Jeff Bezos’ clean energy fund accused of ‘greenwashing’

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, December 13, 2020

A $10 billion clean energy and climate fund launched by Inc. CEO Jeff Bezos is causing friction among environmentalists, with a coalition of groups blasting what they call the fund’s “big green” grantees and accusing Bezos of “greenwashing.”

The accusations came in a statement yesterday from the Climate Justice Alliance , an umbrella group whose 70-plus member organizations are often led by people of color and advocate on behalf of low-income urban and rural areas.

About $791 million in grants from the $10 billion fund were announced last month. Nine of the 16 grantees pledged to use at least some of the funds to advance clean energy, including for zero-emission trucks, low-carbon cement-making and all-electric buildings (Energywire, Nov. 17). Some $151 million also went to climate justice groups.

The bulk of the Bezos money went to five well-heeled environmental and conservation organizations — the Environmental Defense Fund, Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Defense Council, World Resources Institute and World Wildlife Fund, which took in $100 million each.

Bezos’ grant-making, the alliance said, has pitted smaller, grassroots environmentalists against “an elite cadre of international policy groups.”

“This thoughtless, status-quo, self-serving strategy undermines the real systemic change we have been cultivating for decades,” it said.

The group took special aim at grantees that promote “nature-based” strategies to mitigate climate change, like restoring forests and wetlands.

It also accused the “big green” groups of promoting “outdated, market-based strategies” for confronting climate change, including the Transportation and Climate Initiative, which aims to promote electric transportation in 12 states. The initiative’s organizers at the Georgetown Climate Center have defended its environmental justice credibility, noting that the states have pledged to invest at least 35% of the revenues in underserved areas (Climatewire, Oct. 8).

The alliance demanded that the groups take at least 10% to 25% of their Bezos money and contribute it to a special fund controlled by grassroots organizers, while instituting a moratorium on new fundraising.

It’s unclear if the terms of the Bezos grants would allow recipients to regrant their money. Elizabeth Yeampierre, co-chair of the alliance’s steering committee and executive director of New York City-based Uprose, said in an email that in any case, the equivalent in funds could be rerouted from grantees’ other work.

Spokespeople for the Bezos fund and for several of the largest grantees and groups criticized by the alliance did not provide comment to E&E News.

Eric Pooley, senior vice president for communications at EDF, told E&E News yesterday that the group is “actively working to improve how we integrate equity and justice outcomes into our work,” adding that for the Bezos-funded initiatives, EDF is “building plans now that will require consultation, support and help to raise the voices of front-line communities.”

The World Resources Institute did not say whether it would oblige the alliance’s request to share the funds with grassroots groups, but said it will work with school districts on its $30 million-to-$40 million bus electrification campaign and share data gathered as part of an emissions monitoring project.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, which the alliance named among groups that it said need to “visibly demonstrate” their commitment to fundraising equity, said it intends to direct about 25% of its grant to provide “essential resources” to environmental justice and grassroots organizations.

UCS has received $15 million over a two-year period to advocate for truck electrification and transmission upgrades that would help bring more wind and solar onto the grid.

“This work is aimed at reducing global warming emissions and will also reduce air pollution, especially in communities of color that often are subjected to disproportionate amounts of truck pollution and where large, polluting power plants are frequently located,” Angela Anderson, program director for climate and energy at UCS, wrote in an email. She added that the group does not anticipate conducting further fundraising for the campaigns directly funded by Bezos’ fund.

The rift underscores the intense scrutiny on Bezos’ climate philanthropy, given Amazon’s economic might and scientific warnings about climate change.

It also may signal that as the energy transition builds steam, advocates for racial justice and low-income areas are increasingly willing to challenge clean energy and climate programs.

“Clean energy-oriented programs led by frontline communities should be directly funded with general operating funds and without strings attached,” wrote Yeampierre.