Who is the man Jeff Bezos chose to spend $10 billion as head of his Earth Fund?

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 10 March 2021 19:04 GMT

Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute, in a family photo

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Andrew Steer says he wants the fund to drive 'systemic change to address the climate and nature crises, with a focus on people'

No social media, no website - but the Bezos Earth Fund promises to be a big hitter on climate change

* British-born Steer brings brains, wit, and charisma to a global job with a 10-year remit

* Amazon founder ploughs e-commerce fortune into real-world problems, with climate justice focus   

By Megan Rowling

BARCELONA, March 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ten billion dollars - that's a lot of money for one person to invest in anything, especially in the space of just a decade.

It's the staggering size of the Bezos Earth Fund, set up last year by the founder of online retailer Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos, to tackle climate change.

That fund gets a new boss in the coming weeks: Andrew Steer.

Announced on Monday, Steer's appointment has gone down well with experts in the climate world, following his respected stewardship of the World Resources Institute (WRI).

Known as a straight talker, Steer brings decades of experience in international diplomacy and policy, yet appears to have remarkably few enemies.

The Washington, D.C.-based think-tank that Steer led for the past eight years has shaped policy on everything from cutting emissions to reducing food waste, protecting forests, greening cities and financing climate action.

British-born Steer, who has a doctorate in economics, previously served as World Bank special envoy on climate change and before that, ran Britain's overseas aid department.

Since joining WRI in 2012, he has been a regular fixture at its annual "Stories to Watch" event - not to be missed for those in the know - picking big trends for the year ahead, in a jovial yet wise fashion.

Announcing Steer's appointment as president and CEO of his Fund, Bezos said the 68-year-old came with "decades of experience in environmental and climate science as well as economic and social policy in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Africa".

Now all eyes will be on how he uses that experience to steer a ship whose annual spend will be roughly on a par with that so far of the Green Climate Fund (GCF), set up by the United Nations to help developing nations grow cleanly and adapt to climate change.

There's one big difference, however - tussling over the GCF's structure was a painstaking process involving governments, the private sector and green groups, slowing funding decisions.     

Bezos, on the other hand, announced his fund with a short post on Instagram in February 2020. The fund doesn't even have a website or its own social media feeds.    

It stands in sharp contrast to WRI, which scores 100 out of 100 for accountability and transparency on the Charity Navigator website and has a crack communications team. 

WRI led the announcement of Steer's departure with a press release highlighting his many achievements at the organisation. 

During his more than eight years at the helm, Steer oversaw "an era of expanded growth, reach and impact" - headcount grew fivefold to 1,400 and the budget quadrupled, WRI said.

It also gave clues to how Steer will lead the Bezos outfit, where he will set the vision and oversee grant distributions.

"The fund’s large scale and (its) commitment to address climate, nature and social justice in an integrated manner offers scope for truly transformative change," WRI said.  

CLIMATE JUSTICE

Under Steer, the Earth Fund will work with scientists, NGOs, activists and the private sector to spur new technologies, investments, policy change and behaviour, WRI added.

And the fund will have "a strong emphasis on supporting environmental justice organizations" as climate change "disproportionately hurts poor and marginalized communities".

When the first round of Bezos Earth Fund grants was announced in November, 16 nonprofit groups received $791 million. That included $141 million to be shared by four with deep roots and expertise in environmental justice, WRI said.

One of those is California's Solutions Project, which says it backs clean energy and fair access to healthy air, water and land centred on women and organisations led by "Black, Indigenous, Immigrant and other people of color".

WRI was also among the beneficiaries with an award of $100 million over five years.

That money will go to two initiatives: the development of a satellite-based system to monitor carbon emissions and capture damage to forests, wetlands and other natural systems, and the electrification of U.S. school buses by 2030, it said.

'A PERFECT LEADER'

Former U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres said Steer's "global reputation, deep technical knowledge and experience, and commitment to social justice make him a perfect leader for the fund".

The fund "has the potential to be a transformative force for good at this decisive point in history", she noted.

Patrick Verkooijen, CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation - which helps countries cope with extreme weather and rising seas - has worked closely with Steer and says he is good fit.

Verkooijen described the appointment as "an extremely positive step in delivering on the work required to address our climate emergency and build a resilient and sustainable world".

For his part, Steer has vowed to drive "systemic change to address the climate and nature crises, with a focus on people".

"Too many of the most creative initiatives suffer for a lack of finance, risk management or the right partnerships. This is where the Earth Fund will be helpful," he said in a statement.

In a Twitter thread, he said Bezos' goal was to spend the money in the fund between now and 2030, when the world's Sustainable Development Goals are due to be met. 

"If allocated creatively, wisely and boldly the Earth Fund has the potential for transformative influence in this decisive decade. This is our goal!," Steer added in a tweet.

On Instagram, where he has 2.7 million followers, Bezos said he and his partner Lauren Sanchez, a TV anchor and helicopter pilot, "are thrilled to have Andrew aboard and very energized about what lies ahead for the Fund and our partners".

The planet will be watching this space.

Related stories:

Jeff Bezos names Andrew Steer as head of Bezos Earth Fund

'Climate ninjas' overlooked as little finance reaches women

UN climate chief urges world 'in a tough spot' to keep fighting warming

(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)