Big Tech employees have a surprising amount of power to wield in addressing the climate crisis. In recent years, activist employees have led the charge for Amazon to strengthen its climate ambition.
Former journalist Justin Gillis said they could be poised to play an even bigger role in pushing their companies both toward ambitious 2030 and 2050 commitments and getting Big Tech to lobby for stronger policies to reduce carbon emission reductions at the federal, state and local level. (Doing so would, of course, make it easier for companies to meet their climate goals.)
Gillis, who spent 10 years as a reporter and editor at the New York Times, teamed up with energy policy expert and CEO of Energy Innovation Hal Harvey to write “The Big Fix,” out Sept. 20, which serves as an action plan outlining how individuals can push climate action in their communities. In the book, Gillis and Harvey argue that addressing the climate crisis can't just be something corporations do "out of good citizenship." Instead, strong laws and regulations are crucial for reducing carbon emissions.
In an interview with Protocol, Gillis laid out the tech industry’s role in that broader climate action puzzle, from how individuals can shape their companies’ goals to how those companies can be “good climate citizens.”
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
In your book, you write that employee pressure has been especially important for compelling climate action in the tech sector. Do you think there is something unique about the tech sector that makes these companies particularly swayable by employee input?
Well, the employee base skews younger. It may be that simple. We know that there's an age skew in the population in terms of how concerned people are about this whole problem. I think tech companies have found that they need a serious plan to have internal credibility.
Also, tech companies come out of the world of science. I think a lot of those people are really interested in the climate problem. Even if it's not what they want to work on professionally, it's been a very big worry in their minds.
I think tech companies have found that they need a serious plan to have internal credibility.
I think, on balance, the tech industry has been a constructive force. There are wind and solar farms getting built because the American tech industry has said to states, “We're not going to put server farms in your state — with the jobs and the investment and the tax base that entails — unless you're willing to sell us renewable energy.”
You also touch on the 7,600 Amazon employees who signed a petition to demand that the company develop a better climate plan, and how that petition helped nudge Jeff Bezos into creating the Climate Pledge that other companies have signed onto. On one hand, that effort represented a large success and a sea change for Amazon, but on the other, the employees who led the charge lost their jobs in the process. How can tech employees balance the risk and the reward of these kinds of internal actions?
This is a real and a serious issue. There's this dynamic where you have older people at the top who may be kind of stodgier or slow to move on certain issues, and you have younger people at the bottom pushing. But there's strength in numbers. One person sticking their neck out is at greater risk of getting chopped off than if 100 people do it, so I very much believe that employees of companies need to form coalitions.
But rational companies want to be pushed by their employees. And so you have to make an assessment: What's the company like? What is the company culture? Does it welcome being pushed? If you work in a steel plant and you're worried about those emissions, that may be a completely different calculation from if you're working for Apple or Google.
When somebody says they’re only promising to be net zero by 2050, what they're really saying is, “I'm too sorry to get off my butt and do it, but I'm going to make a promise that will be redeemed by people running the company in 2050, who are now children in kindergarten.”
I would also say that a really good time to push companies is before you work for them. There’s actually a pledge that college students can take, where you actually sign in writing saying that when you start interviewing for jobs you will ask climate questions as part of the interview. The goal is for companies to feel like, “Gee, we can't hire smart young people if we're not right on this climate issue.”
While some are quite strong, so many of these tech industry pledges are panned as greenwashing or pandering. How can you tell if a corporate — and especially a tech company’s — climate commitment is a sign of real climate action? And how can individual employees nudge symbolic action into real action?
It’s fairly easy to tell, but it does require a little bit of analysis. Let's say a corporation has made a 2050 net zero pledge, but that's largely the extent of their climate commitment. That's basically a joke bordering on a lie. When somebody says they’re only promising to be net zero by 2050, what they're really saying is, “I'm too sorry to get off my butt and do it, but I'm going to make a promise that will be redeemed by people running the company in 2050, who are now children in kindergarten.” That's just nonsense.
We need progressive corporate voices saying to state governments and state public utility commissions and city and county governments: “Look, here are the things they need you to do on climate, and we need them yesterday.”
Any company that’s serious will also make a 2030 pledge that’s a bare minimum of 50% reduction in Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, though 80% reduction by 2030 would be better. Anybody who's pledging to have cut emissions a lot from their current level by 2030 is saying, “We're spending money now to do this.” If you see them spending money now, and realigning the supply chain, and buying renewable energy under power purchase agreements, then you know it's real. If it's just a 2050 pledge and nothing else, that's just a valentine to the climate with no money inside.
The Biden administration and the Democratic Congress have been suddenly very active on climate in the last few months. However, there's a solid chance that the Democrats will no longer have a majority after the midterms, and policymaking will get even more challenging. What should employees be pushing their companies to lobby for politically in the coming months to make their climate goals a reality?
The companies that believe in the Inflation Reduction Act need to be gearing up to try to fight any attempted repeal of the law, because we really need it. The next thing: A lot of companies focus their lobbying on Washington, but a fair number of the big ones focus on state governments as well. We need the lobbying aligned at the state level and at the local levels as well. We need progressive corporate voices saying to state governments and state public utility commissions and city and county governments: “Look, here are the things they need you to do on climate, and we need them yesterday.”
The continued membership of these companies in the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable is just outlandish, because those organizations are so backward and so stupid on climate. So yes, they should be pushed by their employees into resigning from those outfits, but there’s just a lot more to this. The lobbying really needs to be focused as much on state and local as it is on federal policy.
Correction: This story was updated on Sept. 15, 2022 to clarify that Justin Gillis spent 10 years working at the New York Times as an editor and reporter.