Bezos’s Billions and Global Climate Justice

On February 17, Amazon President Jeff Bezos announced his intention to allocate $10 billion from his Bezos Earth Fund to countering climate change. This new initiative immediately triggered heated debate in environmental circles in the United States and the world in general. Apart from the huge sum sacrificed for combatting climate change, this initiative attracted special attention because of the US domestic political agenda. At a time when President Trump’s critics blame him for ignoring the global climate agenda, it is private business initiatives that could replace apathy and even the efforts of the state to parry new climate challenges.

Since Bezos described the fields in which he intends to spend these billions only in a broad outline, the public debate that followed his announcement largely centered on how this money would be spent and what the priorities would be. Climate justice was emphasized, a theme that is not new and is being discussed more openly in the US and the rest of the world. The US press has published several appeals to Bezos to concentrate on creating a network of institutes for climate justice both at the national and the international levels rather than on ordinary environmental measures.

The arguments of the supporters of this concept are clear enough. Since climate change is a high priority for humankind in general, sanctions for violating climate justice must be considered a priority rather than be allowed to sink into a quagmire of ordinary courts for general jurisdiction. It would be necessary in this context to seriously upgrade the skills of judges, prosecutors, investigators and attorneys on climatic and environmental issues with a view to forming a highly professional community of lawyers that are well versed not only in legal matters but also in environmental issues and disputes. Bezos’s billions would be well used in the creation of a new community of climate-versed lawyers (university programs, upgrade courses, manuals with guidelines and case reviews). If this prospect is viewed on a global scale, expenses on creating climate chambers at existing international or commercial courts would be enormous. In addition, the implementation of the idea of specialized climate justice would likely require versatile lobbying both at home and abroad and the creation of the necessary public support globally. These goals would also call for substantial funds. Moreover, climate justice could only be effective if every contract, with even the smallest connection to the environment, contains a section on requiring the parties to refer any environmental issue to a specialized climate court. Efforts to encourage entrepreneurs to follow this (and probably to organize a boycott of those that do not follow these rules) would be quite a burden on lobby and PR resources.

The formation of climate justice could follow, for example, the model of sports justice that has established itself over the past two or three decades. Those who created it also worked to shape the needed public opinion and were involved in lobbying. Their goal was to legalize the provisions that sports is a specialized field of human endeavor which is different from common civil law and requires not only special regulations but also special justice at the global level (on the issues of sports contracts, doping, specificities of human rights in sports, etc.). As a result, the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne has recently become by default the only judicial authority for sports disputes. The overwhelming majority of participants and international sports competition organizers agree to take any dispute to the court in Lausanne rather than courts of general jurisdiction. The forming of a community of sports lawyers took place in parallel with the growing importance of this court. Over the past few years, high-profile anti-doping cases have led to the development of special units in the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and other sports organizations. These units investigate suspected violations. They are increasingly acquiring quasi-investigative functions and are to receive funding and opportunities for their own operational activity similar to that of the police and the prosecutor’s office.

Incidentally, this experience in sports shows that a separate system of justice cannot be effective without its own investigating body. Ideally, it should have similar authority to the police. Therefore, climate justice would need a special climate investigation unit or climate police. In fact, many countries already have government environmental oversight bodies. Some countries also sanction the right to conduct operational activity. However, the supporters of climate justice believe that this is just the first step in creating a new system.

There is debate on a separate issue: should climate justice be related to the state or to arbitration? Of course, by virtue of its authority the state can provide more legitimate enforcement machinery to support climate justice. But if government bodies do not want to review environmental issues without bias and as a priority (everything again revolves around criticism of Trump in this context), it is risky to leave climate justice up to the state. Thus, it might be more effective to have an independent system of climate justice, courts of arbitration and independent investigation bodies for climate issues. The state would lose its monopoly on coercion and its sovereignty would be eroded. However, the bottom line is that global problems are more important than the erosion of sovereignty.

In international climate justice the concept of arbitration that is independent of intergovernmental organizations is playing a greater role. In another reference to sports justice, formally, the International Olympic Committee is an NGO with a system of sports justice that functions independently of a state.

To sum up, Bezos’s announcement to allocate billions of dollars for the good cause of countering climate change almost instantly triggered heated debate on how to spend it. The theme of climate justice has quickly become one of the most pointed and provocative ideas. It might also have been the most ambitious of all the proposals.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.