? What kinds of projects will receive funding? Who will make grant decisions? These things matter tremendously.” — HuffPost reporter Michael Hobbes

There’s hypocrisy in paying to fight climate change while getting rich off of causing it
“This is the paradox at the heart of philanthropy. It is a fine thing to give. But how did you make your money? The dreadful concept of ‘giving something back’ exposes the truth: if you feel the need to give something back perhaps it means you took too much in the first place.” — Stefan Stern, Guardian

Changing Amazon’s business practices would be more effective

“If Bezos was truly interested in stopping climate change, he would end his company’s carbon cloud contracts and radically downsize its shipping operations. Instead, we get a new, flashy billionaire fund — just a drop in the bucket for Bezos — as Amazon continues business as usual.” — Edward Ongweso Jr, Vice

Bezos has too much power over society’s response to climate change 

“Bezos’s personal biases — his penchant for technological solutions, his skepticism of government regulation — will likely shape how the Bezos Earth Fund disperses cash. And that will, in turn, shape how activists and researchers craft their grant proposals, how they attempt to please a funder who can float their operations.” — Franklin Foer, Atlantic

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images (2)