Tech Leadership On Climate: A Framework

Jenny Stefanotti
Apr 15, 2019 · 5 min read

What the Amazon Open Letter Missed

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how to leverage the technology industry to address climate change. So, I was thrilled to see Amazon employees publish this open letter to Jeff Bezos and the Amazon Board of Directors last week.

In the letter, more than six thousand employees call upon Amazon to lead on climate change. It states, “Amazon has the resources and scale to spark the world’s imagination and redefine what is possible and necessary to address the climate crisis.” They rightly indicate that this is a historic opportunity for Amazon to be a leader in one of the greatest challenges we face.

In case you missed it, the letter calls on Amazon leadership to do the following (there are more points in the letter but they more or less roll up into three distinct themes):

  • Establish and disclose a company wide plan to reach zero carbon emissions, across the entire supply chain. Importantly, the letter calls for complete transition away from fossil fuels, rather than a reduction coupled with carbon offsets. Employees envision Amazon executing against the timeline outlined by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That is, net zero emissions by 2050 to reach our global goal of keeping global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
  • End support for the oil and gas industry with its products, specifically Amazon Web Services.
  • Align Amazon with climate friendly politicians and policy; that is cease donations and support to politicians who vote against or delay action on climate legislation. Use Amazon’s political weight to advocate for local, federal, and international policies that reduce carbon emissions, as aligned with the IPCC report.

It’s an exciting and inspiring move and I’m hoping that employees at other major tech companies follow suit. The opportunity for the technology industry to truly lead on the climate crisis is immense. Employee pressure is a particularly important way to get companies to act. But, the possibilities for dramatic impact surpass the areas spelled out in the Amazon letter. The biggest lever, in my opinion, is entirely absent: Amazon’s products and services themselves.

I want to offer a framework for the technology industry to take action on climate change, and a sense of how the pieces relate. When I think about what any given company can do, I categorize initiatives into the following areas:

  1. Eliminate Corporate Carbon Footprint. This is the obvious piece of the puzzle where most companies have historically focused. For the big technology companies, this has meant first and foremost reducing the carbon footprint of their data centers, which consume huge amounts of energy to run and cool the hardware that powers any Internet service. For all companies, emissions contributions include the energy consumption of offices and factories, business travel, and employee food consumption. Then there are additional company specific areas, such as Amazon’s Shipment Zero initiative to decarbonize their delivery service. All of these efforts are important, but they are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what tech could do. It’s critical that companies don’t focus here and feel like they’ve checked the box on climate. It’s not enough.
  2. Engage in Political Advocacy and Activism. This is an extremely important area of leverage. As the Amazon letter makes clear, big tech companies are steeped in politics. They make substantial political donations and engage in lobbying efforts. Additionally, the size of their operations gives them leverage with local and state policy makers: they have the ability to make climate aligned policy demands in return for establishing offices and data centers, which drive local economic development. Furthermore, big tech companies can threaten to pull operations or conferences if policies are misaligned with company values, as Salesforce famously did in Indiana on the heels of anti-LGBT legislation. Policy is imperative to make progress on climate in the time horizon we are all working against (we need to massively decarbonize in the next ten years if we have a remote chance of meeting the goals established in the Paris Agreement). Tech companies can make a big difference in shifting political incentives.
  3. End Support for the Fossil Fuel Industry. This is a non-obvious and hidden piece of the puzzle that the Amazon letter surfaced, which is the use of tech’s products by the fossil fuel industry. In the case of climate, that means companies would refuse to allow the oil and gas industry to use their products to improve its ability to extract fossil fuels. Since products like Amazon Web Services provide the backbone for so much of the tech industry, this is a big one. Employee pressure is a key lever here — another recent Salesforce example: employees wrote a letter to Marc Benioff questioning the company’s contracts with Custom and Border Protection in the wake of Trump’s family separation policies. Ensuring that invested capital is divested from the fossil fuel industry would also fall under this category.
  4. Leverage Company Products and Services. This is the piece that’s missing from the Amazon letter that I think has the most potential for impact. Amazon and other big tech companies have developed products that play an ubiquitous role in our lives. We live through our smartphones and the Internet: we communicate with friends, family, and colleagues; we get our news; we manage our time; we buy our products, we entertain ourselves. We use technology products to control our homes, to order our groceries, to pay our bills, even to meditate, the list goes on. There is an absolutely massive opportunity to tap the products we interact with everyday to help us collectively address climate change. Technology platforms have the potential to help us understand the scientific evidence; to change public sentiment; to distribute stories and build empathy for those most affected; to drive activism and collective action; and to shift individual behavior to align with a sustainable future. When employees think about making demands from big tech leadership to lead on climate, this is where things get most interesting.
  5. Deploy Capital (Human, Physical, and Financial). In addition to tapping the products and services themselves, there are other company resources to consider: human capital, technology infrastructure, and financial capital. What if big tech allocated some of their best AI talent to climate change? Or their unparallelled computing power? Together, the top five technology companies alone hold more than $650B in cash reserves. How companies invest and donate their cash is another important area for inclusion.

The reality is, it’s time for a global mobilization on climate change. We all need to take a hard look at how our own complacency and behaviors contribute to the climate crisis. We must ask ourselves, what can we do in our role as citizens, employees, and consumers? We live in a world, thanks to Amazon, where a few clicks on our phone can get whatever we need delivered to our door in a day or two. The very ease and convenience that Amazon has made the norm is part of the problem. It inhibits our willingness to reduce the carbon footprint of our own consumption decisions. Imagine if Amazon repurposed its marketplace to make sustainability easy and convenient. Shipment Zero is important. But, Amazon’s platform is where the biggest opportunity lies.

We need serious action on climate. Now, across the board. Tech companies in particular are well positioned to lead the way across the diverse set of opportunities outlined here. A handful of brave Amazon employees have fired a first shot. It’s time for the rest of the industry to follow suit.

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Jenny Stefanotti

Written by

Mission-driven polymath, design thinker, strategist. Currently most passionate about climate change, fixing capitalism, and philanthropy. IG: @developingjen

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +565K people. Follow to join our community.

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