Big Tech's loudest climate advocate has a fossil fuel problem

“Some high-level people at Autodesk are really scared of the potential reputational fallout from this."

The Autodesk Software company logo seen displayed on a smartphone. Photo Illustration by Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Autodesk isn’t quite a household name. But your house might not hold together without it. The multi-billion dollar design software firm, which employs more than 10,000 people, has helped revolutionize the architecture, engineering, and construction industries. Its most well-known products, AutoCAD and Revit, make it easier to design and build modern, innovative buildings and structures. Tesla’s electric cars might not exist without it.

Autodesk also provides software to some of the largest fossil fuel companies the world. But it doesn’t want to talk about that. Autodesk wants to talk about climate change and social injustice and how committed it is to solving those problems. If the problem is Autodesk providing tools to effectively extract climate-destroying fuels from the ground, though, that’s gonna be a tougher conversation.

We know this because the last activist who tried to have that conversation was Joanie Lemercier. After two years of tweeting at Autodesk and asking for meetings about their fossil fuel business, he recently became the subject of internal guidelines from the $3.27 billion company. The guidelines advised lower level Autodesk employees to block Lemercier on social media and e-mail. It told upper level executives to simply ignore him.

The reason for the differentiation? Shame. If Autodesk executives outright blocked an activist for challenging the fossil fuel ties of Silicon Valley’s most climate-outspoken Big Tech firm, the guidelines said, that would be visible to the general public.

They didn’t want to “add fuel to the existing fire.”

The ‘Joanie Mitigation Plan’

We have all this information thanks to reporting from Maddie Stone in Drilled News. Stone is the former managing editor of Gizmodo’s climate news site Earther. She’s now writing a super fun newsletter called The Science of Fiction. Check it out HERE.

Stone published her first piece on Autodesk’s climate problem back in April. In a fantastically-reported story, “Computer-aided Destruction” reveals that Autodesk software is used across the fossil fuel industry—including software that has helped the German power conglomerate RWE develop replacement parts for 300-foot-tall diggers at one of Europe’s largest surface coal mines.

Stone’s second piece on Autodesk, published in Drilled News on Dec. 23, revealed the Autodesk’s employee guidance for dealing with Lemercier, a French climate activist who began calling out the company for this on Twitter in 2019:

If asked about the company’s “perceived lack of response” to Lemercier, the guidelines suggest that employees can state that whenever “valid concerns are raised about our business” Autodesk will “take time to listen, assess and address those concerns.”

If employees are “pressed for historical context” on Autodesk’s interactions with Lemercier, according to the guidelines, they can explain that an Autodesk executive, vice president of sustainability Lynelle Cameron, had a call with the activist in May 2019 to “get a better understanding of his concerns.” …

In a separate email with the subject “Social Media Guidance for Joanie Lemercier / AU,” also leaked to Drilled News, corporate public relations manager Taylor Long recommends that any employees doing livestreams on LinkedIn or Twitter block Lemercier. For YouTube live streams, Long recommends that employees make Lemercier a “hidden user” and add the terms “RWE,” “coal,” “fossil,” and “fuel” to their blocklists.

There appears to be another document, too. A few days after Stone’s second story was published, Lemercier tweeted an Autodesk employee’s desktop photo showing a tab called the “Joanie Mitigation Plan.”

While Stone told HEATED she hasn’t seen that document yet, what she has seen “feels like a pretty extreme reaction” on the company’s part. An Autodesk spokesperson told her that the guidelines were created simply because Lemercier had “chosen to bombard our employees, executives and others with his unfounded claims in multiple ways.” But Stone thinks it’s something else.

“Some high-level people at Autodesk are really scared of the potential reputational fallout from this,” she said. “That feels like what this is about. And it’s a shame that this is the response to that, rather than trying to engage in a productive conversation about it.”

Can you have a green “industrial revolution” while propping up fossil fuels?

Autodesk has a simple, yet aggressive approach to the climate crisis: “Leading by example in everything we do.”

The company is a signatory to the Step Up Declaration, an alliance of influential tech companies dedicated to ushering in the “fourth industrial revolution” for the climate. It has publicly called for global climate policy action at U.N. climate negotiations. And unlike its Big Tech brethren Microsoft and Amazon, Autodesk doesn’t have a corporate PAC that quietly supports politicians who undermine climate policy while claiming to publicly support it.

Autodesk is running sponsored ads on Grist about “climate resilience and equity” in construction. It also has a super impressive internal carbon reduction commitment—net zero by this fiscal year—and recently pledged to align its climate goals with the fight for a just transition.

The one thing Autodesk won’t do on climate, though, is stop doing business with fossil fuel companies. And that’s frustrating to some current and former Autodesk employees, several of whom told Stone that “the company’s leadership has no real appetite for translating [climate] statements into hard decisions that would affect its bottom line, such as ceasing to license its industry-standard software to fossil fuel companies.”

“The firm’s professed wokeness,” they said, “is more about projecting an aura of social responsibility than about fundamentally changing the way it does business.”

“Just the latest example of Silicon Valley … acting like it’s not their responsibility.”

Autodesk’s reluctance to grapple with its customers in the fossil fuel industry is not unique, Stone noted in a phone interview.

“There’s this whole Silicon Valley ethos that ‘We’re just the toolmakers,’” she said. “We’re going to create innovations and we hope they are used for good, but we’re not responsible for them once they get out into the world.”

“Climate change is a pretty stark example of that right now,” she continued. “All of these tech companies have a big foothold in a the fossil fuel world, whether it be Amazon, Microsoft, or Google. And this is just the latest example of Silicon Valley knowingly making money off of something that’s not doing good for the world, and when they’re called out for it, acting like it’s not their responsibility.”

What do you think?

Is it hypocritical of tech companies to claim bold climate leadership and still do business with fossil fuel companies? Or should tech companies be working with fossil fuel companies? You probably know how I tend to feel about this kinda thing, but I wanna know your perspective. Sound off in the comments. (Subscribers only, sorry!)

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