Feb 20, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Jeff Bezos writes a short climate mystery

Bezos announces the co-founding of an earlier initiative, The Climate Pledge, in September. Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Amazon

The most striking thing about Jeff Bezos' new climate philanthropy is the size. A close second is the information void about what it will actually do.

Catch up fast: The Amazon founder on Monday announced a $10 billion fund to help scientists, nonprofits and activists — and then dropped the mic.

  • His short Instagram post provided almost no information about the plan to spend a slice of his personal fortune.

Why it matters: $10 billion is a lot of money in the world of private climate giving, and it could make Bezos an influential player.

  • Consider that in late 2018, 29 philanthropies — including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation — pledged $4 billion over the next five years combined.
  • This Bloomberg piece cites an estimate that if doled out over 20 years, it would roughly double today's giving levels. An expert with the group Open Philanthropy agrees that it would double current philanthropic support.

The intrigue: Bezos said he wants to "amplify known ways and to explore new ways" to fight climate change.

  • But team Bezos isn't yet providing details about funding areas, how proposals will be vetted and who will make decisions, or the timeline for spending the $10 billion.
  • That leaves an immense set of options around policy advocacy and potentially politics, R&D, faster deployment of existing low-carbon technology, and much more.
  • One thing that is known: A source familiar with the effort told reporters — including Axios' Orion Rummler — that it won't stake for-profit companies or startups.

The big picture: Northeastern University communications professor Matthew Nisbet, who studies climate advocacy, says there's a relatively small number of nongovernmental groups with the resources, staff and track record to handle multimillion-dollar grants.

  • "[E]ven if Bezos plans to devote unprecedented resources to hiring the very best staff and advisers to handle his investments, by necessity the rich and established within the climate advocacy and research realm are likely to get richer, whereas it will take a focused effort by Bezos’ people to identify, work with, and support smaller 'startup' NGOs and initiatives," he tells Axios.

The big question: Nisbet points out that we don't even know what "theory of change" will drive Bezos' giving, and he says there are lots of questions.

  • For instance, he wonders if Bezos will fund efforts to push for carbon pricing policies and deployment of renewables, or also "hedge his bets" with giving to help develop next-generation technologies like carbon removal and advanced nuclear reactors.
  • Another question, he says, is whether the fund might focus on federal policy versus state and regional efforts, look to influence policy in other nations, or even bypass government action to put pressure on industries.

What they're saying: The scarcity of information combined with the size of the fund has created a cottage industry of experts and advocates weighing in with ideas for how some of it should be spent.

For instance...

  • Leah Stokes, a University of California, Santa Barbara public policy professor, argues for staking advocacy and social movements to elect "climate champions." She's among several people urging Bezos to focus on ways to push far more aggressive policies through Congress.
  • James Temple of MIT Technology Review advocates for two broad uses: backing groups that advocate for policies like carbon taxes and emissions mandates that speed deployment of existing tools like solar and electric cars; and funding early-stage research in areas such as large-scale energy storage and atmospheric carbon removal technologies.
  • Energy analyst Joshua Rhodes on Wednesday suggested setting 10% aside to create endowed chairs in clean energy and climate at research universities.

Go deeper

Big climate change policy unlikely no matter who wins the White House

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Don’t hold your breath for big climate policy changes — even if a Democrat wins the White House.

Why it matters: Congress is likely to remain gridlocked on the matter, leading to either more of the same with President Trump’s re-election or a regulatory swing back to the left no matter which Democrat wins — but far short of a legislative overhaul.

Industry officials offer mixed messages on climate policy

A top business trade association official and the CEO of a major pipeline company said Tuesday they want the federal government to do more on climate change — but they’re not actually backing any such plans.

Driving the news: Marty Durbin, a top official at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Williams Company CEO Alan Armstrong, speaking at a Bipartisan Policy Center event Tuesday, both said they think the government should create an economy-wide policy to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Private-sector heavyweights push for more energy R&D federal spending

Reproduced from AAAS via the American Energy Innovation Council; Chart: Axios Visuals

The chart above shows how the share of federal spending on energy research and development has largely declined over decades.

Driving the news: It's one of the data points in a report last week urging Congress to greatly expand the federal programs that help develop and commercialize climate-friendly tech.