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Jeff Bezos and Climate Change

March 17, 2020

Jeff_bezosJeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and, according to Forbes, the world's richest man, has asserted himself in the race to address our greatest global threat, the climate crisis. In February, Bezos announced he was donating $10 billion to fight a problem that is affecting the entire planet…and one that is currently exacerbated by corporations such as his own.

Some might argue that, by making this pledge, Bezos is guilty of greenwashing — trying to persuade the public that he, and his company, are doing more to protect the environment than they actually are. The evidence would seem to support that view. In fiscal year 2018, the online retailer was one of the worst polluters in the United States, emitting 44.4 million metric tons of carbon, far exceeding the emissions of other trillion-dollar companies such as Apple, Alphabet, and Microsoft, as well as package delivery giants UPS and FedEx. And globally, the company is ranked with oil and gas producers as one of the top two hundred carbon emitters in the world. Bezos himself has come under fire in recent months for silencing climate activists within Amazon, Inc. and dodging climate agreements, even while committing the company to carbon neutrality by 2040.

When philanthropists from the tech world set out to solve complex social problems, they often adopt an outcome-oriented approach. Drawing on their business expertise, they want to be able to see and report on short-term, measurable results.

Other philanthropists approach their giving through a field-oriented lens, involving many different stakeholders and tackling the problem from several angles — leading, in many cases, to more sustainable, long-term impact.

Bezos alluded to this field-oriented approach in his announcement, stating that he intends to fund "scientists, activists, NGOs." But the language he uses is so vague that it's difficult to know which form his climate change philanthropy will take. The structure of the Bezos Green Fund, the main vehicle for his climate change philanthropy, is also unclear. Will it be structured in a way that enables it to lobby for policy change? How will Bezos's position as president and CEO of Amazon and his personal stake in the company affect the fund's grantmaking choices? Will it favor grantees that demonstrate a full commitment to immediate climate action, or will Bezos's money amplify the voices of more moderate groups that, intentionally or otherwise, actually slow progress on the climate change front? Given the ambiguity of his February statement, it's hard to know.

As things stand, Bezos’s call to "protect [Earth], together" rings hollow, given that his company is a massive contributor to the climate crisis and gives no sign of changing its stripes. If Jeff Bezos truly wants to be a leader in combating climate change, he needs to walk the talk. He could, for instance, commit to more aggressive climate-friendly initiatives within Amazon itself, such as investing in green packaging and transportation. Amazon's one-day delivery service is responsible for a large share of its carbon footprint, and the company should be rethinking how it provides that service. As Amazon Employees for Climate Justice have noted, "Amazon...has work to do: halting its support of the fossil fuel industry, stopping donations to climate-denying politicians and think tanks, and stopping enabling the oppression of climate refugees."

For the sake of the planet — and the perceived legitimacy of the Bezos Green Fund — Jeff Bezos needs to offer the rest of us a more transparent and comprehensive climate change strategy. And he needs to step up the pace of climate action within Amazon itself. It is time for both Bezos and Amazon to take meaningful action to address climate change. If and when they do, we can only hope other major corporations follow suit.

(Photo: AP: Cliff Owen)

Sierra Stephens, Lillie Heyman, and Hannah Connors are undergrad students at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

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More:

Jeff Bezos Pledges $10 Billion To Fight Climate Change, Planet's 'Biggest Threat'

Bezos Commits $10 Billion to Climate Action

Why doesn’t Jeff Bezos pay more tax instead of launching a $10bn green fund?

Amazon's Jeff Bezos pledges $10bn to save Earth's environment

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