16. A climate intervention for Jeff Bezos

What he could literally buy to help the climate (a coal plant?)

Welcome back to Giving to Strangers, a newsletter about how social change and how it happens. 

This week, I’m excited to have a guest co-author: Matthew Tarduno, a PhD student at UC Berkeley studying environmental economics. You can read more about his work on his website, or read media coverage of his work on Uber and Lyft here

In 2020, Jeff Bezos announced that he would donate $10 billion to climate change solutions via his Earth Fund. Almost immediately, criticism piled on. For one, as he was busy making money off the pandemic, Jeff was frustratingly delayed in distributing some of that money to make his first grants 😒. And while $10 billion is a lot of money, keep in mind that the man made $74 billion in 2020 alone (here’s a unique way to visualize his wealth, just... keep scrolling). 

Bezos doesn’t get a cookie and a pat on the back for donating 5% of his billions to address the biggest threat to human existence. But this post isn’t about whether the man ought to dig deeper into his pockets. It’s about how the Earth Fund money could’ve been allocated more effectively.    

The first round of donations suggests there’s room to improve on this front, with $791 million going to established players like the Nature Conservancy, the World Resources Institute, and the World Wildlife Fund. These donations are, well, fine. They’re sure to be put to good use by well-respected organizations making the world a better place. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t (much) more effective ways to spend the Bezos bucks. 

So the items on the list below might be what Bezos would’ve done for the climate in an alternate universe where he got drunk with a rogue climate economist and started writing checks. Given that Bezos (or whomever follows in his climate savior footsteps) is acting alone and largely free of social mores that hamstring governments or large NGOs, we erred on the side of the aggressive. That is, what can a magnate do that a) governments of NGOs won’t do because it’s unbecoming, or b) individual donors or climate groups are too small to do on their own? 

This jives with what we often hear at Giving to Strangers: in our interviews, activists and socially-minded folks have a common refrain. More creative ideas are needed in movements, more enthusiasm, more fresh blood. So let this be a gauntlet! If the below jogs your juices, reply to this email or comment on this post to send us your own ideas for an Earth Fund intervention.

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What Bezos could do with each dollar amount 

$100 million - Lobby to increase gas taxes.

In another instance of America’s utter refusal to adopt sensible policies (or, a Grover Norquist wet dream) America’s taxes on gas lag behind the rest of the world. 

Why is this a problem? Unlike emissions from the energy sector, emissions from transportation are stubbornly high. And state and local governments often rely on gas tax revenue to fund crucial projects (read: public transit). 

This idea isn’t about re-inventing the wheel. It’s about re-upping on an old policy that’s fallen by the wayside because politicians see it as a third rail, and climate thought leaders are busy dreaming about sucking carbon from the atmosphere, or whatever. 

The catch is that the burden of gas taxes falls more heavily on low-income drivers (since the tax is the same, but income is lower, a higher percentage of their income is devoted to paying the tax). Now, Matt doesn’t have four sixths of an economics PhD for nuthin’ — he says that this is okay if we’re careful about what we do with the tax revenue. Direct checks to low-income households, for example, can make these policies progressive on average.   

$1 billion - Launch a massive climate change awareness campaign.

In the trenches of public opinion, climate policy advocates have long been out gunned by the fossil fuel industry’s well-oiled (ha) PR machine: DeSmog blog, a website dedicated to “clearing the PR pollution that surrounds climate science”, reported in 2019 that the Big Five oil companies (BP, Chevron, Total, ExxonMobil, and Shell) “spend roughly $200 million a year pushing to delay or alter climate and energy rules” while at the same time “spending $195 million a year ‘on branding campaigns that suggest they support an ambitious climate agenda.’”

Bezos could easily tip the scales in the other direction. He could hire a PR company to convince Republican voters that green energy and carbon taxes are more American than bald eagles and apple pie. For a bit of comic flourish, why not hire the same firm that BP hired to fix its reputation after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

With $1 billion, this PR campaign could make every former Pepsi billboard a billboard about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, flood Instagram with ads ridiculing the Senators who say that climate change is a hoax, and convince Republicans that environmentalism is cool again, one Bass Pro Shop at a time. 

$1 billion - Cash for Clunkers, redux. 

Fact: Old cars pollute way more than do new cars. And because people don’t replace their cars frequently, these vehicles will keep being big sources of emissions for years and years. Unless, of course, Jess Bezos decides to buy everybody’s old, pollutin’ cars. 

Sound familiar? Well, in 2009, the Obama administration did something similar. They incentivized people to trade in their old, polluting cars for newer, more efficient cars. This policy was intended to curb emissions while also stimulating the economy. The problem was that this policy wasn’t particularly well-targeted: Research suggests that “45 percent of the spending went to consumers who would have purchased a new vehicle anyway.” This means Cash for Clunkers wasted a fair amount of money. 

So what’s a glabrous tycoon to do? Well, try again, but this time make sure to buy cars that wouldn’t have been upgraded otherwise. In other words, pay a research team to identify the clunker owners who would buy an efficient car only if they were part of a program, and then, well, make them part of a program. 

This is important because without this type of buy-back program, there are millions of super-polluting cars that will be on the roads for another decade. 

$5 billion - Buy and dismantle a coal company (or two).

Peabody coal is the largest private sector coal company in the world, releasing 471 million tonnes of CO2e a year, or around 8% of America’s annual emissions.

The company’s assets total $6.4 billion. So in an asset sale, Bezos could just buy all that is Peabody, including its 5.2 billion tons worth of coal deposits, and then sit on them. He’d probably have plenty of money left over to offer generous benefits to anyone who loses their job – something that those workers won’t likely enjoy if Peabody shutters the mines itself. 

Why coal? Coal assets are cheap, and coal is a particularly dirty fuel. So if you’re an enterprising, brown-eyed, hundred-billionaire who grew a conscience at age 56, we suggest that you start your shopping there. 

Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you in two weeks. If you liked this post, don’t forget to subscribe and share ✌🏻.

— AM & MT

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Quotes, gathered Feb 7-21

Being passionate about a problem is important. It motivates. 

But being passionate about a solution can be dangerous. 

Pursuing an obvious-seeming solution to a problem you are passionate about feels good. We are all familiar with the exhilarating feeling that you are making the world a better place. But […] doing so without rigorous examination is self-indulgence. That feeling of righteousness is too easily achieved. And it’s for amateurs. 

— Ethan Bueno de Mesquita

Divorce sucks, but continuing to be in a bad marriage is way worse, otherwise you wouldn't get divorced. Divorce is just visible in ways that bad marriages often aren't, so nobody can see how much being divorced is better than what came before. — a friend

Proportionately, as my property value goes up, my quality of life goes down — Mickey Munoz

An architect on why he made an iconic hotel in Miami, the Fontainebleau, curved: 

The curve, [the architect] said, was the key, and the curve of Fontainebleau was his favorite. "Here's why," he said. "Back in the '20s and '30s. when I was designing stores, I lived on the road. I would come into town on a train, dead tired, and go to a local hotel. I would go up in the elevator, step out, and look down this dark, endless hall, under this endless yellow line of twenty-watt bulbs. My knees would almost buckle, so when I finally got to design a hotel, I thought of curving the whole thing. The hall would still be long, of course, but it wouldn't seem so long because of the curve, because you couldn't see the ends of it. This also expresses another principle of mine. I let the inside determine the outside, because I'm designing buildings for the people in them, not as objects to be appreciated from traffic helicopters.”