I wore a rose-embroidered jean jacket on television yesterday to explain how our addiction to fossil fuels is fueling extreme weather across the country. (The channel was Cheddar News, which broadcasts on some cable networks and on TV streaming services). I also gave viewers a peek into my disheveled apartment, which includes a hanging ceiling lamp cord draped around a squat rack. (You’re welcome).
It was just the latest in a string of recent media hits about climate change. On Monday I did an 11-minute interview about climate change and coronavirus with WBUR Boston’s Here and Now. And last week, New York City’s public radio station WNYC gave me a whole 18 minutes to talk about how climate change is worsening wildfire seasons, and how people can prevent further destruction.
It’s cool to see news outlets recognize the dire nature of the climate crisis and devote time to it, even in this fairly late hour. What’s not cool, though, is the continued failure by other extremely powerful people and institutions to recognize the urgency of the moment we’re in.
Today’s issue is about one of this newsletter’s favorite powerful people: the richest man in the world.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announces the co-founding of The Climate Pledge at the National Press Club on September 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Amazon.
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has made $73 billion during this year’s pandemic and record-breaking extreme weather season. Yet he has failed to announce a single grant for that $10 billion climate fund he so loudly announced seven months ago.
According to a report from E&E News on Monday, the Amazon founder and CEO “promised in February to pour at least $10 billion of his personal fortune into fighting climate change, and [said] that the effort would ‘begin issuing grants this summer.’ [Tuesday] is the first day of fall, and the Bezos Earth Fund — as he dubbed the venture — has yet to announce a single grant. Further, there’s been little public evidence of much other work or spending.”
Amazon did not respond to E&E News’s requests for such evidence. A spokesperson wouldn’t even go on the record to decline comment.
Bezos’ wealth now sits at $182 billion, and I’m sitting on a couch I got from my parents’ basement (see photo above) wondering why I ever felt climate guilt for anything in my life. Jeff Bezos earned his fortune at the expense of the planet’s livability: The more cars, trucks and planes that carried his company’s boxes; the more cheap petrochemical-based plastic products his company sold; the more energy-intensive data centers his company operated; the more money Bezos made.
The West Coast is now in flames, the Gulf Coast is now water logged, and Bezos is now the richest man in the world. And in some people’s eyes, he’s a climate hero, because he promised to spend $10 billion solving climate change. And this, my friends, is exactly why rich people and corporations make voluntary climate pledges. It gives makes them seem benevolent and wonderful. And there’s no consequence if they never follow through.
The Bezos Bro army
I’ll never forget writing about Bezos’ $10 billion climate pledge back in February. I made what I thought was a pretty even-handed and complex critique, applauding the effort for its positive potential but putting it in context of Bezos’s proportionate responsibility and wealth, and noting how billionaires use philanthropy to boost their own reputations.
Among other things, I noted that a $10 billion pledge amounted to approximately 7.7 percent of Bezos’s fortune at the time, and that for a normal young person in America under 35 years old, this would be the equivalent of donating $847.
I tweeted this detail, and an army of Bezos Bros latched on as if it were the teet of Jeff Himself. They descended on my internet presence in a coordinated harassment effort, the pure volume of which was unlike anything I’d experienced.
I’m not sure how many of these people are even real, but to me it showed just how powerful and effective the moral cover of philanthropy can be. These people really think Bezos is a climate saint! Absolutely incredible.
No recourse, no accountability
Anyway, it’s seven months later now, and Bezos’s fortune has ballooned. His $10 billion climate pledge now represents just 5 percent of his wealth, or the equivalent of about $555 to the average young American. This isn’t even a fair comparison, because $555 is far more important to the average American than $10 billion is to Bezos. Bezos made $13 billion in a single day this year, during the third-hottest June ever recorded.
A $10 billion promise is nothing to Jeff Bezos, and everything to the planet. But even over the course of a year of record-breaking personal profits—not to mention a record-breaking hurricane and wildfire season—he couldn’t be bothered to fulfill it.
And why would he, really? We allowed Bezos to hoard the earth’s wealth at the earth’s expense; applauded him for giving up a tiny bit to help; let him decide how the help would be distributed; then gave ourselves no recourse for when the help never came. This is what happens when we depend on voluntary philanthropy from rich white dudes to solve massive problems that disproportionately harm poor brown people. There is no accountability when they decide it’s not worth their time.
Of course, Bezos could announce all the grants tomorrow, and my critique would be moot. I’d be fine with that. The faster the money comes, the more positive impact it can have for the people who are suffering most. (Which to be clear, do not include Bezos). Alternatively, the longer it takes, the less meaningful it becomes.
Either way, I’m sure I’ll have to lock my Instagram account now. Let the Bezos Bro army invasion begin!!
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Stay hydrated, eat plants (I like bananas), do push-ups, and have a great day!