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Beware a Bezos Bearing Gifts

A field guide to corporate climate pledges

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Beyond a vaguely worded Instagram post, we don’t know much about how Jeff Bezos will spend the $10 billion he recently pledged to climate action through the Bezos Earth Fund. The richest man on the planet says his “global initiative” will fund “scientists, activists, NGOs—any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.” With that description, it might be a richer redux of Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge, which offered entrepreneurial scientists, engineers, and tech bros a $25 million prize to come up with new ways to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Maybe it’ll be spent developing hydrogen-powered yachts. Only Bezos and whoever he’s hired to oversee the project really know. That, unfortunately, is the problem with climate efforts handed down from on high by wealthy individuals and corporations.

Under mounting pressure from activists and investors, business leaders and billionaires these days are falling over themselves to prove their climate credentials. The World Economic Forum this year was rife with climate change talk. Scroll through the Financial Times on a given day, and you’ll see well-informed business types deeply and genuinely concerned about the climate—from the risk of fossil-fuel assets being stranded to the dangers of flooding for waterfront real estate. At the Global Climate Action Summit in 2018, companies got a round of positive PR for making voluntary emissions reductions pledges, albeit without much talk of follow-through or accountability measures. BlackRock’s Larry Fink recently sounded the alarm on “climate risk,” announcing that he would make climate central to how the world’s largest money manager deploys its mammoth $7 trillion in assets, pledging to stop investing in companies with big stakes in thermal coal and create new products that screen out fossil fuel stocks. Microsoft announced its intention to be carbon negative by 2030. “The corporation’s purpose,” CEO Satya Nadella told CNBC, “is to find profitable solutions to the problems of people and planet.”

It’d be tempting to see these corporate gestures as a slightly evolved riff on corporate greenwashing: BP’s infamous “Beyond Petroleum” strategy, with better consultants. In many cases that’s not far off. Corporate climate pledges sit at a complicated nexus, though, of branding and material threat, and the two are hard to separate. Cognizant of what a P.R. disaster South African apartheid became for companies like Caterpillar, fossil fuel giants are eager to maintain what’s called their “social license to operate.” Amid growing public concern about rising temperatures, that is, they need to show they’re good corporate actors vis-à-vis the planet. The concept is even invoked in presentations to investors, whom Shell has assured of its commitment to transparency and a “lower-carbon business.” This all means putting on a good face for the public, spending lavishly—as oil and gas companies have since the Paris Agreement was signed—to cast themselves as positive actors on climate, all the while lobbying against policies that would reduce emissions. Companies like BP, which has been particularly aggressive in its green self-presentation, have in fact devoted only tiny fractions of their budgets to anything other than exploring for and digging up fossil fuels—the only thing they’re really set up to do.

For non–fossil fuel companies, the calculations are a bit different. There’s often less on the line from going green. The reputational benefit they’d get from powering all their data centers with renewables, for instance, may well outweigh the upfront investment needed to make it happen. They could really do it and may well shave costs in the process.

But what about the rest of a company’s business? Bezos’s pledge, as Amazon Workers for Climate Justice were quick to point out, is odd considering what else the company does. Amazon Web Services provides invaluable logistical support to oil and gas companies, contracting with the likes of Shell, BP, and Halliburton to make drilling more productive through the magic of Big Data. As a company, Amazon’s carbon emissions are comparable to those of highly developed economies like Sweden. And Bezos’s space travel company, Blue Origin, represents something of a hedge on saving the world—an escape route, in theory. Amazon has also donated to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a global warming–denying think tank that has fed its personnel into senior posts at the Trump administration. And Amazon’s very business model depends on fueling demand for cheap, planet-wrecking junk.

Amazon’s main goal is to make money. As Nantina Vgontzas and Spencer Cox pointed out recently for The Nation, flashy corporate pledges—made, in Amazon’s case, at the behest of employees, who’ve staged thousands-strong walkouts over the company’s oil and gas ties—could hide other motives. Bezos’s September pledge to add 100,000 electric vehicles to Amazon’s delivery fleet would also help it acquire near-complete control over the company’s supply chain, allowing the company to transition last-mile delivery from unionized USPS and UPS workers to a more Uber-style precarious workforce. Its proposed supplier—the venture capital–backed company Rivian—has been bullish on autonomous vehicles, meaning Amazon could eventually automate a massive chunk of its logistics empire by going green.

These profit motives are worth keeping in mind while sifting through proposals from people like Michael Bloomberg who have argued that the search for higher returns can be the main driver for averting planetary catastrophe. Billing himself as an “unrepentant capitalist,” Bloomberg made the case in his co-authored 2017 book, Climate of Hope,  that national governments are a secondary player to corporations and local governments. “Only when self-interested acts are also climate-friendly acts will success be possible. In other words: reducing carbon must offer profit opportunities for us to win the battle against climate change,” he and co-author Carl Pope concluded.

For billionaires and a growing segment of the corporate world concerned about the climate crisis, it’s an unfortunate situation in which the earth has found itself but not one that merits much self-reflection; shareholders are pretty averse to such things anyway, demanding ever-larger stock buybacks. Savvy companies might even make some money off of it.

The most important caveat, however, is that truly cross-sectoral collective action by American business—through bodies like the Chamber of Commerce—has been devoted mostly to making the kind of higher-order, government-led economic planning the climate crisis requires politically impossible. In generously funding politicians, the Chamber, the Heritage Foundation, and other free-market groups, corporate America has repeatedly attacked the idea that state investments and regulations have a key role to play in ensuring our collective well-being. Markets, these organs have insisted, are the world’s best vehicles to deliver prosperity. The state should step in mainly to clean up their mess.

In Europe, neoliberalism evolved a bit differently than in the Reagan Revolution here, and climate denial never really took hold. There, as Daniela Gabor wrote last week in The Guardian, private interests are now eager to take advantage of the European Commission’s push to mobilize private finance as part of its Green Deal and shape its roll-out. “It will probably go into the pockets of decarbonisation ‘barons’: clever local elites who will funnel transition money to their business,” Gabor predicted, who are eager to use public money to “de-risk” private investment.

None of this is surprising. Companies exist to make a profit. Sometimes that’s in society’s collective best interest. Often, it’s not. Corporate figureheads don’t tend to be experts on pressing geopolitical matters like the climate crisis, either, so it’s worth being skeptical of Bezos’s ability to allocate $10 billion effectively in the first place. In any case, he’s likely to devote more energy to keeping the government off Amazon’s back and making sure he pays as few taxes as possible.

Plutocrats tend not to be too friendly to democracies that might rein them in, flaunting their wealth as testament to how much smarter they are than any pencil-pushing Washington bureaucrat. “The federal government doesn’t have a lot to do with climate change.… State governments, only a little,” Bloomberg argued in a 2018 interview. “It’s city governments and the private sector. Mostly the private sector.” As his presidential campaign has helped illustrate, climate-conscious elites rarely seem anxious about storms or floods, from which their wealth can easily shield them. Their bigger worry seems to be about democratic oversight of the sort on offer from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and the binding check on their tax breaks, polluting investments, and emissions-heavy lifestyles that any reasonable, science-guided response to the climate crisis would necessitate.

Though there are plenty of particulars to be worked out, the basic formula for climate action isn’t hard. We’ve got to electrify everything; figure out how to decarbonize sectors like steel and airlines with some well-targeted R&D; and get off fossil fuels very, very quickly while transforming consumption so that it doesn’t destroy the planet. Enacted, this would all be much more expensive than the measly sum Bezos has put on offer. And it would all mean a 180-degree turn from the asymmetric balance between the public and private sectors that’s made it possible for him to hand out $10 billion on a whim, or for Bloomberg to spend $7 million a day attempting to buy his way into the White House.

There’s plenty of room for corporate profits in the path to zero emissions, but the line running through all of the above is muscular government action—not private sector largesse. Big climate moves from CEOs are certainly a welcome development; it’s hard to imagine any kind of comprehensive climate plan making its way through Congress under universal opposition from corporate America, let alone the kind of wide-ranging green industrial mobilization needed. But plutocrats’ pledges, no matter how generous, are hardly proof that a low-carbon transition can be allowed to happen on their terms.