When Sam Kern started working at Google four years ago, she believed she could drive change as an insider. If she could just "get the ear" of the right executives, Kern thought, she could convince them to move the company in a new direction on climate and sustainability.
But over time, Kern said she realized, powerful moneyed interests made that impossible.
Kern, a user experience engineer, described company leaders as "putting up a wall between the business interests and human interests," even as they seemed to recognize the severity of the climate crisis, which made conversations with them feel emotionally disconnected.
So Kern turned to more direct activism. After becoming involved with the employee group Googlers for Climate Action, Kern joined thousands of tech workers who walked out of their offices during last September's global climate strike to demand bold climate commitments from their employers. And she didn't stop there.
Kern left Google in May and joined the radical climate activist group Extinction Rebellion, which earlier this month launched a digital campaign, bigtechlovesbigoil.com, targeting tech majors Google, Microsoft and Amazon for providing oil and gas companies with cloud computing services, custom artificial intelligence and machine learning tools.
By then, Greenpeace had also launched an effort to stop Amazon, Google and Microsoft from working with Big Oil in ways that help oil and gas companies extract fossil fuels and cause further global warming.
In May, Greenpeace published "Oil in the Cloud," a report that said the three tech giants had spent years pursuing lucrative deals to supply Chevron, Shell, BP and ExxonMobil with technology to enhance fossil fuel extraction and production. As the paper highlighted, all three tech majors have bold public-facing sustainability commitments, centered around reducing their companies' carbon footprint and investing in renewable energy.
Elizabeth Jardim, a senior corporate campaigner for Greenpeace USA and the report's co-author, said she worries that the tech companies could offer the oil and gas industry a lifeline at a time when oil prices have fallen amid the coronavirus pandemic and a growing divestment movement.
"I don't think these solutions will totally save the oil and gas industry, but they're certainly helping an industry that should be on the way out to hold on," said Jardim, who sees the Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion campaigns as complimentary.
Taking different approaches to achieving the shared vision of a Big Tech-Big Oil breakup, Greenpeace is engaging the tech companies in dialogue while Extinction Rebellion attacks them on social media.
Both see a prime opportunity for the cause during a national reckoning on race, climate and Covid-19. With a combination of internal pressure from tech employees and external pressure from public supporters, they hope, a moment for real change might be at hand.
Amazon, Google and Microsoft referred InsideClimate News to past statements and sustainability commitments when asked about their contracts with oil and gas companies.
Google and Amazon declined to comment on the Extinction Rebellion campaign, while Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.
Targeting Enduring Ties Between Tech and Oil
As a global environmental NGO, Greenpeace has a long history of engaging with, and pressuring, tech companies to be more sustainable. Jardim and her colleagues approached tech companies about their contracts with Big Oil, a move that she said led to "an ongoing conversation."
While writing the report, Jardim said, the majority of contracts she reviewed were for increasing oil and gas production, a discovery she said she found deeply problematic. "Any production enhancements that the cloud companies are offering to oil and gas companies to the end of improving production efficiency is a loss for the climate," Jardim said. She hopes that tech majors will instead harness their technology "to help scale up renewables."
She said Greenpeace will continue encouraging tech majors to internally assess their contracts with oil and gas companies, as well as "create continued public pressure" to drop these contracts by activating Greenpeace supporters and garnering media attention.
Jardim also emphasized that low oil demand and prices make the moment more opportune for Big Tech to embrace Greenpeace's demands. "Why would you invest time, organizational capital, and resources into a sector that's on its way out?" she asked of tech companies.
Kern, the former Google engineer at Extinction Rebellion, welcomes the sustainability announcements she said the tech companies have made since the September climate strike. But in today's climate emergency, she said, they're still "holding back way too much and not moving fast enough." She praised Greenpeace for highlighting tech's enduring ties to fossil fuels and said the revelations in its paper had the power to "move minds."
Kern doesn't think tech companies will make the connection between their contracts with oil and gas companies, and racial injustice, "unless we start the conversation first." By building off of momentum around Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion's digital campaign calls Big Tech and Big Oil's "destructive love affair" a "bid for reinforcing white supremacy."
Jardim said that racial justice activists' recent progress around facial recognition software suggests the possibility that similar pressure can lead tech companies to cut ties with Big Oil.
Amazon and Microsoft announced last month that they would no longer provide facial recognition software to police following calls from Black Lives Matter organizers, who feared the technology could be weaponized against people of color. The companies showed that they are "very vulnerable to what their employees are concerned about," said Jardim, attributing the policy change in part to employee advocacy in support of Black Lives Matter. Already, several tech employee groups have circulated Extinction Rebellion's campaign on social media.
In an email to company employees sent shortly before the policy change, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella acknowledged the company's "responsibility to use our platform and resources intentionally to address systemic inequities in our communities and in society broadly." More recently, the company unveiled seven new steps on its path to be carbon negative by 2030, including "investing in climate equity and environmental justice."
Now, climate activists and employees are making the case that such responsibility extends to how Microsoft and its peers relate to businesses driving the unequal effects of climate change.
Google's 'Good First Step'
Among the three tech majors, only Google has taken action in response to calls for change in the Greenpeace report. A Google spokesperson told OneZero in a statement last month that the company would no longer build custom technology "to facilitate upstream extraction in the oil and gas industry." A Google spokesperson said that the company is "continuing to see great traction with renewable energy providers, many of whom inherently understand the benefits of the cloud in advancing their goals."
While Greenpeace has welcomed this commitment "as a good first step," Jardim said that it was insufficient, noting that Google planned to honor its existing contracts with oil and gas companies. In addition to placing an immediate moratorium on all new machine learning and high-performance computing contracts for oil and gas companies, Greenpeace has called for such existing contracts to end.
Jardim said that she has seen "a movement in the wrong direction" from Amazon, with the company's web services continuing to support TC Energy, the Canada-based energy company building the Keystone XL Pipeline, which has drawn the ire of environmental activists.
"The energy industry should have access to the same technologies as other industries," and Amazon will continue providing the industry with cloud services "to make their legacy businesses less carbon intensive," according to an Amazon position statement.
Striking a similar tone in a written statement following Greenpeace's report, Microsoft said that it was "encouraged by the growing number of energy sector commitments to transitioning to cleaner energy and lowering carbon emissions, but they can't do it alone." The company also said that "technology can accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon future."
Jardim remains highly skeptical of the idea that Big Tech could push oil and gas companies to transition to more sustainable business models. "Their solutions are not being used to get a company to switch from natural gas production to solar panels," Jardim said. "That's a false representation of what's happening."
Jason Switzer, executive director of the Alberta Clean Technology Industry Alliance, was more optimistic about the potential for Big Tech to help energy companies evolve. He said he considers the oil and gas sector's participation integral to achieving a net-zero future.
Since oil and gas will remain a major industry for the foreseeable future under almost any scenario, Switzer said, "The question is really, how are we going to use those commodities?"
He said he sees "opportunities in which the oil and gas sector can play a very positive and indeed, even transformative role in supporting a low carbon transition."
Switzer said adopting more sophisticated digital technologies could help put the oil and gas sector on a path to reducing its carbon footprint, including by allowing for a kind of "predictive maintenance" in its operations.
Monitoring oil and gas flow through pipelines in real time, and optimizing operational efficiency, he said, can help prevent major incidents like the infamous Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 and the Aliso Canyon gas leak of 2015.
Switzer also imagined that Covid-19 could expedite this process, driving "a kind of double down on digitalization and autonomous technologies."
Geoffrey Cann, an author, speaker and trainer for digital transformation in oil and gas, argued that achieving a less carbon-intensive system required a focus on reducing fossil fuel demand, rather than attacking production. Cann said that making the oil and gas industry more efficient wasn't "necessarily a bad thing."
Cann said he would much rather fossil fuel companies devote themselves to "optimizing their existing business model to buy time for the energy transition," than "simply stop" their operations at a moment lacking clean energy alternatives to meet the scale of the world's energy demand.
"Let's set out a long-term roadmap that lets us work our way off of [fossil fuel] products and onto cleaner, more sustainable products," said Cann, "without putting at risk the societies that we've built for the past 100 years." And if people can "apply the smarts that we've got today in Big Tech" to support that process, he said, "that has to be the agenda."