Amazon employees lay their jobs on the line to protest how Big tech enables Big oil

Amazon employees logoUpdated on February 18 re the announcement of the Bezos Earth Fund.

Amazon workers have risen up again, at the risk of their own jobs. “Defying Company Policy, Over 300 Amazon Employees Speak Out” in Wired (Jan.27) was one of many media articles about the most recent incident in the employees’ campaign for climate action.  A new protest stems from Amazon’s communication policy which threatened to fire employees who speak out to the public about climate change without company authorization. (A Washington Post article of January 2 summarizes all that).   In response, as detailed in Wired,  363 Amazon employees intentionally violated that company policy by signing their names to posts about their own opinions and experiences. The posts were compiled by Medium on January 26. The protest was organized by the activist group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ)  which posted an explanation on their Facebook page, stating that employees feel a “moral responsibility to speak up”. It continues:

“The protest is the largest action by employees since Amazon began threatening to fire workers for speaking out about Amazon’s role in the climate crisis. It signals that employees are convinced that the only right thing to do at this time is to keep speaking up. AECJ has continued to call on Amazon to commit to zero emissions by 2030, stop developing AWS products and services to accelerate oil and gas extraction, and end funding of climate-denying politicians, lobbyists, and think tanks.”

UPDATE: 

On February 17, Jeff Bezos , billionaire owner of Amazon, announced the creation of the Bezos Earth Fund, which will provide $10 billion in grants to scientists and activists to fund their efforts to fight climate change.  The announcement was made on Instagram and reported by the Washington Post, which Bezos also owns. Amazon  Employees for Climate Justice reacted with this statement : Amazon employees tweet re billionsTheir statement shows that AECJ is not letting up on the link between Amazon and Big Oil, and also, not letting up. Follow them on Twitter at @AMZNforClimate.

“Why did Amazon threaten to fire employees who were sounding the alarm about Amazon’s role in the climate crisis and our oil and gas business? What this shows is that employees speaking out works–we need more of that right now.”

Big Tech and Big Oil?

Although a general perception might be that Amazon need only reduce packaging or improve logistics to reduce transportation-related emissions, there is another big climate-related issue raised by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. As noted briefly in Vox  on January 3:   “Google and Amazon are now in the oil business” (Jan. 3)  explaining that “big tech companies are developing AI for oil companies, even as they publicly celebrate their sustainable initiatives.”  A much more detailed explanation appears in  “Amazon’s New Rationale For Working With Big Oil: Saving the Planet” in Motherboard (Jan. 10) .

This is all happening in plain sight.  Amazon itself  describes  its “Digital Oilfields”  on its own website,  and “Cenovus joins Big Oil’s push into Big Data with Amazon and IBM deals”  appeared  in the Financial Post in November 2019, giving insight into how data-driven oil and gas is growing in Canada.  And Suncor boasts in a November 2019 press release from Calgary, Suncor accelerates digital transformation journey through strategic alliance with Microsoft, quoting Microsoft’s president: “Suncor is embarking on a journey to transform the energy industry. They are creating new business value for their customers, empowering and upskilling their workforce, and innovating for a sustainable future”.

Amazon employees use their power as shareholders to request corporate policies on climate change

Amazon employees logoIn  what a New York Times article characterizes as “ the largest employee-driven movement on climate change to take place in the influential tech industry”, almost 7,000 employees of tech giant Amazon have now signed their names to an Open Letter to Jeff Bezos and the Amazon Board of Directors, released on April 10.  The Letter states: “we ask that you adopt the climate plan shareholder resolution and release a company-wide climate plan that incorporates the principles outlined in this letter.” It then outlines a thorough list of desired actions, including:  a complete transition away from fossil fuels rather than relying on carbon offsets; prioritization of climate impact when making business decisions; prioritizing the most vulnerable communities in pollution reduction initiatives related to Amazon locations; and “fair treatment of all employees during climate disruptions and extreme weather events. Unsafe or inaccessible workplaces should not be a reason to withhold pay, terminate, or otherwise penalize employees — including hourly and contract workers.”  Amazon Employees for Climate Justice provides updates at their Twitter account here.

According to an article in Gizmodo : “Employees from seemingly every background and department have signed on, from UX designers to biz dev managers to systems development engineers and beyond. A number of senior employees are on board, too—in addition to the VP, at the time of writing, I counted at least eight directors on the list. It’s part of a growing trend towards worker advocacy in the tech industry, coming on the heels of the Google Walkout for Change and the We Won’t Build It effort, also at Amazon.”  The culture of empowerment behind the Open Letter is evident in an  interview published in Gizmodo, “One of the Amazon Workers Behind the Push to Get Jeff Bezos to Address Climate Change Speaks Out”  .  Wired also describes the culture of shareholder activism in “Amazon Employees Try A New Form Of Activism, As Shareholders” .

Amazon has more than 65,000 corporate and tech employees in the United States, who are awarded shares as part of their compensation program.  In late November and early December, 2018, 16 current and former Amazon employees exercised their rights as shareholders by tabling  a shareholder resolution – which has been seen as the trigger for Amazon’s  Shipment Zero initiative,  a vision to make all Amazon shipments net-zero carbon, with 50 percent of all shipments net zero by 2030. Amazon’s response to the latest Open Letter is partly reproduced in the Gizmodo article, and states:  “We have a long history of commitment to sustainability through innovative programs such as Frustration Free PackagingShip in Own Container, our network of solar and wind farms, solar on our fulfillment center rooftopsinvestments in the circular economy with the Closed Loop Fund, and numerous other initiatives happening every day by teams across Amazon. In operations alone, we have over 200 scientists, engineers, and product designers dedicated exclusively to inventing new ways to leverage our scale for the good of customers and the planet. We have a long term commitment to powering our global infrastructure using 100% renewable energy.” Amazon’s corporate website details all its sustainability efforts   – and  on April 8th, just before the Open Letter was published, a press release announced 3 new wind energy projects, to augment the current level of 50% renewable energy power for the Automated Web Services part of the business.

Does Homeworking reduce Carbon Emissions? Yes, Toronto Star, It Does

Working at Home Not So Good for the Planet”, appeared in the Toronto Star newspaper on February 5, 2016, largely based on a 2014 report from U.K. based Carbon Trust, Homeworking: Helping Businesses Cut Costs and Reduce their Carbon Footprint  . That 2014 document highlighted the issue of “rebound effects that result in increased carbon emissions, particularly from increased home energy consumption” – for example, the less-efficient heating of workers’ individual homes rather than common, energy efficient offices. By focusing on the “rebound effects”, the Toronto Star article missed some important points: the 13% increase of U.K. homeworkers between 2007 and 2012, as well as the report’s conclusion that “ if adopted and encouraged by employers across the country, homeworking could result in annual savings of over 3 million tonnes of carbon and cut costs by £3 billion.”

A far more informative, detailed report was released by Carbon Tracker in December 2015, GESI Mobile Carbon Impact: How Mobile Communications Technology is Enabling Carbon Emissions Reduction  . The report claims that “ Use of mobile communications technology is currently enabling a total reduction of 180 million tonnes of CO2 a year across the USA and Europe, and is expected to grow at least three times larger in the next 5 years.” 7% of carbon reduction relates to “connected working”, measured through reduced emissions from commuting and by use of audio or video connectivity in place of meetings. Further savings are made through reducing building energy consumption, by rationalising office space or reducing occupancy levels. The report notes that “nervousness” of employers is a barrier to  homeworking, but cites studies which found no loss of productivity or quality from homeworking, and suggest that the “nervousness” issue might be resolved by new approaches to supervision or management, such as monitoring practical outcomes rather than supervising process and attendance. A larger part of the report is devoted to the 70% of emissions abatement that is the result of machine-to-machine communications technologies in the buildings,transport and energy sectors, where devices are able to communicate automatically with each other, without human intervention.” (e.g. building management, route planning, smart grids in electricity distribution).

Information and Communications Technologies as a Path to Sustainable Infrastructure and Systems

On June 17th , the Council of Canadian Academies released the report of its Expert Panel on the Potential for New and Innovative Uses of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) for Greening Canada. The multidisciplinary panel of experts was chaired by David Miller, President and CEO of WWF-Canada. The report discusses interconnected ICT opportunities which can achieve environmental, economic, and social benefits for Canada, and organizes these opportunities in six key thematic areas: “environmental monitoring; smart interconnected utilities; smart interconnected buildings and neighbourhoods; smart interconnected mobility; smart interconnected production; and healthy people and healthy communities”. It also states that Canada is well positioned to be a leader in green data centres, because of our cooler climate and relatively clean electricity supply. Regarding our human capital capabilities to achieve ICT innovation, the report states that they “are difficult to assess”, and that skills gaps are likely to occur on both the demand and supply sides. Increased computer literacy training will be required from elementary to post-graduate levels.

LINKS:

Enabling Sustainability in an Interconnected World is at the Council of Canadian Academies website at http://www.scienceadvice.ca/uploads/eng/assessments%20and%20publications… (224 pages). The Backgrounder, with links to summaries, is at http://www.scienceadvice.ca/en/assessments/completed/greenict.aspx .