The Role of Tech and the Environment

As soon as Trump announced that the United States will exit the Paris Agreements on climate change, there was a flood of Tweets, letters, and public announcements not only from the public sector but also the private sector.

Here are some examples:

Withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement is bad for the environment, bad for the economy, and it puts our children’s…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday, June 1, 2017

So why do these leaders stand up for climate change? Why does it matter to the tech industry? And what is the role that tech should play in the global climate change movement?

Well, to put it simply, I think these leaders respond because they personally lean as environmentalists, globalists, and and as progressives. And it’s become a lot more possible and important that leaders present themselves not only as business leaders, but also as moral leaders – guiding their company with profiting business decisions, but also use that capital power towards shaping the world as they’d like to see it. Google’s famous (and now dropped) motto is “Don’t be evil” and Tim Cook often cites Apple’s commitment to “leave the world better than we found it.”

Essentially, tech leaders are embracing the philosophy of greater corporate responsibility. If the industries of the last half century and Wall St. was one of a man’s success is a man’s own to keep – the recent progressive thought puts pressures on the rich to share the wealth.

For a 5-10 year period, the focus on reducing energy use has been in the home. Replacing incandescent light bulbs, turning off lights, adjusting the thermostat. But the relative lack of market appeal for products such as the Nest Thermostat has made it abundantly clear that the greatest impact comes from corporate responsibility. So tech companies have been making efforts to reduce their carbon footprint at places of high energy use, offsetting their footprint by purchasing cleaner electricity, investing in solar farms, making clean energy run offices and server farms.

So what is the moral imperative – if any – for tech companies to tackle climate change?

It’s becoming clearer that the responsibility rises, broadly to all corporations and some aspects especially for tech companies. If one accepts that the responsibility of a corporation is only to their investors and customers, these investors and customers can only thrive in a global environment that sustains as many people as possible. Classic economic theory says the majority of global value comes from wealth created by populations, the healthier and more abundant a population, the more wealth can be cultivated and spent in the marketplace.

In tech – with it’s premise as a future oriented and science based industry – combatting climate change is a big deal. It threatens the very future technology promises to solve, tech companies thrive on the premise that their products and offerings are an improvement to the human condition, and is subtly marketed with the context that the products offered by tech companies are the products of the “future.” Thus in order to maintain their image and brand power as a tech firm and future oriented future, tech companies have collectively decided that climate change is a problem they will address publicly.

It will be interesting to see how much investment the companies put into saving the planet. Will any of them take it up as a core part of their business? Or continuing using it as a pseudo feel-good mechanic? Aside from Tesla – none of the tech giants are greatly focused on environmental issues. Time will tell whether the narrative of climate change becomes urgent enough that focus will shift from the shiniest gadgets and faster web services to a greener world.


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