Recently there has been a lot of positive media buzz about Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon (you might have heard of it). A lot was made of a recent announcement regarding his decision to “donate” $10 billion to fight climate change. Vague (and quite frankly, false) headlines began circulating across the news and social media about the news. Even Bezos’ own Washington Post had an article on the topic with a headline that reads, “Jeff Bezos commits $10 billion to fight climate change,” a flattering headline if I’ve ever seen one.
I want to be clear from the start, I’m not saying $10 billion is not a lot of money, even for Bezos. Committing 7.7% of your fortune to combat an issue that will never affect you personally is commendable. Though it is hard for me to praise him so quickly, given that many Canadian renters have to spend 50% or more of their income just to keep a roof over their heads and nobody writes glowing puff pieces about them.
But I digress, obviously $10 billion is nothing to scoff at when it comes to tackling the greatest threat posed to our planet. In fact, it’s the single largest donation to fight climate change ever. My issue is in the details however, that the headlines conveniently skip over.
In reality, what Bezos has done according to the Washington Post, is set up a climate based fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, to provide grants to fund public, private and non-profit efforts to fight climate change. Again, this is not bad on paper, but I think it sets a fairly dangerous precedent in regards to individual power and influence over the globe.
For starters, I for one can say confidently that I never voted for Bezos to be our climate change hero, nor did the Canadian government at the United Nations or any other authority for that matter. One day he simply decided to set up this fund and that’s it. While it might not seem like an issue since it’s going to help such a worthy cause, it puts way too much power and leverage in the hands of a single man (who owns one of if not the single largest company in the world, on top of a handful of smaller companies).
It seems obvious to me that solving the world’s issues should be the job of elected governments, ones that run on platforms detailing what they want to do and are elected to do so by the people whom they govern over. The democratic process provides a great deal of accountability that simply isn’t there in this case.
Hypothetically, let’s say the Bezos Earth Fund is up and running and a small country in the Asia Pacific applies for a grant to fund climate research. This country has denied Bezos’ company Amazon a license to do business in their country or banned them from setting up a factory, whatever it may be. Given all of this, what is stopping Bezos from using this climate funding as leverage over said country to let Amazon do business there? The type of power this type of fund will have over sovereign countries can’t be ignored and should raise some red flags amongst those concerned with fighting government corruption and supporting democracy more broadly.
Similarly, say one of Elon Musk’s companies, like SpaceX, applies for a grant from the fund. While they might have a very detailed proposal for a new, more energy efficient space craft that they want to build, Bezos has recently started his own space company, Blue Origin. So what’s to say that they are denied their grant just so his company can maintain a competitive advantage?
Hopefully those examples show you just how much easier it will be under Bezos sole control to dictate the global approach to fighting climate change, from the public to the private sector.
While this type of corruption does happen in government grant funding as well. The difference is that in that case, if people feel strongly enough about it, they can vote out a government they see as corrupt every four years or so. Obviously this is not the case with Bezos, who has simply appointed himself as international climate change kingpin and will now force leading scientists, entrepreneurs and even sovereign states and governments to fight over funding provided only by him.
If you still aren’t convinced, say this issue was reversed. What if Donald Trump were to set up an Anti-Climate Change Fund that would provide grants to the public, private and non-profit sectors to support research and businesses that oppose climate change? He or anyone else for that matter is entirely free to do so and a lot of groups that advocate such things do exist (obviously their creators aren’t looking for international headlines about what they do, but they are still there). Again, the point is that both scenarios take power away from our collective, democratic institutions and somehow manage to put even more of it into the hands of the super wealthy.
So what’s the alternative? One example might be a progressive tax on carbon, one that charges per tonne emitted that could then be collected by the government and redistributed through grants for research, activism, retrofits and so on. It’s essentially the same thing, but at the very least the money is going through a democratic channel that is vastly more accountable than this current situation.
We could also have a wealth tax, set at say 7.7%, that would collect the same $10 billion from Bezos, on top of money from all of the world’s other billionaires that could go towards tackling a whole host of the world’s problems, which again, would be vastly more accountable simply by the nature of the fact that it would be going through a democratic apparatus.
None of this is to say that Bezos is inherently an evil person or doesn’t have good intentions with this fund. But for the world to be at this point, where our continued existence is at the mercy of what amounts to benevolent dictators taking pity on the rest of us, speaks volumes about the state of our world and our democracies today.