Leigh Stearns thought she’d hit the jackpot when the Heising-Simons Foundation awarded her research team $6 million to study a collapsing glacier in Greenland. She had concerns about accepting private funding, which offered less transparency and less accountability to the public compared to federal money, she said. But government funding was scarce, and she sorely needed it for her work on the glacier, important for understanding sea level rise.
Then she saw the news this week that Jeff Bezos intends to give $10 billion to scientists, non-governmental organizations and activists working on climate change.
The possibilities presented by that money were mind-boggling, the glaciologist said. But she also wondered about the implications of one person funding the fight against a problem that affects many.
As federal funding for climate research has stagnated and the U.S. government has forfeited its leadership on the issue, Bezos is one of a growing cadre of philanthropists who see an opportunity to set the agenda for climate mitigation and adaptation.
At $10 billion, the Bezos Earth Fund is “in a class by itself,” said one philanthropy expert — on par with what the United States spends on climate-related research and development in a year.
Yet even as scientists and activists have welcomed the influx of cash from the man who founded Amazon and owns The Washington Post, they caution against private individuals driving climate science and the search for solutions.
“To reach these kinds of ambitious climate goals . . . we’re talking about changing the way we do business, the way we live,” said economist Rachel Cleetus, policy director for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “I don’t think we want a system where climate and clean energy policies are co-opted by the private sector.”
A federal funding gap
David Sandalow, a public policy researcher at Columbia University who worked on environment and energy issues in the State Department and the Energy Department under presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, said wealthy donors feel compelled to step into a vacuum left by the Trump administration.
In 2018, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that humanity must cut its greenhouse gas emissions 45 percent by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of warming. The scientists estimated that it would require $2.4 trillion per year in climate research, innovation and adaptation measures to limit global average temperature rise to a more tolerable 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.
The Trump administration rejects that science. President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement and has repeatedly sought to defund federal climate programs. His latest budget proposal would cut $1 billion from the Energy Department’s science office and reduce funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by 27 percent.
Congress has largely rebuffed those efforts. An analysis of the budgets for six federal agencies that fund scientific research — NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Agriculture Department — found that $9.4 billion was dedicated to Earth and atmospheric research, environmental monitoring and clean energy projects for fiscal 2020.
Budgets for a few federal programs have even increased. Funding for the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy grew 50 percent in the last years to $2.85 billion. And despite Trump’s proposal to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the high-tech research program’s budget has almost doubled since 2015.
But overall spending on climate research is still “insufficient,” said Robin Bell, a longtime Antarctic researcher and president of the American Geophysical Union, which represents Earth and atmospheric scientists.
Meanwhile, other countries have stepped up investments. The European Union has committed to directing 25 percent of its budget — nearly $350 billion — toward climate objectives between 2021 and 2027. French President Emmanuel Macron explicitly sought to lure U.S.-based researchers by offering millions of Euros in grants. And China has probably surpassed the United States to become the world’s biggest investor in scientific research and development, according to the National Science Foundation.
“If the [U.S.] government is not acting, it is ceding the field to others who are,” said Jonathan Pershing, a former U.S. special envoy for climate change. Pershing now directs the environment program at the Hewlett Foundation, which gave $168 million in grants in 2018 and was considered the largest philanthropic funder of climate efforts before Bezos’s announcement.
How to spend $10 billion
Little is known about the Bezos Earth Fund apart from what Bezos announced in an Instagram post last week. Beginning this summer, the billionaire said he plans to issue grants to scientists, activists and nongovernmental organizations — “any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.”
Bezos’s representatives declined to offer a timeline for the distribution of the money or criteria for who will receive it.
Previously, recipients of grants from the $2 billion Bezos Day One Fund to fight homelessness were selected by a small group of advisers. Rather than issuing a call for proposals and assessing applications, Bezos’s team cold-called nonprofit organizations, according to the technology news site Recode.
Sandalow, the former Clinton and Obama administration official, said the Bezos Earth Fund has “transformational potential,” depending on how it is allocated.
“In relation to funding specifically targeted for climate change, this is very significant. But in relation to the annual capital investments in the energy sector, it’s quite small,” he said. “It will be important to target it smartly for it to have maximal impact.”
Sandalow suggested that the fund would best be spent helping to decarbonize industry, an issue that has received less attention than emissions from the transportation and energy sectors. Bezos could also provide capital for first-of-their-kind projects that more traditional equity investors are reluctant to support.
But Bezos might get the biggest bang for his buck by spending his wealth on public awareness and political mobilization, he said.
“Businesses can’t solve the climate problem without government policy playing a central role,” Sandalow said.
Other wealthy donors, such as Democratic presidential candidate and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, have focused their philanthropy on projects that reflect their personal philosophies and interests.
Bloomberg donated $500 million last year to lobby cities and states to close coal-fired power plants, which emit large amounts of greenhouse gases as well as toxins such as mercury and lead. His foundation has committed $1 billion toward countering climate change, a spokeswoman said. And in 2017, when the Trump administration eliminated funding for the office coordinating the Paris Agreement, Bloomberg stepped in to make up the $15 million shortfall.
Gates has largely approached climate spending as a tech investment, creating a $1 billion fund for clean energy start-ups. (Bezos and Bloomberg are also on the board of that outfit.) In an annual letter issued this month, Gates said he plans to devote much of his future philanthropy to climate change, including achieving technological breakthroughs in areas such as battery storage and carbon removal.
Tom Steyer, another billionaire who has taken up the climate cause (and who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination), has targeted millions toward electing candidates who favor climate action.
Billionaires' blind spots
Yet experts and activists say there are limits to how much private donations can — and should — drive the world’s climate response.
Stearns and Bell said the process for receiving foundation grants is less rigorous than the peer review required at federal agencies. Federally funded researchers are also required to make their data publicly available, meaning that the research continues to pay dividends after the initial project is complete.
“You can do great science but if you’re not sharing the raw data, it kind of ends with you and that’s not what we want,” Stearns said.
Others expressed concern that, in the absence of ambitious federal policies, billionaires will get to set the agenda for what climate solutions are pursued. The pledges from Bezos and others have rarely mentioned climate justice — an issue that has been a priority for many activist organizations and is at the center of the Green New Deal.
Many green technologies that have been the focus of private financing, such as electric vehicles and solar panels, are still available largely to the wealthy, said Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Meanwhile, issues that affect the most vulnerable citizens — improving transmission lines to get clean energy to rural areas, maintaining maps of flood risk to low-lying communities — are rarely a focus for deep-pocketed donors.
And despite the scale of Bezos’s pledge, several grass-roots activists continue to consider the Amazon founder and other billionaire philanthropists as part of the problem.
Bezos’s announcement came at a time when Amazon employees are increasingly vocal about pushing the nearly $1 trillion company to cut its carbon footprint. Amazon makes money through its emphasis on same-day delivery, a growing airline shipping business and a vast cloud-computing venture whose clients include major fossil fuel companies.
The company said it emitted 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2018 — a number that exceeds the annual emissions of Denmark. But it also committed to initiatives that would cut its net emissions to zero by 2040.