“Climate change” causes nothing! Yes, read that again, “climate change” causes nothing. It is a result, not a cause. Yet, as delegates at COP27 continue to bemoan the impacts of climate change, promote ways of limiting carbon emissions, and redress the global balance of power and responsibility – as well as enjoying themselves, feeling important, serving their own interests, and basking in the glory of greenwashing (at last there is something on which I can agree with Greta Thunberg about!) – the adverse environmental impacts of digital technologies go almost un-noticed.
This series of three posts seeks to redress this balance, and argues for a fundamentally new approach to understanding and trying to improve the impacts of digital technologies on the environment. It situates the climate change rhetoric within the wider context of human impact on the environment (of which climate is but one element). The first of these posts provides a critique of much of the rhetoric concerning climate change, the second articulates the case for a new approach to understanding the relationships between digital tech and the environment, and the third provides positive suggestions for the next steps that need to be taken if we are indeed to use digital tech wisely to help manage our human relationships with the environment. Throughout it emphasises the need to understand the interests underlying the present rhetoric and practice around the interactions between digital tech, climate change and the environment.
The rhetoric of climate change: itself part of the problem
Changes in the earth’s climate are very real, and have existed since long before humans could appreciate them. The dramatic impact of humans on the world’s weather patterns and climate that have occurred over the last century, though, have only really been recognised and appreciated more widely in the last 40 years, in large part as a result of the dramatic increase in funding given to scientists working in this field. Climate activism and the UN’s interest in appearing to try to do something about it are relatively recent phenomena (the first COP meeting was held as late as 1995). It is fascinating to recall that ground-breaking works in the 1960s and early 1970s about human impact on the environment, such as Rachel Carson’s (1962) Silent Spring, and the Club of Rome’s (1972) Limits to Growth report, focused on a much more holistic view that paid surprisingly little explicit attention to climate. Five key inter-related concerns with the current dominant rhetoric about “climate change” can be teased out from these basic observations.
Over-simplified rhetoric of “Climate change” hides the significance of human impact
The term “climate change” has become so bowdlerized that is has lost any real value. At best, in common parlance it can be interpreted as being a shortened form of “human induced climate change”, but this shortening hides the fundamental importance of “people” as being the main cause of the changes in climate and weather patterns that are being experienced across the world. The expression “climate change” is actually just a collective observation of a series of aggregated changes in weather patterns across the world. It has no explanatory or causative power of its own. It is we humans who are causing fundamental changes to the environment, and these go far beyond just climate. We still know far too little about the complex interactions between different aspects of the world’s ecosystems to be able to predict how these will evolve with any real certainty. “Keep it Simple Stupid”(KISS) quite simply does not work when discussing human induced climate change.
Externalising “climate change”
The use of the term “climate change” also has much more subtle and malign implications, because it externalises our understanding of impacts and thus the actions that the global community (and every one of us living on this planet) need to take. Rather than human actions being seen as the fundamental cause that they are, externalising the idea of “climate change” as a cause means that the focus is subtly turned to finding ways to limit “climate change” rather than actually to change our underlying human behaviours. The classic instance of this is the focus on reducing carbon emissions by developing renewable energy sources – without actually changing our consumption patterns. The very considerable emphasis within the digital tech community on reducing its own carbon emissions and inventing ways through which digital tech can be used to contribute to “green energy” (typified by the ITU’s emphasis thereon) is but one example of this (see further in Part 2). Moreover, at a very basic level, the emphasis on carbon although important, has tended to reduce the attention paid to other contributors to global warming, such as Nitrous Oxide (N2O) which has a Global Warming Potential (GWP) 273 times that of CO2, or Methane (CH4) which has a GWP of 27-30 times, for a 100-year timescale (USA EPA, 2022).
The focus on climate means that wider environmental impacts tend to be ignored
Focusing on “climate change” in general, and rising temperatures (global warming) in particular, has had a very serious negative impact on the ways in which other environmental parameters are considered and affected. In essence, “climate impact” often trumps most other environmental considerations, even when at a local scale other environmental impacts may actually be very much more serious. In reality, climate is but a part of the wider interconnected world in which we live, and for a more sustainable future it is essential to adopt a comprehensive ecosystem approach to understanding the full environmental impacts of any intervention. But one example of this is the way that batteries are now required to store “renewable” energy from solar panels or wind turbines, and the resultant serious environmental degradation caused by mining for lithium in Chile, Australia, Argentina and China (note too that total global reserves of lithium in 2018 were only 165 times the annual production volume, and demand is increasing rapidly).
Sustainable development, climate change and economic growth.
I have long argued that the term “sustainable development” is a contradiction in terms, and that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) alongside the UN’s Agenda 2030 are deeply flawed, not only in implementation but also in design (see Unwin, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2021 and 2022). In essence, while development is largely defined in terms of economic growth, it is difficult to see how it can be compatible with sustainability when defined as the maintenance of valued entities. A deep flaw in much of the global “climate change” rhetoric about the use of renewable technologies to replace energy based on hydrocarbons is that it still tends to be combined with an economic growth agenda based on technical innovation. It does little, if anything at all, about changing global consumption patterns, the “perpetual growth” model, and the underlying capitalist mode of production (see Unwin, 2019). Indeed, elsewhere, I have often reflected on what a “no-growth” model of society might look like.
One of the core problems with the dominant global rhetoric around climate change (as expressed particularly in COP27, but also in much popular activist protest) is that it does not sufficiently tackle the fundamental challenge of population growth and increased consumption. The two simplified graphs below illustrate the scale of this basic problem.
The broad similarity in these two curves is striking. More than anything else, it has been the overall global growth in population over the last two centuries, enabled in large part by the enterprise associated with the individualistically based capitalist mode of production that has driven the environmental crisis of which “climate change” is but a part. The controversial film Planet of the Humans (Produced by Michael Moore) makes similar arguments, and it is unfortunate that its many critics have tended to focus more on some of its undoubtedly problematic points of detail rather than the crucial message of its overall argument (see Moore on Rising). The “capture”of the UN system by global corporations, exemplified by the large numbers of business leaders attending COP27, seems to confirm one of Moore’s core arguments that these companies are now driving much of the climate change agenda.
If the world’s peoples really want to “mitigate the effects of climate change”, there needs to be a dramatically more radical change to our social, cultural, political and economic systems than has heretofore been imagined, and this needs to begin with a shift to more communal rather than individualistic systems, a focus on reducing inequalities rather than maximising economic growth, and the crafting of a more holistic approach to environmental issues rather than one primarily focussing on carbon reduction to “solve” “climate change”.
Who benefits most: understanding the interests behind “climate change” rhetoric
Social movements, economic practices, cultural behaviours and political systems do not just happen, they are created by those who have interests in making them happen and the power to do so. This is as true of the “climate change” rhetoric and movement as it is of any other. Five particular groups of people have shaped and sought to take advantage of this. First, have been the scientists who have believed in the importance of this issue and have sought to build their careers around it. Academic careers are not neutral, and the story of how they built coalitions and peer networks, influenced research councils and political groups, and helped to forge a global “climate change” agenda that served their own interests is a fascinating one that remains to be told. Second, have been private sector businesses and corporations big and small who have sought to influence global policy and profit from a shift from hydrocarbons to renewable energy. This has been fuelled by the fetish for innovation, and the idea that technological change can inject a new impetus to economic growth. Their lobbying of governments to subsidise many of the start-up costs of renewable energy technologies, to overturn existing environmental legislation to permit the creation of new industrial landscapes in the name of solving”climate change”, and to enable consumers to afford to purchase them through further subsidising their energy costs, has been hugely successful. The global capitalist system, utterly dependent on economic growth, is ultimately leading ever more rapidly to its own environmental catastrophe. Third have been those who enjoy the thrill and camaraderie of political activism who have found in the simple “climate change” mantra something that will unite many of their common interests. Fourth, has been the UN system with all of its distinct agencies, each of which has found a cause around which to promote its identity as contributing in a worthwhile way for the benefit of humanity. Finally, have been the politicians, eaager to be seen to be doing “good”, and to contribute to a worthy international cause, in the interests of enhancing their own political careers.
The trouble is that it is not “climate change” itself that is the problem. Instead it is these interests, shaping the rhetoric of climate change, that have helped to exacerbate the very real environmental damage that is being caused to this planet. Self-interestedly promoting the rhetoric of “climate change” is of course much easier than it is to tackle the real roots of the problem, which lie in the economic, political, social and cultural processes that they too have crafted over the last half-century.
Part 2 of this trilogy of posts examines how these arguments apply in the context of the digital tech sector, and Part 3 calls for a dramatic new approach to balancing the environmental harms and benefits of the creation and use of such technologies,