There are ethics in tech. Even within the deepest, darkest corporatist recesses of tech, where profits reign über alles, ethics can be found. Witness Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. This intrepid group of 7,683-and-counting Amazonians burst onto the scene last month when they fired off an open letter on Medium calling on CEO Jeff Bezos and the Amazon board of directors to step up and take meaningful action to combat the potentially existential threat of anthropogenic climate change.
“Amazon has the resources and scale to spark the world’s imagination and redefine what is possible and necessary to address the climate crisis,” the letter asserts. “We believe this is a historic opportunity for Amazon to stand with employees and signal to the world that we’re ready to be a climate leader.”
The letter went on to list six lofty, laudable goals the signatories urge Amazon to adopt:
- Climate goals consistent with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that says we must halve emissions by 2030 compared to 2010 levels
- A full phase-out of fossil-fuel use
- Prioritizing climate when making business decisions
- Prioritizing reducing harm to vulnerable communities
- Advocating for government policies that reduce emissions
- Fairly compensating employees impacted by extreme weather events
Amazon Employees for Climate Justice also took the company to task for making political campaign contributions to climate denialist politicians, for its Amazon Web Services (AWS) Oil and Gas initiative (which helps Earth-destroying fossil fuel companies “yield more productive oil extraction” and “improve profitability”) and for the glaring inadequacy of its Shipment Zero sustainability pledge. Specifically, the letter asks Amazon to eliminate carbon emissions instead of just offsetting them via controversial carbon credits.
“We all — individuals, corporations, governments — simply need to do more,” letter signatory Maren Costa, a principal user experience designer, wrote. “Amazon needs a company-wide plan that matches the scale and urgency of the climate crisis, and Shipment Zero is not nearly enough.”
As the New York Times has noted, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice is a remarkable campaign because it is part of a growing trend of employee, as opposed to outside shareholder, activism. It is also rare — and courageous — for workers to sign their full names while biting the proverbial hand that feeds them.
So how did Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s board, and its shareholders react to Amazon Employees for Climate Justice? Well, the company just held its annual meeting in Seattle on Wednesday, where shareholders voted down every last one of the 11 independent resolutions presented for their consideration. These covered issued ranging from addressing hate speech and food waste to a proposed moratorium on facial recognition and measures to address pay equity, board diversity, sexual harassment and unconscionable executive compensation. During a Q&A period, one employee asked Bezos if he would support initiatives to combat climate change.
“That’s a very important issue,” Bezos replied. “It’s hard to find an issue that is more important than climate change. … It’s also as everyone knows, a very difficult problem.”
Yes, Jeff, everyone knows that. But Bezos wasn’t finished obfuscating: “Both e-commerce and cloud computing are inherently more efficient than their alternatives. So we’re doing a lot even intrinsically. But that’s not what I’m talking about in terms of the initiatives we’re taking… There are a lot of initiatives here underway, and we’re not done, we’ll think of more, we’re very inventive.”
When another employee, Emily Cunningham — a user experience designer who co-filed the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice resolution, addressed Bezos, he refused to come on stage to speak with his workers. Cunningham asked:
“We have the talent, the passion, the imagination. We have the scale, speed and resources. Jeff, all we need is your leadership. Jeff, will you stand with us and adopt this resolution? Or will you ignore the greatest opportunity, the most important responsibility we’ve ever had: to take bold climate leadership when it mattered more than anything has ever mattered?”
Of course, to Bezos, Amazon’s board and most of its shareholders, what matters more than anything isn’t planet or people, it’s ever-increasing profit. Being the world’s richest man, who leads one of the world’s richest corporations, trumps having a livable Earth for this and future generations.
At a press conference outside the meeting, Amazon software engineer Rajit Iftikhar explained that for hundreds of millions of people around the world, anthropogenic climate change isn’t some abstract, future threat. It’s happening right now, with life-or-death consequences.
“I am the proud son of Bangladeshi immigrant parents,” Iftikhar explained. “While to some, climate change is something we have to worry about in the future, … [its] having disastrous effects in Bangladesh right now. I want Amazon to do more on climate change because I think it’s unacceptable for one of the richest companies in the world to continue to take half-actions as the consequences of its emissions put so many lives of the global poor at risk.”
Amazon Employees for Climate Justice largely shrugged off their Bezos brush-off. “Jeff remained off-stage, ignored the employees and would not speak to them,” the group said in a statement after the event. “Jeff’s inaction and lack of meaningful response underscore his dismissal of the climate crisis and spoke volumes about how Amazon’s board continues to de-prioritize addressing Amazon’s role in the climate emergency.”
The employee-activists vowed to fight on. “Because the board still does not understand the severity of the climate crisis, we will file this resolution again next year,” Weston Fribley, a software engineer who co-filed the resolution, told the Guardian. “We will announce other actions in the coming months. We – Amazon’s employees – have the talent and experience to remake entire industries with incredible speed. This is work we want to do.”