2018 has seen a disturbing surge in the effects of climate change, which wreak havoc across every continent. Whether it’s due to unbearable droughts or perilous floods, entire communities around the world undergo the painful process of bouncing back from natural disasters and readjusting their lives to the rapidly changing climate and topographical conditions of the Earth. Although human activity and global industrialisation are to blame for the destruction of our planet’s ecosystem, it seems that, at least to an extent, a solution to the problem could emerge from technological advancements. Numerous initiatives are currently underway to utilise Artificial Intelligence (AI) and big data in order to both prepare for the changing landscape of coastal areas and increase the efficiency of human activity in order to minimise its adverse impact on the environment.
One Concern is a start up managed by Craig Fugate, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The company employs AI and machine learning technologies to provide local authorities, community leaders, and decision makers with highly precise data regarding upcoming natural disasters, which will allow them to adequately prepare for their impact. One Concern supplements their high tech services with an in-person training to help their clients assess, respond to, and recover from natural disasters. In an interview for Scientific American, Fugate states, “If we can make the risks more definitive, we can at least start to get more control over our destiny—versus it being inflicted upon us each time a storm hits.” Fugate further argues that as part of its mission, One Concern advocates for an equal and fair transformation of coastal areas which over the next decades will have to plan for massive relocation of its population. Fugate warns against a scenario in which the burden of moving will be placed solely on lower income communities, and that big data and AI will be exploited by biased entities and developers seeking to maximise profits. The start-up considers all these factors when providing assistance and consultation to its clients.
Disaster prevention is only one aspect of the High Tech vs. Climate Change trend. AI For Earth is an initiative developed by Microsoft seeking to employ AI in an eco-friendly manner. The programme is aimed at providing individuals and organisations with technology that allows them to utilise climate data in order to increase the efficiency of their water and energy usage. Specifically, the programme uses AI in order to translate and process raw data of environmental systems so that farmers and agricultural companies could divide it into categories that make sense to them. In collaboration with the National Geographic Society, AI For Earth will be giving grants to a selected group of AI app designers and projects they believe could help perfect their product and furnish members of the agricultural sector, scientists, and sustainable initiatives with valuable and usable data regarding climate patterns.
Despite these tech advancements, here still lies an inherent risk in profiting off of such critical data compiled by AI and machine learning, as overtime such initiatives could be primarily concerned with monetary gains as opposed to tackling climate change and providing equal assistance to all those who are vulnerable to its effects. And so, as such technology is developed, it is crucial that both national and international organisations and bodies oversee its usage and ensure that its application benefits more than a select-wealthy-few.
It is a warm, bright day in early February. I am indoors on a Skype call with Nadine Andrews, an eco-psychologist and psychosocial researcher, discussing climate change and food security while she makes pancakes for her family. The sizzle of batter on the pan is a comfort where the reality of our current CO2 emissions trajectory is not. Andrews used work for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and she is not afraid to tell me how it is. “Climate change is happening faster and on a greater scale than scientists were anticipating from the models and that’s partly because IPCC goes on the more conservative end. All of this stuff is already happening. We have to deal with it, this is reality. We might be able to delay some stuff but actually we’re not in control of it.”
Perhaps had I wanted this pancake flipping researcher to go easier on me? Andrews tells me we must either face our fear of climate change now, “design our way into it”, or wait until we no longer have the privilege of ignoring what has already begun. She recounts an analogy about a therapist with a sign on their door which says, “either way it’s going to hurt”.
For decades, climate scientists have worried that people did not know or understand enough about climate change and that this was the reason for sluggish public and political action. What social researchers are finally beginning to understand is that it is not a lack of knowledge, but in fact too much knowledge about climate change which is the problem. What has been assumed to be a moral failure to act fast enough is now being reframed as a deep-seated psychological trait. The sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard, who wrote a book called ‘Living in Denial’, thinks that people know too much about climate change. Norgaard wonders if the root of much climate inaction is not a lack but surplus of empathy, and calls climate apathy “the mask of suffering”.
It is true that when one is faced with a disturbing reality, which contradicts the business-as-usual discourse to be found everywhere else, it is easier to focus on current pancakes rather than future crop failure. It is not only that we know too much and feel too helpless, but that we also do not have the language to help us digest our profoundly modern disconnect from nature. Andrews herself is not sure which words are best to describe how we should relate to climate change.
Apparently, The Guardian uses the word “fight” a lot. To “fight” climate change is to cast nature as an enemy, when we should by now have learnt that nature is an entity to be protected, not overcome. Clearly, when we talk about fighting climate change, we mean to launch a battle cry against our own systems of excessive resource consumption. Nature does not care whether we win or lose a fight against ourselves.
If I accept the seriousness of the information about climate change with which I am presented, then I have to imagine a radically different future for myself. It makes me panic. Climate researchers I have spoken with tend to be glad that Greta Thunberg, the famous sixteen-year-old climate activist currently leading school strikes across Europe, has called for people to panic. Andrews and I both agree, though, that panic is not a universally useful term to employ, as it is not a sustainable state of emotion and is no good for building policies upon.
Andrews assures me that she, too, felt afraid before, but that now she feels profound grief about the ecological crisis. “I feel sadness now,” and she does indeed look very sad about it all. I, on the other hand, feel afraid. Seeing a climate scientist look upset is rather like seeing a parent or teacher cry when you are a child.
To write this article, I have had to face these unpleasant emotions. I have sat for hours and transcribed interviews with scientists whose courage to continue on with this emotional and political monster astounds me. My exercise has been challenging but therapeutic. It is impossible to write well in a state of panic. Instead, I have had to work through fear and helplessness in order to reach a state where I am able to articulate the emotional complexity of facing a future for which humankind is miserably maladapted. People with low incomes are especially vulnerable, although climate change does not discriminate, and the rich will not be able to buffer themselves so easily, either.
It is difficult to find the right words to describe how we are feeling about our future. Norgaard notices that people are normally unable to discuss climate change beyond a few lines of conversation. I have noticed this too. What else, beyond “it is warmer, we are fucked, fancy a pancake?”, is there to be said?
Perhaps there is a way for us to begin to move deeper into climate conversation and action once we acknowledge that fear is a powerful enabler of procrastination. Of course, it is not only fear of climate change we experience: it is a fear of economic transformation too. It is guaranteed that the more climate change activists push to halt our accelerating consumption, the more the powerful will push back and persuade us to keep on buying. It is true that when we finally do curb our consumerism, the economy will suffer and then, so will we. Either way, it hurts.
Because humans are creatures with a capacity for nuanced emotions, it seems fair to end on a positive note. We are able to hold two conflicting emotions at once. We live in fear and hope; we probably cannot live well without both. Here is how Nadine Andrews spoke to me about hope that warm day in early February. “The sorts of transformational changes that are needed offer opportunities to rethink how we want to live in the world and how we want to live with each other and how we want to live with nature. It offers the possibility for a better way of life which serves us and other beings better than the existing world.”
There is much to discuss, after all.
Thank you to Scott Bremer, Karen O’Brien, and Nadine Andrews for advising research for this article.