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But the deeper challenge has to do with scale and imagination. There are only so many nonprofits and experts working on climate change. If a successful group has an annual budget of $10 million, then giving it $50 million will not necessarily make it five times as effective. Many helpful projects are probably too small for Bezos. “Across the entire landscape, there are not enough people and projects that can take the kind of capital we need,” Firger said.
Bezos has pledged a titanic amount of money. If he spends it evenly across 10 years, he would immediately be the country’s biggest climate philanthropist. The Hewlett Foundation, which holds that title today, spends $120 million per year on climate projects. At roughly $1 billion a year, Bezos would more than octuple that amount. It is a testament to Bezos’s wealth that he could single-handedly devote $400 million a year to new-energy R&D, exceeding what the federal government spends on ARPA-E, the Department of Energy’s advanced-research incubator—and still have $600 million a year left over for everything else.
At the same time, $10 billion is not nearly enough to save the world. Consider the Gateway Tunnel, one of America’s largest pending public-works projects. When completed, the 11-mile tunnel will double the number of trains that can pass between New York and New Jersey at rush hour. If the United States hopes to flush carbon pollution out of its economy, it will have to complete many projects at the Gateway Tunnel’s size and scale. But the tunnel is projected to cost about $9.5 billion, or roughly $860 million per mile. Bezos’s magnanimous gift of $10 billion can buy one Gateway Tunnel.
Of course, this is a slightly facetious comparison—it’s not like Bezos was planning to invest in tristate-area infrastructure. But any similar build-out would present challenges. Jenny Chase, a solar-energy analyst for BloombergNEF, told me in an email that $10 billion would not do much good supporting large-scale solar projects: There is already a surfeit of capital chasing them.
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Where could $10 billion go the furthest? It just may be politics. In 2016, the network of conservative groups run by the industrialists Charles and David Koch promised to spend about $900 million on the presidential election. Two years later, it pledged about $400 million to the 2018 congressional midterms. Both of those amounts, widely covered as unprecedented interventions in the political system, represented not only the personal donations of the Kochs but the pooled contributions of hundreds of like-minded donors.
But with his $10 billion, Bezos could single-handedly spend comparable amounts on every presidential and midterm election from now to 2050—supporting climate-friendly members of Congress, governors, and presidents. Once in office, those politicians could then shake loose far more than $10 billion for tunnels, new rail projects, and everything else.