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The problem with climate mega-philanthropy

Captains of industry are lining up to pledge huge sums to fund environmental projects. But how helpful will the billions committed by Bezos & Co prove in saving humankind?
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In 2020, Jeff Bezos announced that he would donate $10bn (£8.2bn) by the end of the decade to help tackle the climate emergency. Through the Bezos Earth Fund, Amazon’s founder pledged to find ways to reduce the carbon footprint of steel and cement manufacturing and to persuade financial regulators to consider climate-related risks.

Bezos is not the only magnate who has donated to environmental projects in recent years. Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, committed $3.5bn to the Waverley Street Foundation, a not-for-profit fund supporting climate action. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Mike Bloomberg have also given substantial sums to the cause. 

But, given that Amazon’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 18% in 2021 – the year that Bezos merrily blasted off for a 10-minute excursion into space – it’s worth asking whether the climate philanthropy that he and his fellow tycoons have indulged in will make a significant difference. And how do these grand gestures measure up against the UK’s giving landscape?

In this country, only 6% of philanthropic donations go towards environmental causes (and only 2% to projects focusing specifically on climate action), according to Florence Miller, director of the Environmental Funders Network. But she reports that the proportion is at least “on the rise. Environmental philanthropy almost doubled from £115m in 2015 to £222m in 2018 and it has continued to increase ever since. Yet these are remarkably small amounts, given the scale of what we’re facing. Progress has been far too slow.” 

Miller thinks that donations have been relatively limited to date because of a widespread assumption that successive governments have had the problem in hand. It has only recently dawned on the public that this is far from the case.

“It’s hard for people to understand how they can make an impact on something that’s so global in nature,” she adds. “But they are waking up to the fact that, if you have money that you can give away, it’s an incredibly potent way to achieve change.” 

Money in the right places

Do initiatives such as the Bezos Earth Fund filter down to the non-billionaires among us and encourage more public contributions to environmental causes? Their effect is complex, according to Miller. 

“These are powerful announcements, in that they get climate philanthropy into the news as something that you can participate in,” she says. “The slight problem comes when someone who’s that wealthy says they’re donating a lot of money. It can be hard to see how your contribution, which is inevitably going to be smaller, can help. That can be offputting.”

The people who attempt to make these changes through philanthropy would never admit they are part of the problem. Instead, they present themselves as messiahs

Miller points to a weakness that the magnates’ well-funded mega-trusts often have in common. “They struggle to get those large amounts of money out of the door quickly enough to support brilliant initiatives that are just getting off the ground or to respond effectively to a crisis,” she says. 

Although they have less money at their disposal, smaller charities tend to be far more responsive. Miller cites the case of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a not-for-profit think-tank founded in 2009. This led ground-breaking research into the impact of the energy transition on the financial markets, introducing the terms ‘carbon bubble’ and ‘stranded assets’ to the banking lexicon. 

“This was a tiny outfit when it started. Some of the smaller funders in our network were able to give it £25,000 to £50,000 to get things going,” she says. “Now it’s big and it has done incredible things to shift the narrative surrounding fossil-fuel companies.”

Miller considers the way in which Bezos has made his fortune to be “deeply problematic”, taking issue with Amazon’s aggressive measures to avoid paying tax and prevent unionisation among its workers. The company could also have done much more internally to prevent environmental problems from arising in the first place. 

But she recognises that the trouble with criticising Bezos and his ilk is that you make every potential climate philanthropist worry that an eye-catching donation will leave them open to accusations of greenwashing and hypocrisy. 

“We’re all trapped in a dysfunctional system,” Miller says. “We can’t be expected to live perfect lives [from an environmental viewpoint] because we don’t have the system for it. But that’s what climate philanthropy is supposed to be changing.”

Image problems

The ideal scenario, then, would be when captains of industry combine climate philanthropy with sound ESG practices in their own businesses. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of outdoor clothing brand Patagonia, is widely cited as an exemplar of this approach

Chouinard recently announced that he was giving his shares in the company, valued at more than $3bn, to a trust focused on tackling the climate crisis. Unlike most large-scale donors, he has deliberately structured this contribution in such a way that it doesn’t give him tax relief.

There were 610 fossil-fuel lobbyists at COP27 – and their voices are very loud

Carl Rhodes is professor of organisation studies at University of Technology Sydney and the co-author of CEO Society: the corporate takeover of everyday life. He was surprised when Bezos announced his fund, because Amazon’s founder didn’t have much of a history of charitable giving at the time. 

“Suddenly he comes up with this gigantic thing and, as a citizen, you might think: ‘Billions to combat climate change must be good, right?’ Yet it preserves the system that caused the problem in the first place,” he argues. “The people who attempt to make these changes through philanthropy would never admit that they’re part of the problem. Instead, they present themselves as messiahs coming to solve it. It’s hubris in the extreme.”

Rhodes believes that global crises such as climate change need to be solved by politicians, not philanthropists. “If ever there was a lesson in the importance of government in dealing with big problems, the response to Covid was it. Corporations could never have managed that,” he says.

Miller argues that philanthropy can be at its most effective when it focuses on lobbying governments and advocating for ambitious climate policies. She cites the examples of Hope for the Future, which helps communities to engage with their MPs and local politicians on environmental issues; and People & Planet, a grass-roots student group lobbying universities to stop inviting fossil-fuel companies to their careers fairs.

“Activism is effective because it starts to shift the conversation and the window in which change can happen,” she says. “What is going to motivate governments to sort it out and whom are they listening to? There were 610 fossil-fuel lobbyists at COP27 – and their voices are very loud.”

For once, then, strong words from the billionaires in favour of the opposing cause may have more of an impact than their cold, hard cash.