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Is Jeff Bezos really serious about beating climate change?

If you had a billion dollars and wanted to do something about climate change, what would you do? For a handful of people, this is not a rhetorical question. A Instagram post Earlier this month, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos – announcing he had scattered $ 791 million across various climate charities – is the latest in a trend that includes Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg. And there’s more to come – Bezos’ donations are ‘just the start’ of his $ 10 billion Bezos Earth Fund.

But what is interesting about this exercise is that, even for the most privileged minds on the planet, it is not obvious how to approach the task. Is it better to invest in technologies that can take years to mature – or spend money on clean energy in developing countries, which can reduce pollution immediately? Or maybe political spending is the most effective approach to pushing policy in a climate-friendly direction? Or would you just start building dikes to prepare for the inevitable?

Each billionaire adopts his own strategy. Gates took the technological route, support projects that range from nuclear fusion to molten salt batteries. He has also invested his time in writing and discussing the topic, and has published a book on climate change next year. Bloomberg has focused on the political side, including spending more than $ 170 million on a campaign to shut down coal-fired power plants; its success partly explains the decline in carbon emissions in the United States in recent years.

Bezos is the most recent arrival at this club and his approach has also been the blandest. He cut five checks for $ 100 million to five of the largest and most established green groups in the United States and distributed smaller sums to a few others, including $ 30 million for research into carbon storage in the plant roots.

It’s a nice gesture, but it’s exactly it – the kind of check-writing exercise middle-class Americans typically save for the end of the year to maximize tax deductions. For Bezos, chief executive of Amazon, regularly celebrated as one of the world’s most disruptive innovators, his climate donations clearly lack disruption or innovation.

Recent events on Amazon make Bezos look a bit defensive. In September 2019, employees began organizing walkouts to protest the company’s climate policies, creating a major image problem. Some of the requests from the employees were met – Amazon has adopted a target for net zero carbon emissions by 2040.

It also buys tens of thousands of electric vehicles, and promises half of its shipping operations will be carbon-free by the end of this decade. And the company bought the naming rights to a Seattle sports stadium and called it – in case you missed the point – Climate Pledge arena.

But none of this masks the fact that Amazon has been much slower to act on the climate than other tech rivals such as Google and Microsoft. Its carbon emissions are still significant: in 2019, Amazon issued 51 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (including its offices, warehouses and delivery vehicles). This is more than the country of Sweden.

Matthew Nisbet, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston who studies this area, says Bezos is now the world’s largest source of climate donation – creating a “giant halo on climate change.” But that halo isn’t always deserved, he says: such large donations could create a conflict of interest for environmental charities, which would otherwise be more critical of Amazon’s environmental record. (Bezos grant recipients all deny this, saying they have strict policies to avoid conflicts of interest.)

Even if Bezos don’t try To redeem his critics or appease his employees, there is an obvious flaw in his approach: he threw money at the problem, but apparently did not match that with strategy. He also hasn’t spoken or written much on the matter – at least not compared to other climate billionaires.

Compare his recent 160-word Instagram post with the thousands of words Gates wrote. Likewise, Bloomberg is heavily invested in his climate work – and he can be seen hanging out at UN climate conferences every year, giving slightly offbeat speeches.

Indeed, looking at Bezos’ speeches and interviews over the past few years, there are hints that the Amazon boss’s true passion is for something else – leaving this planet altogether. Always passionate about space, he invests around $ 1 billion per year in his space company, Blue origin, and described it as the “most important job i do“.

His vision is that humans will one day inhabit space, living in large orbiting colonies. “We will have to leave this planet,” he said, pointing to our growing population. His idea is that heavy industry will move through space as well, leaving behind some of the light manufacturing on Earth – with all the humans who want to stay. But Bezos himself hopes to be on this rocket. Despite the great ambitions of the Bezos Earth Fund, would you really trust the planet to someone who is already considering leaving it behind?

Leslie Hook is the FT’s correspondent for the environment and clean energy.; @lesliehook. Gillian Tett is coming back next week

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