To fix Climate Change, stop being a techie and start being a human

Paul Johnston
Aug 29, 2019 · 11 min read
Being human is not always easy

I have many conversations with people in tech who want to know how to get involved in the Climate Change fight. The first instinct of people in tech is to want to build a website or app because that’s what they know… so here’s my response.

A bit of background

I’ve spent the last year or so getting much more involved in activism around the tech world and the Climate Crisis. I’ve spoken at QCon London on the Risk of Climate Change and What Tech Can Do with a Climatologist, Jason Box, which was one of the highlights of my career to date. I’ve co-written, along with Anne Currie, a whitepaper on the Ethics and State of Data Centre Energy Usage in 2018 and started a petition for big cloud providers to have Sustainable Servers by 2024 which means running on or 100% offsetting with sustainable power by that date — sign it if you agree they should as few of the providers do.

I’ve also done multiple talks on the ethics of the tech industry and multiple talks on the whitepaper and the petition.

This is all independent of my “paid work” which is still in the tech industry. I am an experienced CTO and Interim CTO and also was previously the AWS Senior Developer Advocate for Serverless (I was one of two, and there are many more now). I still do consulting, due diligence and advisory work for companies primarily in London, but around the world as needed.

I am a strategist, a businessman, and underneath it all, still a techie. I have been for over 20 years now. I can still write code and I like telling people how to use serverless technologies to make their applications much easier and better. I’ve been involved with setting up the ServerlessDays series of conferences, and to be honest, while this can make me money (and probably quite a lot of money) it really isn’t that important.

The more I interact with the tech industry, the more I realise that the industry is unaware of the impact that tech has on the Climate.

Maddie Stone has written an excellent article on how the tech world needs to wake up and realise that the planet needs a new internet.

This article touches on multiple issues, but there is one thing that is certain: We’re using a whole lot of electricity to make sure we can watch as many cat videos and box sets as we like.

Tech is mostly unaware and disinterested

Data Centres emit approximately 2% of global Greenhouse Gases (GHG) through electricity and energy demand.

Let me say that again.

Data Centres — those buildings that house the servers that run our websites, our streaming services, our dating apps — consume electricity and energy that amounts to approximately 1/50th or 2% of the total Greenhouse Gas emissions.

I say approximately because it’s very difficult to know exactly, because some of the largest suppliers do not share their data (e.g. some of the biggest cloud vendors) and do not share how much of their electricity is from renewables (see the whitepaper) and in fact, don’t share how much electricity and other energy that they use. There’s also many smaller Data Centres that may not get included in the data.

To give context, Data Centres are roughly equivalent to the whole aviation industry in terms of global impact on Climate Change.

Tech people are often not only unaware of the impact, but often disinterested to a greater or lesser extent.

The overwhelming response to the Climate Crisis from tech people is often a response similar to this:

“Yes I believe Climate Change is caused by humans, but someone’s going to fix it”

(Usually that “someone” is Elon Musk — or Saint Elon as many techies seem to think he is — or someone similar like Bill Gates)

In fact, I‘ve heard (some are paraphrased to keep it concise):

  • “It’s all about Electric Cars isn’t it?”
  • “We just have to fix all the pollution in our cities”
  • “I’ve heard it’s all about plastic in the oceans. That’s the most important thing right?”
  • “We’ll build a nuclear fusion reactor soon. No need to panic” (Note: even the 30+ country ITER project doesn’t think it’ll become commercial within decades)

I’ve heard very little climate denialism within the tech industry which is good, and likely because there are many with a science background in tech.

However, these responses show a lack of breadth of knowledge, and also that there is an underlying disinterest in looking for a solution.

Why?

Because tech people think that somebody else will fix the “Climate Crisis” problem

(I don’t necessarily think that this is confined to tech people, but that’s who I interact with a lot)

There’s something interesting that happens though, when you do start to make a tech person “aware” of this problem though…

They want to “do” something!

“I want to fix Climate Change! What can I do?” — Every Aware Techie Everywhere

Note: I’ve had a version of this conversation very many times now, so before I start, what I am not doing is telling you to not do something. What I am telling you to do, is to learn something first.

When I spoke at QCon in March, the first few questions, and the subsequent after talk chats mostly had a very simple question:

“What can I do?”

When techies ask this question, what they mean is a version of this question:

“I am a techie who can do <AI/python/cloud/UX/something specific in tech that I am really good at so pick a skillset> and I want to use that to fix Climate Change

The first thing that most people want to do is take “Climate Data” and then “do something with it”.

This is because techies are used to thinking about “Climate Change” as to do with “Weather Patterns” or “Climate Patterns” because that’s what we see when we talk about… maps of rising sea levels, or maps of rising temperatures, or maps of the tropics becoming uninhabitable by 2100 or something.

We’re used to patterns, because we work with “data” and so the simplest analogue for what our skills fit with are usually “here’s the data, do <something> with that data” and that data is climate data.

Fortunately, there’s a lot more data that could be much more important to work on.

Helping is not (necessarily) about coding— it’s about Climate Crisis Domain Knowledge

One of the first things I do with a techie who wants to help is to explain Project Drawdown

Project Drawdown is a comprehensive plan to reverse the Climate Crisis and it immediately makes combating the Climate Crisis more complicated and a whole lot bigger than simply “weather maps” or “climate data”.

In fact, if you were to tell a techie that they could have a huge impact by building a startup from that list, then all of a sudden it becomes much more difficult for them to see how they can get involved.

Getting involved in combating the Climate Crisis is a lot more than simply coding a few lines and feeling better about yourself

Let’s look at the Top 10 solutions by Total Atmospheric CO2 reduction from Project Drawdown:

  • Refrigerant Management (89.74GT)
  • Wind Turbines (Onshore) (84.60GT)
  • Reduced Food Waste (70.53GT)
  • Plant-Rich Diet (66.11GT)
  • Tropical Forests (61.23GT)
  • Educating Girls (51.48GT)
  • Family Planning (51.48GT)
  • Solar Farms (36.90GT)
  • Silvopasture (31.19GT)
  • Rooftop Solar (24.60GT)

The Top 10 is varied and includes agriculture, food, electricity, manufacturing, and social change.

When a techie wants to get involved, maybe the best thing they can do, is educate themselves first.

For example, go and read up about why Educating Girls and Family Planning are key to combating the Climate Crisis.

Educated Girls realise higher wages and greater upward mobility and rates of maternal mortality drop as do the mortality rates of their children. Their agricultural plots are more productive and their families better nourished. This shores up their ability to combat the effects of Climate Change, which will be felt more in the areas where education of girls is needed.

Family Planning is simpler to understand. Many women do not have the ability to choose when and where to have children, even in developed countries. More mouths to feed leads to more strain on resources. Accessing reproductive healthcare for women around the world provides a significant impact in terms of the carbon footprints of the people in the world going forward.

Domain knowledge is everything in the Climate Crisis

What we don’t need is lots more electricity being spent on lots more compute that delivers more websites that make a single developer feel better.

In fact, it’s not about “you”

In June, Mary Annaise Heglar wrote a superb article for Vox that summed this up perfectly.

“I don’t care if you recycle” is a great way of putting it.

Because I personally don’t care if you do.

Because it’s not about your individual actions, because they almost certainly don’t matter.

Your individual actions, your recycling, your going vegetarian or vegan, your using a metal bottle instead of plastic, your flying less (Flygskam if you will) will almost certainly make no difference at all to Climate Change.

This huge Climate Crisis will not be fixed by “us” buying ethical and using less plastic.

Because “us” will only include the knowledgeable ones, and that will never be enough.

The vast majority of the emissions that have created the Climate Crisis come from a handful of corporations supported by governments…

… so anybody telling you that fixing the Climate Crisis is about personal actions is victim blaming.

Climate Change is NOT YOUR FAULT.

But I don’t think personal actions are completely pointless… here’s why.

I have been a vegetarian for a few years, simply because of Climate Change.

Why?

With everything I just said, that’s pointless. I may as well simply eat meat and not worry about the carbon penalty I’m adding to the planet…

I am a vegetarian because it allows me to remember to personally fight Climate Change each and every day.

Becoming a vegetarian meant that I started to do the research, the reading, the seeking out of knowledge to find out what I could do and how I could change the world.

And I very quickly realised that I couldn’t do much on my own.

Techies: Join a movement… or start one

Techies have a bad habit of seeing a problem, and trying to build a solution.

Stop!

There are a whole lot of projects and movements out there that have existed for many years (some for decades) that have experience and knowledge on Climate Change.

These projects and movements could do with your help.

What these Climate Change projects don’t need is a lot of tech people who have lived in a tech bubble, and imagine that all that is needed to start a project is to read The Lean Startup, the ability to build a website or app (calling it an MVP), and access to some seed pitch days.

As an example, I became an unpaid Director of Wolverton Community Energy Company, an organisation in my hometown working to reduce fuel poverty and do a small amount for Climate Change in the local area because I recognised that individual actions make little difference but to learn by doing. I am using my business skills (and improving them significantly) to help build something sustainable (from a business point of view as well as an environmental point of view). My tech skills are of limited use but my network of experienced IoT and tech professionals in the space is of some use, but again, it is limited.

There are many organisations and movements that you can join, and many tech movements to look into. I have found interesting and useful information about the Climate Crisis in all these places (linking is not an endorsement of everything here, so please use your own critical thinking skills):

  • 350.org — a movement aiming to end fossil fuel use and build a world around community energy usage. Also supporting the September 20th climate strikes
  • Fridays for Future — started by Greta Thunberg, and has grown to be an enormous movement in less than a year
  • Sunrise Movement — (US) a movement to stop Climate Change and create millions of new jobs in the process
  • Greenpeace — working with communities to protect environments they call home. Create the Click Clean report that looks at how clean or dirty your favourite apps/websites are
  • Extinction Rebellion — an international, non-violent movement using civil disobedience to halt mass extinction and minimise the risk of social collapse
  • climateaction.tech — a group of tech people (and slack) from around the world using their skills to support solutions to the climate crisis
  • Committee on Climate Change — (UK) provides independent advice to the UK Government on building a low carbon economy and preparing for Climate Change. Worth reading the Net Zero Report if you’re from the UK and if you’re from outside the UK, it’s worth seeing what happens if a Government legally has to setup a body to measure and report on whether a country is meeting its Climate Change commitments.
  • and many many (many many many) more… but these are a good place to start

There are already a lot of people out there doing amazing things.

Join a movement

Or start a movement

Don’t do the tech thing and try to be “The One To Fix It”

Because getting people to work together to fight Climate Change is far more likely to have an impact.

Fighting Climate Change isn’t a startup problem.

Fighting Climate Change is an everybody problem.

Get on board.

Last thing: It’s ok to feel grief

It’s absolutely natural to read the IPCC reports and especially the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C, and feel grief, and feel that it’s all hopeless and nothing we do matters. Back to Mary Annaise Heglar:

This is an enormous challenge. Even those who know about this problem know how big it is.

Which is why you need friends, and people around you.

It’s not about you, it’s about us.

The thing is… with Climate Change, the Overton Window has moved.

Climate Change is more important to voters in the UK than a stable economy

Two thirds of people in the UK agree the planet is in a Climate Emergency

In the US, the majority of Republicans appear to “Agree” or “Strongly Agree” that they are “worried” that human behaviour is damaging the planet. Among Republicans aged 18–34, it’s 67%.

There is rising worry around the world about Climate Change.

Now is the time to do something.

We have spent 30 years knowing that we should do something.

It’s fine to grieve but don’t despair.

It’s not your fault, that’s victim blaming.

It is our fight.

This is the defining fight of our generation.

We can do this.

We are humans and a human race.

We need to do this together, not as individuals.

Get involved.

Get involved now.

Paul Johnston

Written by

ServerlessDays CoFounder (Jeff), ex AWS Serverless Snr DA, experienced CTO/Interim, Startups, Entrepreneur, Techie, Geek and Christian

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