In 2021, we will have a real shot at enacting policy solutions to the biggest existential challenge of our time: climate change. The nascent Biden administration has designated climate as a top-tier policy priority. A strong bipartisan majority of the American public backs climate policy action now, according to the polls. A powerful community-based movement for environmental justice has brought climate concerns into alignment with the wider struggle for justice and equity. Climate’s moment is here, but where is the clout and influence of the avowedly pro-climate tech sector?
So far, tech is not meeting the moment. It’s mostly missing it, according to a November 16 report in E&E News. The headline says it all: “115 Amazon lobbyists, 1 works on climate.” Amazon, whose leader Jeff Bezos has given hundreds of millions to pro-climate groups and made a climate pledge to take his company carbon-neutral by 2040, can only find enough funds in his $57.9 million lobbying budget (since 2017) to hire one person to advocate for climate.
To be fair, Amazon is not alone in largely taking a pass on pro-climate lobbying. Facebook’s public face, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, has been very vocal on the issue, denouncing, for example, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord. But as a sustainability executive at the company, I saw firsthand how little Facebook has lobbied on climate policy. According to E&E’s reporting on lobbying disclosures, Facebook—despite its growing presence in Washington—only began its Capitol Hill advocacy on climate sometime this summer, and there’s no public record of what stands the company actually took.
The three other companies in the Big Five (Google, Microsoft, and Apple) have done a better job of moving in the direction of policy involvement on climate. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, disclosed contacting members of Congress in 2017 and 2018 about renewable energy, efforts aligned with the company’s laudable carbon neutral stance. But how much of the $59.4 million the company has spent on lobbying since 2017 has actually been spent fighting for pro-climate policy? An exact reckoning isn’t public, but it’s a safe bet that other company priorities—such as their antitrust woes—have claimed the lion’s share.
Though they don’t spend as much in total on lobbying as the other tech leaders, old rivals Microsoft and Apple have been the most consistent in their low-key pro-climate lobbying in recent years. Even in the face of the Trump administration’s vehement anti-climate stance, former EPA director Lisa Jackson—who spearheads Apple’s policy agenda—has repeatedly spoken up on climate. And in a really smart and hopeful move, Microsoft just retained a lobbying firm to ramp up its pro-climate advocacy.
Now that the game is changing, and a new pro-climate administration is coming to town, will tech companies step up their lobbying game on climate? With a House and Senate that are more divided than ever along party lines, pro-climate policy is going to need business allies to become law, even with strong leadership from the White House. The other side will come fully armed to this policy fight. Right now, Big Oil is outspending climate advocates by 10 to 1. Only the tech sector, positioned to expand even during COVID-19 and the ensuing recession, has the kind of economic and political force to serve as a counterweight.
If the pro-climate tech sector starts spending its lobbying dollars like climate is a real corporate priority, it could be a game changer. Tech companies need to do more than issue statements and sign letters, they need to really work this issue like it matters to them. Politicians now hiding out in the middle conservative Democrats, and Republicans not at the extreme of their party’s ideology, will listen to the business sector on this important issue.
This isn’t a moment for the tech sector to play both sides of the issue, to quietly send contributions to climate deniers and obstructionists like the Chamber of Commerce, while publicly taking a pro-climate stance just to curry favor with the Biden administration. That kind of inauthenticity is pretty off-brand for such a brand-obsessed sector. Tech companies like to be on the leading edge of change, and the bold steps they’ve taken in their internal climate targets and commitments now need the propellant of public policy to scale across the entire economy. They should be aware that the thousands of employees that are powering their success—who are deeply committed to the climate cause—will be watching to see what they do, not just what they say.
Bill Weihl is the former sustainability leader at Google and Facebook, and founder of ClimateVoice, a nonprofit initiative.