We find ourselves on the crest of a new wave of very, very rich people earmarking some of their billions for climate mitigation. Jeff Bezos, for example, created a $10 billion fund for climate action last February. Bill Gates, who has already invested around $2 billion in climate change innovation, just released a new book in which he outlines a plan for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. Elon Musk recently tweeted he would donate $100 million toward a prize for “best carbon capture technology.”
But does all this money represent pure generosity, or compensation for wrongs done? After all, their companies have contributed a significant chunk of the carbon emissions driving the climate crisis. There are the energy-sucking data centers that made Google founder Sergey Brin and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg so staggeringly wealthy. There’s Apple’s business tactic of planned obsolescence and its requisite cycle of manufacturing and waste. And, of course, there is the consumerist behemoth of Amazon — a kind of combo deal of the above plus objectionable labor practices — which has landed Jeff Bezos at the top of the world’s wealthy list.
As much as it’s nice to have a few extra tens of billions dollars in the climate action coffers, it raises the question of environmental absolution. Do tech billionaires’ contributions make up for what they’ve gained via various forms of environmental destruction? And on the other hand, is it possible to save the planet without their money?
In a recent column, I ran down the (also very complicated) accounting sheet of the pros and the cons of the digital revolution with regard to climate change. Applying the same thought experiment to the environmental impact of the mega-rich works best using a little history lesson. One can hardly discuss billionaires — or climate change, really — without mention of the original: John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller became the first billionaire in 1916 via the Standard Oil company, the predecessor to Chevron, ExxonMobil, and BP. So we all know how that turned out!
Or do we? If we want to balance the math of the Rockefeller legacy, we end up with quite a detailed little ledger. Using one analysis of major industrial polluters’ contributions to climate change, one could estimate that the Standard Oil Company was responsible for solidly 9.2 percent of all carbon emissions produced between the start of the Industrial Revolution and today. That’s quite a bit of burden for a single company, and that’s not even tacking on extra points for ExxonMobil’s decades-long awareness and wilful concealment of the science of climate change.
But the Rockefeller family’s vast wealth has also funded some important forms of restitution for their environmental pillaging. For starters, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was an avid conservationist: He purchased and donated thousands of acres of land to several major national parks, including Grand Teton, Acadia, Yosemite, and Shenandoah. In 2013, the Rockefeller Foundation launched 100 Resilient Cities, an organization which was ostensibly meant to fund — you guessed it — the development of more climate-resilient cities. (The venture infamously shut down without warning in 2019.) You could also potentially count as pro-climate the hundreds of millions of Rockefeller dollars that have gone to funding institutes of higher education, which have, in turn, contributed to environmental research.
Rockefeller money, however tied to emissions, has done some good things for the planet! And yet, it may not be enough to scrub the Rockefeller legacy of its climate sins. Even some of the family’s descendants have gone so far as to publicly denounce the source of their generational wealth.
So what does that mean for the hyper-wealthy tech lords of the world? Unlike Rockefeller and Standard Oil, modern-day billionaires aren’t reaping their gratuitous wealth directly from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, which means it’s a bit harder to parse whether they can make up for their role in climate change. Still, Lila Holzman, senior energy program manager for the corporate accountability organization As You Sow, points out uber-rich tech company founders have power to address climate change that extends well beyond their personal checkbooks. Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Apple have pretty significant carbon footprints, and while each of these titanic companies have started to make some movements toward net-zero, there are still vast amounts of progress to be made.
Rather than simply lauding tech billionaires’ individual efforts to save the planet, shareholders are demanding “more transparency on what steps the companies are taking to address climate change in a meaningful way,” Holzman said. “Relying on their CEOs to donate is not one of them.”
The rap sheet gets even more convoluted if you take corporate influence into consideration. Major tech companies have massive funds with which they could go head-to-head with the fossil fuel industry and lobby for pro-climate legislation, but they haven’t even begun to bring that type of bargaining power to Washington. In fact, quite the opposite. Even though Bill Gates has become more and more active in the climate philanthropy sphere, Microsoft (which he no longer runs but remains one of its biggest shareholders) has a lengthy and expensive history of using its lobbyists to push climate-denying policies and fund candidates who favor laxer regulations.
And just because a person is good at making computers or social media platforms or electric vehicles doesn’t necessarily make them a climate expert. To carry on with the Bill Gates example, there has been some criticism of the types of climate solutions he’s pushing in his latest book, How To Avoid A Climate Disaster. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, Gates focuses a lot on research and development of technology that activists say aren’t really necessary; in a recent New York Times review of Gates’ book, for example, climate activist Bill McKibben references experts that say we already have most of the tech that we need to build carbon-neutral societies.
To the same end, Elon Musk’s recently announced competition to develop the best carbon removal technology has encountered some skepticism. Many climate activists are wary of trying to suck up carbon from the atmosphere — they argue that one shouldn’t necessarily encourage carbon-spewing practices to continue willy-nilly with the enticement that the emissions can just get cancelled out with the right gadget.
Every now and again you do need a new gadget, but the real funding need, argues Alex Martin of Americans for Financial Reform, is in the implementation of all the existing technology we have. That’s really the responsibility of governments, not private citizens with personal banks. A climate-friendly future is largely dependent on big, boring infrastructure projects — retrofitting buildings, expanding public transit systems, transforming power grids. “I believe the federal government is the one that needs to make this right, and it has the capacity, expertise, technical skill, for a big clean energy transformation,” Martin said.
Billionaires do, however, have a decent grasp on the cost of climate action. Very rough cost estimates of a Green New Deal-type plan tally up to tens of trillions of dollars. Yowza. That’s beyond Bezos money! I guess you could imagine a world in which every billionaire pooled all of their resources to fund a Green New Deal-type situation, but is that the world we want? A situation where solving every major problem is dependent on the whims of a group of people who happen to have just boatloads of money? I appreciate Elon Musk’s inclinations and determination to address climate change, but I don’t want my future in the hands of a man who named his child after the sound a malfunctioning Roomba makes.
As Cosmopolitan often says, never let yourself be too dependent on a man, even if he has billions of dollars! (Not that I want to depend on Kylie Jenner either.) The super-wealthy will not save us, nor will we perish without them.
This story was originally published by Grist with the headline What is a billionaire’s role in saving the planet? on Feb 25, 2021.