Magazine #2 | Summer 2023
Where Digital Rights and Climate Justice Converge
We are living in a climate crisis. The science is clear, and we need to rapidly change to become a more just and sustainable society. This includes investing in a sustainable internet, which is currently the world’s largest coal-powered machine. More than building sustainable internet infrastructure, we also need to examine how and where the internet aligns with the movements for climate and environmental justice – and where it works
against them. This includes all the environmental effects inherent in the hardware and software systems we use, including the mining that produces the rare earth metals in our phones, the carbon emissions of massive machine learning models and the bias of algorithms and AI systems that may propagate climate misinformation.
Often considered separately, the environment and the internet share much in common. Both are global in scope, they are linked to the exercise and erosion of human rights and they require international cooperation and coordination for their successful continuance. The repercussions of one can also extend to the other: from water rights disputes between data centers and local residents (see page 24 of this issue), to rampant greenwashing misinformation by fossil fuel companies, the internet’s ecological consequences are just some of the many complex problems at the intersection of climate justice and technology.
”Enviroment and the internet are global in scope, they are linked to the exercise and erosion of human rights.
Despite this nexus between the internet and environment, we are only in the early stages of integrating philanthropic funding strategies across these intersections. Through a series of reports supported by the Ford Foundation, the Mozilla Foundation and Ariadne, we can now present research on the implications and intersections of climate justice for digital rights (see links below). While the primary audience for this research is digital rights funders or adjacent technology funders, we believe the work can be useful for other funders and organizations working across issues, given that the climate crisis and technology touch other fields related to human rights, from migration to land tenure and indigenous rights.
The Engine Room is a group whose mission is to support civil society organizations in using technology and data in strategic, effective and responsible ways. The NGO authored a landscape report, “At the confluence of digital rights and climate & environmental justice,” which provides an accessible and thoughtful overview of the climate and environmental justice issues that emerge from technological innovation. The report provides an analysis of the environmental toll of digital infrastructures and informs about climate disinformation, open data and climate monitoring, migration justice as well as the increased surveillance of environmental activists and land defenders. It also details the issues and challenges where the climate action and digital rights movements disagree. Finally, it offers recommendations to digital rights funders on how to center the intersections of climate justice and technology in their work.
Four key takeaways from the report “At the confluence of digital rights and climate & environmental justice”:
Climate and tech movements can learn from and support each other: There is a lot of space for relationship building and collaboration between movements centered on climate and environmental justice and those focused on technology justice. Finding the best strategic moments to connect the two movements will be crucial, as will leveraging opportunities for shared learning and deep engagement on specific topics. Learning from other funders about intersectional and trust-based funding approaches can provide a path forward.
The global north must follow leadership from the global south: Digital rights organizations in the global south have long been working on connecting the impacts of extractive industries and digital technology. Groups in the global north must not only learn from their work, but also follow suit. Increasingly, funders have highlighted the importance of shifting power to those most impacted, believing the people who are closest to the problem are also closest to the solution. As we reflect on investment in this intersection, there is an opportunity to “walk the talk” and bring in resource groups in the global south who have clearly demonstrated experience and creativity in developing impactful responses to the climate crisis.
Carbon is just the beginning: The carbon footprint of the internet is an important issue that deserves more attention, especially from funders. But there are many more areas that also require urgent change, such as tech companies’ inaction against the spread of climate misinformation or the use of advanced cyberweapons to target and harm climate and environmental activists.
Data is at the heart of many of the problems and can also be part of the solution: Access to reliable climate and environmental data is key for remedying misinformation, driving policy agendas as well as influencing public understanding and opinion. Tech companies are currently withholding important information related to critical issues like the water and energy usage of data centers and the efficacy of initiatives addressing climate misinformation. At the same time, large data models being developed by the tech sector are a huge driver of emissions and are increasingly central to Big Tech and their efforts to grow. Examining the intersection of climate, environment and data is critical.
Business for Social Responsibility (BSR): Building a High-Quality Climate Science Information Environment: The Role of Social Media
Association for Progressive Communication (APC): At the Interstice of Digital Rights and Environmental Justice: Four Issue Briefs to Inform Funding
Open Environmental Data Project & Open Climate: Opportunities for the Digital Rights Space / Environmental Justice, Climate Justice and the Space of Digital Rights