Big Tech is shifting the climate narrative in Washington

As tech firms’ influence grows in Washington, D.C., they’re pushing a major trade group to embrace and lobby for climate policy.

U.S. Capitol building

Companies including Microsoft and GM have been publicly arguing in favor of more support for Biden’s climate policies.

Photo: Don Shin/Unsplash

Tech companies are bending a major business trade group toward backing President Joe Biden’s climate agenda.

The Business Roundtable — a lobbying group representing the most powerful CEOs in the U.S. — has voiced support for some of the climate policies in the Build Back Better agenda, even as it worked to undermine the tax increases in Democrats’ social spending bill that would have paid for the climate provisions in the measure.

Companies including Microsoft and GM have been publicly arguing in favor of more support for Biden’s climate policies, which can affect the positions that BRT takes internally, according to several people familiar with the firms’ priorities. The business group also has strong ties to the energy sector and a deep skepticism of regulation. But tech companies’ advocacy has extended to closed-door talks with BRT, two people said.

“In our discussions with sustainability leaders at a number of companies, including the big tech ones, it sounds like they have been advocating pretty hard inside BRT,” said Bill Weihl, executive director of the nonprofit ClimateVoice. Weihl previously spent years inside Google and Facebook as a top environmental official.

GM CEO Mary Barra, who took over as chair of BRT’s board at the beginning of the year, appears to have been particularly important to realigning the group’s positions, two other people familiar with the companies’ talks, who asked not to be named discussing their approaches, told Protocol. Her company is betting its future on EVs, and the Build Back Better Act contained significant boosts to tax credits for certain American-made electric vehicles. Sen. Joe Manchin (along with 50 obstructionist Republican senators) effectively killed the legislation last December in part because of Manchin’s opposition to increased tax credits from union-made vehicles. But the senator has since expressed interest in passing some of the climate provisions.

BRT supported Congressional action on climate investments as part of the Build Back Better Act at least as far back as October. That was under Barra’s predecessor as chair, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon. Yet the group’s messaging during most of the fight aligned with other business groups that opposed Build Back Better. The Roundtable focused its criticism on what it called “harmful tax provisions,” and was largely silent on the climate provisions.

Then, in January, a few weeks into Barra’s tenure, BRT reiterated its support for investments, and added its backing to “incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” The statement of support came as Barra attended an event with Biden in support of Build Back Better, where she touted the need for investing in electric vehicles.

Tech is changing Washington

Microsoft President Brad Smith was by Barra’s side at the White House. At the event, he touted multiple sections of Build Back Better.

“I think there’s a very important connection … between the pieces of Build Back Better and what matters not just to Microsoft’s business but to every American business,” Smith said. The company, which is represented in BRT by CEO Satya Nadella, has outlined ambitious climate goals, as have Alphabet and Apple. Amazon’s framework — dubbed the Amazon Climate Pledge — even became a model for other companies.

Microsoft and other companies, though, are failing to meet their climate goals. That’s in part because of the rise of their Scope 3 emissions, which are tied to supply chains and customers using their products, from Xboxes to iPhones. The reality is that strong federal regulations and funding are needed to bend the global emissions curve, something no individual company’s climate plan can do.

To get those policies in place, Google, Netflix and Salesforce have joined a partnership, Drawdown Labs, that bans lobbying against climate change measures as a condition of membership. Salesforce has also been open about trying to push the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, another major Big Business lobbying group, on climate issues. The companies’ CEOs are all BRT members.

Washington lobbying by Big Business has long been dominated by organizations like the Chamber, which is closely aligned with fossil fuel interests. The group openly spearheaded campaigns to water down regulations and stop measures to decrease pollution, and trafficked in climate denial.

But as the tech sector has grown and taken up leadership positions in major trade groups, the companies have begun to bring incremental shifts to the priorities of those lobbying associations. One area is climate, where tech companies’ liberal West Coast workforces, relatively lower emissions (compared to oil and gas, anyway) and interest in government support for green tech have given the companies an incentive to stand up for limited climate measures inside their trade groups.

BRT’s membership is also composed of the companies most able to adapt to policy changes thanks to their wealth and power. BRT famously declared in 2019 that it wanted to redefine the purpose of a corporation as serving a much broader range of stakeholders (including workers and the environment), and last fall, it backeda well-balanced convergence of carbon pricing across regions and sectors” to meet Paris Agreement goals.

Tech is 'barely scratching the surface of what's possible'

Of course, BRT is still a business group that represents energy companies, utilities, manufacturers and other carbon-intensive industries. A study from Harvard found that BRT member companies did little to expand their notion of stakeholders after the group’s statement, even when prompted to, and many companies that are savvy to the ways of Washington have backed policies for good PR when corporate leaders know the associated measures will never pass.

Environmental activists also blame opposition to tax increases by the business community, including BRT, for helping sink Build Back Better. And it’s not clear if the tech firms or the BRT itself are using their considerable clout to push for a standalone bill on the specific climate provisions in Build Back Better, even as they talk about investments and incentives.

In addition, while tech companies cultivate a green image, there are real environmental downsides to massive data centers and international shipping operations. Some Big Tech climate pledges have also come under criticism for being non-binding marketing ploys that don’t go far enough or employ fuzzy math. An analysis published last month found that Amazon, Apple and Google were all lagging behind their own commitments, and the researchers scored Amazon and Google low on transparency.

Tech companies could also be pushing harder in Washington, said Jamie Beck Alexander, director of Drawdown Labs, which is the group partnering with companies like Google.

“When you stop and think about the scope and scale of resources that large corporations have at their disposal that they could bring to bear to support climate policy when it matters, they're barely scratching the surface of what's possible,” she said.

Beck Alexander said blog posts and op-eds in support of vague investments are not enough when the companies could be working, actively and often, on behalf of measures that Congress is already considering.

“When so much is on the line we need to rethink the playbook,” she said. “What about committing their lobbying dollars to help pass climate policy?”


Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep ReadingShow less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep ReadingShow less
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep ReadingShow less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep ReadingShow less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.


Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep ReadingShow less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories