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6 Themes in Digital Rights and Climate & Environmental Justice

By Guest Writer on October 12, 2022

digital rights climate environmental justice

As the effects of the ongoing climate emergency amplify, the fight for environmental & climate justice has become more crucial than ever. While technology is being used to support these efforts, it can also be part of the problem:

  • Technological innovation is taking an environmental toll,
  • Climate justice activists face increasing digital attacks,
  • Social media platforms are full of unfounded claims about climate change,
  • Many of the communities affected the most by the climate emergency continue to lack basic access to digital resources that are needed to adapt to, and mitigate effects of, the climate crisis – from internet access to reliable online information in their own language and cultural context.

With all this in mind, it is clear that an exploration of the intersections between environmental/climate justice (EJ-CJ) and digital rights (DR) movements – with an eye on identifying opportunities for collaboration and support – could help both sectors achieve their respective goals.

6 Themes in Digital Rights and Climate & Environmental Justice

Six cross-cutting themes resonated across the Engine Room’s desk research, community calls, and conversations with actors in the EJ-CJ and DR ecosystems as they developed the report: At the confluence of digital rights and climate & environmental justice: A landscape review. Each theme below is taken directly from this report and represents an area where further research, dialogue and collaboration is needed.

1. Connections needed across communities, movements, and sectors

A number of discussion participants flagged alignment in lexicon, approaches to equity, and an analysis of regional power imbalances as important prerequisites for working together on overlapping issues. For example, a gap exists between practitioners and scholars, as well as between countries, where the same issue is described by different terms – these subtle differences in turn emphasise different values and goals.

2. Our focus on growth is incredibly dangerous

The question of limitless growth on a planet with finite resources emerged as an urgent intersectional issue for both DR and EJ-CJ fields. Environmental and climate movements have long rallied against an economic paradigm that sees continuous expansion as its core tenet. Now, practitioners from both DR and EJ-CJ interrogate how the adoption of ‘sustainable technologies’ may feed into this paradigm.

3. Extractive dynamics are a problem across sectors

The extractivism of Big Tech enterprises and the extractivism of fossil fuel companies are increasingly resembling one another – or in some cases, even working together. Some Big Tech companies, for example, have been found to be actively assisting fossil fuel companies to generate more precise and efficient techniques for fossil fuel extraction through the application of machine learning. Drawing parallels between the extractivism in both sectors, DR and EJ-CJ practitioners ask what non-extractive models for technology should look like in an era of accelerating climate crisis.

4. Technological and environmental crises stymie mobilisation

How can we properly understand enormous problems that don’t always feel visible? This was a question raised by both DR and EJ-CJ practitioners, who highlighted the difficulties of mobilising different publics and making the drastic shifts needed to address climate and environmental crises and mitigate technological risks. Geographic and social inequities mean that while some groups of people experience direct harm, others remain (for the moment) somewhat insulated from the most severe effects of climate change.

5. The frictions and contradictions of ‘Tech for Climate’

The tension between what technology can offer to ameliorate climate change and the recognition that no technology comes without costs was flagged as crucial in light of the enormous investments being made into different technologies touted for their potential to mitigate the harms of industrialisation and pollution.

6. Growing and protecting the ‘commons’ is a priority

Since the 1990 publication of Governing the Commons by Elinor Ostrom, the ‘commons’ has become a pillar for how we understand, use, and defend environmental resources. The need to strengthen a ‘commons perspective’ that emphasises the growth and protection of shared, public resources cuts across both EJ-CJ and DR fields. Technologists and data activists on their part have argued for a ‘commoning’ of technology, data, information, and digital infrastructures in order to build systems parallel to those held under monopoly control by Big Tech corporations.

Join a Community Call

The Engine Room would like to keep the exchange going with an interactive discussion sharing these main findings and collaboratively plotting a course for further future work in this urgent area, so they’re hosting a community call October 18, at 5-6pm CET.

During the call, they will focus on two 2 specific issue areas:

  1. Climate intelligence: From long-standing environmental data initiatives to newer ‘AI for climate’ and ‘AI for planet’ efforts, governments, corporations and communities seek to harness digital data to monitor biodiversity and forecast future climate events with greater accuracy. How do you think the digital rights community can best support existing community-driven efforts and deepen its engagement on AI and sustainability issues? How might responsible data principles contribute to data governance discussions in this space?
  2. Decarbonizing tech: In recent years, a number of tech companies have pledged carbon neutrality and greater sustainability. Yet, meaningfully measuring and mitigating the climate and environmental impacts of tech remains a challenge. What do you think are the main priorities for digital rights community engagement to ensure tech sustainability efforts are supporting climate justice?

To register for this session, please sign up here.

A light edit of the At the confluence of digital rights and climate & environmental justice: A landscape review executive summery and community call post by the Engine Room.

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