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Tina Casey headshot

Climate Crisis Tests Limits of Employee Activism on the Environment

By Tina Casey
Employee Activism

As the climate crisis grows, tech workers have been pressing their employers to take more aggressive action on the environment and climate change. Now, some leading companies are pushing back. In one recent development, Amazon received some unwelcome media attention last week when word surfaced that it has explicitly threatened at least two outspoken employees with termination.

So, how should companies respond to employee concerns on the environment?

When clean power is not enough to save the planet

Amazon and other tech companies have earned high marks for investing in renewable energy, and rightfully so.

As early — and aggressive — clean power adopters, these large, global businesses have pushed the market for wind and solar power, promoting economies of scale and supply chain efficiencies that help push costs down for everyone.

However, as the Amazon case illustrates, tech companies cannot rely on their clean power investments to shield them from criticism over their environmental policies.

In particular, Amazon and other tech companies have come under fire for offering services that help fossil fuel companies increase production.

Last February, the media organization Think Progress published a report on the issue under the somewhat incendiary headline, “Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are quietly helping Big Oil destroy the climate.”

As described by Think Progress, Amazon Web Services is the largest provider of cloud computing in the world, and it has created an entire oil and gas division to provide those services to the fossil fuel industry.

Amazon “already does work with GEs oil business and oil giants like Royal Dutch Shell and BP," Think Progress reported, and it appears that the company is determined to bring others on board.

“With Amazon Web Services (AWS), Oil and Gas companies can accelerate digital transformation, unleash innovation to optimize production and profitability, and improve cost and operational efficiencies necessary to compete under the pressures of today’s global energy market,” Amazon states on its website.

Amazon further emphasizes its ability to ramp up production despite negative forces at work in today’s market:

“…Explorers can extract deep insights faster to improve field planning, geoscientists can run more demanding HPC workflows and identify potential reservoirs faster and cheaper, and refineries can optimize production with predictive maintenance and predictive inventory planning.”

Calling “green” tech companies to account

Considering Amazon’s courtship of oil and gas stakeholders, it’s little wonder that climate activists within the company’s own workforce have taken notice.

Workers have organized themselves under the title, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. Describing themselves as “a group of Amazon employees who believe it’s our responsibility to ensure our business models don’t contribute to the climate crisis,” they have been posting personal stories about climate impacts on outlets such as Medium.com and on social media.

Last spring, they upped the ante by sending an “unprecedented” letter about their concerns over climate policy to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Things came to a head last September during the global Climate Strike, in which Amazon workers publicly participated.

As media attention over the Climate Strike heated up, two workers provided The Washington Post with a joint statement about their concerns.

Last week the Post followed up with a report that Amazon has issued explicit, written termination warnings to two workers, apparently over that statement.

What about free speech?

Amazon is already in hot water with corporate responsibility watchers over workers’ rights related to pay and benefits among other issues, and this new controversy only adds fuel to the fire.

Leading companies generally tread carefully around issues involving freedom of speech, because the risk of bad publicity is simply not worth the gain.

Although businesses are not subject to the free speech guarantee of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the public often sees no distinction.

If fallout from last week’s Washington Post article continues to build, it will be interesting to see how Amazon reacts.

Though the damage has already been done, there is still plenty of room for damage control.

Perhaps the company could lift some pointers from companies that supported the 2019 Climate Strike and took steps to encourage their employees to participate.

Some closed for the day, enabling employees to participate in person. Hundreds of others supported the Climate Strike with online messages and other activities, or through their membership in organizations like the American Sustainable Business Council.

Those actions are more than symbolic. Companies that encouraged their employees to participate in the Climate Strike have, in effect, publicly joined their name with voters and environmental organizations advocating for more aggressive federal environmental policies.

In the end, though, Amazon and other tech companies will only tamp down the criticism when they change their business models.

As 2020 unfolds with much of Australia on fire and other climate-related crises building around the world, a stern letter from the boss will probably not stem the rising tide of employee activism.

Image credit: 350.org/Flickr

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey