The top five U.S. tech companies have been getting high marks for helping to drive the market for renewable energy, clean vehicles, and other technologies aimed at cutting their carbon footprint. However, Big Tech's influence on climate action could be exponentially more significant if their lobbying dollars were a true reflection of their supposed concern for avoiding catastrophic global climate change.
A new report by the organization Influence Map provides some insight into the difference between climate lobbying activity by the “Big Five” tech companies — Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and the Google umbrella firm Alphabet — and their public profile on climate action.
Collectively, these five firms have professed to care about climate change, and they've expressed that concern through various actions. For example, as a group they have exercised considerable influence on the renewable energy profile of the U.S.
As early adopters of new clean tech, the Big Five helped spark demand for clean power during the Obama administration. They also set the stage for costs to drop and growth to continue all through the Trump administration, despite the former president’s numerous attempts to pull back on climate action.
For example, Facebook announced a clean power plan for its data centers in 2011, when wind and solar power were still relatively expensive, partly in response to pressure from Greenpeace and others. Apple followed suit with a $3 billion commitment to solar power in 2015, and by 2016 Google had become the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy in the world.
Amazon also ranks high in terms of clean power buys, and Microsoft is another early clean power adopter, having joined Facebook in 2016 as a founding member of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance. More recently, Microsoft has begun moving into the emerging green hydrogen field.
On the other hand, the Big Five tech companies have also taken their share of hits over foot-dragging on climate action. Amazon is perhaps the best known example, having taken internal criticism from its own employees for providing a platform for climate change deniers through its book sales and for providing services to the fossil fuel industry through its Amazon Web Services branch.
Amazon is not the only one of the Big Five that has attracted media attention over its self-contradictory role in climate action. Facebook, for example, has also served as a powerful platform for amplifying fringe theories and misinformation aimed at muddling public opinion on climate action.
The new report from Influence Map assembles the Big Tech pieces into one big puzzle, and it’s not pretty.
“While Big Tech holds positive positions on climate policy, its support is not backed up by strategic advocacy. In addition, the companies' direct influence is overshadowed by the highly strategic and anti-climate advocacy of their industry associations in the U.S. and abroad,” Influence Map reported.
Influence Map points out that the Big Five have not changed their positions in 2021, even though President Joe Biden came into office with a substantial climate action agenda that is the polar opposite of former President Trump’s fossil-friendly energy policies.
“Following the inauguration of a new, climate-focused administration in the U.S., alongside new warnings from the IPCC and IEA on the need for drastic climate action, one might expect to see an increase in U.S. corporate climate policy engagement,” Influence Map noted.
Instead, the opposite has occurred. According to Influence Map’s "engagement intensity" analysis of lobbying activity, as a group the Big Five tech companies have reduced their climate lobbying this year, while lobbying by five oil industry leaders —ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Royal Dutch Shell (Shell) and ConocoPhillips — has risen.
“All five Big Oil companies lobbied on bills such as the CLEAN Future Act [which calls for a 50 percent reduction in U.S. emissions by 2050], where all five Big Tech companies were absent,” Influence Map reported. The oil industry’s lobbying power is aided by cross-sector alliances including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable, the group found.
Though Influence Map paints with a broad brush, its analysis does point out some nuances in the engagement intensity metric.
For example, Facebook and Apple increased their lobbying activity slightly in favor of climate policies, though it was not nearly enough to make up for more significant drops in activity by Microsoft, Google and Amazon.
Influence Map also points out that although Apple underperformed the other four companies on the metric, it did voice support for President Biden's proposed clean energy standards through its VP of environment, policy and social initiatives, Lisa Jackson.
Apple also took a significant action back in 2009 when it became the first of the Big Five to withdraw from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over the organization’s climate change policies.
The move garnered praise from Greenpeace and others hoping for additional tech companies to follow suit, but so far none of the other four Big Tech firms have done so. In 2010 Microsoft issued a statement distancing itself from the Chamber’s position on climate change, but stopped short of leaving the organization.
The Influence Map report helps shed some light on a problem with Democratic Party unity that some observers of Congress have been struggling to explain. Democrats have a majority in both the House and Senate, but the party needs all 50 Democratic senators in Congress to unite for votes, with Vice President Kamala Harris providing the tie-breaker.
That appears to be all but impossible, thanks to two holdouts whose motives have remained mysterious to some: Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
Manchin’s motivation has been clarified in recent weeks as allegations surfaced of his ties to the fossil energy industry, particularly ExxonMobil. Coincidentally, Influence Map notes that ExxonMobil has increased its climate-related spending since January, including a spike in activity after the reconciliation bill was introduced by Democrats last month.
“Since the announcement of the reconciliation bill on the 9th of August 2021, ExxonMobil has spent $1.1 million on Facebook political and issue ads in the U.S. These ads have gained over 21 million impressions,” Influence Map reported.
An analysis by Oil Change U.S. last summer also linked Sen. Sinema to financial support from ExxonMobil, along with Manchin and several other Democratic senators.
If Big Tech really wants to get serious about climate action, putting their lobbying dollars to work for President Biden’s climate policies would be a good place to start.
Image credit: Nadine Shaabana/Unsplash
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. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.