The reflections were written by Sara Baker and Barbara Paes from The Engine Room. The post was initially published by The Engine Room and can be found here.
After publishing our report exploring the intersections of digital rights, tech and climate justice, we wanted to make space to collectively imagine what it would look like to turn our research findings into action. So on October 18, we hosted a community call to plot a course for future work in this area. We were joined by activists, researchers and practitioners who are working on issues such as tech policy, environmental sciences, open data, digital rights, health, indigenous data and more.
During the call we focused on two main themes: 1) environmental data & AI for climate and 2) tech sustainability and decarbonization. While it is hard to capture how much collective energy was in the room, we’re sharing some of the main takeaways from the call below.
Environmental data & AI for climate
Participants had a lot of ideas for how the digital rights community could support environmental and climate justice activists. One suggestion was supporting indigenous data sovereignty efforts by helping communities apply this lens to the popular FAIR and open data approaches, and avoiding “imposing AI discourse” and data projects that continue extractive methods. These suggestions overlap with the ways environmental justice and climate justice (EJ-CJ) are connected to other types of justice, such as anti-racism. The group recommended that digital rights advocates support data efforts that focus on environmental racism and identify areas where AI and other data initiatives can harm communities even as they further EJ-CJ priorities.
To bring environmental and climate justice activists into digital rights work in an effective way, digital rights communities should use their skills, knowledge and networks to help strengthen environmental justice and climate justice work. Participants said this could be done by providing advice on secure collaboration and communication, facilitating training on digital security and digital rights and showcasing work that could benefit from exposure. Additionally, EJ-CJ and digital rights communities could do skill/knowledge sharing around such topics as digital rights, environmental racism & AI, tech labour issues, how companies collect and use user data, strategic litigation methods, environmental risk assessment, community engagement and trust-building processes.
Another priority was collaboration and adaptation. Participants recommended, “identifying issues and models that demonstrate how data sharing collaboration is possible”, sharing “facilitation methods to identify real and perceived data collaboration risks”, and “bringing data back to the community as a model for sharing”. Others suggested sharing designs and source code “to enable tool use and adaptation”, adapting and designing apps for more intuitive and comprehensive monitoring and mapping work or interoperability, and connecting efforts for broader impact (e.g., linking data governance to spatial efforts can support food sovereignty).
Finally, participants identified four top priorities for how digital rights communities can engage on environmental data & AI for climate:
- – Understand how vulnerable communities are affected by critical AI questions.
- – Ask probing questions like, “What is meant by green AI? Sustainable for whom?”
- – Address the need for more secure monitoring tools and build “better bridges” between them.
- – Facilitate community convenings that emphasise “diverse spaces and backgrounds”.
Tech sustainability & decarbonization
These groups quickly zeroed in on the need for the digital rights community to expand their push for transparency around algorithms, platform governance and other technical issues of companies to include transparency around environmental data. Specifically, participants mentioned transparency around the “environmental impact of data-driven processes”, including data centres, and social and environmental issues around the mineral extraction that digital technology currently requires, especially so-called “green minerals” and supply chains.
Relatedly, participants would like to see digital rights activists demand accountability from social media companies regarding disinformation and misinformation. This might include advertising transparency around fossil fuel and energy companies, limitations and better moderation on greenwashing, misleading environmental claims and climate conspiracies across platforms, including in paid ads/content and increased efforts to promote digital literacy.
Two rights were top of mind: privacy and right to repair. One participant said they want to see digital rights communities “consistently use and promote privacy-by-design tools to prevent data collection by big players”. Right to repair was a popular topic of conversation, as participants wanted to see it enforced for product developers along with fixable software that can be supported in older devices and an end to planned obsolescence, which forces people to constantly buy new devices, increasing extractive mining and its harms to local communities. Said a participant, “Back in the day, people around the corner could fix my Nokia, but now tech companies make it hard”. We’re left with an over-reliance on tech companies.
Participants also identified three areas of cross-sector and cross-movement collaboration:
- – Connecting digital rights and labour organising by “supporting organised labour [especially in all areas of tech], teaching about cooperatives, building scalable tech frameworks for these movements” and supporting digital literacy across movements.
- – Adapting divestment strategies from the climate justice movement.
- – “Anticipating that the transition will be destructive [and] ‘our’ job as privileged people is to cushion the less privileged”.
Ultimately, people emphasised the urgent need for advocacy around climate reparations, tying many of the above issues together. They pointed out that not only are the people most affected by climate change the least responsible for it, but they also tend to be left out of the solutions, which mirrors other areas of the tech sector. Those most harmed by digital rights restrictions are often left out of strategising and decision-making. A commitment to EJ-CJ and digital rights means imagining and advocating for climate reparations on all fronts.
Interested in learning more about our work at the intersection between digital rights and climate & environmental justice? Take a look at our recent research.