Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.
Billionaires, celebrities and royalty were front and centre at this week’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. Jeff Bezos pledged to donate $2 billion. Leonardo DiCaprio met with world leaders. Prince William criticized billionaires who seemed more focused on flying to space than fixing the planet.
But some experts say the billions pledged by Bezos, the founder and former CEO of Amazon, are little more than a distraction from the real issues at hand.
“People hear $2 billion and they’re like whoa, $2 billion,” said Jessica Dempsey, an associate professor in the department of geography at the University of British Columbia.
She points to a study that found the largest banks funnelled $2.6 trillion into sectors known to degrade biodiversity in 2019. So, Bezos’s donation is great. But it’s a drop in the bucket.
“Two billion dollars, while it’s huge, is actually very small,” she said. “What we should be talking about is much more structural.”
10:29Instead of writing big cheques to fight climate change, billionaires should just pay taxes: environmentalist
Dempsey says the climate crisis should not depend on the charity of billionaires. Governments need to set up proper taxation systems to make sure people like Bezos and companies like Amazon pay their fair share.
Amazon paid no federal income tax in 2018 even though it made more than $11 billion in profits. Bezos personally uses tax loopholes to pay himself through low interest loans against his Amazon stock. Debt isn’t taxed, so Bezos lives largely tax free, even though he’s one of the richest men in the history of the world.
World’s wealthiest are top carbon emitters: report
Meanwhile, one new study found that by 2030, the carbon footprints of the richest one per cent are expected to reach 30 times the level compatible with the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The author of that report says it’s not just the space tourism that Bezos and other billionaires have been promoting that’s leading to higher emissions.
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“It’s the private jets, it’s the mega yachts, it’s the multiple homes — all of this stuff comes with a massive carbon footprint,” said Tim Gore of the Institute for European Environmental Policy.
“The idea that these are the people we need to listen to understand how to tackle the climate crisis is really bonkers,” he told the CBC Radio program Day 6.
Gore says the voices we need to hear from now are not the billionaires and celebrities. He says we need to hear from the people living on the front lines of climate change.
He wishes conferences like COP26 spent more time fighting for and talking about issues such as inequality that allow for billionaires to flourish while the global poor suffer the harshest effects of climate change.
“If Bezos wants to put up a few billion, that’s obviously welcome,” Gore said. “I think it would be much better, though, to see fair systems of taxation through which that money is directed in an accountable way by governments.”
‘There’s a problem in capitalism,’ says business prof
It’s not just environmental activists clamouring for change.
Andrew Hoffman, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the School for Environment and Sustainability, wrote an op-ed in the publication The Conversation late last year.
He says there’s a fundamental business case for a more transparent, more fair system.
“Markets can’t function properly when government doesn’t work,” he wrote about Bezos’s announcement last year to pour more than $10 billion into climate-related projects. “[His] gift is emblematic of the broader issue of money and the ways it clouds our society’s ability to address the fundamental challenges we face.”
In an interview with Day 6, Hoffman said the looming climate catastrophe sits at an uncomfortable intersection of economics, environment and governance. To fix one, the others must be in working order.
“Right now there’s a problem in capitalism and that is the government is extremely weak and fractioned and divisive and unable to do things,” he said.
“The idea of a billionaire coming forward and saving the day, that may feed the ego of the billionaire — but I’m not so sure it’s going to solve the problem.”
And the problem is getting worse by the day. Hoffman says everyone on the planet is contributing to the crisis, and everyone must do their part to keep emissions low. That includes billionaires.
But more than anything else, it requires global, co-ordinated efforts and a clear way to make sure everyone can pay the bill.