This is the first part of a trilogy of posts about the interface between digital technologies and climate change, and suggests that “Climate change” is a deeply problematic concept. Its widespread use, and the popular rhetoric surrounding it, may well be doing more harm than good as far as the environment is concerned. At least six key issues need to be addressed with respect to the “climate change” mantra in the context of its linkages with digital technologies.
“Climate Change” is a result of many variables and is not per se a cause of anything.
Language matters. Saying, for example, that “Climate Change is causing drought and famine” is meaningless. The term “Climate Change” is just a description of what is happening; it has no actual causal power. It is thus changes in rainfall patterns, the uses made of water, changes in population distribution and many other factors that actually cause drought. Although it is a surrogate collective term for many such underlying factors that are causing changes in the relationships between people and the physical environment, “Climate Change” has itself been given enormous “power” of its own in the popular imagination. In part, this is because the term serves the interests of all those promoting its use,[i] and detracts from the fundamental changes that need to be made. Focusing on “Climate Change” actually hinders people from considering the real underlying factors that are causing such changes, which are most notably aspects of human behaviour such as the pursuit of individual greed rather than communal well-being. Not least, these include the rapid spread in the use and spread of digital technologies.
It is essential to differentiate between (a) the impacts of humans on climate change and (b) the natural changes that influence the world’s climate.
Climate has always changed. There is nothing new in this.[ii] As long as humans have lived on planet Earth they have had an influence on its climate. What has changed is that there are now many more people alive, and they are having a much greater impact on the climate, over and above the “natural” changes taking place. The pace of change has undoubtedly increased rapidly. The popular, but erroneous, belief that it is actually possible to combine “development” with environmental sustainability[iii] considerably exacerbates matters and has meant that more and more people aspire to greater material benefits at lower financial cost than ever before. Population pressure, foreseen long ago in the late 18th century work of Thomas Malthus, and highlighted in the more recent work of the Club of Rome[iv] in the 1970s with its publication of The Limits to Growth,[v] is one of the root cause of human induced climate change. Yet far too little emphasis is being placed on this. Somehow, it seems “right” that we can continue to prolong life, often through enhanced interfaces with digital technologies,[vi] and thereby place even more pressure on the world’s limited environmental “resources”. Whilst there have been many valid criticisms of such arguments, and economic developments in the 20th century did indeed suggest that such limits could continuously be overcome, Malthus’s positive checks of hunger, disease and war remain all too relevant in the 21st While many people fear the prospects of a new plague, horrendous famines or devastating global wars, these may well actually remain the ultimate safety valves through which the human species may survive and rebuild a better balance with the environment (of which climate is an integral part; see below).
Humans want to be in control.
Part of the problem with the notion of “Climate Change” as applied primarily to human-induced climate change is that it implies that humans have caused climate change and so can therefore reverse it, if only they had the will and knowhow to do so. Such a notion of “Climate Change” is thus part of the underlying belief system that humans control the “natural environment”, rather than being part of it. This is related to the much wider debate over the dichotomy between the “mental” and the “physical”, the “spiritual” and the “material”, that has lain at the heart of geography since long before its foundation as an academic discipline.[vii] Humans today are thus always shocked by so-called ”natural disasters”, such as volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, when their control is shown to be powerless in the face of the forces of the physical world. Ultimately, humans are not actually more powerful than, or separate from, the forces of nature. Yet, advocates of the use of digital technologies to control nature perpetuate the myth that “we” can indeed increasingly be in control.
It is very dangerous to separate “climate” as being somehow distinct from other aspects of the environment in which we live.
The increased rhetoric and activism over “Climate Change” is overshadowing the important wider environmental issues of which it is but a part. This is highlighted for example, in contexts as diverse as Extinction Rebellion’s dominant slogan “We are facing an unprecedented global climate emergency”,[viii] and the UN Secretary General’s continued emphasis that we must all “confront the world’s climate emergency”.[ix] It is fascinating to see how entities as diverse as these persist in using the word “climate”, rather than “environmental”. Yet climate change is but a part of the wider changes that are taking place as a result of human exploitation of the limited physical environment in which we live. Climate must therefore be understood within the holistic context of that wider environment rather than as a separate entity; climate is no more important than the destruction of vegetation, or despoliation of soils, or plastic pollution of the oceans, or even the use of outer space as a satellite graveyard. If there is one lesson we are beginning to learn it is that all of these are integrally connected within a global ecosystem that must be understood holistically. “Climate’s” domination of both activism and policy-making suggests that this agenda is being driven by a particular set of interests that are able to benefit from such a focus on climate alone.
The carbon fetish.
One of these interest groups is those involved in carbon trading, who have been able to generate significant profits from so doing.[x] As the European Environment Agency notes, “Despite fewer EU emission allowances (EUAs) being auctioned in 2018 than in 2017, revenue from auctions increased from EUR 5.5 billion to EUR 14.1 billion”.[xi] Carbon emissions in the form of CO2 have undoubtedly had a significant impact on global temperatures, and yet the overwhelming focus explicitly on carbon has meant that other damaging environmental changes have been relatively ignored. A classic example of this was the promotion of diesel cars following the 1997 Kyoto Protocol because they produced lower CO2 emissions than did petrol cars. Only later was it realised that the NOx and particulate matter emissions from diesel vehicles, caused other damage to the environment and human health.[xii] Likewise, the shift to so-called “renewable” sources of energy, such as wind turbines, in order to reduce carbon emissions, has also led to an increase in the use of Sulphur Hexofluoride (SF6), which is used across the electricity sector to prevent short circuits and fires, but has the highest global warming potential of any known substance.[xiii] Demonising carbon has thus often led to the introduction of different, and sometimes even more damaging, alternatives. The carbon fetish has also meant that the digital technology sector has focused very substantially on showing how it can reduce its carbon imprint, and thus be seen as being “green” or environmentally friendly,[xiv] whilst actually continuing to have very significant negative environmental impacts in other ways. The dramatically increased emphasis on non-carbon sources of electricity has likewise caused very significant landscape change across the world through the introduction of solar farms, wind turbines and huge dams for hydroelectric plants. These landscape changes are difficult to quantify in monetary terms, but need to be taken into consideration in any rigorous evaluation of the environmental impact of digital technologies. Moreover, much of this technology is itself not particularly renewable. Wind turbine blades, for example, have to be disposed of in landfill sites once they reach the end of their usable lives. Likewise, despite solar panels being largey recylable, they too give rise to potentially high levels of waste. It has been estimated that unless effective recycling processes are put in place there could be 60 million tons of PV panels waste in landfill sites by the 2050. Moreover, a recent report by UK FIRES notes that it is important to respond urgently to change using today’s technologies, because so-called breakthrough technologies cannot be relied on to meet the 2050 zero-carbon targets.
The positive aspects of climate change.
Humans have always responded to changes in long term weather patterns and thus climate change in the past. Substantial migrations, changes in trade routes, and the settlement of previously uninhabited areas were all commonplace occurrences in antiquity and prehistoric times.[xv] Yet, the construction of powerful nation states and increasingly fixed national borders have tended to limit the ease with which migration, or forced settlement, can happen. Indeed, it has often been said that the free movement of people across the earth is the one human right for which we are not ready.[xvi] The impact of processes associated with climate change, such as sea-level rise and changing weather patterns, is in part fundamentally tied up with this notion of movement. Theoretically, if people were able (and willing) to move freely from increasingly hazardous environments to ones that were more amenable, they could travel across the world seeking (or competing for) access to the most propitious places in which to live. Farmers in low-lying countries flooded out by sea-level change could, for example, move to areas suitable for grain production and pasture that were once on the margins of frozen tundra.[xvii] Clearly, there are huge political, social and cultural issues to be addressed with such suggestions, but the key point in raising them is to emphasise that there can be positive as well as negative impacts of so-called “Climate Change”. Indeed, these are readily apparent at a more mundane level. Already, Champagne producers are investing in vineyards in England, as they seek to mitigate the impact of changes in weather patterns in northern France.[xviii] Likewise, the amount of energy used to heat buildings in areas of the world that were previously colder in winter has now declined. This is not in any way to deny the scale, rapidity and significance of the changes the combine to influence “Climate Change”, but it is to argue that they need again to be seen in a holistic way, and not purely as being negative.
In summary, this section has suggested that we need to focus on the root causes of the phenomena contributing to changes in weather patterns and to treat these holistically as part of the wider impact that increasing numbers of humans are having on the physical environment. Human behaviours are creating these environmental changes rather than an exogenous force called “Climate Change”. Only when we address these human behaviours will we begin to start creating a more sustainable and vibrant ecosystem in which our children and grandchildren can thrive. This will require fundamentally different ways of living that most people currently seem unwilling to accept.[xix] Not least, there needs to be a qualitative shift away from more individualistic, greed-led selfish agendas, to more communal and collaborative ones. Whilst it is very frequently claimed that digital technologies can indeed help to deliver the so-called Sustainable Development Goals and mitigate the climate crisis, the next section argues that the design and use of these very technologies lie at the heart of the environmental challenges caused by the social and economic systems created by a few rich and powerful humans.
For the second part of this triology, see Digital technologies and climate change, Part II: “Unsustainable” digital technologies cannot deliver the Sustainable Development Goals
[i] For a brief discussion of these interests (including those of scientists working in the field, who have actually been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the climate change mantra in terms of research grants and prestige) see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2010/01/27/problems-with-the-climate-change-mantra/
[ii] Much could be written about this, not least concerning the increasing resolution and accuracy with which we measure contemporary changes in climatic variables, in contrast to the necessity to rely on surrogate measures in the past.
[iii] Unwin, T. (2018) ICTs and the failure of the SDGs, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2018/04/23/icts-and-the-failure-of-the-sdgs/
[iv] History of the Club of Rome, https://www.clubofrome.org/about-us/history/
[v] Meadows et al. (1972)The Limits to Growth, Universe Books, https://www.clubofrome.org/report/the-limits-to-growth/
[vi] See, for example, the research and development being undertaken by Calico https://www.calicolabs.com/, and Elon Musk’s launching of Neuralink https://www.neuralink.com/
[vii] See Unwin, T, (1992) The Place of Geography, Harlow: Longman. The belief systems of many indigenous peoples across the world are very different from those derived from European cultures. Australian aborigines, for example, see themselves very much as being part of nature; the “country” includes them, rather than humans owning the land.
[viii] See for example https://www.xrebellion.nyc/events/heading-for-extinction-and-what-to-do-about-it-8619-darwz-wm6aw-kjakr-e9k6j-7k2pz-4y8gz-py5cy, https://www.brightest.io/cause/extinction-rebellion/, or https://politicalemails.org/organizations/648
[ix] As for example in November 2019 at the ASEAN-UN Summit https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/11/1050501
[x] David Sheppard in The Financial Times thus commented in 2018 that “A select group of specialist traders at hedge funds and investment banks, including Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, are churning bumper profits from a once niche commodity that has risen phoenix-like from a decade-long slump. Carbon credits, introduced by the EU to curb pollution by companies in the trading bloc, have soared almost fourfold in the past year to above €20 per tonne of CO2, following legislative changes designed to get the scheme working…”
[xi] European Environment Agency (2019) The EU Emissions Trading System in 2019: trends and projections, https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/the-eu-emissions-trading-system/at_download/file
[xiii] McGrath, M. (2019) Climate change: Electrical industry’s ‘dirty secret’ boosts warming, BBC News 13 Sept 2019, and for a defence from the wind sector see https://windeurope.org/newsroom/news/wind-energy-and-sf6-in-perspective/
[xiv] Typified by the work of GeSI in developing a methodology to assess carbon reducing impacts of ICTs http://www.gesi.org/research/evaluating-the-carbon-reducing-impacts-of-ict-an-assessment-methodology.
[xv] See, for example, Yang, L.E., Bork, H-R, Fang, X. and Mischke, E. (eds) (2018) Socio-Environmental Dynamics along the Historical Silk Road, Cham: Springer Nature; Pappas, S. (2012) Wet climate may have fuelled Mongol invasion, LiveScience, July 2012; Fleming, S. (2019) Climate change helped destroy these four ancient civilisations, World Economic Forum, March 2019; What drove ancient human migration? Climate Change via NPR, Re-imagining migration.
[xvi] Nett, R. (1971) The civil right we are not ready for: the right of free movement of people on the face of the earth, Ethics, 81(3), 212-27.
[xvii] Nobel, J. (2013) Farming in the Arctic: it can be done, Modern Farmer, October 2013.
[xviii] Smithers, R. (2017) French champagne house Taittinger plants first vines in English soil, The Guardian, May 2017.
[xix] One such radical example would be the eradication of pets. The impact of meat consumption on “Climate Change” has recently been widely publicised following the IPCC special report on climate change and land in 2019. Its emphasis on the need for a substantial reduction in meat consumption was interpreted by many as being a call for people across the world to eat less meat. This, in turn, has supported the Vegan food industry, and those advocating Veganuary as a New Year’s Resolution that can help save the planet. A radical alternative, though, would be to prevent people from keeping pets such as cats and dogs, or at least to regulate the pet-food industry so that it only supplied vegetarian food. Pets are estimated to eat 20% of the world’s meat and fish, and are thus responsible for a fifth of the environmental impact that this causes; likewise, it has been reported that a quarter of the environmental impact of meat production apparently comes from the pet-food industry.[xix] Although these estimates seem to be largely based on data from the richer countries of the world, eliminating all pets would be an easy way of dramatically cutting the impact of humans on climate change. Yet this is not something that most people are willing to consider. The 874 page IPCC report does not mention pets or the pet-food industry once.