No Praise for Bezos: 3 Toxic Faults of the Bezos Earth Fund's First Climate Pledges

Climate Change Nov 18, 2020

When it comes to climate news, if something sounds too good to be true… it probably is. I know I sound like a pessimist, but billionaire philanthropy is being praised right and centre, with only the left seemingly being able to see through the smokescreen of hypocrisy that is Bezos Earth Fund.

Let’s back up for a second.

In Case You Missed It

In February 2020 Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon and world’s richest person with a net worth of over $200 BILLION (and increasing daily), announced he would award $10 billion to various climate projects. On Monday 16 November, Bezos finally announced the first beneficiaries, dolling out $791 million across 16 different environmental, conservation, and justice groups, each reported to receive between $5 million and $100 million.

The grantees:

Environmental Défense Fund $100 Million

Natural Resources Défense Council $100 Million

The Nature Conservancy $100 Million

World Resources Institute $100 Million

World Wildlife Fund $100 Million

Climate Works Foundation $50 Million

The Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund $43 million

The Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice $43 million

The Solutions Project $43 million

Salk Institute for Biological Studies $30million

Energy Foundation $30 million

Union of Concerned Scientists $15 million

NDN Collective $12 million

Rocky Mountain Institute $10 million

Dream Corps Green For All $10 Million

Eden Reforestation Projects $5Million

Climate change is a dire threat hanging over us, 10 billion dollars is both welcomed and needed. However, the essentialness of the funding does not save it from critique. After spending some time snooping through the websites of the organizations listed above, here are some conclusions that can be made about the funding and selected organizations.

 

The Funding Centres White Founded and Led Climate Organizations

Most of the beneficiaries are white founded and white led. Of the 16 organizations selected in this round of funding just TWO of them, The Hive Fund and NDN Collective, are both founded and led by Black and Indigenous folks. There is one further organization, The Solutions Project, that is white founded but instated a black woman to lead the organization in October 2020.

This doesn’t mean the white founded and led organizations don’t include People of Colour. On the contrary, most of the selected organizations have Black and other People of Colour on their board or as senior team members, and that’s good, right?

Well, not really. Of course, one Person of Colour is always better than none but one POC is by no means an indicator of diversity. People are not monoliths, so in the same way that one white person is not representative of all white people, let alone people in general, the same can be said of a Person of Colour. When multiple white people are in a room they each speak to their lived experience, offering a variety of views and ideas. Companies, especially those operating within the climate space, need the same level of diversity for People of Colour, especially Black and Indigenous folks who are metaphorically and physically most often kept out of ‘the room’.

So, if the board and senior staff are mostly white, something stinks. The few POC who are in that space are likely tokenized for their colour and culture, rather than presenting an accurate representation of diversity. The perspectives being offered up in that room are a) still mostly white, and b) not diverse enough, which is why variety when it comes to diversifying is needed, on all levels of a business, but particularly within the leadership level.

And before anyone hits back with ‘but X organisation has more than 2 senior leaders of colour”, my answer is a paraphrase of a quote by the brilliant Gina Martin.

No, not all these organizations. But too many.

 

The Funding Centres Organizations of the Global North

Nearly all the selected organizations are founded and run in the USA, working on solutions to climate with a focus on the US. The US will face – and is already facing – mass climate disasters and migration. There’s no doubt, focusing on home soil solutions is a valid issue that requires fixing. However, the global south is far more at risk of climate disasters, which tend to be more damaging and kill more people than those that happen in the USA [1].

Additionally, many of the selected organizations do run projects overseas, indicating the global south is getting climate support. However, in selecting white led, US-based organizations with overseas projects, Bezos is perpetuating white saviourism, the concept of white people (especially those of the global north) being the only ones who can fix the problems of the global south and communities of colour. The work is often self-serving, ego-boosting, and can cause more harm than good to individuals and communities.

 

Centres Maintenance of the Capitalist System

The capitalist system humanity operates within support wealth inequality and hoarding to the point that extraction and oppression are both major issues related to the climate crisis. This economic system can’t continue if there is to be hope for humanity to survive and establish an equitable future for all. We need system change, so we must ask how many of the selected organizations aim to dismantle the system? And, of the organizations that do the work for system change, what level of funding did they receive from the Bezos Earth Fund?

The truth is, most of the selected organizations play within the capitalist system, rather than aiming to dismantle it. The solutions to climate change they present can be maintained within capitalism, like green investments, privately-owned renewable energy, and carbon sequestration – projects that have profit potential and can make a handful of people very wealthy. In fact, of the $791 million disseminated, nearly half of it will go towards these types of projects, a stark reminder that whilst these solutions no doubt help mitigate climate change, they are being set-up to perpetuate ‘green’ capitalism. They might help us to achieve a stable climate, but not equitable living for all. These solutions (particularly carbon and methane capture that don’t address flaws in the industrial and agricultural systems) are a band-aid that distract from the system change humanity, particularly the MAPA (most affected people and areas) so desperately need.

In comparison, only $150 million is going to climate justice projects that seek to change the systems that exploit the poorest and marginalized. In a recent tweet, Leah Thomas, of Intersectional Environmentalist, revealed research demonstrating the inequalities of climate funding between environmental and conservation groups and climate justice groups. Spoiler alert, on average climate justice orgs operate on an annual revenue below $100,000, while other environmental groups work with anything from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. It is no revolutionary act that Bezos Earth Fund operates within the same parameters of other funding streams.

If Bezos Earth Fund supports projects that operate within the bounds of a system that is not working, is it really address climate change as effectively as possible? My answer is a hard no. Grassroots organizations working to overhaul the system are who need and should get funding. But I wouldn’t expect Bezos to simply offer up large sums of money to the very organizations that could one day unseat him from the pile of money he sits on.

 

No Praise For Bezos

I understand $10 billion is an insurmountable figure to contribute to finding climate solutions. I also understand, and am not refuting, all the selected organizations conduct much-needed work, each having a role to play within the fight against climate change. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean Jeff Bezos should get praise, nor does it mean all the organizations are deserving of the funds – as established in the above points.

As a parting note, here are some reasons why Bezos can’t be trusted as a leader in the climate space.

  • Bezos is the first person EVER to have a net worth of over $200 billion, a wealth that has grown by nearly $50 billion in 2020 alone and is made through the exploitation of others. Amazon has even fired employees who speak out against working conditions and the climate impacts of the company.
  • As the world’s richest man, he is committing, via the Bezos Earth Fund, approximately 10 times as much as philanthropic foundations gave globally in 2018, but for perspective, that’s only 7% (approximately) of his wealth, and that percentage will keep growing smaller as he accumulates more wealth.
  • It is Bezos, people like him, Amazon, and businesses like Amazon, that are largely responsible for the climate crisis. Earlier this year, a study by Oxfam revealed the world’s richest 1% cause double the co2 emissions of the world’s poorest 50% [2], showing us that Bezos has an obligation to fix the mess he is creating as one of the 1%.
 

Resources

[1] https://www.unisdr.org/files/61119_credeconomiclosses.pdf

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/21/worlds-richest-1-cause-double-co2-emissions-of-poorest-50-says-oxfam

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/09/revealed-20-firms-third-carbon-emissions

[4] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jonathanponciano/2020/08/26/worlds-richest-billionaire-jeff-bezos-first-200-billion/?sh=2e0a5b994db7

[5] https://www.theverge.com/2020/11/16/21569902/jeff-bezos-first-recipients-10-billion-climate-change-fund

Chelsea

Activist and organizer with Greenpeace Vancouver. Writes about climate and social justice, feminism, greenwashing, and fossil fuel fuckery.

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