Appalled by Trump’s first 100 days, tech workers join the climate justice movement

A growing contingent of tech workers started a grassroots effort to fight the Trump administration’s anti-environment policies.

Participants at the March for Science NYC on Earth Day in New York, New York on April 22, 2017. CREDIT: Rainmaker Photo/MediaPunch/IPX
Participants at the March for Science NYC on Earth Day in New York, New York on April 22, 2017. CREDIT: Rainmaker Photo/MediaPunch/IPX

Much like his first days as commander in chief, President Donald Trump’s 100th day in office will be marked by protests. But this time, Trump’s White House will be surrounded by concerned citizens protesting the administration’s rapid roll-back of decades worth of climate policy — and a band of tech workers are branching out to join the cause.

Andy McWilliams, a New York City-based artist and technologist for ThoughtWorks, an organization that combines social advocacy with tech services, teamed up with Google software developer Sam Phillips to create ClimateAction.tech — a tech-focused climate cohort. Now the pair, who had never met before being introduced by a mutual colleague to start the initiative, set out to march on both coasts Saturday as part of nationwide climate protests.

“It starts to become something you can’t quite ignore.”

“People are generally angsty about the climate policies moving forward,” said Phillips, who is based in Burlington, Vermont. “There’s a lot of bad news out there in terms of moving backwards and not taking input from scientists and doing the things that are clearly needed.”

Phillips and McWilliams bonded over their shared passion for climate issues and creating an avenue for tech workers to protest without company sponsorship.

“I know companies like Google have really big, impressive [corporate social responsibility] programs, but this was more grassroots…Employees wanted to find a way to contribute on their own time,” said Phillips, who previously worked at Twitter and led a volunteer group there that focused on green initiatives.

ClimateAction.tech, he said, was designed to be a home for tech workers where even first-time climate activists can say “this is where I fit in this movement.”

“We’re in very privileged positions here…It’s on us.”

Tech workers aren’t new to activism. In January, tech companies and their employees protested Trump’s immigration travel ban. A month later, tech leaders publicly criticized the president’s anti-transgender executive order. They’ve voiced displeasure with the administration’s restriction on high-skill immigrant visas, low wages, and anti-net neutrality or open internet policies. But when it came to climate issues, McWilliams said they were “underserved” in the industry.

“People were generally aware that the previous U.S. administration, the Paris climate talks and all that stuff, were not sufficient to avoid a global catastrophe,” he said. “[But] it wasn’t being prioritized. It was like ‘oh that’s a massive problem, let’s deal with these more immediate problems.’”

Trump’s taking office changed that.

“People in the tech sector were able to ameliorate that and say ‘well, they’re working on it.’ Now with Trump, the whole sheen has been ripped off. Pro-coal, pro-fossil fuel infrastructure. And that’s just it — deal with it,” McWilliams said. “It starts to become something you can’t quite ignore.”

So far, the group has a contingent of about 12 participating tech professionals from Google, ThoughtWorks, Facebook, SoundCloud, Etsy, Lyft, GitHub, and Tumblr. They’re all involved on different levels, McWilliams said. Some help with messaging, others serving as advocates and organizers, but they all share the same feeling of dread when it comes to how government is dealing with climate issues.

After just over three months in office, the Trump administration has taken drastic anti-environmental measures, uprooting Obama-era policies in favor of looser regulations for polluters. Those policy reversals — repealing air and water pollution standards, planned rollbacks for off-shore drilling and fracking restrictions, lifting a ban on neurotoxic pesticides — combined with Trump and Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt’s denouncement of climate science, have galvanized people to become more active on climate issues.

Congressional town hall meetings have filled with constituents demanding representatives to push back on Trump’s anti-environmental policies. In one meeting with constituents, a woman chided Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake for not holding Trump more accountable. “Can you please take your job more seriously, Senator? We would appreciate it,” she said.

The urgency of climate change resonates with the tech industry mainly because they’ve seen first hand how quickly things can evolve.

“We see a lot of exponential change in our business,” Phillips said. “Things that were impossible a decade ago are very easy now, and climate change is the opposite story. It’s going to build on itself in a way that things that are inconveniences now, in two decades, are going to be really bad. And in four decades, they’re going to be terrifying. Because we live in a world where we see the positive exponentials, we can imagine a world where there are negative exponentials.”

On April 29, ClimateAction.tech will host protests on both coasts, in Oakland, California and Washington, D.C., with more than 60 people signed up in each city. In Washington, protesters will march from the Capitol to the White House alongside health professionals educators and scientists, collectively called the Defenders of Truth. But things won’t end there.

Phillips and McWilliams said the group plans to keep organizing and encouraging tech workers to volunteer their time and skills to help climate organizations, from drafting help guides for companies interested in carbon offsetting to coding and providing open source work.

“We’re in very privileged positions here,” McWilliams said. “It’s on us at this point.”