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Jeff Bezos and the Golden Age of Climate Hypocrisy

Amazon has pledged to offset carbon emissions—while donating generously to Republicans who are bent on letting the planet burn.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos gestures during an event in New Delhi in 2020.

Of course Jeff Bezos is giving money to Republicans. On Tuesday, during Amazon’s annual sale event known as Prime Day, E&E News reported that the same month that Amazon announced a Climate Pledge to offset more carbon dioxide than it produces, the company’s Political Action Committee donated $20,500 to besieged Republican candidates. Overall, from January 2019 through this August, 70 percent of the PAC’s Senate donations went toward supporting Republicans. To state the obvious: Republican politicians tend to oppose serious policy that would help curb climate change.

This might seem like rank hypocrisy, given Amazon’s Climate Pledge and given that Bezos himself recently set up a $10 billion Bezos Earth Fund, calling climate change “the biggest threat to our planet.” But in fact, this kind of hypocrisy is wildly common and makes a lot of sense from Amazon’s perspective.

A growing number of people in the United States and abroad are deeply concerned about the climate crisis and are smart enough to know that the smiley packages that show up at their door could rack up a big carbon footprint to get there. Amazon workers have been actively organizing for their employer to step up its game on that front, staging walkouts over Amazon’s climate impact, donations to climate deniers, and the company’s contracts with fossil fuel producers. It’s in the company’s interest to make a good show of its climate commitments, including through flashy moves like buying up a “Climate Pledge Arena” in Seattle. It might even save Amazon money in the long run to go net-zero as renewable power gets cheaper. And a good, green public relations strategy can help convince regulators that Amazon doesn’t need to be regulated.

Amazon, of course, desperately needs to be regulated, its climate impact being just one example of where it could use more government oversight. It reports that its operations emitted 51.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide last year, up 15 percent over the prior year to a year’s worth of emissions from 13 coal-fired power plants. Notably, that tally doesn’t include the invaluable support Amazon Web Services lends to the oil and gas industry, which uses its algorithms to arrive at more efficient ways to unearth new fossil fuels.

Maintaining Republican control over the Senate, however, makes it more likely that Amazon’s greenhouse gas emissions along the length of its massive supply are never meaningfully regulated. Its Climate Pledge is a way to make the public and liberal politicians feel OK about that.

Like his thoughts on Trump or the state of the GOP, whatever Bezos’s personal thoughts happen to be on the climate crisis don’t really matter. The mission of his sprawling logistics empire is to make money. As the richest man on earth, he’s done well on that front. This year, Bezos’s fortune has grown by at least $48 billion—by $13 billion in one day!—in a year when millions have been cast out of work as hundreds of thousands of people have died from a global pandemic.

But what powers Amazon isn’t the genius of Jeff Bezos so much as an army of underpaid workers scurrying about his warehouses; backdoor subsidies pushing the United States Postal Service to its limit; and a tax system that allows the company to pay $0 in federal taxes. Billionaires, in any event, don’t really earn money so much as pay people to park money in places where it can reproduce. This is a status quo Bezos, like most other plutocrats, would probably like to maintain. Republicans, in this regard, are a reliable investment.

This sort of ideological doublespeak is common. Fortune 500 companies and their CEOs tend to give generously on both sides of the aisle. Fossil fuel executives’ partisan penchant to give inordinately to Republicans is unique in that sense, with their wealth bracket tending to adopt a more balanced approach in trying to win over whoever’s in charge.

Other companies that have made flashy statements on climate have also given to the party of climate denial and obfuscation. Microsoft earned breathless praise for pledging last year to be carbon-negative by 2030. This election cycle, its PAC has given $20,000 to help Steve Daines keep his seat against Democratic challenger Steven Bullock; $10,000 to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; and $10,000 to Thom Tillis, among others who have fought valiantly to keep climate policy off the table. Walmart made headlines last month for its plans to zero out its carbon emissions by 2040 and use only renewable electricity across its global shipping and stores network by 2035. Its PAC has given $20,000 to Daines and $10,000 to McConnell this cycle, too. It gave another $20,000 to Republican Colorado Senator Cory Gardener, who’s also facing a competitive race. Amazon, Microsoft, and Walmart PACs have each donated this cycle to Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, whose most famous moment has been throwing a snowball onto the Senate floor to disprove global warming.

We shouldn’t expect anything better from these companies. Amazon said it best in response to E&E News questions: “Amazon contributes to policymakers who oversee issues that affect our business, customers, and employees,” a company spokesperson explained. Whatever the rhetoric or even substance of corporate climate pledges, they’ll always take a back seat to CEOs’ overriding interest in protecting their profits from pesky things like taxes and regulations. And they will keep supporting politicians fighting to keep genuine progress on climate off the table.