Digital Tech for a Greener Future
We are in a climate crisis. How can tech students and workers contribute solutions?
At the beginning of 2020, I resolved to read a book a month. I fell far short of this goal, but the books I did read — Utopia for Realists, Fascism: A Warning, Human Compatible, and The Uninhabitable Earth — were all wonderful reads. I was profoundly moved by that last book. Before reading it, I never once denied the reality of climate change, but I also didn’t care. The topic was not given significant attention in my high school science classes, and it always seemed like such a nebulous problem that bore no consequences for me. The Uninhabitable Earth changed my mind. To use the book’s opening words: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.”
Climate change is not slow. It is not some long awaited retribution that Mother Nature’s been biding for centuries. Rather, almost all of the greenhouse gas emissions and pollution unleashed by human activities have occurred within the lifetimes of many people alive today. Concretely, over the past half century, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration has grown by about 100 parts per million (ppm).
Climate change is not temporally distant. Coral reefs are dying now; glacial sheets are melting now; entire branches of the tree of life are being pruned now. To that last point, even compared to other mass extinction events, the current one induced by humans is extreme. Estimates suggest that currently, species are going extinct at a rate one hundred to one thousand times the natural “background extinction” rate, largely because of the climate changing so rapidly that life has almost no time to adapt.
Climate change is not spatially distant. In the eastern hemisphere, the Australian bushfires of 2020 that burned millions of hectares and killed or displaced billions of animals were considered to be one of the “worst wildlife disasters in modern history”. In the western hemisphere, tropical storms in the Mexican Gulf like Hurricanes Dorian and Patricia were so powerful that meteorologists are calling the “the Category-1-to-5 Saffir-Simpson scale for rating hurricanes […] inadequate” for properly describing the magnitude of destruction these storms bring. The climate crisis is causing devastation on ever-growing scales that upend the lives of people, animals, and plants everywhere. For all of us — everything that walks, crawls, flies, or swims on this planet — it is impossible to lead a life spatially distant from climate change and its impacts.
Climate change is not a crisis with precedent in the history of humankind. If we continue with business as usual, the Earth will likely hit 3℃ of warming by the end of this century. In the worst case scenario, the Earth might even hit 5℃ of warming by then. The last time our planet’s climate warmed this much was 56 million years ago when palm trees and crocodiles lived above the Arctic Circle. Our ancestors did not even begin to walk upright, let alone form complex societies, until only 200,000 years ago.
It is worse, much worse, than you think. Climate change is not slow. It is not temporally nor spatially distant. And most certainly, it is not a crisis with precedent in the history of humankind.
So what does all this mean for our grandchildren and descendants? Well, in the world of 2100 — when the United Nations projects the population to exceed 10 billion — many equatorial regions would be rendered unsafe for human habitation by persistent, deadly heat waves. Meanwhile, rising sea levels and frequent tropical storms point to increased flooding in major coastal cities like Shanghai, China and Mumbai, India with projected annual damages in the trillions of dollars. Some unfortunate cities like Jakarta, Indonesia might be completely underwater as early as 2050. Millions of people will be displaced as climate refugees. And where shall they go? Extreme weather and the still warming climate is projected to induce crop failures and water shortages everywhere. In fact, in 2019, Chennai, India became one of the world’s first major cities to completely exhaust its freshwater supply. As of February 2021, taps in the city of over 7 million people still run dry. What will the world of our grandchildren look like when 10 billion people realize there’s not enough food, water, or livable land to sustain all of them?
What will the world of our grandchildren look like when 10 billion people realize there’s not enough food, water, or livable land to sustain all of them?
Like the parable of the blind men trying to describe an elephant to each other, many of us — myself included — have previously relied on incomplete views of climate change. But when I put down The Uninhabitable Earth, I finally felt like the bigger picture was coming into focus. I felt helpless. It seemed like climate change was this enormous monster, like humanity was on this slippery slope toward planetary destruction. So over the past few months, I have been joining groups, reading papers, and researching companies, all to answer the question: how can technologists like me help?
Professions, Prizes, and Projects
If you currently, or aim to eventually, work in Big Tech, sustainability is an issue that’s recently entered the spotlight for those companies. Microsoft has an initiative called “AI for Earth” that provides grants and technical resources to groups using machine learning tools for environmental innovation. Some grantees you may recognize include iNaturalist, a social network for citizen scientists to document biodiversity, and The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit whose mission is to extract and intercept plastic pollution. More broadly, AI for Earth falls under a project at Microsoft called the “Planetary Computer”.
At X — The Moonshot Factory (who shares the same parent company as Google), computer scientists and roboticists are working on projects like Mineral and Tidal. The former works on technology for building more sustainable, resilient, and productive food systems while the latter works on machine learning and robotics systems for monitoring and protecting ocean ecosystems.
In case you haven’t heard, Tesla’s not the only company working on autonomous, electric vehicles. Amazon is also developing its own electric vehicles for delivery drivers and acquired a self-driving car company called Zoox in 2020.
Big names in Big Tech who have personally spoken about the need for addressing climate change include the likes of Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos. Gates wrote a book titled How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, and has claimed that achieving net zero carbon emissions would be “the most amazing thing humanity has ever done.” By comparison, he suggests ending the COVID-19 pandemic is “very, very easy”. Meanwhile, Musk has recently kicked off a competition for innovative carbon capture technology whose grand prize is $100M. For his part, Bezos launched a $10B climate fund in 2020, with organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund among the beneficiaries.
For those who are looking specifically for careers in tackling climate issues, there are many emerging players whose company mission is to work toward solutions in areas like sustainable agriculture, carbon sequestration, afforestation, and smart homes. The skills they look for generally lie in embedded systems, Internet of Things (IoT), data science, and machine learning, but many of them are hiring every stripe of engineer. Off the top of my head, here’s a list of companies to look into.
Renewable Energy and Smart Buildings:
Smart Farming and Water Management:
Outside of professional work, there are also plenty of communities to join and open-source projects to contribute to. One such community is EarthShot Labs, which incubates teams working on a variety of projects like soil and water management and sustainable urban development. Another community of interest is Tomorrow, best known for their open-source electricity map project. And while not open-source (as of writing), an app for driving personal climate action called Snowball is looking for volunteers to join their team. You can find more open-source tech projects in this curated list from Open Sustainable Technology.
On a more personal note, if you have your own website, consider designing it to follow the Low Impact Manifesto. Then, once you feel good about it, check your new website’s estimated carbon footprint with the Carbon Calculator. Here’s an example result for ACM@UCLA’s website, as of February 2021.
If you prefer working on embedded systems/IoT projects, check out this smart garden idea by Practical Engineering on YouTube. Buying local is generally more environmentally friendly than buying global, and what could be more local than a garden in your own backyard? (Alternatively, I suppose you could have just a regular garden sans the Arduino setup, but c’mon; it’s a cute little gardening robot!)
Finally, consider tools like CodeCarbon and Digital Humani. The former is a Python package that estimates the amount of CO2 produced by the computing resources used to execute your code. The latter is perhaps the first Reforestation as a Service (RaaS) platform. As a matter of fact, some of the folks behind Digital Humani were featured as panelists at ACM@UCLA’s “Careers in Social Impact” event held in January 2021.
Everything mentioned thus far gives technologists plenty of avenues for leveraging our skills. But some researchers assert that we need even bolder ideas to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. So, for the extra big dreamers among us, consider the following interdisciplinary innovations.
Geoengineering refers to the idea that humans can only stop climate change through the exertion of more control over our planetary systems. One suggestion that’s been floated in the news a couple times is stratospheric aerosol injection. The premise is that a fleet of planes can periodically disperse tiny particles in the upper atmosphere, where they would reflect sunlight away from Earth’s surface and hopefully slow down warming. We already have the tools to implement this idea, but progress has been extremely slow due to concerns over efficacy and unintended side effects on the ozone layer, seasonal weather patterns, and human health. Plus, stratospheric aerosol injection would do almost nothing for other areas of concern like ocean acidification and the impetus toward institutional decarbonization. Of particular relevance for technologists, data scientists are needed to develop machine learning models that can accelerate the search for potential aerosols, model impacts, and perhaps be the planetary control system itself.
Another innovation on the horizon is biological computation. This area of research — which is not the same as computational biology — seeks to develop methods for writing code that compiles to and runs on living organisms. One proponent of this field, former Microsoft researcher Sara-Jane Dunn, calls it the “Living Software Revolution”. In a TED talk from 2019, Dunn makes the case for understanding and developing models of computation for the functions performed by living systems, then using that knowledge to develop languages for altering the program of life. She believes such technology would open many possibilities for advancements in medicine, energy, materials, and agriculture, all of which can bolster life’s resilience to the rapid changes caused by the climate crisis. One particular idea advanced by Dunn is that if we can successfully model the quantum interactions within plant cells that allow them to absorb sunlight at a rate that even the best solar panels cannot match, we can then develop synthetic DNA circuits for better solar cells that can be used to supply the world’s power needs sustainably. While this field is still relatively nascent, strides are being taken to make it a more concrete reality. The same year of Dunn’s talk, a joint effort between Microsoft and University of Washington demonstrated an automated system for storing data in synthetic DNA, as opposed to electronic circuits. In the same way these news anchors from 1995 struggled to understand the Internet — let alone the massive companies it would spawn — we are perhaps standing at the cusp of a revolution in both computing and sustainability, a revolution whose long-term ramifications for life on this planet we cannot even begin to understand.
As difficult as the challenges presented by climate change may be, they are not insurmountable. If you already have an established career, push your company to emphasize sustainable development and environmentally-conscious design. If you are looking to work specifically on tech-based climate solutions, try out some personal projects, sign up for newsletters, and join groups that can help you get the job you want. If you are a bold dreamer, think about these interdisciplinary innovations. Perhaps you can discover some novel breakthrough, or contribute still more daring ideas of your own.
And finally, one more thing I’d be remiss to mention is that climate change cannot be addressed with technical solutions alone. Even with the most promising of technologies like IoT and deep learning, we cannot hope to draw salvation purely from our machines. Some solutions only come through politics, and the fact is: tech workers are generally quite affluent and politically influential. Our privilege must be used to advocate for change within our workplaces, local communities, and government. We need to push tech companies to divest from fossil fuels and other non-climate-friendly business arrangements. For instance, despite the big commotion it makes about sustainability pledges and goals, Microsoft still has ongoing partnerships with Big Oil, providing cloud resources and ML tools for fossil fuel extraction. If Big Tech actually wants to be green, its actions ought to match its words. As tech workers, it is up to us to advocate for such change in a manner that is ambitious with respect to the environment, yet also considerate in regards to the people whose livelihoods currently depend on fossil fuel extraction.
Over the past few months that I have been exploring the world of green technology, I have found that there is a multitude of ways for tech students and workers to help. We have the skills — and the privilege — to fight for our future. We know what to do. We just have to act.
References, Further Readings
- The Uninhabitable Earth
- CO2 Levels: Current & Historic Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide / Global Temperature Graph & Widget
- Interactive: The impacts of climate change at 1.5C, 2C and beyond | Carbon Brief
- What’s the hottest Earth’s ever been?
- World population growth is expected to nearly stop by 2100
- Cape Town water crisis
- How One of the World’s Wettest Major Cities Ran Out of Water
- Global Warming of 1.5 ºC
- The Risks, Rewards and Possible Ramifications of Geoengineering Earth’s Climate
- Microsoft, UW demonstrate first fully automated DNA data storage
- Microsoft AI for Earth
- A Planetary Computer
- Opinion | Every Country Has Its Own Climate Risks. What’s Yours?
- AI and Climate Change: The Promise, the Perils and Pillars for Action
- Green AI | December 2020 | Communications of the ACM
- Amazon’s custom electric delivery vehicles are starting to hit the road
- Microsoft, Google, Amazon — Who’s the Biggest Climate Hypocrite?
- Jeff Bezos announces first beneficiaries of his $10 billion climate fund
- Bill Gates: Solving COVID easy compared with climate
- Oil is the New Data
- Principles of Green Software Engineering
- Tomorrow — A Pragmatic Guide to Climate Change