The richest guy on Earth has decided maybe spending a few bucks to save the planet isn’t such a bad idea.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, decided to kick Earth $10 billion to stave off catastrophic climate change. And you know what, that’s fine. I remain deeply skeptical of billionaires and their motives for philanthropy, but I’m not here to slag Bezos about his giving habits. I’m here to make just one teeny, tiny suggestion.
Here’s the thing. Giving $10 billion to help come up with climate solutions is great, but there’s one thing Bezos could do that would have much more immediate impacts and show the world it’s time to get down to business: announce that Amazon will no longer take money from fossil fuel companies.
The climate crisis is a problem of humanity’s own design. Or more specifically, it’s a problem of the rich and powerful’s design. Just 100 fossil fuel companies are responsible for more than 70 percent of all carbon emissions since 1988. That has made a small cadre of people impossibly rich. The Rex Tillersons of the world are the most public faces of people who have profited off fossil fuels while using our atmosphere as a free waste dump for their carbon pollution. But there are others who have equally earned fortunes from this setup.
That includes Jeff Bezos and leaders at other major tech companies like Microsoft and Google. Their cloud computing, machine learning, and other services have helped automate the fossil fuel industry and speed up exploration and extraction. Heck, Amazon even jumped into the oil-selling business itself. But it’s the company’s expansive cloud services that are one of the fossil fuel industry’s biggest assets in rocketing the climate into an unsteady state. And Amazon, alongside its own (inadequate) climate plan, explicitly says it plans to keep working with the industry to “have access to the same technologies as other industries.”
So in essence, Bezos’s $10 billion pledge is laundering some of the money made profiting from ramping up fossil fuel production—however indirectly—into trying to address the very crisis his company is perpetuating. If this sounds unsustainable, well, it is. And it’s why cutting the fossil fuel industry out of Amazon’s business plans would be so transformational.
Our society has long normalized rich people giving money. It’s an accepted way for wealthy folks to show they care or, if we’re being honest, buy goodwill for misdeeds in making their fortune (see: the Kochs, Sacklers, or John Rockefeller, among other ghouls). Bezos’s pledge stands in line with what we would expect of someone with his means who runs a company that, aside from the whole fossil fuel thing, has questionable labor and business practices, a significant stake in the surveillance state, and a federal tax bill of roughly $0.
But the actions that really matter have yet to be normalized—changing what’s normal is essential if we can ever step back from the cliff of the climate crisis. It’s not normal for Bezos or any other business person to stop making money however they can, even if the source of their vast wealth is something destroying the only biosphere humans have ever known. And that’s what needs to change.
Look, I’m not naive enough to think Bezos telling the world Amazon will no longer sign contracts with fossil fuel companies would solve all our problems. Those companies could still turn to Google or Microsoft or find a machine learning startup to take their money and help speed up extraction—someone will be willing to take those golden, dirty contracts. But the richest guy in the world turning down oil money would be a signal to society and other business leaders that our current path is not just unsustainable but also unbecoming—a greasy stain on one’s lapel at every cocktail party. It would draw a proverbial line in the sand, similar to what’s starting to happen in the finance industry. It would be a step toward making the practice of making money from fossil fuel extraction shameful.
All this is occurring at a time when it’s never been clearer we need to draw down emissions. Look at the world on fire and melting down, and it’s blindingly obvious why more heating would be catastrophic. Thanks to science, we know the world will have to cut emissions by 78 percent this decade to have a good shot at keeping some semblance of the world we recognize today intact. That means winding down fossil fuels immediately.
A growing group of employees dubbed Amazon Employees for Climate Justice have agitated for Bezos and others in Amazon’s leadership to do just that. The company has responded by first refusing to listen to employees then threatening to fire them for speaking out without their bosses’ OK. Bezos’s $10 billion pledge may be a sign they’ve been heard, but it also means it’s now even more hypocritical for his company to keep taking oil- and gas-stained money.
One of Amazon’s foundational texts is its 14 leadership principles, businesspeak koans that have guided the company to be one of the planet’s most profitable entity ever created. While I am deeply ambivalent about the ability of raw capitalism to solve the climate crisis, I am willing to consider how the principles Bezos and his company live by paint a path forward for him to show he’s really ready to take the lead on the climate crisis. Spoiler: They all point to cutting it out with the fossil fuel love.
Take leadership principle number three, “invent and simplify,” which notes that leaders “always find ways to simplify.” In the case of the climate crisis, the simplest route to solving it is to stop burning fossil fuels. To do that, step one is to stop extracting them.
Or take principle number two, dubbed “ownership.” It calls for real leaders to “think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results.” Making sure future generations have a habitable planet is about as long-term value as you can get.
I could go on, but this isn’t Inc.com, and you hopefully get the point. In his Instagram post announcing the $10 billion plan, Bezos noted solving the climate crisis is “going to take collective action from big companies, small companies, nation states, global organizations, and individuals.” Someone has to get that ball rolling and fast. A leader, one could say.
At the end of the day, climate adaptation and mitigation are going to be the most expensive projects ever undertaken by humanity. But at this moment of crisis, Jeff Bezos has his hands on one of the most powerful levers for climate action any single person could pull, and it’s not the one to make it proverbially rain. Instead, it’s the one that could start to close the tap on fossil fuels by making it fashionable to do so. And pulling it would do a lot more addition by subtraction than throwing $10 billion into the multi-trillion-dollar pot.