On this week’s episode, we’re talking about one of the most urgent issues facing humanity today, and how we can reframe our mindset around it to better encourage and allow ourselves to take action. That issue, of course, is climate change.
Technology has created a lot of the problems we face, but is also coming up with some of the most innovative and inventive solutions. Solving this is going to take creativity, collaboration, and a willingness to change, but that’s what we’re all about here at the Tech Humanist Show!
What is our individual responsibility to tackling these problems? What are the most exciting solutions on the horizon? Who should we be holding to account, and how? Those answers and more on this week’s episode.
Guests this week include Sarah T. Roberts, AR Siders, Tan Copsey, Anne Therese Gennari, Christopher Mims, Art Chang, Dorothea Baur, Abhishek Gupta, and Caleb Gardner.
The Tech Humanist Show is a multi-media-format program exploring how data and technology shape the human experience. Hosted by Kate O’Neill.
To watch full interviews with past and future guests, or for updates on what Kate O’Neill is doing next, subscribe to The Tech Humanist Show hosted by Kate O’Neill channel on YouTube.
Today we’re talking about a problem that technology is both a major cause of and perhaps one of our best potential solutions for: climate change. By almost any reckoning, the climate emergency is the most urgent and existential challenge facing humanity for the foreseeable future. All of the other issues we face pale in comparison to the need to arrest and reverse carbon emissions, reduce global average temperatures, and begin the work of rebuilding sustainable models for all of us to be able to live and work on this planet.
By late 2020, melting ice in the Arctic began to release previously-trapped methane gas deposits. The warming effects of methane are 80 times stronger than carbon over 20 years, which has climate scientists deeply worried. Meanwhile, the Amazon rainforest has been devastated by burning. The plastic-filled oceans are warming. Coral reefs are dying. Experts are constantly adjusting their predictions on warming trends.
And climate issues contribute to other socio-political issues as well, usually causing a big loop: Climate disasters create uninhabitable environments, leading to increased migration and refugee populations, which can overwhelm nearby areas and stoke the conditions for nationalistic and jingoistic political power grabs. This puts authoritarians and fascists into power—who usually aren’t too keen on spending money to fix problems like climate change that don’t affect them personally—exacerbating all of the previous problems. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson showcased exactly this type of position before a recent UN climate conference, claiming the fall of the Roman empire was due to uncontrolled immigration as a way of refocusing people’s fear and attention away from climate change. Marine Le Pen of France went so far as to say that those without a homeland don’t care about the environment. Similarly out-of-touch and out-of-context things have been said recently by right-wing leaders in Spain, Germany, Switzerland… the list goes on and on.
Perhaps the most psychologically challenging aspect of all this is that even as we begin to tackle these issues one by one, we will continue to see worsening environmental effects for the next few decades. As David Wallace-Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth: “Some amount of further warming is already baked in, thanks to the protracted processes by which the planet adapts to greenhouse gas…But all of those paths projected from the present…to two degrees, to three, to four or even five—will be carved overwhelmingly by what we choose to do now.”
The message is: It’s up to us. We know what’s coming, and are thus empowered to chart the course for the future. What we need are bold visions and determined action, and we need it now.
At this point you may be thinking, “I could really use some of that Kate O’Neill optimism right about now…” Not only do I have hope, but many of the climate experts I have read and spoken with are hopeful as well. But the first step in Strategic Optimism is acknowledging the full and unvarnished reality, and the hard truth about the climate crisis is that things do look bleak right now. Which just means our optimistic strategy in response has to be that much more ambitious, collaborative, and comprehensive.
As Christiana Figuere and Tom Rivett-Carnac wrote in The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis, “[To feel] a lack of agency can easily transform into anger. Anger that sinks into despair is powerless to make change. Anger that evolves into conviction is unstoppable.”
One of the things slowing progress on the climate front is the people on the extreme ends of the belief spectrum—especially those in positions of power—who believe it’s either too late to do anything, or that climate change isn’t happening at all. Technology exacerbates this problem through the spread of false information. Thankfully by this point most people—around 90% of Americans and a higher percentage of scientists—are in agreement that it’s happening, although we’re still divided on the cause. The same poll conducted in October 2021 by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, found that only 54% of Americans believe humans contribute to climate change. A separate study conducted that same month looked at 88,125 peer-reviewed climate studies published between 2012 and 2020, and determined that 99.9% of those studies found human activity to be directly responsible for our warming planet.
It’s important, however, not to write off the people who aren’t yet fully convinced. Technology, as much as it has given us near-infinite access to information, is also a tremendous propagator of mis- and disinformation, which is fed to people by algorithms as immutable fact, and is often indistinguishable from the truth.
Sarah T Roberts, who is Associate Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where she also serves as the co-founder of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, explains further.
Sarah T Roberts: “When I think about people who fall victim to conspiracy theories, what I see is a human impulse to make sense of a world that increasingly doesn’t. And they’re doing it in the absence of information that is way more complex and hard to parse out and might actually point criticism at places that are very uncomfortable. They sense a wrongness about the world but they don’t have the right information, or access to it, or even the ability to parse it, because we’ve destroyed public schools. And then the auxiliary institutions that help people, such as libraries, and that leaves them chasing their own tail through conspiracy theories instead of unpacking things like the consequences of western imperialism, or understanding human migration as economic and environmental injustice issues. Y’know, you combine all that, and people, what do they do? They reach for the pablum of Social Media, which is instantaneous, always on, easy to digest, and worth about as much as, y’know, those things might be worth. I guess what I’m trying to do is draw some connections around phenomena that seem like they have come from nowhere. It would behoove us to connect those dots both in this moment, but also draw back on history, at least the last 40 years of sort of like neoliberal policies that have eroded the public sphere in favor of private industry. What it didn’t do was erode the public’s desire to know, but what has popped up in that vacuum are these really questionable information sources that really don’t respond to any greater norms, other than partisanship, advertising dollars, etc. And that’s on a good day!”
The fact is, there are a number of industries and people who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Not all of them engage in disinformation schemes, but some corporations—and people—who are interested in fighting climate change aren’t willing to look at solutions that might change their business or way of life. Too much change is scary, so they look for solutions that keep things as they are.
AR Siders: “Too much of our climate change adaptation is focused on trying to maintain the status quo. We’re trying to say, ‘hey, the climate is changing, what can we do to make sure that everything stays the same in the face of climate change?’ And I think that’s the wrong way to think about this.”
That’s AR Siders, assistant professor in the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration and the Department of Geography and a Core Faculty Member of the Disaster Research Center. Siders’ research focuses on climate change adaptation governance, decision-making, and evaluation.
ARSiders: “I think we need to think about the idea that we’re not trying to maintain the status quo, we’re trying to choose how we want our societies to change. I often start talks by showing historic photos, and trying to point out, in 1900, those photos don’t look like they do today. So, 100 years in the future, things are going to look different. And that’s true even if you don’t accept climate change. Even if we stop climate change tomorrow, we might have another pandemic. We’ll have new technology. And so our goal shouldn’t be to try to lock society into the way it works today, it should be to think about, what are the things we really care about preserving, and then what things do we actively want to choose to change? Climate adaptation can be a really exciting field if we think about it that way.”
And it is! But as more people have opened their eyes to the real threat looming in the near-horizon, disinformation entities and bad actors have changed their tactics, shifting responsibility to individuals, and away from the corporations causing the majority of the harm.
So let’s talk about our personal responsibility to healing the climate.
Tan Copsey: “We always should be careful of this trap of individual action, because in the past the fossil fuel industry has emphasized individual action.”
That’s Tan Copsey, who is Senior Director, Projects and Partnerships at Climate Nexus, a strategic communications organization. His work focuses on communicating the impacts of climate change and the benefits of acting to reduce climate risks. You’ll be hearing from him a lot this episode. We spoke recently about climate change solutions and responsibilities across countries and industries. He continued:
Tan Copsey: “I don’t know if it’s true but apparently BP invented the carbon footprint as a way of kind of getting people to focus on themselves and feel a sense of guilt, and project out a sense of blame, but that’s not really what it’s about. Dealing with climate change should ultimately be a story about hope, and that’s what I kind of try and tell myself and other people.”
Speaking of, Shell had a minor PR awakening in November 2020 when they tweeted a poll asking: “What are you willing to change to help reduce carbon emissions?” The tweet prompted many high-profile figures like climate activist Greta Thunberg and US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to call out the hypocrisy of a fossil fuel company asking the public for personal change.
In truth, research has found that the richest 1% of the world’s population were responsible for the emission of more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorer half of the world from 1990 to 2015, with people in the US causing the most emissions per capita in the world.
Now, this doesn’t mean to abandon personal responsibility. We should all make what efforts we can to lower our carbon footprint where feasible—whether by reviewing consumption habits, eating less meat, driving less, or anything from a wide variety of options.
There’s interesting psychological research around how making sustainable choices keeps us grounded in the mindset of what needs to change. I spoke with Anne Therese Gennari, a speaker, educator, and environmental activist known as The Climate Optimist, about the psychology behind individual action, and how the simple act of being more climate conscious in our daily lives can make the world a better place in ways beyond reducing our carbon footprints.
Anne Therese Gennari: “Do our individual actions matter… and I think it matters so much, for 4 reasons. The first one is that it mends anxiety. A lot of people are starting to experience climate anxiety, and the first step out of that is actually to put yourself back in power. Choosing optimism is not enough. Telling ourselves, ‘I want to be optimistic,’ is gonna fall short very quickly, but if we keep showing up for that work and that change, we’re actually fueling the optimism from within. And that’s how we keep going. The second one is that it builds character. So, the things that you do every day start to build up your habits, and that builds your character. Recognizing that the things we do becomes the identity that we hold onto, and that actually plays a huge part on what I’ll say next, which is, start shifting the culture. We are social creatures, and we always look to our surroundings to see what’s acceptable and okay and not cool and all these things, so the more of us that do something, it starts to shift norms and create a new culture, and we have a lot of power when we start to shift the culture. And then lastly, I’ll just say, we always plant seeds. So whatever you do, someone else might see and pick up on, you never know what’s gonna ripple effect from your actions.”
No one person can make every change needed, but we can all do something. Every small action has the potential to create positive effects you’ll never know.
One surprising piece of information is that some of the things we’re doing that we know are bad for the environment—like online delivery—may have more of a positive environmental impact than we thought. While the sheer amount of product that we order—especially non-essential items—is definitely exacerbating climate change, there are some positive takeaways. Christopher Mims, tech columnist at the Wall Street Journal and author of Arriving Today, on how everything gets from the factory to our front door, explains how, especially once our transportation and delivery vehicles have been electrified, ordering online may be a significantly greener alternative to shopping in stores.
Christopher Mims: “The good news—you would think all of this ordering stuff online is terrible for the environment—look, it’s bad for the environment in as much as it makes us consume more. We’re all over-consuming, on average. But it’s good for the environment in that, people forget, hopping into a 2 or 3 thousand pound car and driving to the grocery store—or a store—to get 5 to 15 pounds of goods and driving it home is horribly inefficient compared to putting the same amount of goods onto a giant box truck that can make 150 stops (if you’re talking about a UPS or an Amazon delivery van), or a few dozen if you’re talking about groceries. The funny thing is that delivery has the potential to be way more sustainable, and involve way less waste than our current system of going to stores. Frankly, physical retail is kind of a nightmare environmentally.”
That’s only a small piece of the puzzle, and there are still social and economic issues involved in the direct-to-home delivery industry. More important in regards to our personal responsibility is to stay engaged in the conversation. A both/and mindset is best: embrace our own individual responsibilities, one of which is holding companies and entities with more direct impact on the climate accountable for making infrastructural and operational change that can give individuals more freedom to make responsible choices.
Tan Copsey again.
Tan Copsey: “It is about political action and engagement for me. Not just voting, but it’s about everything that happens in between. It’s about community engagement, and the tangible things you feel when there are solar panels on a rooftop, or New York begins to move away from gas. I mean, that’s a huge thing! In a more existential sense, the news has been bad. The world is warming, and our approach to dealing with it distributes the benefits to too few people. There are definitely things you can do, and so when I talk about political pressure, I’m not just talking about political pressure for ‘climate action,’ I’m talking about political pressure for climate action that benefits as many people as possible.”
So, if part of our responsibility is to hold our leaders to account… what changes do we need? What should we be encouraging our leaders to do? Since we’re talking about political engagement, let’s start with government. Tan spoke to me about government response to another global disaster—the COVID-19 Pandemic—and some of the takeaways that might be applied to battling climate change as well.
Tan Copsey: “What’s really interesting to me about the pandemic is how much money governments made available, particularly the Fed in the US, and how they just pumped that money into the economy as it exists. Now, you can pump that money into the economy and change it, too, and you can change it quite dramatically. And that’s what we’re beginning to see in Europe as they attempt to get off Russian gas. You’re seeing not just the installation of heat pumps at astonishing scale, but you’re also seeing real acceleration of a push toward green energy, particularly in Germany. You’re also seeing some ideas being revisited. In Germany it’s changing people’s minds about nuclear power, and they’re keeping nukes back on.”
Revisiting debates we previously felt decided on is unsettling. Making the future a better place is going to require a great deal of examination and change, which can be scary. It’s also something federal governments are designed not to be able to do too quickly. But that change doesn’t have to work against the existing economy; it can build with it. It might be notable to people looking at this from a monetary perspective—the world’s seven most industrialized countries will lose a combined nearly $5 trillion in GDP over the next several decades if global temperatures rise by 2.6 degrees Celsius. So it behooves everyone to work on these solutions.
And what are those solutions? AR Siders spoke to me about the four types of solutions to climate issues. A lot of her work involves coastal cities, so her answer uses “flooding” as an example, but the strategies apply to other problems as well.
AR Siders: “So the main categories are, Resistance, so this is things like building a flood wall, putting in dunes, anything that tries to stop the water from reaching your home. Then there’s Accommodation, the classic example here is elevating homes, so the water comes, and the water goes, but it does less damage because you’re sort of out of the way. Then there’s Avoidance, which is ‘don’t build there in the first place,’ (America, we’re not very good at that one). And then Retreat is, once you’ve built there, if you can’t resist or accommodate, or if those have too many costs, financial or otherwise, then maybe it’s time to relocate.”
We’ll need to apply all four strategies to different problems as they crop up, but it’s important that we’re proactive and remain open to which solution works best for a given issue.
City governments have tremendous opportunities to emerge as leaders in this space. Studies project that by the end of the century, US cities could be up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in the afternoon and 14 degrees warmer at night, meaning cities need to start taking action now. Phoenix, Arizona—a city that experiences the “heat island effect” year round—is actively making efforts to minimize these effects. In 2020, they began testing “cool pavement,” a chemical coating that reflects sunlight and minimizes the absorption of heat to curb the heat island effect.
Additionally, measures to offer better transit options are on the table, with cities like Austin and New York emerging as leaders in the space. The Citi Bike app in New York City now shows transit information alongside rental and docking updates as acknowledgement that for many trips biking isn’t enough, but in combination with buses or trains, biking can simplify and speed a commute as part of a greener lifestyle. Austin’s recognition of the synergies between bikeshare and public transit has been praised as a model for other cities, as city transit agencies move away from seeing themselves as managers of assets (like busses), and towards being managers of mobility.
I spoke with Art Chang, who has been a longtime entrepreneur and innovator in New York City—and who was, at the time of our discussion, running for mayor—about the need for resilience in preparing cities for the future.
Art Chang: “There was a future—a digital future—for New York, but also being open to this idea that seas were rising, that global temperatures were going up, that we’re going to have more violent storms, that things like the 100-year flood line may not be drawn to incorporate the future of these rising seas and storms. So we planned, deliberately and consciously, for a hundred-fifty year storm. We softened the edge of the water, because it creates such an exorbitant buffer for the rising seas and storms. We created trenches that are mostly hidden so that overflow water had a place to go. We surrounded the foundations of the building with what we call ‘bathtubs,’ which are concrete enclosures that would prevent water from going into these places where so much of the infrastructure of these buildings were, and then we located as much of the mechanicals on top of the building, so they would be protected from any water. Those are some of the most major things. All technologies, they’re all interconnected, they’re all systems.”
Making any of the changes suggested thus far requires collective action. And one of the ways in which we need to begin to collaborate better is simply to agree on the terms we’re using and how we’re measuring our progress. Some countries, like the United States, have an advantage when it comes to reporting on climate progress due to the amount of forests that naturally occur within their borders. That means the US can underreport emissions by factoring in the forests as “carbon sinks,” while other countries that may have lower emissions, but also fewer naturally-occurring forests, look worse on paper. This isn’t factually wrong, but it obscures the work that’s needed to be done in order to curb the damage. I asked Tan about these issues, and he elaborated on what he believes needs to be done.
Tan Copsey: “Again, I’d say we resolve the ambiguity through government regulation. For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission is looking at ESG. So this big trend among investors and companies, the idea that you take account of environmental, social, and governance factors in your investments, in what your company does. Realistically, there hasn’t been consistent measure of this. I could buy an exchange-traded fund, and it could be ‘ESG,’ and I wouldn’t really know what’s in it. And it could be that what’s in it isn’t particularly good. And so regulators are really trying to look at that now and to try and standardize it, because that matters. Likewise, you have carbon markets which are sort of within European Union, and then you have voluntary carbon markets, which are often very reliant on forest credits sourced from somewhere else, where you’re not quite sure if the carbon reduction is permanent or not. And yeah, there is a need for better standards there.”
To do this holistically we will need to get creative with economic incentives, whether that involves offsets, green energy credits, or new programs at local, state, or national levels. One of the more aggressive and comprehensive plans for rethinking energy policy came from the EU in summer 2021, just as Germany and Belgium reeled from killer floods that were likely exacerbated by the climate crisis. The EU announced its ”Fit for 55” plans, ”a set of inter-connected proposals, which all drive toward the same goal of ensuring a fair, competitive and green transition by 2030 and beyond.” It’s an approach that is systemic, recognizing the interconnectedness of a wide variety of policy areas and economic sectors: energy, transportation, buildings, land use, and forestry.
And we need more programs and regulations like this. But until we have those better regulations we need, there are still things business leaders can do to make their businesses better for the environment today, so let’s move away from government and talk about businesses. A lot of businesses these days pay an enormous amount of lip service (and money) to showing that they care about the environment, but the actual work being done to lower their carbon footprint or invest in cleaner business practices is a lot less significant.
Tan spoke to me about this as well.
Tan Copsey: “They need to move from a model which was a little bit more about PR to something that’s real. In the past when a business issued a sustainability report, it was beautiful! It was glossily designed… And then when it came to like, filings with the SEC, they said ‘climate change is a serious issue and we are taking it seriously,’ because their lawyers read it very, very closely. And so, if dealing with climate risk is embedded in everything you do as a business (as it probably should be), because almost every business, well, every business probably, interacts with the energy system—every business is a climate change business. They should be thinking about it, they should be reporting on it, y’know, when it comes to CEOs, it should be part of the way we assess their performance.”
Nowadays, lots of companies are talking about “offsetting” their carbon emissions, or attempting to counter-act their emissions by planting trees or recapturing some of the carbon. But is this the right way to think about things?
Dorothea Baur: “Offsetting is a really good thing, but the first question to ask should not be, ‘can I offset it?’ or ‘how can I offset it?’, but, ‘is what I’m doing, is it even necessary?’”
That’s Dorothea Baur, a leading expert & advisor in Europe on ethics, responsibility, and sustainability across industries such as finance, technology, and beyond. Her PhD is in NGO-business partnerships, and she’s been active in research and projects around sustainable investment, corporate social responsibility, and increasingly, emerging technology such as AI.
Dorothea Baur: “So, I mean, let’s say my favorite passion is to fly to Barcelona every other weekend just for fun, for partying. So, instead of offsetting it, maybe I should stop doing it. And the same for tech companies saying, you know, ‘we’re going to be carbon negative!’ but then make the most money from totally unsustainable industries. That’s kind of a double-edged sword.”
It is notable that one of the key ways businesses and governments attempt to offset their emissions is “planting trees,” which has more problems than you may think. Yes, trees are an incredibly important part of a carbon sink approach, and we definitely need to plant more of them—but there’s a catch to how we say we’re going to do it. The promise of tree-planting has been such an easy add-on for companies’ marketing campaigns to make over the years that there’s a backlog of trees to be planted and not enough tree seedlings to keep up with the promises. It’s not uncommon for companies to make the commitment to their customers to plant trees first, only for them to struggle to find partners to plant the promised trees. Dorothea Baur lamented this fact in her interview.
Dorothea Baur: “It’s also controversial, what I always joke about—the amount of trees that have been promised to be planted? I’m waiting for the day when I look out of my window in the middle of the city and they start planting trees! Because so much—I mean, the whole planet must be covered with trees! The thing is, it takes decades until the tree you plant really turns into a carbon sink. So, all that planting trees—it sounds nice, but also I think there’s some double-counting going on. It’s easy to get the credit for planting a tree, but it’s hard to verify the reduction you achieve because it takes such a long time.”
It’s going to take more than lip service about tree-planting; we have to actually expand our infrastructural capability to grow and plant them, commit land to that use, and compensate for trees lost in wildfires and other natural disasters. Beyond that, we have to make sure the trees we’re planting will actually have the effect we want. The New York Times published an article in March, arguing that “Reforestation can fight climate change, uplift communities and restore biodiversity. When done badly, though, it can speed extinctions and make nature less resilient…companies and countries are increasingly investing in tree planting that carpets large areas with commercial, nonnative species in the name of fighting climate change. These trees sock away carbon but provide little support to the webs of life that once thrived in those areas.”
And that can mean the trees take resources away from existing plant life, killing it and eliminating the native carbon-sink—leading to a situation where net carbon emissions were reduced by nearly zero. These are problems that require collaboration and communication between industries, governments, activists, and individuals.
Beyond those initiatives, companies can also improve their climate impact by investing in improvements to transportation for employees and customers, perhaps offering public transit or electric vehicle incentives to employees, or investing in a partnership with their municipality to provide electric vehicle charging stations at offices and storefronts. Additionally, business responsibility may include strategic adjustments to the supply chain or to materials used in products, packaging, or delivery.
Another issue when it comes to offsetting emissions is the leeway the tech industry gives itself when it comes to measuring their own global climate impact, when the materials they need to build technology is one of the chief contributors to carbon emissions.
Dorothea Baur again.
Dorothea Baur: “The whole supply chain of the IT industry is also heavily based on minerals. There are actually, there are really interesting initiatives also by tech companies, or like commodity companies that specifically focus on the minerals or the metals that are in our computers. Like cobalt, there’s a new transparency initiative, a fair cobalt initiative. So they are aware of this, but if you look at where is the main focus, it’s more on the output than on the input. And even though the tech companies say, ‘oh, we’re going to be carbon neutral or carbon negative,’ as long as they sell their cloud services to the fossil industry, that’s basically irrelevant.”
Currently, AI tech is an “energy glutton”—training just one machine learning algorithm can produce CO2 emissions that are 5 times more than the lifetime emissions of a car. But there is still hope for AI as a tool to help with climate change, namely using it to learn how to more efficiently run energy grids and predict energy usage, especially as energy grids become more complicated with combined use of solar, wind, and water power in addition to traditional fossil fuels. AI can also make the global supply chain more efficient, reducing emissions and speeding up the process of developing new, cleaner materials. One small-scale use-case is “Trashbot,” which sorts waste materials into categories using sensors and cameras, eliminating the need for people to try to sort out their own recyclables.
What’s clear from every emerging report is that net zero emissions are no longer enough. We need governments and companies and every entity possible to commit to net negative emissions. Cities need ambitious plans for incentivizing buildings that sequester carbon. Companies need logistics overhauls to ensure their supply chains are as compliant as possible, and then some.
Tan Copsey: ““What’s interesting is when they talk about Net Zero—particularly companies, but also a lot of governments—they talk about Net Zero by 2050. What is that, 28 years. 28 years is still a long time away, and if you’re a government, the current president certainly won’t be president in 2050. If you’re a company CEO, you may not be CEO next quarter, let alone in 28 years, and so we have to have nearer-term targets. You want to be Net Zero by 2050? Tell me how you’re gonna get there. Tell me what you’re gonna do by 2030, tell me what you’re gonna do by next quarter. One of the things that encourages me is things like change in financial regulation, which sounds arcane and slightly off-topic, but it’s not. It’s about what companies report when, and how investors hold those companies to account to nearer-term action, because that’s how we get there.”
One of the reasons that corporations do so little to minimize their carbon footprint is that they don’t accurately measure their own carbon emissions. Using AI to track emissions can show problem areas, and what can be done to address those issues. Abhishek Gupta, machine learning engineer, founder of the Montreal AI Ethics Institute, and board member of Microsoft’s CSE Responsible AI board, spoke to me about an initiative he’s working on to help ease this burden by making it easier for developers to track the effect they’re having on the environment by incorporating data collection into their existing workflow.
Abhishek Gupta: “One of the projects that we’re working on is to help developers assess the environmental impacts of the work that they do. Not to say that there aren’t initiative already, there are—the problem with a lot of these are, they ignore the developer’s workflow. So the problem then is, if you’re asking me to go to an external website and put in all of this information, chances are I might do it the first couple of times, but I start to drop the ball later on. But if you were to integrate this in a manner that is similar to ML Flow, now that’s something that’s a little more natural to the developer workflow; data science workflow. If you were to integrate the environmental impacts in a way that follows this precedent that’s set by something like ML Flow, there is a lot higher of a possibility for people taking you up on that, and subsequently reporting those outcomes back to you, rather than me having to go to an external website, fill out a form, take that PDF report of whatever… that’s just too much effort. So that’s really what we’re trying to do, is to make it easy for you to do the right thing.”
And Abhishek isn’t the only one who sees potential in AI. Dorothea Baur also spoke to me about her belief in AI, although she sees us using it for a different purpose.
Dorothea Baur: “AI has huge potential to cause good, especially when it comes to environmental sustainability. For example, the whole problem of pattern recognition in machine learning, where if it’s applied to humans, it is full of biases, and it kind of confuses correlation and causation, and it’s violating privacy, etc. There are a lot of issues that you don’t have when you use the same kind of technology in a natural science context, you know? Where you just observe patterns of oceans and clouds and whatever, or when you try to control the extinction of species. I mean, animals don’t have a need for or a right to privacy, so why not use AI in contexts where it doesn’t violate anyone’s moral rights? And where you, at the same time, resolve a real problem.”
Turning AI and algorithms away from people and towards nature is a wise decision in many respects. A lot of our efforts to curb the effects of climate change thus far have overlooked the same people that are overlooked in our data, and in almost every measurable respect, negative impacts of the climate crisis are felt most by marginalized populations and poorer communities.
Tan Copsey: “I think that when it comes to climate tech, you need to think about who it’s supposed to benefit. There’s more than 7B people on earth, it can’t just be for the US market, it has to be for everyone.”
“The best futures for the most people” really comes into play here—communities of color are often more at risk from air pollution, due to decades of redlining forcing them into more dangerous areas. Seniors, people with disabilities, and people with chronic illnesses may have a harder time surviving extreme heat or quickly evacuating from natural disasters. Subsidized housing is often located in a flood plain, causing mold, and frequently lacks adequate insulation or air conditioning. People with a low-income may also be hard-pressed to afford insurance or be able to come back from an extreme loss after catastrophe strikes. Some indigenous communities have already lost their homelands to rising sea levels and drought.
Indigenous communities, speaking of, often have traditional approaches—empowered by millennia of historical experience—to living gently on the planet and a mindset for cooperating with nature that are well worth learning. Seeking leadership on climate issues from Indigenous people should be a priority.
An article published by Mongabay on December 21, 2021 gives an example of an initiative in Mexico that is using the knowledge of indigenous communities, and is working. Essentially, the Ejido Verde company grants interest-free loans to local communities to plant and tend pine trees for the tapping of resin, a multibillion-dollar global industry. Younger generations are eager to participate, and fewer people feel the need to migrate away from their homes.
According to a paper by the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew, the only way that recovery can work is if it is based on sound science, supported by fair governance, incentivized by long-term funding mechanisms, and guided by indigenous knowledge and local communities.
Speaking of long-term funding mechanisms, let’s talk about another group of leaders who have the potential to make a drastic positive impact today: private investors. Activist investors may seem unwelcome, but when they’re making priorities known on behalf of humanity, they’re ultimately doing us all a service. These people have the ability to help shape company and government policy by letting their dollars speak for us, by investing in solutions and burgeoning industries that we drastically need.
That’s been happening, such as when the shareholders of both ExxonMobil and Chevron sent strong messages about getting serious with respect to climate responsibility. In Europe, shareholder votes and a Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell to cut its emissions faster than they’d already been planning. And social and financial pressure is a good way to nudge executives in the right direction, especially leaders who don’t make climate-friendly decisions out of fear of pushback from their boards and investors.
Tan Copsey: “Investors increasingly should be thinking about the companies they invest in on the basis of their climate performance. And that isn’t just, ‘oh, they reduced some greenhouse gas emissions,’ because, y’know, you look at a lot of tech companies and they have reduced greenhouse gas emissions, but really they have to do more than that. For businesses in other sectors, it may not be that simple. Certainly there are harder to abate sectors, and so it could be that you are the CEO of a steel company, and your emissions are still gigantic, but the change you can make by introducing, say, hydrogen, and getting rid of coal, or introducing renewable energy plus hydrogen to your—the way in which you do steel, is transformative for the global economy and transformative for the climate system, and in a way investing in that company is more climate-friendly than investing in a tech company; but chances are you have an ETF and you’re doing both.”
Despite everything I’ve talked about today, it’s important for all of us to remain optimistic. I asked Anne Therese Gennari why optimism is important, and her answer didn’t disappoint.
Anne Therese Gennari: “Optimism, for scientific reasons, is actually very important. If you look to neuroscience, we need optimism to believe something better is possible, and then find the motivation and the courage to take action right now to get us closer to that goal. And I think there is a huge difference between optimism and toxic positivity, and I think a lot of people who don’t agree with optimism associate it with always trying to be happy, thinking good thoughts and hoping things will turn out to the better. And that’s why I love to come back to this understanding that ‘awareness hurts, and that’s okay.’ Because when we tell ourselves that not everything is beautiful, and sometimes things will be painful, we can actually handle that, and we can take that. But from that place of awareness, we can start to grow a seed of hope and tell ourselves, ‘well, what if? What if we did take action, and this happened? What if we can create a more beautiful world in the future? And so, we can paint a picture that’s all doomsday, or we can paint one that’s beautiful. So which one do we want to start working towards?”
And if you find yourself saying, “I really want to be optimistic, but it’s too hard! There’s just so much bad news out there…” don’t fret! You aren’t alone.
You might even say that’s a quite human response.
Anne Therese Gennari: “We’re human beings, and as a species, we respond to certain kinds of information in different ways. Information that’s negative or fear based has a very limiting response in our brains. When we hear something that’s overwhelming, like climate change, and we know it’s urgent, we might understand that it’s urgent, but the action isn’t there. Because how our brains respond to something that we don’t want to happen is actually to not take action. And it goes back to way back in time, where like, you’re facing this dangerous animal, and you’re like ‘there’s no way I can fight this animal, I can’t outrun it, so what am I gonna do? I’m gonna stand here super still and hope that it doesn’t see me.’ That’s literally what our brains think about when something’s that overwhelming. And so I think the more urgent the matter is, the more important it is that we actually fuel ourselves with an optimistic future or goal to work towards, because that is the only way that we can actually trigger action.”
So let’s fuel our minds with an optimistic future to work towards. Despite all the bad news you’ve heard—even on this episode—there are a lot of hopeful developments happening! The most recent U.N. Climate Conference, COP26, established the Glasgow Climate Pact, which recognizes that the situation is at an emergency level, asking countries to accelerate their plans by calling for provable action by next year. Policy changes, government regulations, and people becoming motivated are all on the rise.
Caleb Gardner, who was lead digital strategist for President Obama’s political advocacy group, OFA and is now founding partner of 18 Coffees, a strategy firm working at the intersection of digital innovation, social change, and the future of work, spoke to me about what he’s most optimistic about, which is right in line with this show’s values.
Caleb Gardner: “I’m probably most optimistic about technology’s ability to tackle global problems like climate change. I’m actually pretty bullish on technology’s ability to solve and actually innovate around the reduction of carbon in our atmosphere, electric vehicles, electric grid… and what’s great is a lot of that’s already being driven by the private sector around the world, so it’s not as dependent on government as we think that it is.”
So let’s talk about some of the emerging technologies that show a lot of promise in mitigating the effects of climate change—and that might make sense to invest in, if you have the means to do so.
A team of UCLA scientists led by Aaswath Raman has developed a thin, mirror-like film that reflects heat to outer space through radiative cooling, and can lower the temperatures of objects it’s applied to by more than 10 degrees. The idea comes from generations of knowledge from people living in desert climates who learned to cool water by letting the heat radiate out of it overnight. If this film were added to paint and/or applied to pipes and refrigeration units, it could help cool buildings and make refrigeration systems more efficient, reducing the need for air conditioning, which accounts for as much as 70% of residential energy demand in the United States and Middle East. One of the strongest selling points of innovations like this film is that it doesn’t need electricity; it only needs a clear day to do its job.
Another innovation in reflecting energy back into space comes in the form of ‘cloud brightening,’ a technique where salt drops are sprayed into the sky so that clouds reflect more radiation, allowing us to refreeze the polar ice caps.
Then there’s the new trend of green roofs, in particular the California Academy of Sciences’ Living Roof, which spans 2.5 acres and runs six inches deep, with an estimated 1.7 million plants, collecting 100 percent of storm water runoff and offering insulation to the building below. The whole endeavor is brilliantly hopeful and strategic. A massive green roof is completely on brand for a science museum, but that doesn’t mean other buildings and businesses wouldn’t benefit from them as well. The National Park Service even estimates that over a forty year building lifespan, a green roof could save a typical structure about $200,000, nearly two-thirds of which would come from reduced energy costs. Other building technologies move beyond solar panels and green roofs, with automated building management systems detecting usage patterns of lighting, heating, and air conditioning. There have also been innovations in window insulation, trapping heat during the winter and blocking it out in the summer.
‘Green cement’ can be heated to lower temperatures and cuts emissions by a third compared to regular cement. There are new Hydrogen-powered ships whose emissions are water. Electric planes have been developed for short-distance flights. Large floating solar power installations have the potential to generate terawatts of energy on a global scale, and when built near hydropower, can generate electricity even in the dark. Lithium batteries continue to get smaller and more efficient, and can be charged faster and more often than other batteries, making electric vehicles cheaper. And speaking of electric vehicles, they can help with our energy storage problems, with owners buying electricity at night to charge their cars and selling it to the grid when demand is high and cars are unused during the day.
Feeding cows seaweed and replacing beef with insects such as mealworms can drastically reduce methane emissions. Scientists in Argentina are working on backpacks for cows that collect their methane, which have shown to collect enough methane from a single cow every day to fuel a refrigerator for 24 hours. To help curb other types of emissions, carbon capture and storage technologies like NZT allow us to capture CO2 in offshore storage sites several kilometres beneath the North Sea.
But it’s not just about new technologies, or technologies that only work for the richest people. Here’s Tan again to elaborate on this idea.
Tan Copsey: “This is a really tricky moment, y’know, this is a really bad time to be inefficiently using the resources we have. As we think about climate tech, think about optimizing mobility, as well as copying the existing model. There’s a lot of existing tech out there that would make people’s lives better—very simple irrigation systems—and so, we shouldn’t just think of this in terms of big new exciting things, we should think about it in terms of deploying existing things.”
All of this is part of embracing the mindset that says things can change. We need a can-do mindset, but we also need clarity and collaboration. Basically all options need to be implemented if we want to curb the damage that has already been done. Our solutions need to work in conjunction with one another, and support the greatest number of people.
To close out, here’s Christopher Mims with the last word on putting away the doom and gloom, and remaining optimistic in the face of overwhelming adversity.
Christopher Mims: “If you really think about the whole sweep of human history, we live in a time where the pace of especially technological, and therefore in some ways cultural change, is so much faster than ever. We keep inventing new ways to kind of trip ourselves up, and then we have to just adapt so quickly to them. We’re constantly playing catch-up with our own technological and social developments. So there’s a lot of beating ourselves up over like, ‘woah, how come we didn’t do it this way, or we didn’t do this right?’ or whatever. Sometimes I’m just like, ahh, just chill! We’re going as fast as we can. It’s very easy to get caught up in the moment to moment, but I think there is this kind of overall arc where, if we don’t cook ourselves to death, or blow ourselves up, or distract ourselves to death, we’re moving in directions that, once we have fully understood how to live in harmony with the technology that we’ve created, we’ll probably be okay.”
Thanks for joining me on The Tech Humanist Show today. I hope you’ve learned something, and at the very least, that you’re going into the future with more hope than you had before.