The Industry

How to Make Tech Companies Actually Fight Climate Change

Do more of what Amazon workers are doing.

Workers at an Amazon job fair in Arlington, Virginia.
An employee movement within Amazon isn’t just using protests to pressure the company on climate issues. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images

This piece has been published as part of Slate’s partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

On Thursday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced several ways that his company will try to be a better environmental citizen. He pledged that Amazon would meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement 10 years early, going completely carbon neutral by 2040. To do that, it will try to change the way it ferries boxes to every home in America, deploying a fleet of 100,000 electric vans by 2024. “We’ve been in the middle of the herd on this issue,” Bezos said at an event at the National Press Club in D.C., “and we want to move to the forefront.” (Let’s assume that since the topic was greenhouse gas emissions, the cattle metaphor was unintentional.)

Amazon employees have had something like this in mind—except they wanted the company to be carbon neutral by 2030, not 2040. On Friday, more than 1,500 of them will walk out of work as part of a worldwide “climate strike.” They won’t be the only tech workers doing so. Employees at Microsoft are also participating, demanding the company reduce its carbon footprint and stop working with petroleum companies just days after CEO Satya Nadella announced a new cloud computing contract with oil giant Chevron and Schlumberger, the world’s biggest drilling services company. Tech workers from Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Twitter, and other companies will join climate activists around the world in the walkout. But within the industry, it’s the environmental activists at Amazon who have made the biggest mark so far.

Over the past couple of years, climate change is just one of the issues that has animated increasingly vocal employee protests across the technology industry. More than a year ago, a group of Amazon employees tried something different: They began working together to present Amazon shareholders with a proposal for the company to commit to reducing its fossil fuel emissions. It was the first time that tech employees whose compensation included stock used that position to introduce a shareholder proposal. The group that formed over that action became Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.

In early 2019, after the group met with leadership at Amazon, it started drafting a letter to Bezos. But while it was still in the process of collecting employee signatures for the letter, Amazon announced plans for 50 percent of its shipments to have no carbon footprint by 2030. Since 50 percent is half of 100 percent, the workers decided to keep the shareholder resolution on the table and publish their open letter to Jeff Bezos anyway. More than 8,300 Amazon workers signed that letter. Ultimately the resolution didn’t pass, but a coalition inside the company had formed.

Since the resolution, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice has grown—and broadened its aims and tactics. The group published a blog post in July detailing how Amazon is funding anti-environmental groups on Capitol Hill. “I was shocked to learn that Amazon funds climate denial,” a climate organizer and Amazon employee in Seattle named Rebecca Sheppard told the Guardian earlier this month. That includes the free enterprise group Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Koch-backed think tank that works to deny climate science. Employees also found that in 2018 Amazon gave campaign contributions to 68 members of Congress who steadily voted against climate protection legislation.

Amazon hasn’t said if employee activism had anything to do with this week’s announcement. But if those workers have a reason to keep pressuring the company on climate issues, it’s that Amazon hasn’t always met its promises to reduce its carbon footprint. In 2014, the company pledged its data centers’ energy consumption with 100 percent renewable energy. But as of February of this year, Greenpeace researchers found that Amazon had only reached 12 percent of that goal for its data centers in Virginia, where the core of Amazon’s cloud infrastructure is reportedly located. Greenpeace (where, full disclosure, I used to work) also found that Amazon hasn’t secured new deals to supply its data centers with clean energy since 2016.

It might be hard to sniff at an Amazon that is carbon neutral by 2040, even if that is 10 years after a United Nations* report says the planet will be permanently on its way to becoming a puddle of soup. But factor in that Amazon will reduce its emissions while still courting business from gas companies working to find and burn as much fuel as possible, and it’s easy to see why climate-concerned workers aren’t buying it. Earlier this year, an extensive investigation in Gizmodo found that the company has been aggressively expanding its work with fossil fuel companies. At Thursday’s announcement, Bezos defended that contradiction: “We’re still going to work hard for energy companies, and in our view we’re going to work very hard to make sure that as they transition that they have the best tools possible,” Bezos said. “To ask oil and energy companies to do this transition with bad tools is not a good idea and we won’t do that.” But while Bezos says Amazon’s goal is to help oil companies move away from fossil fuels, it’s hard to know what to make of the Amazon Web Services Oil and Gas website, which includes case studies from companies like BP and Shell about how Amazon’s machine learning tools had made finding and extracting oil even more efficient. It doesn’t really require a lot of advanced computing, after all, to keep the fossil fuels in the ground.

Amazon’s work with Big Oil does not make it an outlier in Big Tech. In addition to Microsoft and its work with the petroleum industry, Google has also chased massive contracts with oil and gas companies in recent years. In 2018, the company hired on a 25-year veteran of BP to lead a new division dedicated to serving the fossil fuel sector, and since has inked multiple major contracts with gas developers all over the world, including Anadarko Petroleum, one of the world’s largest oil drilling companies, to use Google’s cloud services to find more oil. Added up, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon have contracts with oil and gas companies that are worth more than $60 billion.

But beyond these contracts, the actual core businesses of the tech industry are contributors to global warming, too. Streaming hours of videos, using artificial intelligence to sort the news, and manufacturing millions of smartphones takes a lot of energy. A study from the University of Massachusetts this summer found that the training that would go into a single machine learning model could emit as much carbon dioxide as five cars in the U.S. in the course of its life cycle. The 55 data centers Amazon operates in Virginia alone draw power that is “equivalent to the electricity required to power 1.4 million U.S. homes annually,” according to Greenpeace research. And that’s to say nothing of Amazon’s massive fulfillment operation, the one the company plans to make carbon neutral in 21 years. Right now, the government that pulled the United States out of the Paris agreement isn’t going to make sure the company does that. But employees might be able to keep their bosses in line.

On Friday, these tech workers will join millions of climate strikers around the globe. What the example of Amazon shows is that activists within the tech industry have levers to pull beyond protesting. They’re shareholders, and they’re a highly valuable labor force; without them, that cloud business that the oil industry depends on wouldn’t work. And they work for some of the biggest lobbying spenders in Washington—companies that could use their political heft to do more than fight regulations they don’t like. If tech workers want their companies to help change how the world uses power, they’ll need to keep flexing their own.

Correction, Sept. 20, 2019: This piece originally misidentified United Nations as United Nation.