I Left Tech To Focus On Climate, We Need You To Stay And Help

This is an important campaign — The tech giants have huge lobbying operations, and they should be using them to move climate policy forward.” ― Bill McKibben

I spent most of my career in Tech — including 6 years at Google as Green Energy Czar, and 6 years at Facebook as Director of Sustainability. I’m proud of the work I and many colleagues (some of whom are still at Google and Facebook) did to make both companies real leaders in sustainability and climate.

So why am I now running a nonprofit? I started ClimateVoice because I felt I could have more impact on our collective efforts than I could from the inside of Google, Facebook, or any other company. I realized that business leaders listen to the opinions of their talent pool and act when they feel enough pressure. If a critical mass of employees speak up on climate they could exert tremendous influence in the battle to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

According to the IPCC, we need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions approximately in half by 2030, and to net zero by 2050. This is doable — but we are nowhere close to being on track to get there. And perhaps the most critical thing is to cut emissions rapidly in the near term, so we stay within our carbon budget. Otherwise, we are likely to blow past critical tipping points, and could unleash positive feedback loops that lead to disastrous warming.

In the technology community, there is a natural focus on innovation as the vehicle for solving hard problems like climate change. And while there is an important role for innovation here, the biggest thing we need to do now is deploy the solutions we have in hand. (For those insisting that we should focus primarily on finding new “energy miracles,” remember that we have several miracles in our back pockets today — the results of decades of R&D, and deployment at scale, that have driven down the cost of wind, solar, and batteries by 90% or more in the last decade.) Saul Griffith has said we need to focus 80% on deployment (or “scale”), and 20% on innovation (or “science”). We can quibble over the exact numbers, but it is clear that we are not deploying existing technology anywhere near fast enough today. That has to change.

What can change it? Public policy — together with private sector ingenuity and finance. We need clean energy standards, clean transportation standards, clean building standards, and a variety of other policies that will accelerate deployment to the massive scale required. (And note that scaling deployment will further drive innovation and cost reduction — see this MIT study on the reasons for solar’s massive cost reductions to date, and Ramez Naam’s post on the future trajectory of solar costs.) A price on carbon can help, but is not by itself a silver bullet, and may not even be the primary policy vehicle we should focus on. (See this article by Mildenberger and Stokes for a discussion of why carbon pricing has failed to deliver on its promise — and might continue to fall short.)

And why don’t we have the public policy we need? Largely because of a decades-long effort by vested interests (the fossil-fuel companies and trade associations aligned with them) to block, weaken, or delay useful climate policy. And while the fossil-fuel industry has been exercising its massive influence, most other companies, including technology companies, have been virtually silent in the debates on most climate policies. See, for example, this recent report from InfluenceMap on how “Big Tech” has been far too quiet in Washington, DC, state capitals, and in other countries when important climate-related policies have been debated. As stated in the report summary:

While the five Big Tech companies are all highly positive on their own climate programs — in terms of minimizing the emissions of their operations, supply chains, and products — their climate policy engagement appears ad hoc. It has focused on technical rules to enable corporate renewable energy procurement that are directly associated with their operations/commitments. Their lobbying contrasts with the strategic engagement of climate policy leaders like Unilever, which advocates on a range of policies globally with a clear goal of shifting governments to act more ambitiously towards the Paris goal of 1.5C. It also contrasts with the oil majors like ExxonMobil which likewise engage strategically, but negatively, to delay or block Paris-aligned climate policy measures around the world.

I launched ClimateVoice in early 2020 to convince major companies to step up and help counter the negative influence of Big Oil in the debates on climate policy. Our focus is on educating and engaging employees to get them to speak up and push their employers. And on March 31st of this year, we launched a new campaign to rally Tech employees like you at the five biggest US Tech firms (Alphabet/Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft) to join the historic battle for pro-climate policy in Washington DC.

The 1in5 Campaign asks employees to urge their companies to use their powerful influence in the climate policy fight — specifically, spending 1 in 5 of their lobbying dollars in 2021 to ensure a just transition that keeps global warming below the science-based target of 1.5°C . The timing is critical given the shifts in Washington DC this year; we have a narrow window to pass bold equitable climate legislation.

According to an anonymous Google employee interviewed by Fast Company in their article about the 1in5 Campaign, “For Google and other tech companies, strategic lobbying for climate action could help rebuild their reputations as consumers become increasingly disillusioned with Big Tech. There’s an advantage to being on the right side of history.”

Only Tech has the influence and power needed to counter the power of Big Oil. Having led sustainability at Google and Facebook, and having many friends still working in Tech, I know that Tech employees are deeply concerned about climate and also proud of the leadership their companies have shown in decarbonizing their own operations. Now, it’s time to let your companies know that they need to show up in the critical climate policy battles taking shape — especially in Washington, DC, and also in state capitals and in other countries. To cut emissions in half by 2030, we need to enact policy now.

I’m not alone in calling on the Tech giants and other companies to use their considerable influence to help enact bold equitable climate policy. A number of other nonprofits have put forward the AAA Framework for Climate Policy Leadership, echoing the call to action that ClimateVoice is making. And Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), one of the Senate’s leading voices on climate, said, “Big Tech companies are some of the most powerful businesses in the world. We urgently need them to show up for this climate fight, and if they hear from enough employees, we hope they will.”

The 1in5 Campaign calls on companies to increase their lobbying spend on climate — because money is a clear metric that demonstrates commitment, and it will elevate climate to a top-tier lobbying priority. Their priorities are clear when you look at the resources they invest in an issue. In 2020 Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft spent $63 million on federal lobbying. If they allocated 20% of that money to climate they could change the game on Capitol Hill. But today, Tech is not putting their money and influence where their values are. They need to lobby like they mean it — ensure their civic participation and trade association memberships are supporting, not obstructing, progress on climate policy, and use all the leverage at their disposal (e.g., where they choose to build new operations or expand existing ones) to help turn the tide on climate policy, everywhere they operate.

Tech employees can be climate heroes now and help get their companies off the sidelines in these crucial policy debates. Here are 4 things I’m asking you to do today:

  • Sign the 1in5 petition here and ask your company to #LobbyForClimate.
  • Share the digital 1in5 ad inspired by classic comic book imagery.
  • Join the social media campaign by following and sharing content from @ClimateVoiceOrg on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
  • Speak up internally — talk to other employees, and to executives. Let them know you think now is the time for your company to get off the sidelines on policy, in DC, cities and states — and advocate hard for bold, equitable climate policy.

If you’re a student interviewing with one of these companies, ask about their approach to climate policy in your interview. And if you’re not an employee of these companies, you can still sign the petition and share the campaign — your voice matters too!

Tech employees who are concerned about climate can take action to leverage the influence of their employer now. Together, we can get Tech companies off the sidelines in the upcoming climate debate. Join our campaign!

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Founder and Executive Director of ClimateVoice. Former Green Energy Czar at Google and Director of Sustainability at Facebook. Climate warrior.

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Bill Weihl

Bill Weihl

Founder and Executive Director of ClimateVoice. Former Green Energy Czar at Google and Director of Sustainability at Facebook. Climate warrior.

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