Billionaire greenwashing in hyperdrive
This article originally appeared on the excellent Climate & Capitalism website and can be found here.
The climate crisis may be dire, with ever more frequent and increasingly devastating floods and wildfires, with killer droughts and heatwaves across the globe, with oceans warming 40% faster and arctic ice sheets melting 70% faster than had been predicted a mere five years ago, with arctic permafrost melting and belching super-greenhouse methane into the atmosphere, and with carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion continuing to rise year on year regardless.
But everything will be ok. Because corporate capital, and even its richest personification, billionaire superstar astronaut hero Jeff Bezos himself, is on the case. So everything will definitely be ok.
You will have seen the slick ad for Amazon’s latest wheeze — The Climate Pledge — whose aim is “to achieve the Paris goals ten years early.”
With ominous music in the background, young people are asking, “What can businesses do to help fight the climate crisis?” before adding, “I’ve got a few ideas…” Kids from around the world, variously earnest, funny, hip and cute, chip in with their concerns and their suggestions. We finally cut to an idyllic lake scene, with a young man diving off a boat, and we are left feeling reassured that everything will be ok after all, because: “108 businesses have accepted the challenge, The Climate Pledge, Paris, 10 years early, Paid for by Amazon, co-founder of the Climate Pledge.”
In a separate video, Bezos explains the three part Climate Pledge: firstly to measure and report emissions on a regular basis; secondly to implement decarbonization strategies in line with the Paris agreement, through real business changes and innovations; and thirdly to do “credible” offsets to neutralize any remaining emissions that cannot be eliminated.
He introduces Christiana Figueres, former UN Climate Chief and now Head of Global Optimism (I kid you not), who reassures us that all of this is “science driven.” Figueres finds it refreshing that the head of such a large company is “totally imbued with the science,” which is of course because “Jeff has a physics background.” Figueres herself has a diplomatic background. And she also has form as a greenwasher of corporate capital. As Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, she spoke at the Polish Government’s “Coal and Climate Summit”, a parallel event to the 2013 UN Climate Summit in Warsaw, where she reassured us that “coal could be part of the global warming solution.”
We then hear from Professor Dara O’Rourke, Senior Principal Scientist at Amazon, who explains that the company is “building sustainability in a very Amazonian way,” which means of course, “science, connected to technology, connected to customer obsession [!], to approach the scale of the sustainability challenges we all face.” O’Rourke repeatedly tells us how “complex” Amazon is, which perhaps explains why his talk is a torrent of complex but meaningless gobbledygook.
This, for example, is how he tries to justify the Amazonian way of deliberately stimulating unsustainable consumerist desires for instant gratification: “Same day shipping is actually our lowest carbon ship option. This is because getting inventory local to customers is almost always the sustainability way.” I had to listen to that bit a few times, to make sure I hadn’t misheard it.
To be fair though, O’Rourke does at least look embarrassed as he delivers this drivel, rushing the more absurd bits out in the hope that we won’t think too much about what he is saying. He looks relieved to finally hand us back to Jeff, who is “super excited” by it all. (But is it as exciting as flying a super-polluting rocket into space?) But it can only work if companies all work together, Jeff tells us, because “we are all part of each other’s supply chain.”
In a bragging dig, perhaps aimed at the other eco-minded tech billionaires, Bezos explains that Amazon is the ideal role model because, “we’re not only moving information around, we’re moving packages around, we deliver more than 10 billion items a year…”
And therein of course lies the problem. Using 80% renewable energy to power its offices and warehouses by 2024 and 100% by 2030 won’t make a scrap of difference to the climate crisis, nor will the replacement of its fleet of vans with the 100 000 fully electric delivery vehicles it has now ordered. The problem with Amazon isn’t how it powers its buildings and its vans. The problem with Amazon is the business model itself.
In the 1990s carbon emissions were rising by 1% per year. In the 2000s that more than tripled, only pausing for banking crashes and pandemics. Capital was busily fragmenting production to maximize profit, shifting much of it to the global south in pursuit of cheap labor and cheap (and dirty) energy. There was a massive expansion and liberalization of trade, with huge volumes of commodities, both components and finished products, being shipped across vast distances in fossil fuel guzzling container ships and airplanes. Amazon was and still is a product of that carbon-intensive neoliberal globalization.
But none of that matters. The important thing is that Amazon is “signaling to the market” and thereby “stimulating investment in green technology.” Because capital works in mysterious ways. It’s complex.
Corporate capital’s crocodile tears about climate change aren’t new. In the late seventies and early eighties, scientists at Exxon conducted extensive research on the climate impacts of carbon dioxide emissions, publishing their findings in the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences. In 1979 David Slade, then manager of the US government’s carbon dioxide research program, was effusive: “We are very pleased with Exxon’s research intentions related to the CO2 question. This represents very responsible action, which we hope will serve as a model for research contributions from the corporate sector.”
It was, however, the potential impact of climate research on profit, rather than the impact of the emissions themselves on the habitability of the planet, that weighed most heavily on the minds of Exxon’s executives. Exxon’s answer was to shoot the messenger. In the mid 1980s Exxon culled its climate research program, sacked most of its climate scientists, and cynically invested millions of dollars in a PR offensive aimed at casting doubt on the scientific facts that its own scientists had helped to uncover.
John Browne, former chief executive of BP (which cleverly rebranded itself as “Beyond Petroleum”, even changing its logo to the Helios god of the sun), admits that business has been guilty of greenwashing. What we really need of course, is greenwash that is more convincing. So John has helpfully created BeyondNetZero, to convince us that, “business can be a force for change on climate.” John already has plans in place for his next venture: BeyondHumanity, so that computers can keep generating investments and profits long after we’ve all disappeared.
Amazon’s suggestion of buying carbon offsets is particularly helpful and makes great business sense. BP has already set a shining example on this, paying offset developer Finite Carbon $100 million for 13 million offsets in the Colville reforestation project in Washington State. BP is so committed it has even bought a large stake in Finite Carbon itself. The offsets though have been razed to the ground by wildfires, as have other offset projects such as those favored by Microsoft in Oregon.
The real beauty of these schemes is that they are perfectly recyclable. BP plants trees so it can continue extracting fossil fuels … the combustion of which raises global temperatures … which causes wildfires … which burn the trees… which makes land available for planting more trees!! A capital cycle chasing the carbon cycle, and eating its own tail.
Appropriating the concerns of young people as a PR exercise is insidious. Spreading false hope that corporate capital can be relied on to save the planet delays us in developing and popularizing real solutions to the crisis. Those solutions are not complex, they are remarkably simple and painfully obvious. We must leave fossil carbon where it belongs, in the ground. Which means ending the corporate mass production of waste, and producing locally what we actually need. Production for need, not profit.
The solution to Amazon’s contribution to the ecological crisis isn’t complex either. It is to abolish Amazon.
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