In the run-up to today’s global climate strikes, the major tech companies and their attendant luminaries have had much to say on matters of sustainability. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos personally announced his Climate Pledge, which promises to bring the retail giant he runs to net zero carbon emissions by 2040. Google’s Sundar Pichai announced “the largest corporate purchase of clean energy in history.” And Microsoft founder Bill Gates has been doing the interview rounds, dispensing his expertise on climate solutions.
Each man runs, founded, and/or advises some of the most influential and powerful corporations in human history. Each professes a desire to address the climate crisis. And yet, each is currently profiting mightily by helping oil companies accelerate that crisis. Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are assisting the likes of Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell in endeavors like harnessing AI to more efficiently explore for new drilling sites and using big data to streamline the oil extraction process. They are all helping to automate the climate emergency.
I am writing this for publication on the day of the global climate strikes with a simple message for each of these men and any CEO or executive who stands to profit in a similar context: You can’t have it both ways.
You can’t believe yourself part of the solution—which requires reducing carbon emissions, urgently on a massive scale—while still propping up and empowering oil companies, and allowing them to find new and better ways to locate, develop, and burn oil. Your clean energy initiatives and climate philanthropy will mean nothing if your companies continue to directly exacerbate the crisis in the first place. Sorry.
This is what I mean:
On Thursday, when a reporter asked Jeff Bezos if he would sever Amazon’s ties to oil companies, given that thousands of his own employees had publicly called on him to do so, he said, simply, “No.” Bezos continued: “We’re going to work hard for energy companies. And our view is we’re going to work very hard to make sure that as they transition they have the best tools possible.”
Of course, the tools Amazon provides oil companies are not intended to be used in any “transition.” Amazon’s own website lists the goals of one of these tools:
-Find Oil Faster
-Recover More Oil
-Reduce the Cost Per Barrel
You can’t have it both ways, Jeff Bezos. You can’t sell AI-powered tools built with the express aim to help fossil fuel companies dig more oil and gas out of the ground at the precise moment it needs to stay buried and proclaim yourself seriously committed to fighting climate change. It doesn’t track.
Google, meanwhile, has opened an entire Oil & Gas division in Houston, designed to solicit more oilfield automation and AI-enabled oil exploration business there. It has been providing AI tools to companies like Andarko, to help them better explore for new sources of oil to drill. It has also, coincidentally, been competing with local clean energy startups. You can’t have it both ways, Sundar Pichai. Clean energy buys are great, and Google has always been a leader in that arena. But it’s time to pick a side. Until the doors to the Oil & Gas division of Google are closed, your company too is exacerbating the crisis.
And a special word to Bill Gates: You have long sought to draw attention to the perils of climate change. You’ve spoken openly and often about the need for more innovation in the cleantech sector, and you have invested in small-scale nuclear power and other ideas. Many view you as a champion.
Yet on the week of the climate strike, Microsoft announced a brand new partnership with Chevron and Schlumberger aimed at increasing oil extraction rates. Beyond that, Microsoft has hosted exhibitions called “Empowering Oil & Gas With AI” and has cut major deals like the one with ExxonMobil that will allow it to better drain the Permian Basin of oil. The company you founded is doing more than perhaps any other tech company to partner with fossil fuel interests.
You still advise Microsoft. If you wanted the company to cut ties with oil and gas extraction efforts, I have little doubt you could persuade its executives to update their corporate responsibility policies. Unless you want this festering asterisk on your legacy to overshadow the entirety of your climate work, it’s time to choose a side.
Look: It is not just that as a result of your companies’ initiatives, more oil will be located, extracted, and burned, more carbon emissions will enter the atmosphere, and climate change will accelerate. You may, after all, rationalize this away by arguing that the efficiencies you grant oil companies in their extractive endeavors pale in comparison into the investments you might make in renewable power and cleaner technologies, or donations to environmental nonprofits.
That is incorrect. By working with the oil companies at all, by selling them your technologies and expertise, you are not only throwing them a lifeline and helping to extend the fossil fuel era, you are imparting the work itself with a seal of moral approval. You are entrenching oil interests in your business, and you are ensuring it will be harder to extricate those interests from our society and our economy—something that needs to begin to happen yesterday.
Maybe imagine telling Greta Thurnberg or any of the thousands of other children walking out of their schools because they are afraid for their future that you just want the oil companies to have the best tools available to them. That it’s worth taking in a few extra millions in alternate revenue sources on top of your already record earnings to help oil companies speed up a planetary crisis. That it’s just business.
Some of you simply may not care, and the public-facing climate commentary is just part of the job. Others may have an actual interest in doing what is in your power to preserve a habitable climate, even if it means missing out on a lucrative oil contract or two. So I’ll just say it again, in solidarity with all the kids and people and employees of your companies that are walking out of their schools and jobs to make a statement about the kind of world that is possible tomorrow: You too can take a moral stance and put a livable climate over a little extra capital.
But you can’t have it both ways. You can use your technologies to help dislodge the fossil fuel era, or you can profit by amplifying its pollutive output—and putting us all at further risk. Time to choose a side.