Society Can’t Slow Climate Change Without Reining in Big Tech, New Report Warns

The companies have made progress reducing emissions. But the report says they continue to play a key role spreading misinformation and blocking climate action.

An illustration picture taken in London on Dec. 18, 2020 shows the logos of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft displayed on a mobile phone and a laptop screen. Credit: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images
An illustration picture taken in London on Dec. 18, 2020 shows the logos of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft displayed on a mobile phone and a laptop screen. Credit: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

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Any effort to curb global greenhouse gas emissions and stave off catastrophic warming is doomed to fail unless far more is done to address the “foundational” role Big Tech companies now play in exacerbating the climate crisis. That’s the conclusion of a new report released last week by the international environmental nonprofit Global Action Plan.

From amplifying conspiracy theories and misinformation to their increasingly massive energy footprint, the world’s biggest tech companies aren’t only making global warming worse, the report said, but pose “a systemic digital roadblock to effective climate action” by driving unsustainable consumerism, increasing political division and pushing society further away from democracy.

“Big Tech billionaires are the oil barons of the 21st century and their impact on climate change is no less destructive,” Susie Alegre, the report’s author and a longtime human rights attorney, said in a press release. “This paper should serve as a wake-up call to the climate movement.”

It’s certainly not the first time Big Tech has been thrust into the spotlight over its climate impacts. Just five companies—Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple and Meta—use as much electricity as the entire country of New Zealand, according to reporting from the Financial Times. And research shows that climate disinformation continues to flourish on the biggest social media platforms, including Twitter and TikTok, which experts say makes finding global consensus on climate policy a nearly impossible task. 

In fact, experts warned that a blitz of disinformation during the COP27 global climate talks last month undermined the summit’s progress. And many climate activists were outraged after the U.N. conference ended without any official commitments to phase out, or even phase down, fossil fuels—something experts say must begin immediately to fulfill the Paris Agreement targets.

Amazon, Google and Apple didn’t respond to questions from Inside Climate News about the Global Action Plan report. 

In an email, a Meta spokesperson pointed to progress the company has made related to its climate goals, including fully running its direct global operations with renewable energy as of 2020, which have helped reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 94 percent from a 2017 baseline. That reduction doesn’t include the emissions related to Meta’s supply chain. The spokesperson also said Meta’s “fact-checking partners regularly review and rate a wide range of climate-related claims, including false information that outside experts say undermines the existence or impacts of climate change, misrepresents scientific data and mischaracterizes mitigation and adaptation efforts.”

In a separate statement, a Microsoft spokesperson said that the company understands that public policies “will play a critical role” in addressing climate change and noted that it is expanding its climate action advocacy efforts.

“There is a growing gap between the pace of desired policy outcomes and economic and scientific indicators that show accelerating climate impacts,” the Microsoft spokesperson said. “To help close this gap and support communities and companies in their efforts to achieve their climate pledges, governments around the world need to accelerate policy action.”

Over the years, tech giants have made increasingly ambitious pledges to address their climate impacts, including all five Big Tech companies promising to some degree or another to drastically reduce their carbon emissions. Amazon has promised to reach net-zero emissions by 2040 and power its operations fully with renewable energy by 2025. By 2030, Facebook pledged to fully offset or eliminate emissions from its supply chain, Apple committed to become carbon neutral across its supply chain, Google promised to fully power its operations with carbon-free energy and Microsoft pledged to become carbon negative, meaning it will remove more carbon than it emits.

Tech companies also drove the surge in new renewable energy capacity last year and are now pressing U.S. energy regulators and lawmakers to adopt favorable power grid policies that speed procurement of clean power—though research shows that their supply chains are still heavily powered by fossil fuels and remain a serious source of climate-warming emissions.

Still, many climate action advocates remain highly skeptical of tech industry promises, saying they rely too heavily on unproven carbon removal technologies and questionable carbon offset programs. Disinformation experts also say the spread of climate falsehoods online has only gotten worse over the years despite promises from Big Tech companies, including Twitter, Google and Meta, to crack down on misleading and false information on their platforms.

Thursday’s report, titled “Big Tech’s Dirty Secret,” reiterated those criticisms, concluding that the tech industry remains a top threat to the global fight against climate change. Taken altogether, the scope of the problem “goes well beyond” any of the individual threats tech giants pose to climate change and the efforts to slow it, Oliver Hayes, the policy and campaigns lead for Global Action Plan, told me in an email.

According to the report, tech giants rely entirely on something called online surveillance advertising. That’s when tech companies collect online user data, create sophisticated consumer profiles and then target individuals with specialized advertising aimed at maximizing sales. But “surveillance advertising is extremely energy intensive,” the report said, with an estimated 1 percent of the total global electricity consumption used in servicing online ads alone. In fact, advertising adds an estimated 32 percent to the carbon footprint of every United Kingdom resident, the report added.

“If Big Tech’s business model entirely relies on continued advertising growth, how can we collectively challenge over-consumption?” Hayes said. “And if that ad growth is delivered by an algorithmic design that systemically promotes divisive, conspiratorial, hateful content, how can we as a society possibly hope to unite to confront the climate crisis?”

The report also criticized tech companies for not using more of its massive lobbying power to advocate for strong climate policy. Between July 2020 and June 2021, the companies dedicated an average of just 6 percent of their lobbying activity to climate-related policy, an analysis of the tech giants’ self-reported data found.

Bill Weihl, who spent 15 years leading sustainability and climate initiatives at Google and Facebook, similarly criticized the tech industry for failing to back climate policy in the United States. When U.S. lawmakers were still debating President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which included some $370 billion for climate efforts, only one of the five Big Tech companies—Microsoft—endorsed the proposal, Weihl wrote in an opinion essay back in September.

Weihl, now the executive director and founder of ClimateVoice, a climate advocacy group that pressures companies to support strong climate policy, chalked up that lack of support to opposition from tech companies against tax provisions in the law that affected stock buybacks. But he also said Big Tech remains beholden to major trade associations that have consistently fought against national climate policy, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “All of the Big Five—except Apple, which left years ago under the leadership of the late Steve Jobs—still belong to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” Weihl wrote. “The chamber is well known for its obstructionist tactics on climate bills, and this latest policy showdown was no exception.”

An analysis published last year by Brown University’s Climate and Development Lab found that for 20 years, the chamber played a central role in national and global campaigns to thwart ambitious legislative efforts to curb the world’s rising carbon emissions and downplay the threat of climate change.

When asked about lobbying, a Microsoft spokesperson replied: “Over the past two years, Microsoft has advocated for climate and energy investments as part of the recent U.S. infrastructure and climate laws, a robust and consistent framework for climate disclosure requirements by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and a comprehensive European Union decarbonization plan, to name just a few.”

Meanwhile, watchdog organizations continue to sound the alarm over climate disinformation.

Last Tuesday, the Center for Countering Digital Hate and the Anti-Defamation League released their latest findings monitoring hate speech on Twitter since Tesla CEO Elon Musk took over the platform. In the week’s following the purchase, the groups’ analysis found, hate speech has risen to unprecedented levels. And disinformation experts worry it’s a sign that climate disinformation, too, will be allowed to freely spread on the platform.

“Since Musk’s takeover I have ramped down my own use of Twitter,” climate scientist Twila Moon told The Guardian. “Folks noticing a rise in climate denialism and disinformation is particularly worrying and I am concerned that it could slow climate action in ways that are devastating to economies, communities and health.”

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox Friday—but before you go:

Hot Gossip

Have you left Twitter since Musk took over? Do you still visit Facebook? What social media platforms do you spend your time on and why? Inside Climate News wants to know.

Last week, we asked for your opinions on the controversial climate protests, including activists recently gluing themselves to an airport runway. Here’s how some Today’s Climate readers responded:

Judi Gray wrote: “I think it was foolish of the group to glue themselves to an airport runway. Many people will make jokes about their having to be ‘unglued.’ Fighting for climate change is wonderful but putting themselves in the way of an airplane could be labeled suicidal and no doubt caused more traffic pollution.”

Liz de Goursac, however, said she believed the protests were “definitely too tame” and that activists would be justified in taking even bolder actions of civil disobedience.

“We are lobsters in a pot set to boil, acting as if we are tourists on a sunny beach oceanfront,” de Goursac wrote in her comment. “The NYTimes persists in running stories and ads telling us all we are missing out for not visiting the ‘Top 20 bucket destinations in the World’ or ‘Surfing the sand dunes of Qatar.’”

Want to share your opinion on climate protests or any other climate-related issue? Maybe you just want to share a tip or ask a question. Whatever it is, we want to hear from you.

Today’s Indicator


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