A wave of companies have made promises about the ways they are helping to combat climate change in recent years; cutting carbon emissions, using fewer packing materials, retrofitting building with solar panels, oh my! But how do corporations set these benchmarks and what science are they using to support the claims they are making? In this podcast we are investigating Amazon’s groundbreaking Net-Zero Carbon Climate Pledge to better understand how they are going to get there (and if that even matters).
Clunk, blog, scrunch.
I forgot to record the sound. I’ll do it later, blonk!
This is the sound of my street’s Amazon delivery truck. Living in a house with four other college women, I see this guy at least three times a week bringing our silly little packages to our silly little front door. Sometime in the next 10 years, this truck might be one of the 100,000 Amazon delivery vehicles replaced with electric vehicles deployed all across the United States.
This initiative is just one of the many tactics being instigated by Amazon as a part of their climate pledge with Global Optimism announced in 2019. Their mission: to partner with other companies to form a, quote, “community of leading businesses committed to transformational action, to protect the global economy from disruptive risks associated with climate change.” According to their website, the actions laid out in this pledge will help Amazon achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, 10 years ahead of the schedule set by the 2016 Paris Climate Agreements. Today, we’re going to analyze the science and politics that helped Amazon set their benchmarks and do so with credibility.
[futuristic, driving beat]
In this class, we’ve been working to examine environment interactions through the lens of a critical geographer, and with that comes a series of questions that’ll help us probe at our identified claims. These three questions are as follows:
One, how are the role and meaning of the environment described and specified within the claim?
Two, what is the role of human agency within this claim?
And three, what is the spatial focus of the claim?
Okay, so those are three pretty big questions to chew on, but in the end, they’ll help us provide the framework through which we can examine Amazon’s Climate Pledge. Let’s start with the general claim.
Amazon in 2019 teamed up with the Nature Conservancy, one of the largest environmental non-profits in the Americas, in order to derive a plan that will help the company achieve their goal. Which if you need a reminder, is to secure the global economy from the risks presented by climate change. In order to do so, Amazon and the Nature Conservancy are employing a field of climate science called natural climate solutions to help guide their game plan information.
Now, you ask, Bella, dear host, what are natural climate solutions?
And I am so glad you’ve asked this question.
Natural climate solutions, or NCS for short, is a growing body of science led by the Nature Conservancy. In 2017, forest ecologist Bronson W. Griscom and 31 of his closest environmental science friends gathered in order to write a study championing, quote, “20 conservation, restoration and improved land management actions that increase carbon storage and or avoid greenhouse gas emissions across global forests, wetlands, grasslands, and agricultural lands,” end quote, and that have the potential to sequester 30 percent more CO2 than previously estimated in addition to a myriad of other benefits.
Well, I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty fantastic to me. But I think very notable to include in your knowledge about natural climate solutions is that right in the beginning of this study, the piece mentions that the stewardship in conservation tactics need to be performed, of course, in tandem with “the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and land-use activity.” But as you might imagine, dear listener, this not exactly what industries like to hear. Enter Amazon’s interpretation of natural climate solutions.
THE NATURE CONSERVANCY AUDIO:
“The 2020’s, things were never the same after that. That’s when we saved the world, only, we almost didn’t. It all changed once we realized the difference working with nature could make. Back then we were all about electric cars, renewable energy, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. And they were all crucial, but on their own, they never would have been enough. We were already facing an extinction level threat. We thought we were doing a lot, but we needed to do even more. Enter nature.”
That was the Nature Conservancy’s video “A Natural Solution to Climate Change.” And I think it exemplifies the sort of tone that we get from their campaign. So let’s get into the geographers lens of how we’re going to examine this.
So, how are the role and meaning of the environment specified? The definition of “environment” is actually quite coded in this instance. The environment identified as needing some sort of securitization for its inherent value is the global economy. This large and intangible dimension that is in some way inherently human is in need of protection from climate change, which is made to sound like this autonomous disaster waiting to strike.
Then there is the company’s imagining of the earthly environment. Something tethered to climate change, but yet still separate. The earthly environment is hyper-commodifiable and it is profitable. Explicitly, they pose the environment as a separate entity from mankind and that it operates in predetermined cycles that can be manipulated or amplified by human intervention, but not changed. This is exemplified in divisive rhetorical choices, such as distinguishing an inherent difference between nature and occupied land. And in the actionable steps that they proposed to mitigate adverse climate change.
First of all, in the effort that they’re putting in to try and stabilize the global economy, Amazon is failing to recognize both verbally and by action, the role that our ecosystems play in maintaining a stable global economy. And, by that extent, consequences that unfettered climate change will have on the global economy.
A 2019 NASA report assess that in the United States, economic damages from climate change are projected to be large. With one 2017 study concluding that the United States could lose 2.3% of its gross domestic product for each degree Celsius increase in global warming. By this measure, it appears that the company is actually working towards more economic instability. While in the short-term, they are choosing to act within means that are economically comfortable. A future in which substantial emission reduction is not implemented is a future in which corporations will have no choice but to act and means outside of their comfort because of weak buying power of consumers or supply chain issues.
This idea transitions really well into the second question.
What is the role of human agency within this claim?
So I kinda talked about the distinction between, like, humanity and the environment in the last segment. A sort of ephemeral environment is constructed in this claim as the environment protected is one, not a physical space and two, a large global entity. So if it’s not a difficult enough of a concept, further complexities added when you consider that the proposed threat of climate change is being perceived as a process external to humanity.
Effectively, Amazon is removing human agency from climate change and instead imagining it as an event that is a looming threat unrelated to human enterprise. This view of humanity makes us look really weak, like all we have the capability to do is be stewards that watched the Earth heal and try to encourage it and maybe not try to commodify everything. But it really takes the autonomy and the ability out of man’s hands. I would say that part of this argument is so dangerous because it’s crafted in a way that it feeds into existing fears people have about climate change, about their ability to meaningfully contribute to its mitigation.
And what is more is it subverts efforts of other science communicators who have been pushing for clean energy resources, not only for personal use but for industry as well.
And essentially, this framing allows Amazon to shed themselves of the responsibility to meet carbon-neutral goals through reductions because of the Earth’s natural systems, encouraged by their conservation and preservation, having the power to cancel out their emissions.
To state it plainly, this retirement of human agency is a mean to rationalize unsustainable practices that promise companies can maintain economic success. The goal of natural climate solutions as implemented by Amazon, is not to mitigate the climate crisis, but rather as an attempt to get the environment to mitigate economic discomfort.
The final question that we’re going to look at is the spatial focus of this claim, and you’ll see some overlap with how we sort of identified the role and meaning of the environment, but this has a more, like, physical, tangible context to it. Right?
So, the spacial identification of Amazon’s environment is multidimensional. On the one hand, we have the environment that they want to explicitly secure in a protectionary-for-fear-of-intrinsic-value-loss sort of way, and that environment is the global economy. And the company’s externally facing sustainability website is explicit in this intention, naming economic securitization as the impetus for their sustainability practice implementation. It’s with this priority established that we can better contextualize how they spatially identify the “natural” environment that acts as a medium by which they can securitize continued economic activity.
That being said, we also have to consider the manner in which the NCS doctrine defines and constrains the physical environment and how that definition is also expository of its goals. In order to achieve their net-zero carbon by 2040 goal, they’ve established two realms of stewardship and mitigation tactics. One, emission reduction in urban areas, and two, carbon sink stewardship in natural areas that fall in line with the proceedings of natural climate solutions. The division of technical tactics like solar panels and retrofitting industrial facilities to use renewable energy, deploying electric delivery trucks, and then passive stewardship tactics like stopping deforestation, funding, mangrove conservation, et. cetera, appear to be happening in segmented locations, implying a mutually exclusive relationship between intervention and location.
Of the issues of this imagining of the spatial environment I find most problematic to be the limiting of their spatial focus to resource and land. Thereby ignoring the human dimension and prioritizing economic dimension. It makes me question what Amazon imagines human- the human agency involved in success or failure of the global economy really is, and is that any more or less static in nature than the Earth’s ecological systems? There is not a consideration for impact on human dimension. Which in the end, if not for the intrinsic value of human life, is the driver of the global economy.
But going back to their more basic argument, it’s interesting that, though we know there’s no real central difference between two types of land, urban and natural, there’s a distinct lack of action suggested to be implemented in the urban or man-inhabited lands. It’s as if those spaces are static and spoken for in terms of how we interact with the land. However, land that is not as thoroughly developed is “dynamic and fluid.”
This notion is problematic in it’s imagining of a static Earth an- anyway, but it’s also a notably classicist imagining of spaces to suggest that developed populations dare not be disrupted to changing their ways of life in order to mitigate emissions. This interpretation really seems to be a means to justify high emitting individuals choices to continue using high emitting services.
Ultimately, Amazon’s vague but poignant claim touting about the risks associated with climate change to the global economy allows for really wide variety of interpretation and actions that could qualify as a response and look good amongst the wave of demand in accountability from businesses in response to climate change, and doing so in a way in which the ball is kind of still in their court. Essentially, Amazon’s summation asks us how we can transform the Earth’s ecosystems so that a global economy can continue to function in an industrial comfortable manner. Rather than how can we fit our industry to more comfortably suit the earth?
I would talk about this for an hour if I could, but we simply don’t have time. For class, I’ve already gone significantly over the allotted time. I hope you guys enjoy and make sure to check out my fellow classmates work and thanks for listening and have a nice day!
Okay, Peace out.
Amazon Sustainability. 2021. “Amazon’s 2021 Sustainability Report.” Accessed September-December 2021. https://sustainability.aboutamazon.com/2021-sustainability-report.pdf.
Buis, Alan. 2019. “A Degree of Concern: Why Global Temperatures Matter.” NASA: Global Climate Change, June 19, 2019. https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2865/a-degree-of-concern-why-global-temperatures-matter/.
Fleischman, Forrest, Shishir Basalt, Ashwini Chhatre, Eric A. Coleman, Harry W. Fischer, Divya Gupta, Burak Güneralp, et al. 2020. “Pitfalls of Tree Planting Show Why We Need People-Centered Natural Climate Solutions.” Bioscience 70(11), 947-950. https://kuprimo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/f/mfn9op/TN_cdi_swepub_primary_oai_DiVA_org_uu_429332.
Griscom, Bronson W., Justin Adams, Peter W. Ellis, Richard A. Houghton, Guy Lomax, Daniela A. Miteva, William H. Schlesinger, et al. 2017. “Natural climate solutions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS 114(44), 11645-11650. https://kuprimo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/f/mfn9op/TN_cdi_webofscience_primary_000414127400051CitationCount.
The Nature Conservancy. 2020. “Amazon: Unlocking Natural Climate Solutions.” September 25, 2020. https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/who-we-are/how-we-work/working-with-companies/companies-investing-in-nature1/amazon/.
O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. Environmental Geopolitics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
The Nature Conservancy. “A Natural Solution to Climate Change.” YouTube Video, 3:01, September 23, 2021. https://youtu.be/t4eE9Fqu1yE.
Scarlett, Lynn. 2020. “Yes, Trees Are a Viable Climate Solution.” The Nature Conservancy, January 28, 2020. https://www.nature.org/en-us/what-we-do/our-insights/perspectives/yes-trees-are-a-viable-climate-solution/.