Photo: Patrick Semansky (AP)

At Amazon’s shareholder meeting today, employees and investors voted on a wide-ranging spate of proposals, from banning the practice of selling facial recognition technology to adopting a serious plan to address climate change. Each of the proposals ultimately failed, but they were undeniable signs of a paradigm shift underway at the online retail giant, and perhaps the tech industry at large. Few, if any, such shareholder proposals have been made before. And CEO Jeff Bezos all but refused to acknowledge them.

Beginning at the end of last year, a number of Amazon employees, like UX designer Emily Cunningham, filed identical shareholder resolutions asking the company to release a comprehensive plan to tackle climate change. The company responded to the resolutions by announcing Shipment Zero, an initiative aimed at reducing carbon emissions associated with package deliveries, but it provided few specifics about how those reductions would be achieved.

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Then, in April, a group calling itself Amazon Employees for Climate Justice began circulating an open letter asking Bezos and the board to support the shareholder resolution and adopt a strong climate plan. The letter took off, and nearly 7,700 Amazon employees have signed on, marking the movement one of the largest efforts to tackle climate change inside a corporation ever attempted. ISS and Glass Lewis, two of the largest proxy advisers to institutional investors, came out in support of a ‘yes’ vote on the resolution.

And yet, at the shareholder meeting today, Bezos was unfazed. Though he was present, the CEO remained backstage. More than 50 Amazon employees also attended the meeting, according to AECJ, where Cunningham delivered an impassioned speech to shareholders urging them to support the resolution. Dozens stood with her as she delivered her remarks.

“Before I start my time,” she began, “I’d like to ask for Jeff Bezos to come out on stage so I can speak to him directly. I’m representing 7,700 employees.”

David Zapolsky, Amazon’s General Counsel, told her that Bezos, who was recently in the news for outlining his intention to build space colonies for humans to live on, would not come out to address his employees’ concerns about climate change directly. “Mr. Bezos will be out later,” he said. When asked if Bezos was even listening, Zapolsky replied, “I assume so.”

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“The climate crisis is the greatest threat we’ve ever faced,” Cunningham said. “Speed is everything. Without bold, rapid action we will lose our only chance to avoid catastrophic warming.”

As she spoke, Cunningham told me later, even employees and shareholders who were not part of the climate group stood as a show of support. “How will we tell our children that we knew we had such a small window to act decisively, to leave fossil fuels in the ground, but instead we helped Shell, BP, and others find and extract oil more quickly?” Cunningham was referring to the division of Amazon’s web services business that promises to help oil companies find and extract more fossil fuels, more efficiently.

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“Jeff, will you stand with us, and adopt this resolution?” she said. “Or will you ignore the most important opportunity we’ve ever had: to take bold climate leadership when it mattered more than anything has ever mattered? This is not a rhetorical question: will you join us and vote to adopt the resolution?”

At the end of the meeting, Bezos did emerge to participate in a Q+A. One employee asked him about the goals laid out in the climate resolution: “As employees, we want to be proud of the company we work for. You’ve taught us to have customer obsession, ownership, long-term thinking, and bias for action. We must apply these leadership principles to the climate crisis. Jeff, will you commit to S-Team-level goals to decarbonize at the speed consistent with the latest climate science?”

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“None of our 100 percent renewable energy goals have a date. In the climate crisis, winning slowly is the same as losing,” the employee continued. “In my Amazon work, I know I’m always expected to have dates and milestones on my product plans. Jeff, what is the date for when we will achieve 100 percent renewable energy for all of Amazon’s operations?”

According to those present, Bezos offered a boilerplate statement to the first question and declined to answer the second, and instead deferred it to sustainability executive Kara Hurst, who also declined to give an answer. Questions from the rest of the climate group were summarily dodged.

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After the meeting, the Amazon employees held a press conference behind a banner reading ‘Climate Leadership Now,’ where they detailed how each of them—from a Bangladeshi immigrant concerned for his relatives to a North Carolinian who had lost a home in a hurricane—had already felt the impacts of climate change. They signaled that their movement was just beginning, and saw the shareholder resolution as merely early steps forward.

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“For me this just shows we need to redouble our efforts to communicate the need for immediate action from Jeff Bezos and leadership,” Rebecca Sheppard, a 28-year-old senior product manager at Amazon, told me after the conference had ended. “We have already won in so many ways and ultimately this request is what’s required for all companies. I am hopeful to see Amazon lead that path forward soon, rather than paying the consequences of waiting too long to commit to zero emissions.”

“It’s disappointing that he couldn’t let us ask the question and look us in the eye directly,” Cunningham told me.

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“I feel like we’ve won in so many ways already. It was because of our pressure that Amazon said it will announce its carbon footprint for the first time. We really set the model for the kind of leadership that employees can take with their employers—because it’s going to take every one of us to face the climate crisis.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Rebecca Sheppard’s surname as “Shephard.” We regret the error.

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