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Janus-Faced on Climate Change: Microsoft’s Carbon Vision

Longview, Washington. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

“This is a bold bet – a moonshot – for Microsoft.”  So claimed Brad Smith, Microsoft President, in a Thursday announcement painting a picture of a company that intends to be carbon negative by 2030.  “And,” Smith continued, “it will need to be a moonshot for the world.”  That vision entails the removal of more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it emits.  By 2050, the company intends removing from the environment all carbon the company has emitted since its founding in 1975.

The feeling that a public relations unit has scoured the entire company and briefed its members is palpable.  Smith speaks of how “real progress requires real transparency”, meaning that Microsoft “will continue to disclose the carbon footprint of our services and solutions.”  The company has also committed to the United Nations’ 1.5-degree Business Ambition Pledge.

Chief executive Satya Nadella was also saying all the right things at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington.  “If the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that technology built without these principles can do more harm than good.”  Climate change was the bogeyman whose predations had to be arrested.  “We must begin to offset the damaging effects of climate change”; were global temperatures to continue their inexorable rise, “the results will be devastating.”

Some outlined measures include the extensive use of electric vehicles, the establishment of a $1 billion fund financing carbon reduction, capturing and removal technologies over the course of four years.  Smith admits that, “Saving our planet’s carbon issues will require technology that does not exist today.”  One of the companies hoping to profit from this crystal ball gazing is the carbon capture pioneer Carbon Engineering, whose CEO, Steve Oldham, is confident.  The direct air capture plant, however, is still under construction, and cautionary notes have been sounded by the likes of Sue Reid, vice president of climate and energy at Ceres, a US-based non-profit.  Will the maths add up?

For all that, this was moving stuff.  Some members of Congress certainly enjoyed it, notably those on the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus.  “The scope and scale of this proposal is exactly the kind of bold action we need from the business community,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat from Delaware, and Rep.  Mike Braun, Republican from Indiana, in a statement.  “Addressing the challenge of our changing climate will require all of us to work together – federal, state and local governments, the private sector, and individuals.”  Shades of old Charles E. Wilson here: What’s good for Microsoft seems to be good for the United States.

But much of this should not detract from the obvious point: Microsoft is happy to have a bit each way when it comes to how it finances its green image.  The waters it bathes in are not always ecologically sound.  While the company positions itself high on the soapbox of environmental purity, it is still a corporation governed by that traditional mix of predatory instinct and innate opportunism.  In this, it shares a streak with Facebook and Google, two other entities who exude self-confidence in the illusion that they are principled, morals at the ready.

This point was made last year when it was revealed that all three companies sponsored LibertyCon, the annual conference for the Students for Liberty, a libertarian group.  Both Microsoft and Facebook forked out $10,000 each as gold sponsors; Google went a grade better with $25,000, making the platinum grade.

This clutch of sponsors was not, in of itself, odd.  But the three companies found themselves sharing a crowded platform with outfits distinctly against the science of climate change, showing how vast open tents can get rather muddy on the inside.  One of those present was the CO2 Coalition, a group celebrating the virtues of carbon, and feels that it has been unduly demonised.  Carbon, it lauds, “is essential for life.”  Available at the conference was a brochure from its good offices extolling the merits of greater quantities of carbon dioxide, explaining how that would improve “our lives and our planet Earth”.

One of its members, retired statistics professor Caleb Rossiter, spoke at the gathering by insisting that, “There has been no increase in storms, in intensity or frequency.  The data don’t show a worrisome trend.”

The event prompted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Maine Democrat Rep. Chellie Pingree, to pen an open letter to the CEOs.  “We were deeply disappointed to see that your companies were high-level sponsors of a conference this month in Washington, D.C., known as LibertyCon, that included a session denying established science on climate change.”

The Congresswomen, suitably exercised by the whole matter, suggested that past initiatives to tackle the carbon footprint by the big three should not prove a distraction.  “The example you have set promoting sustainability and evidence-based science is compromised by your implicit support of the session.”

When asked to comment on the matter by Fortune magazine, a Google spokesperson paraded the company’s sustainability credentials.  “Since 2007, we have operated as a carbon neutral company and in 2017, we reached 100% renewable energy for our global operations.”  Microsoft preferred a stony silence.   Business is simply cold hearted business.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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