For all of Seattle’s conspicuous virtue signaling on every left-wing cause and “crisis,” its prosperity is heavily dependent on helping burn the planet.

Jet City? Airliners have a staggering carbon footprint, contributing heavily to the greenhouse gases behind climate change.

Tech city? Beyond the pristine offices and labs of the region’s technology hubs are data centers. Greenpeace calls them “the factories of the information age.” While they don’t employ many people, they frequently rely on fossil-fuel driven power, including in “Data Center Alley” near Washington, D.C. Mark down another challenge for the planet.

Amazon HQ1? Give the company credit for building an urban headquarters with easy transit and walk/bike-ability. But the company’s profits come from stoking customers’ demand for instant gratification and dominance in the cloud (run on those data centers) — both contributing to climate change.

All of these wide-open Pandora’s boxes of modernity are open to constructive responses.

For example, the airline industry, led by Alaska Airlines, is experimenting with cleaner biofuels. Boeing has laid out ambitious environmental goals, including reducing CO2 emissions in new generations of airliners.


Investment in high-speed rail in linking nearby cities (think Vancouver, B.C., Seattle and Portland) could replace airliners with trains that have much lower emissions.

More on Amazon


Renewable energy such as solar and wind is becoming ever more cost competitive with fossil fuels. It can go a long way toward replacing dirty power sources for data centers.

We can’t indulge in techno-magic thinking. Keeping planetary temperatures below the nightmare threshold will require bold changes to policy and individual habits. But despair is not an option — which is why so many companies are taking climate change seriously and trying to address it.

Amazon presents an unusually difficult test.

My colleague Benjamin Romano wrote this past Sunday on the company planning to disclose its greenhouse gas emissions for the first time — and the difficulty in moving constructively.

“Amazon, with its diverse portfolio of energy-hungry businesses, faces a challenge in calculating and reducing emissions,” he wrote. “Some recent moves, such as its push toward ever-faster delivery speeds for its core Prime customers, raise questions about its ability to do so.”

Given Amazon’s size and reach, success would be influential.

“They could define a new standard for sustainable e-commerce,” according to Elizabeth Sturcken, who leads the Environmental Defense Fund’s work with companies on reducing emissions.


But even if Amazon gets clean delivery and power for the cloud — mammoth undertakings in themselves — its backbone e-commerce division rests on the polluting 10,000-mile supply chain.

One recent report said 40% of the top sellers on Amazon are based in China. Even if the trade war cuts into this, a large volume of goods will come from elsewhere in Asia.

Carbon emissions from container ships are large and rising — outside U.S. coastal waters these ships often burn high-sulfur bunker fuel — and yet this driver of climate change has largely avoided the attention given to autos and airliners.

This is not a problem unique to Amazon. Walmart is another big retailer dependent on this global supply chain.

One hopeful sign is that the International Maritime Organization intends to lower the sulfur content on ship fuel starting next year. But who will enforce it? Outside the territorial limits of advanced, law-abiding nations and the commitments of large shipping lines, the oceans are the Wild West of the 21st century.

A landmark 2015 series in The New York Times by Ian Urbina was aptly titled, “The Outlaw Ocean.” It delved into human trafficking, piracy, illegal fishing, murders that go unpunished and numerous other crimes and dangers on the high seas.

And in the often deadly waterworld, how much attention can be paid to greenhouse gas emissions that help deliver so many goods Americans scoop up at low prices? No mechanism exists to vigorously enforce the cleaner-fuel standard.

The dirty truth is the prices are not really low. Destroying the planet with climate change isn’t penciled in. And until it is, along with broader measures to keep carbon in the ground, Amazon can disclose all it chooses about greenhouse gases and the needle won’t move much.

Companies such as Amazon and Walmart would need to do more than incremental adoption of cleaner tech and carbon offsets such as planting trees.

More from economics columnist Jon Talton

The Supreme Court has bestowed enormous political power on corporations with the Citizens United decision. They could use it to elect more enlightened leaders who would enact new laws aimed at addressing the climate crisis.

One important step would be taxes on carbon and aggressive public investments in job-creating green infrastructure. Another would be tax breaks for companies making real progress in lowering their emissions and those making breakthroughs in green technology. Yet another would be to insist that the United States return to the Paris accords and become a leader in implementing them.

Among other things, the result would price carbon accurately and provide investments and incentives to build a cleaner economy.


Lesser steps are inadequate unless we’re all in it for the short hustle. Use the blue marble up and leave the mess for our children and grandchildren. Rip, strip and flip on a planetary scale. With Wall Street exerting so much control over C suites across of the republic, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Except … the crisis is only going to get worse. The costs of inaction are only going to grow, from violence, disease and extreme weather to the bottom line. The Pentagon knows this. So do smart companies.