This week, the news came out that controversial entrepreneur Elon Musk entered into a “definitive agreement” to buy Twitter. It seems that pretty much everyone is upset (each for their own reason) about the richest man on Earth seemingly treating a major social media platform as an impulse purchase. One popular argument is that the value of his offer — $44 billion — is more or less equivalent to the cost of the Biden administration’s proposed climate plan. Ergo, if Musk could afford to buy Twitter, he could also singlehandedly fund America’s last-ditch attempts to forestall total climate meltdown.
Right. He could! But very wealthy businessmen are typically first and foremost exactly that – businessmen! Meaning, they are not especially inclined to act in society’s best interest. And even if they were, it’s hardly a failsafe strategy to save the world.l Do we really want to bet the fate of the planet on one man’s ego?
That’s a lot to think about! And, of course, a lot to write about — which I have. For further thoughts on the salvational potential of billionaires and how to get people to want to save the world, read on.
Q. What is a billionaire’s role in saving the planet?
A. Lila Holzman, senior energy program manager for the corporate accountability organization As You Sow, points out uber-rich tech company founders have power to address climate change that extends well beyond their personal checkbooks. Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Apple have pretty significant carbon footprints, and while each of these titanic companies have started to make some movements toward net-zero, there are still vast amounts of progress to be made.
Rather than simply lauding tech billionaires’ individual efforts to save the planet, shareholders are demanding “more transparency on what steps the companies are taking to address climate change in a meaningful way,” Holzman said. “Relying on their CEOs to donate is not one of them.”
The rap sheet gets even more convoluted if you take corporate influence into consideration. Major tech companies have massive funds with which they could go head-to-head with the fossil fuel industry and lobby for pro-climate legislation, but they haven’t even begun to bring that type of bargaining power to Washington. In fact, quite the opposite. Even though Bill Gates has become more and more active in the climate philanthropy sphere, Microsoft (which he no longer runs but remains one of its biggest shareholders) has a lengthy and expensive history of using its lobbyists to push climate-denying policies and fund candidates who favor laxer regulations.
Every now and again you do need a new gadget, but the real funding need, argues Alex Martin of Americans for Financial Reform, is in the implementation of all the existing technology we have. That’s really the responsibility of governments, not private citizens with personal banks. A climate-friendly future is largely dependent on big, boring infrastructure projects — retrofitting buildings, expanding public transit systems, transforming power grids. “I believe the federal government is the one that needs to make this right, and it has the capacity, expertise, technical skill, for a big clean energy transformation,” Martin said.
Billionaires do, however, have a decent grasp on the cost of climate action. Very rough cost estimates of a Green New Deal-type plan tally up to tens of trillions of dollars. Yowza. That’s beyond Bezos money! I guess you could imagine a world in which every billionaire pooled all of their resources to fund a Green New Deal-type situation, but is that the world we want? A situation where solving every major problem is dependent on the whims of a group of people who happen to have just boatloads of money? I appreciate Elon Musk’s inclinations and determination to address climate change, but I don’t want my future in the hands of a man who named his child after the sound a malfunctioning Roomba makes.
|( Umbra’s article from 2021 )
Q. Is there a right way to talk about climate change?
A. If you are in a position where you’ve been able to avoid climate change news until very recently, it’s a lot of very alarming information at a very late hour. Millions of people have been slammed with the understanding that the planet that’s held us for eons is essentially threatening the entire human race with an eviction notice in the form of floods, heat waves, and murderous storms. It’s like you fucked up the whole house and now you have to fix it or get out. And you kind of knew you had fucked up the house, you were peripherally aware that you hadn’t been taking good care of it, but you had no idea how bad it was. Apparently your grandfather broke a water main in the basement that’s never been fixed? The oven has been actively on fire for 25 years? There’s black mold everywhere?
There’s a whole segment of the climate-aware that’s in a frothy panic over how to best capitalize on this new awareness. The rules of how to talk about climate change are unfurled and everyone hems and haws and yells at the people who are doing it wrong because, God forbid, you might scare this new audience away! You might not get them to “act” on climate change as soon as possible!
But there is a lot to be scared about, and “act” is an infuriatingly vague directive. With each passing week, there is a new warning about sea level rise or disappearing species or unsurvivable heat waves. There are many saddening developments that (reasonably!) feel overwhelming and out of our control, and I completely agree with your instinct to give people room to mourn. The thing about rules for talking about climate change is that while humans certainly share some common traits, there are wild differences in how individuals process and act on information. This is why the entire industry of couples’ counseling exists!
I understand the desire for ground rules, and I’ve certainly written in favor of them, but at this point I think that the best way to have a conversation about climate change is to listen to the person you’re talking to. You’re not doing a stand-up routine. If someone shuts down in a conversation about climate change, that’s because climate change is a deeply upsetting existential threat! If you’re chatting about the demise of the planet as we know it and your conversational counterpart says, “Wow, I am absolutely devastated by this,” it would be bizarre to respond, “Don’t be sad — DO SOMETHING!” That’s not how a human exchange of feelings and ideas normally goes.
|( Umbra’s article from 2019 )
Image: Grist / Amelia Bates