The Fight Against Global Warming: Where Does Technology Fit In?

October 25, 2018

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international body established in 1968 to assess science related to climate change, recently released a new report, “Global Warming of 1.5 C.” Compiled by 91 leading climate scientists from around the world, the report outlines the effects of global warming and how greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by more than 40 percent in the next 12 years to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“The report highlights how urgently we need a global-scale response from the world’s governments and other institutions,” says Professor Bill Tomlinson from the Department of Informatics. “Many of the problems we face in marshaling this response are information challenges, and as such are well-suited to computing and information science interventions.”

According to the report’s Summary for Policymakers, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will “require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems.” Tomlinson argues that each of these “transitions” will be enabled by new forms of information technology that will “help us develop new configurations of human activity and support new ways of living.”

The report also notes the role of education, information and community approaches in accelerating wide-scale behavior changes consistent with adapting to and limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. “Our School’s connections to educational initiatives and community engagement could help support these efforts,” says Tomlinson.

Informatics Ph.D. student Juliet Norton

For example, he points to Informatics Ph.D. student Juliet Norton, who has been working with local communities to develop information technologies that can support efforts to engage in sustainable agriculture. “With those communities, and with support from the National Science Foundation, she has been developing a database of plant data to support sustainable food production at a backyard scale, as well as other information tools,” explains Tomlinson.

“I have conceptualized a suite of information systems, which I call SAGE — Software for Agricultural Ecosystems — that could support these communities in their long-term goals and in a future characterized by societal collapse and adaptation to environmental change,” says Norton.

This adaption to change is an important focus area for Norton. “One of the reasons I focused my work on supporting grassroots movement was because I think that a big challenge for sustainability is normalizing a new way of living.” At the same time, she recognizes that grassroots activism can only go so far. “Something that this report mentions [is] that to avoid exceeding that 1.5 degree rise, there needs to be unprecedented change in critical infrastructures, globally,” she says. “Policy, in addition to the efforts of grassroots activism, is necessary for such unprecedented change to occur.”

Informatics Professor Bonnie Nardi agrees. “I don’t think technology is the most important variable in change,” she admits. “Changes in the political economy are the most critical. I hope people using and designing technology will take those changes seriously and use them as input to behavior and design.” The LIMITS community that Tomlinson and Nardi have helped form over the past several years encourages technology researchers to seriously contemplate such changes by fostering discussions about “the impact of present and future ecological, material, energetic, and societal limits on computing.” Such discussions will occur next June at the Fifth ACM Workshop on Computing within Limits in Lappeenranta, Finland.

As Tomlinson points out, “information technology is heavily implicated in numerous environmental issues because it has helped enable much of the recent success of industrial civilization. In addition, IT systems themselves carry significant environmental challenges, as a result of the energy needed to produce and operate IT systems, rare elements needed to build them, and electronic waste produced at their end of life.” Consequently, in addition to exploring how IT can enable other sectors of society to operate more sustainably, “there is important work to be done as well in building IT systems themselves that are less impactful than those we currently have.”

At the same time, Nardi continues to stress the importance of looking beyond technological solutions. “One of the things I’m trying to do at the moment is to raise awareness about alternative political economies that do not have such negative environmental and social impacts,” she explains. “Unless our superheated economy slows down, the problems the scientists have been tracking for decades — and which have escalated even faster than they thought they would — will continue and worsen.” Nardi and Tomlinson argue as much in “Computing within Limits,” a paper appearing in the October issue of Communications of the ACM that they coauthored with five other members of the LIMITS community.

“A small group of ‘ecological economists’ have created models for ‘steady-state’ and ‘post-growth’ economies that I think we should pay attention to,” says Nardi. “In Europe they are further along — the EU Parliament is beginning to discuss post-growth models and some of their politicians are aware that this kind of drastic change is needed.”

Nardi recognizes that similar efforts in the U.S. “have not yet entered the political mainstream as in Europe, but people are beginning to get organized.” She thinks the IPCC report could help motivate people to act. “We have been talking about the problems for a long time, but they are becoming more acute. The more calls to action we have, the better.”

So where does technology fit in when it comes to this latest call to action? It might not offer a solution, but by enabling energy and infrastructure transitions that can support long-term policy shifts, and by advancing grassroots sustainability movements, perhaps technology will have a synergistic effect in the newly intensified fight against global warming.

Shani Murray