Bezos and Musk: Will the planet's richest men invest in its survival?

Jon Deery on whether the world's richest really have its best interests at heart

Jon Deery
17th February 2021
Featured image credit: Transport Topics (left), Flickr (right)

In 2020, Jeff Bezos announced that he’d give $10 billion to address climate change. Elon Musk’s company Tesla is at the forefront of electric car production, at a time where around 12% of global emissions come from road transport. But are these projects as generous as they appear?

Jeff Bezos made his money from Amazon. A healthy climate is neither here nor there to the shareholders in Amazon - in fact, the company emitted about 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2018, which put them “in the top 150 or 200 emitters in the world,” according to carbon disclosures non-profit CDP America.

The company also had a series of walkouts in 2019 over their negligence of the climate. Employees protested Amazon’s funding of “the premier climate denying think tank,” the Competitive Enterprise Institute - they also highlighted the fact that the company “funded 68 members of Congress in 2018 who voted against climate legislation 100% of the time.”

Another concern for employees was Amazon’s new business venture: providing fossil fuel companies with “machine learning” technology, to exponentially increase the ease with which oil can be located underground.

In the context of Amazon’s destructive climate legacy, Jeff Bezos’ $10 billion is exposed for the publicity stunt that it was. Even if he had spent the entire amount immediately upon announcement, he would have still remained the richest person on the planet.

But does Elon Musk, supposed “visionary” and pioneer in electric vehicle technology, fare any better?

Elon Musk initially made his money from PayPal, a service unrelated to the climate, and has since branched out into electric car making, boring, and space exploration. According to a recent company impact report, “over 550K Tesla vehicles have been sold, and they have driven over 10B miles to date, resulting in a combined savings of over 4M metric tons of CO2.”

SolarCity, a branch of Tesla, sold 8 million solar panels across America in its first ten years. His Hyperloop project could revolutionise sustainable travel. It appears, therefore, that Elon Musk does have a degree of interest in protecting planet Earth.

In 2018, Musk flew nearly 160,000 miles in his private jet

But on a personal level, this doesn’t seem to be the case. The Washington Post (owned by Bezos) pointed out that, in September 2018, “a few days after calling fossil fuels “the dumbest experiment in human history,” his plane burned thousands of pounds of jet fuel flying 300 miles from L.A. to Oakland so Musk could view a competitive video-gaming event.” That year, Musk flew nearly 160,000 miles in his private jet overall.

Tesla’s altruistic public image should be re-evaluated. Their business model isn’t even sustainable: in 2019, they were predicting shortages of all the important metals needed to construct their cars. Lithium extraction, necessary for making car batteries, is a disaster for Latin America’s water supply, a threat to crop production, a destroyer of habitats and a major source of air pollution.

If Musk wanted to end climate change, he would invest in public transport, rather than the unsustainable electric car industry. Instead, he proposed Hyperloop “just to make the public and legislators rethink the high-speed train,” according to his biographer Ashlee Vance. In fact, he seems to detest the idea of highly accessible public transportation.

Musk donated nearly $40,000 to keep the Republican party in charge of American Congress, a party who still largely deny the existence of climate change and consistently vote against climate legislation.

In short, billionaires cannot be trusted to protect anything but their own interests - even if they genuinely believe climate change truly is an existential threat, as Musk appears to, any efforts to make enormous profit while saving the world will always be compromised by profit incentives.

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