Out of the 115 lobbyists who work for Amazon, only one has focused on climate change in recent years, despite the fact that the company is working to become carbon neutral, and Jeff Bezos is pouring $10 billion into climate philanthropy.
The other tech giants also aren’t wielding their full political power to push the federal government on climate action. Oil companies, on the other hand, have been spending 10 times as much on climate lobbying as climate advocates. But a new campaign is rallying employees at the largest five tech companies to help shift the balance.
“I think all large companies should be using their influence on pro-climate lobbying,” says Bill Weihl, a former Facebook and Google sustainability leader who founded ClimateVoice, the nonprofit behind the campaign. “But I think Big Tech is in a unique position at the moment. Their market cap is enormous. They have been thriving over the last year in the face of the pandemic. They’re hiring like crazy. And they depend on a young, educated workforce that cares really deeply about this issue. From the point of view of who has influence, they have a lot politically.”
Two years ago, thousands of Amazon employees publicly called on the company to take more climate action and to create a plan to reach zero carbon emissions. Months later, a day before employees planned a massive climate strike, the company announced that it planned to become carbon neutral by 2040, 10 years earlier than the aims of the Paris climate agreement. Amazon said at the time that the plans had already been underway, “but I think the pressure from the employees got them to move a lot faster and a lot farther,” Weihl says. The same type of pressure could be an effective way to convince large tech companies to use their political clout to push for climate action.
“I think that kind of pressure does work,” says one Google employee who asked to remain anonymous. (This type of activism can also bear some risk for employees; Amazon fired two of the leaders of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, though the firings came after criticism of working conditions in warehouses early in the pandemic rather than specific climate activism.) As someone who has been concerned about climate change for a long time, the Google employee realized that he could have the most leverage through his employer and became one of a group of around 30 tech workers at the largest companies who are helping to launch the new campaign, which asks tech workers to sign a petition for their employers to devote one in five lobbying dollars to climate advocacy.
For Google and other tech companies, the employee says, strategic lobbying for climate action could help rebuild their reputations as consumers become increasingly disillusioned with Big Tech. “There’s an advantage to being on the right side of history,” he says. Google was an early adopter of renewable energy and became carbon neutral in 2007, but the company also supports the Chamber of Commerce, which has lobbied heavily against climate policy. Since the entire economy needs to decarbonize to tackle climate change—and policy is necessary for that to happen—the company’s support of the Chamber of Commerce arguably may outweigh the progress it has made internally.
To Weihl, tech companies have been reluctant to take a clear stance on pro-climate policy to avoid the risk of angering some politicians who might later retaliate. “I think that’s why most companies tend to stay in the kind of narrow lane: If it matters to their core business, they’ll engage, and otherwise they tend to stay on the sidelines,” he says. “And they like to think of it as being neutral. I think given the political dynamics on an issue like climate, it’s really being complicit with the folks who are trying to delay action.”
While companies such as Google have lobbied in the past on issues such as renewable energy, the campaign is calling for more. “They really need to lobby like they mean it,” Weihl says. “It’s one thing to sign a statement of support for a piece of legislation, or even go to somebody’s office and say, ‘We’re in favor.’ It’s another to say, ‘We really care about this. And if you vote the wrong way, that will have consequences in who we support in the next election and where we build our next data center or expand our next major engineering center.'”
The campaign will target employees, along with students at the schools where companies recruit, with comic-book-style digital ads. The nonprofit will also support groups of employees who want to go directly to executives and make the case for climate action. The timing is critical: The Biden administration is expected to roll out a new plan for U.S. climate policy in April. “There’s a door opening in Washington, D.C., on climate,” Weihl says. “How far it opens and how much can get through it will depend a lot, honestly, on how much powerful influence is brought to bear, in favor of the kind of bold policy we need. And a lot of that influence is companies.'”