Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images

The most important thing about Jeff Bezos’s commitment, announced Monday, to donate $10 billion dollars “to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share” is the scale. $10 billion is, by just about any standard, an enormous amount of money. By one estimate, in one fell swoop, it would double the amount spent fighting climate change by American philanthropists — an embarrassment to those philanthropists, really, though also a credit to Bezos. It is also bigger, though just barely, than the total amount that all the wealthy nations of the world have contributed to the Green Climate Fund, designed to help the global south adapt to the impacts of warming. In other words, $10 billion is much bigger than any similar commitment by any entity, private or public, to combat climate change.

But what is significant about the scale of the gift isn’t its largeness. It’s its tininess. Judged by the standards of the climate crisis, $10 billion is pathetically little — practically speaking, almost nothing. The most optimistic assessment I know of suggests that decarbonizing the planet’s energy systems would cost, up front, $73 trillion dollars — meaning that Bezos’s unprecedented commitment amounts to less than one-seven-thousandth of the job. Here in the U.S., different versions of the Green New Deal come with different price tags, but Bernie Sanders’s is priced at $16 trillion — Bezos’s $10 billion could pay for less than a percent of that. Elizabeth Warren’s is a little less expensive, but even so, Bezos’s donation could fit the bill for barely one percent of the cost. On climate, it is always very good to keep perspective, and while Bezos’s donation could dramatically increase the amount of money spent globally on climate philanthropy, perhaps a more useful benchmark is this: It is, as Peter Brannen has pointed out on Twitter, only as much as Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway invested, just last year, in West Texas oil fields. Between 2018 and 2040, he went on to point out, Exxon expects $21 trillion in new oil and gas investment globally.

If the spending were, theoretically, more targeted, of course, it could conceivably go a bit further. But even then, $10 billion goes a lot less far than you think — because climate change, and the threat it represents, is likely much bigger and more expensive than you understand. For instance, on the adaptation side, the Army Corps of Engineers recently unveiled a proposal to protect most of New York City with the construction of a sea wall enclosing New York harbor, at a cost of $119 billion dollars, which, while almost certainly a low estimate, is more than ten times Bezos’s commitment, and would (probably imperfectly) protect only one of the country’s metropolises from only one particular climate threat. On the mitigation side, decarbonizing means — among many, many other things — rebuilding the country’s electric grid. That one project, alone, would probably cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 trillion — 500 times the size of Bezos’s commitment, and, again, would only address one thin slice of our carbon-emissions problem.

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This is all to say that anyone who expects philanthropy to play the role of climate white knight or deus ex machina is deeply deluded — climate change is simply too big for even the most grotesquely well-capitalized individuals to meaningfully impact with record-breaking generosity. In his book Winners Take All, Anand Giridharadas brilliantly illustrates the way in which, over recent decades, the world’s richest people have bought themselves a kind of immunity from taxation by making (in most cases) relatively small philanthropic gestures, which the rest of us take to be quite large because, in nominal terms, they are. But perhaps the most pernicious effect of this dynamic has been to teach the non-philanthropic public — the 99 percent, to coin a phrase — that there are some things only the world’s plutocrats are capable of. In fact, the opposite is true: There are many vital projects far beyond the cost and scale that any individuals are capable of generating on their own. Even setting aside, for a minute, ideological objections to social welfare by billionaire largesse, when it comes to challenges like climate change, philanthropy of any scale simply isn’t adequate, or anything close.

And while it’s natural to feel a little tremor of excitement that a “technologist” is devoting so many resources to tackling this problem — well, first of all, Bezos is really much more of a logistics entrepreneur than a hard-tech innovator (as much as Silicon Valley culture has tried to tell us they are the same thing); and, second of all, while innovation is important, given the short climate timeline, the more pressing challenge is how to deploy the technology we already have, most rapidly and at the largest scale. That is especially true for renewables, but also for the quasi-magical-seeming varieties of what’s known as negative-emissions technology, which could suck carbon out of the atmosphere, often invoked as an “innovation solution” to climate change. In fact, technologies like that are actually already here (direct-air carbon capture, for instance, or carbon storage through mineralization), it’s just that there’s no market for their product (stored carbon) and almost no way to even imagine one developing, in the absence of public policy incentivizing carbon capture (for instance, a carbon price or tax that offered a reward for removing CO2). That is one reason why, in the flurry of commentary published in the aftermath of Bezos’s announcement, a strange agreement among climate writers formed: that because the obvious obstacle to decarbonization is not technical or even economic anymore, the most effective way he could spend that money was not on R&D or basic science research or resiliency infrastructure, but on political campaigns, greasing the paths of climate leaders into positions of actual power.

The chances he takes that advice are, I’d guess, quite small, given that Bezos has never been all that comfortable playing partisan politics, and given Amazon’s ongoing business with fossil-fuel companies. Bezos’s recent history gives reason for more skepticism — his focus on exploring extraterrestrial settlements as a kind of backup plan or escape route from this degraded Earth, his hostility toward the climate activism of his own employees. In this, he isn’t all that different from the raft of business leaders and corporations who have, over the last six months or so, made dramatic gestures toward sustainability, many of them to more public applause than was probably deserved: Larry Fink at BlackRock, announcing his intention to put climate concerns at the center of investment decisions but backing away only from coal, which is already not profitable, and not oil and gas, which are; BP declaring a zero-carbon goal by 2050 without offering any actual plan (and while continuing to build out 30-year fossil-fuel-extraction infrastructure projects); Delta committing to spend $1 billion to neutralize its carbon footprint, but citing only carbon-offset programs, which are unreliable at best.

The irony is, at the same time the business community is finally feeling pressure to move on climate on its own, public policy action has never looked cheaper. For a very long time, economists cautioned against fast government action to combat climate change, saying the costs far outweighed the benefits. That is very much no longer the case, which may be the single most encouraging development in the history of climate advocacy. That same optimistic paper suggesting global decarbonization would cost $73 trillion also suggested it could pay for itself in seven years — an unbelievably fast return for large-scale public infrastructure projects. In Australia, a group of researchers just calculated that the cost of climate impacts are likely to be 20 times the cost of decarbonization. Twenty times. The geopolitics of warming make that deal more complicated than it seems at first, since climate impacts are determined by the global community of emitters and the costs of decarbonization borne by individual nations. But nevertheless, it’s a cause for celebration that even rudimentary cost-benefit analysis is finally pushing the world not toward more dithering, but more action.

Jeff Bezos’s $10 Billion Climate Pledge Is Actually Tiny