As I write, we’re more than halfway through COP-26: the UN conference on climate change, in Glasgow, that may or may not reach agreements that might slow the slide to climate crisis.
We don’t yet know its outcomes. But what has it to do with what we think about the digital society?
The interface between the climate and the digital
We talk a lot about how the digital society will change the way things are today – in general and on climate.
About the contribution ICTs might make to climate change, as their share of energy consumption grows.
About the contribution they might make to mitigating climate change and enabling adaptation, by improving the efficiency of industry and identifying smart ways to overcome the problems.
How the digital society will harm or help, in short. But there’s a third dimension that we ought to think about.
The digital society IN climate change
The fact is that the digital society is going to evolve not in the status quo we have today, but in a world where climate’s changing; a world that is potentially in growing crisis as a result of climate changes and their consequences.
The next thirty years will either see major changes in economic production and social relationships that enable us to navigate those consequences – or they’ll see more frequent crises, including conflicts over land and resources as we fail to navigate them, and people and their governments become more fearful.
And so we need to think about how the digital society will evolve within a time when climate’s changing rather than within the status quo we know today.
How governments will use digitalisation to manage consequences in their own societies and compete with one another for resources.
How activists – of left and right, liberal and populist – will exploit new media in crises.
How technologies will help people handle environmental risks, and how they’ll interact with increased anxieties and fears.
Where’s this at COP?
I don’t see this discussed a lot at COP.
COP looks like many other UN conferences I’ve known.
Inside the room are experts who understand the problems and put forward strategies based on ‘the science’ (something in which ICTs have greatly helped them).
Also inside the room are governments, trying to balance what's needed for environmental gain with what they think the public is prepared to pay. (This is the old problem of sustainable development: balancing economic prosperity with environmental sustainability requires much more than rhetoric and hope.)
Half-inside the room, half-engaged in the debate, are other stakeholders with vested interests: businesses that want to keep change to a minimum and others that see opportunities in greening, civil society organisations of many kinds with different goals and varying degrees of influence.
Outside the room are activists, some calm, some strident.
And outside the room as well, by and large, are those whose lives are going to be affected most dramatically and quickly: those who lack resources with which they can mitigate or find ways to adapt.
The outcome, as in all such conferences, will be a compromise. Some of it deliberate ambiguity. With luck, there’ll be sufficient to make more space between us and the brink. Optimistic words will probably be said, even by many who are pessimistic.
So what about the digital society?
As I say, I don’t see much about the digital society at COP. There wasn’t much either, or not enough, at the Earth Summit in 2012 or in the meetings that led to the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). There should be more because the interface is going to be important. Climate change and the digital society are the two clearest trends that underpin global development over the coming years. They'll interact more than is being understood.
So I’ll pick three themes, one general, two more specifically digital.
The first’s to do with multilateral agreement. Multistakeholder input matters greatly, obviously, but the viability of COP’s outcomes is going to depend on governments agreeing and then implementing what’s agreed.
The goal for environmentalists – like that for rights activists in, say, debates around the internet – has to be influence to influence agreement and ensure implementation. Influence requires engagement. Imperfect agreement out of COP will be a better deal than none, because at least it takes things forward. Failure'd take us back.
The ICT dimension matters
Second, as with the SDGs, the ICT dimension has been understated.
The digital society’s potential for alleviating climate change has real significance, but too much of the discussion round it’s hype or hope, rather than analysis or strategy. Meanwhile, the digital society’s carbon emissions are as high as aviation’s, and they’re growing faster, but they’re not discussed as much.
The interaction between digital development and climate change needs greater understanding than it gets in fora concerned with either digital development or climate change. We can’t (and shouldn’t try to) hide from it in a ‘metaverse’ (on which I’ll write next time).
And the digital/ICT sector has responsibilities.
Some data corporations have done a lot to reduce the carbon use of data centres and other direct operations. They’ve even plans to be net zero. Good. But data centres and internal ops are only part of the story. The digital society’s about all of us users, about the devices that we own and throw away, about the traffic that we generate, and the traffic we’ll be generating in the future when all our bits of kit are talking to each other and analysing one another’s data in the cloud. Increasingly all-powerful and increasingly all power-consuming.
Which will interact increasingly with climate policy, round which the digital sector could be a good deal more proactively responsible. Environmental principles incorporated in design – of devices, services and networks – could help reduce environmental impacts, and avoid repeating the carbon bonfire that is bitcoin. Data transmission and infrastructure could be built in ways that need less power consumption. Devices could be made that don’t demand replacement every two years in order to maintain their functions (or their users’ cool).
A key theme for the IGF
The environment and climate change is one of the emerging issues that’s been identified for next month’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF), and should be present too in other digital debates.
If we want a digital society, it needs to be environmentally sustainable – not because environmental sustainability’s a nice thing to achieve but because it is now existential. Whatever dreams we might have for a digital society – whether that’s just a bit better life and livelihood from the lifestyle that we have or (if we must) the metaverse – those dreams won’t be achievable if the planet’s burning up and people are fighting over reduced access to land and water.
We’re dealing now, in climate change, with the unexpected consequences of the industrial revolution: one that led, in time, to immense improvements in social and economic welfare, but whose legacy has become the biggest problem of our age.
When that industrial revolution happened, technologists were unaware of its potential impacts on the environment. Now, in what’s sometimes called the fourth industrial revolution, we understand ours very well – which means we’ve a responsibility to heed them.
Thinking about ICTs and the environment at fora like COP or the IGF, when it does happen, tends to focus on how ICTs can harm and on how ICTs can help. As I’ve suggested here, we need to think more deeply about the interactions that will arise between a growing digital society and a growing climate crisis. Forewarned can mean (a bit) better prepared.
As for COP, I’m reminded of something said to me by one of the key United Nations figures at the time of WSIS (the World Summit on the Information Society). Global summits, he said, work best when a crisis is so bad that they’re the only way of getting world leaders to agree. The fact that some have not turned up in Glasgow suggests that they don’t yet think we’re at the brink. That should not stop responsible digital insiders from thinking now about what that brink might bring, forewarning themselves and preparing for the best or worst.