There’s no doubt that Big Tech has been talking a big climate game lately. In the last two years, Microsoft committed to running its operations entirely on renewable energy by 2025; Apple pledged to become carbon neutral across its supply chain in a decade; Amazon announced it would be putting 100,000 electric delivery vans on the roads by 2030; and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, committed to operating all of its data centers on carbon-free power round-the-clock within a decade.
But while major tech companies are making genuine efforts to clean up their own climate pollution, they’re doing very little to lobby for pro-climate policies at the state or federal level, despite the fact that such advocacy could play a much bigger role in helping the United States meet its climate targets. Now, one organization is trying to change that by calling on tech industry employees to tell their bosses to step up.
On March 31, ClimateVoice, a corporate climate advocacy nonprofit, launched the “1 in 5 Campaign,” which is asking the five biggest tech companies in the U.S. — Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook — to devote one-fifth of their lobbying dollars to climate policy in 2021. That would amount to a seismic shift for corporations that only devote a small fraction of their lobbying resources to climate issues today. ClimateVoice founder Bill Weihl, a former sustainability executive at Google and Facebook, believes that if major tech corporations want to show true climate leadership, there’s never been a better time for them to put their money and influence where their mouth is.
“We’ve got a window politically,” Weihl told Grist. “We’ve got an opportunity in Washington where we could pass major climate legislation. Big tech companies have the resources and ability, if they choose to, to really dig in here and make a difference.”
It’s certainly true that Big Tech has the resources. As of December 2020, the five largest U.S. tech companies had a combined market value of $7.4 trillion, equivalent to roughly a third of U.S. GDP. And while many sectors of the economy have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, tech corporations have reaped record profits, further consolidating their power as hundreds of millions of people worldwide became more dependent on online shopping, video-conferencing platforms, and other tech services and products.
But to date, major U.S. tech corporations haven’t used their financial resources and political clout to push for bold climate policies, despite the fact that all of them have adopted internal climate goals and made climate action a centerpiece of their marketing and public relations strategies. Between 2019 and 2020, Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook spent a combined $127 million on federal lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But a January report by the think tank InfluenceMap found that just 4 percent of the federal lobbying activity at those companies went toward climate issues. By contrast, Big Oil devoted nearly 40 percent of its lobbying muscle to climate policy in the same time frame — mostly to fighting against it.
InfluenceMap executive director Dylan Tanner says it’s possible Big Tech doesn’t prioritize climate lobbying because companies don’t see policies like clean energy standards or national carbon taxes “impacting them directly in the immediate future.” Weihl suspects that “risk aversion” also plays a role, given the highly partisan nature of many climate policy debates. “Big companies are generally afraid if they take a strong stand on a controversial issue, somebody who’s not happy with that might do something that hurts their core business,” he said.
To reach its goal of getting tech companies to commit a fifth of their lobbying dollars to climate this year, ClimateVoice is mobilizing tech industry employees, as well as students at universities that Big Tech regularly recruits from, using a combination of direct outreach, digital advertisements, and social media campaigns. Employees at the five tech companies ClimateVoice is targeting can sign a petition urging their employers to lobby for climate action in 2021. While signatories’ names are being withheld to avoid any employer retaliation, Weihl says that ClimateVoice is in touch with executives at each of the companies and will be “engaging with them regularly” to let them know how many of their workers have signed the petition and what those workers are saying. The campaign is employing “multiple levels of screening,” he says, to verify the employment status of tech workers who sign the petition, and it is offering an alternate version of the petition for members of the general public to voice their support.
While the 1 in 5 Campaign hasn’t shared any numbers yet, so far, Weihl says that the response has been “really positive.”
“We’ve had lots of people signing the petitions and sharing things on social media,” Weihl said. “Lots of responses by email from people asking what they can do to help.”
Representatives from Google and Microsoft both declined to comment on the 1 in 5 Campaign. A Facebook spokesperson said in an email that the company is “committed to fighting climate change” and supports the goals of the Paris Agreement, but did not address lobbying or the new campaign specifically. Neither Amazon nor Apple responded to Grist’s request for comment on the campaign.
Whether pressure from anonymous tech employees will be sufficient to get these large corporate actors to change their lobbying practices remains to be seen. Anecdotally, recent employee pressure campaigns seem to have had an impact on Amazon, which made its 2019 climate pledge only after thousands of workers signed an open letter to Jeff Bezos calling for the release of a company-wide climate plan, and on Microsoft, which announced it would be restricting sale of facial recognition software to police departments last June following an open letter from hundreds of employees.
But the tech industry’s response to employee activism hasn’t just been a string of concessions: companies have also retaliated against some of their most prominent internal critics. Last April, Amazon fired two of the women who helped organize the group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice for allegedly violating corporate communications policies by criticizing the company in public — retaliation that a National Labor Relations board investigation recently deemed illegal.
Lindsay Baker, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute and the former head of sustainability at WeWork, is unsure to what extent employee pressure campaigns versus other factors — such as peer pressure from competing tech firms — have motivated the recent slew of climate- and justice-oriented commitments from Silicon Valley. But in general, she thinks “employees getting involved works well in tech” given that top companies are competing fiercely to recruit the most talented individuals.
“Having worked in a tech company in the sustainability realm, I can say it matters what employees think,” Baker said. “If they feel like there’s a genuine threat people will leave, they will act.”
It’s for that reason that Baker is optimistic about the 1 in 5 Campaign’s prospects. At least one Google engineer who signed the petition shares her optimism. “Maybe we won’t get to the 20 percent mark, but I think any movement toward that is great,” said the engineer, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about company policies.
Like Weihl, the Google engineer sees a window of opportunity, albeit a slightly different one: Google recently announced that it would not make any political contributions this election cycle to members of Congress who voted against certifying the results of the recent U.S. presidential election.
“That’s going to hopefully release capital,” the Google engineer said. “Why not deploy it to a more noble cause that represents employees and our customers?”