I am amazed how little coverage the media gave to Jeff Bezos’ announcement of a $10 billion donation to fund efforts to reduce the impact of climate change. This certainly must be one of the largest charitable donations in history, in support of a cause that may be critical to the functioning of civilization as we know it. This pledge was announced back on Feb. 17, strategically placed in a two-week gap between major primary weeks. (Remember the primaries?)
Clearly the announcement largely was washed away in the tide of the coronavirus news that began to swell as the virus was found on U.S. soil.
Still, I would like to take a moment to express my personal thanks to Bezos and, I would hope, thanks from everyone who believes in the possibility of a clean and healthy planet. I might even offer thanks, at the risk of being presumptuous, from future generations that may benefit from this generous gift.
As someone who has closely watched human impacts to the planet for more than 40 years with increasing fear and uncertainty, I would like to make three humble suggestions to Bezos, with the hope he channels the money in ways that will lengthen and broaden its impact. These suggestions come with the awareness that it will likely take an investment of $1 trillion or more to transform our energy economy away from the carbon-based fuel economy and its pervasive effects.
Way back in 2019, throwing out a figure of over $1 trillion would be dismissed by many as fantasy, but recent events have shown that society can spend such large sums if they are needed to protect lives and bolster the economy.
Part of the money could be set aside in a rolling fund that municipalities and school districts could tap into in the form of loans to fund solar projects for schools and public buildings. With the proper contracts, this fund would be constantly replenished through the saved energy costs. If they show interest, a large part of the money could even be lent to a state or tribal nation (why not New Mexico or the Navajo Nation?) to establish alternative energy generation projects that could secure a long-term funding source for their fiscal budget that isn’t tied to the boom-bust cycles of the carbon economy.
Part of the money could establish a bank or credit union focused on giving loans to alternative energy projects for businesses or homeowners. We all know the old adage that says “money talks,” but much of the public is unaware that most of the bank and credit companies they use are huge funders of the quick and dirty money generated by the fossil fuels industry. We need financial institutions dedicated to promoting a positive future.
I would also urge Bezos to challenge other wealthy individuals to fund alternative energy and carbon-reduction projects and to transform the companies they own or operate toward zero carbon output. If Bezos does focus his donation in one geographic area, perhaps he can get Elon Musk to donate a large power reserve battery such as the one Tesla has built in south Australia. Together, they could showcase the future of the energy grid and economy in the United States.
Some pundits already are arguing that huge donations by wealthy philanthropists only perpetuate problems, as they give governments an excuse not to act. For many of the world’s problems, I would agree that no amount of philanthropy could bring about long-term solutions. However, the reality is that the national governments of most of the largest polluters are not taking significant action on climate change. Here in the U.S., many states and local governments have set goals or provided incentives for renewables, and in Santa Fe we are lucky to live in a community that has had the foresight to install solar arrays in the parking lots of schools and new government buildings. In this case, philanthropy can build upon these efforts.
Clearly we are all nearly overwhelmed with the coronavirus crisis, but we still need to think of the future, and the economic pause created by the virus has made many aware that we need major changes to our economic structures. The economics are ready for an alternative energy future. It is time to outbuild and surpass the fossil fuel industry. So kudos to you, Jeff Bezos. I hope you spend that $10 billion wisely.
On a final note, Bezos has also pledged $4 billion of Amazon’s money to make changes to protect people from the effects of the coronavirus, and he deserves thanks for that effort. However, my thanks should not be considered a broad endorsement of Bezos and certainly not of Amazon, which still needs improvement in many elements of the way it operates.