Reflections

Posted 16 February, 2022 by Becky Kazansky

From shared concerns to productive frictions: on the intersections of digital rights and environmental/climate justice

In October 2021, The Engine Room launched a new research project exploring intersections between digital rights and environmental/climate justice. Responding to a mounting sense of urgency around the intensifying climate crisis, our research, in partnership with the Ford Foundation, Mozilla and Ariadne, seeks to identify shared concerns and synergies between diverse movements and communities working on these issues, with the goal of strengthening funding and other support for work at their intersection. 

Our report will be published alongside a set of research deep dives exploring different issue areas related to digital rights and climate/environmental justice, forthcoming from the Open Environmental Data Project, BSR, and the Association for Progressive Communications – so keep an eye out for those, too!

We’ll be publishing our findings within the next few months but in the meantime we’d like to share some of what we have learned so far through our initial desk research, community calls, and interviews with practitioners.  

Those we’ve spoken to come from a diverse set of movements and communities, and work in different regions of the world, including:  

  • Digital rights activists and technologists looking to pay closer attention to the needs of climate struggles as they’re being articulated by those closest to the problem 
  • Engineers creating more sustainable internet infrastructure and web services 
  • Youth climate organizers pushing for internet access so their communities can participate in international climate debates 
  • Environmental lawyers supporting communities collecting data on environmental harm
  • Fossil fuel divestment specialists concerned with the digital safety of climate defenders.

We’ve learned that among this diverse group of people, there are number of important shared concerns, including: 

  • Sustainable internet and green technologies. Technologists and sustainability experts are working to increase the efficiency of technological infrastructure and transition this infrastructure to renewable energy sources. As more energy-efficient infrastructure is developed in both the corporate and nonprofit sphere, digital rights practitioners are raising concerns around the data-intensive nature of some of these infrastructures, and are looking to ensure that more sustainable tech doesn’t also lead to potential digital rights infringements.
  • Climate-related disinformation. A long-standing problem perpetuated by fossil fuel companies and other corporate actors, digital rights and environmental/climate justice practitioners are now exploring how algorithmic techniques and big tech business models contribute to the spread of this disinformation online. Those we’ve interviewed are asking if it’s possible to disrupt the incentives behind climate disinformation spread on social media platforms like Facebook and twitter. 
  • Environmental data and pollution monitoring. A number of community-led initiatives around the world have been collecting and sharing data in order to defend local communities against extractive companies and to monitor biodiversity loss. This field has grappled with how to ethically steward collected data and best use it to push for accountability. Practitioners focused on this intersection of digital/data and climate/environmental issues are exploring alternative data governance models which can respect digital rights and indigenous data sovereignty while using this data to build a data commons.
  • Threats to safety. With new laws banning protest and intensified surveillance against climate movements around the world, the climate and environmental justice practitioners we’ve spoken to have expressed deep concern about the ability of their communities and movements to protest and push back against powerful harm-doers.They argue that safety and digital security should be understood as a precondition for being able to continue to fight for climate/environmental justice. While the digital rights field has spent the last decade plus increasing digital security capacity within civil society, those working directly with climate movements identify an enormous need for more support.
  • Migration justice. An intensifying climate crisis is already pushing vulnerable populations to militarised international borders, with surveillance-intensive border technologies being used to preempt migration. The climate/environmental and digital rights practitioners we’ve spoken to argue that both digital rights and environmental/climate justice movements have a responsibility to address injustices around migration, and anticipate how these issues may intensify in coming decades. 

Along with such shared concerns, we also see what we call ‘productive frictions’ – differences in worldview, which affect the kinds of collaborations that are possible across movements and communities. We outline a couple here:

  • The first is around how sustainability is defined by different groups. While a lot of work is happening in the corporate tech space to move towards sustainability, both the environmental/climate and digital rights practitioners we have spoken to disagree on what meaningful sustainability actually means in the context of a ‘just transition’. As big tech companies promise to transition to renewable energy sources, some are happy to see any progress on this front, while others argue for a more critical lens on climate pledges and net zero promises. ‘Greenwashing’ is one concern. Furthermore, some of those we’ve spoken to argue that ‘net zero’ is not a meaningful sustainability goal on its own. Instead, the environmental impacts of technologies must be considered more broadly in light of the many continued forms of extraction and injustice that come with a transition to ‘renewable’ energy sources.
  • Relatedly, we observe differing views on the potential of technologies to serve as tools to mitigate the climate crisis.  For example, some environmental/climate justice practitioners and technologists are optimistic about the use of AI and machine learning to advance sustainability goals, while others highlight that these technologies can actually increase fossil fuel use and exacerbate sustainability issues. The debate around the role of AI in sustainability is part of a broader concern both digital rights and environmental/climate justice practitioners express about ‘techno-solutionist’ thinking around how to ‘solve’ the climate crisis. They argue that tech-centric discourse about solutions diverts energy and resources away from already well-established and community-led interventions. 
  • Finally, we see that practitioners working on both environmental/climate justice and digital rights have differing perspectives on the role of corporations and governments in coming up with solutions. Some push for a focus on government responsibility and corporate accountability, while others argue that movements shouldn’t wait for institutional change and should instead focus on autonomous and local efforts. These differences inform where energy is placed in pushing for progress.

The points we’ve shared here offer just a glimpse of the issues we’ve encountered so far, and we’re excited to learn more as we continue our research. 

As mentioned, we’ll be publishing a report with our full findings in the next few months, which will also include a set of recommendations for funders for how to support work at these intersections forward.

For now, we invite you to reach out to us if you have any thoughts on these issues you’d like to share! Please feel free to email us at becky[at]theengineroom.org.

Photo by Tyler Casey on Unsplash.

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