Jeff Bezos was in the Vatican this week to accept an award praising him as a “Prophet of Philanthropy” – even as his ex-wife MacKenzie Scott has given away more wealth, more quickly, than the Amazon billionaire.
“We must do work at both timescales, the short term and the long term. We must address immediate needs and also work on laying the foundation for a better future,” Mr Bezos said in a speech while receiving the honour. “When people are in immediate danger, when crisis is looming, that is the time to jump in, get to work, and do whatever you can.”
“With the same resolve we must also work on the long term, fixing problems at the root, creating preconditions for permanent change,” he added. “Change that uplifts. Change that creates empowerment and independence.”
The award, from the Galileo Foundation, which supports the work of the Catholic Church and Pope Francis, was also given to celebrity chef and humanitarian José Andrés.
In 2020, Mr Bezos founded the Bezos Earth Fund, with the goal of investing $10bn in climate crisis initiatives by the end of 2030. So far, according to the group’s website, it has granted $1.54bn dollars, though press estimates put the figure closer to $3bn.
Ms Scott, who became one of the richest people in the world after divorcing from Mr Bezos in 2019, has been far more philanthropic this year, according to observers.
Forbes magazine gave Ms Scott a 5, the highest rank on its philanthropy score metric, because she’s given away an estimated 20 per cent of her wealth, while Mr Bezos only got a 2, the second worst score, for giving in the range of 1 to 4.99 per cent of his money.
In March, Ms Scott announced she’s given more than $3.8bn to 465 non-profits since June of 2021, part of $12bn total in disclosed donations since 2019, when the philanthropist pledged to give away the majority of her wealth. That amounts to nearly a third of her estimated $49bn net worth.
In a blog post explaining her donations, which have gone to well-known organisations like Planned Parenthood and Habitat for Humanity, Ms Scott said she “will keep at it until the safe is empty.”
In fact, Ms Scott has given away more money, more quickly than any other billionaire Forbes has ever tracked, according to the magazine, and she’s approaching giving totals of long-term mega-donors like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg.
In November of 2020, the Bezos Earth Fund announced its first round of donations, a $791m tranche of money that went to well-known environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Nature Conservancy.
Some critics faulted the fund for focusing on so-called “big green” groups, rather than directing money towards groups focused on environmental justice and climate resilience in marginalised communities, where the effects of global heating and other climate crisis impacts will be felt most grievously.
The Climate Justice Alliance accused Mr Bezos of doubling down on “philanthropy’s inequitable modus operandi by funneling hundreds of millions into outdated, ineffective, top-down strategies that attempt to erase the frontlines.”
“This thoughtless, status-quo, self-serving strategy undermines the real systemic change we have been cultivating for decades in this most monumental fight against climate change, and for the protection of Mother Earth as we know her,” they added in a statement.
By late 2021, the Earth Fund had ramped up its giving even more, pledging an estimated $3bn, with a notable focus on groups “doing critical climate justice work.”
Despite Mr Bezos’s significant funding for climate efforts, which have reportedly made him the single largest funder of such work, his philanthropic and environmental record is more complicated than the Earth Fund alone.
For instance, unlike Ms Scott, Mr Bezos hasn’t signed onto the Giving Pledge, a group of high-income individuals who have promised to give away the majority of their wealth to charity in their lifetime or their wills.
Instead, he says he’s poured an estimated $1bn a year into Blue Origin, his aerospace company seeking to build reusable rockets, with the ultimate goal of supporting floating space colonies.
He has argued that this mission has an environmental focus, because he believes the Earth does not contain suitable resources on its own to support the wants and needs of growing world populations and their demands for energy.
“What happens when unlimited demand meets finite resources? The answer is incredibly simple: rationing,” Mr Bezos said in a 2019 speech. “It would lead to the first time where your grandchildren and their grandchildren would have worse lives than you did — that’s a bad path.”
The billionaire consumes far more than his share of resources, according to researchers, who found that is carbon footprint is about 1,500 times greater than the global average.
Amazon’s climate work is fraught with contradictions as well. The company is a major investor in renewable energy, and has committed $2bn to funding climate initiatives, but also has major business lines with fossil fuel companies, and has funded climate-denying Republican politicians and business groups.
In 2020, it fired two employees who led climate activism efforts inside the company. Amazon said the employees were in violation of certain company policies, while the National Labor Relationship Board declared in 2021 they had been illegally retaliated against.