Elon Musk’s climate change prize is empty and worthless

Those who control vast sums of money could easily fund real changes and simply choose not to

By Cassie Freund
February 24, 2021 8:00PM (UTC)
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Tesla head Elon Musk (Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

This story originally appeared on Massive Science, an editorial partner site that publishes science stories by scientists. Subscribe to their newsletter to get even more science sent straight to you.

About a week ago, my Twitter timeline lit up with people tweeting at Elon Musk with pictures of trees. 

It didn't take me long to figure out the reason: Musk, the richest person in the world, had announced that he was running a $100 million competition to identify the best carbon capture technology.

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Elon Musk is not the first wealthy man to offer a prize to find a solution to climate change. In 2007, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson created the $25 million Virgin Earth Challenge to find commercial solutions for removing carbon dioxide from the air. Late in 2020, Prince William announced his Earthshot Prize, which will award five prizes of $1.3 million each for the next 10 years, a total of $65 million. The Earthshot Prize, in part, "aims to turn the current pessimism surrounding environmental issues into optimism that we can rise to the biggest challenges of our time."

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's approach is similar: last February, he pledged to give grants worth a total of $10 billion to environmental organizations and scientists to fight climate change. The first 16 winners were announced in November 2020. Amazon's corporate climate change funding, like that of other technology companies, partially centers on finding carbon capture solutions, just like Musk's prize.

None of these prizes will make substantial dent in our fight against climate change. They may support some good individual work (I have no doubt that the NGO recipients of Bezos's first Earth fund grants deserved the money!), but funding competitions and prestigious prizes is a missed opportunity by the world's wealthiest – the individuals who, research shows, are most responsible for climate change – to make a real, material difference in the planet's trajectory. 

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These prizes and pledges are hollow and egotistical. Despite the developments promoted on the slickly-designed sustainability section of their website, Amazon's carbon emissions rose by 15 percent in 2020. Elon Musk is already planning to abandon Earth and move to Mars, so it is hard to take his intentions to save our green planet seriously. And even Richard Branson, a vocal proponent of making aviation carbon-neutral, surely knows that $25 million just isn't going to save the world. 

Some scientists have said that we could temporarily halt the increase in global emissions for $300 billion – that's just 1.5 times the net worth of Jeff Bezos. That figure is just a stopgap measure to buy the planet time to come up with permanent solutions. If Bezos gave 98 percent of his worth to the cause (a la Jeremy Grantham), and asked his friends to do the same, we could raise that money in a snap. To completely halt climate change will cost trillions of dollars. On the one hand, climate tech prizes are agonizingly close to producing real change, if only a few billionaires decided to be selfless for once, and on the other are laughably paltry in comparison to the sum the world really needs. 

So, who are these prizes truly for? Scientists and policy makers know how to stave off the worst effects of climate change, and it is pretty straight-forward, though not easy: slashcarbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030, and cut them to "net zero" by 2050. The carbon capture technologies that Musk and Branson are looking for with their flashy competitions will be part of the effort to hit net zero emissions, but that doesn't mean that on their own they are a magic-bullet technical solution, like a vaccine that will inoculate us against climate change. The bulk of our efforts to reduce emissions will require governments and societies to make difficult choices and weigh detailed trade-offs – real, functional, policy work. 

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Funding prizes, making grants, and "inspiring optimism" is not the real work of addressing climate change. Instead, it is a clever diversion meant to convince us that the prize-givers are trying to help. While society is oohing and aahing over their perceived generosity, they are free to continue with their carbon-emitting (and space-polluting) business. Even viewed in the best, least cynical light, these acts of philanthropy are just tinkering around the edges of a crisis.

These men – Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Prince William, Jeff Bezos, and countless others – hold immense power, and their wealth means they have extensive networks of people who want to work with them. If they really want to help solve climate change, they must leverage their power and their networks to push governments toward taking substantial action for the planet. Now that the US is back in the Paris Agreement, vocally supporting comprehensive climate change action and pushing for the Green New Deal would be an excellent place to start. They should also follow the recommendations of Project Drawdown, and begin to quietly invest in revolutionizing our electric, agricultural, and education systems so that they work better for society and the planet.

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To be fair, Amazon and other companies are making moves in the right direction, by investing in carbon dioxide-capturing concrete and forest conservation. Every dollar they give counts. But, given their enormous net worth (Amazon is reportedly worth over $1.6 trillion), they could easily and must do more – especially since their operations amp up global carbon emissions. Amazon, specifically, could start by investing in renewable energy to power its expansive data centers; as of 2019, it was falling appallingly short of its commitment to power Amazon Web Services with 100 percent renewable energy. 

Climate change is the most complicated economic, social, and environmental problem that humanity has ever faced. Unfortunately, there isn't going to be a single miracle technological solution to this challenge, no matter how many Earthshot prizes are offered. We got to this point through hundreds of years of perverse economic incentives and environmental externalities. Getting out of it will require us to drastically change our behavior, our expectations for how we engage with the world, and our priorities.

If the world's wealthiest truly want to alter the course of climate change, they'll need to do the same. Giving away billions of dollars to causes like composting, securing Indigenous land rights, and promoting women's health and education probably won't garner as much publicity as creating a flashy prize, but it will do vastly more good for the planet and the rest of us living on it.

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Cassie Freund

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Climate Change Commentary Elon Musk Jeff Bezos Massive Science