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The Environmental and Social Impacts of the Internet on Climate Change

By Isabel Coleman

The mid-20th century marks the beginning of a new epoch: a distinct division in time characterized by a major shift in social and geological events. With this new chronological classification comes major societal changes. In the 1980s two significant milestones transpired: the invention of the internet (Andrews, 2013) and the announcement of climate change as an international crisis (Weart, 2021). While the two events were not originally considered to be related, as time proceeded they became evidently interconnected. The internet influences climate change both positively and negatively through the intrinsic release of emissions and the communicatory abilities of social networking applications.

The media tends to focus the blame of climate change on a few major polluters such as deforestation and agriculture. Although these are the largest causes, it is important to address the less commonly known carbon contributors within daily life. One substantial energy consumer that is often overlooked is the internet. Online activities as well as information stored in data centres contribute to global warming and account for around 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Streaming videos, listening to music, and sending emails all produce and release emissions that advance global warming; a single email can emit between 0.3g to 50g of carbon dioxide (Griffiths, 2020). An email may not be the leading cause of climate change, but it is the overuse of the internet in the 21st century that is furthering this issue. Additionally, data centres used for information storage and telecommunications are major consumers of electricity, expending roughly 1% of the global electricity demand (Ezra, 2021). Rapid advances in the information and communications technology sector are continuing to progress, increasing carbon emissions along with them.

As emissions produced by the internet continue to escalate, it is essential to adjust to more sustainable practices of internet usage and data retrieval. Individually, there are many choices available to lower one’s carbon footprint associated with their internet habits. One way to reduce carbon emissions is to choose more energy-efficient forms of communication such as texting or calling, rather than emailing or facetime. A single text produces 285 times fewer carbon emissions than a regular email. With the excessive amount of messaging required in jobs and in personal life, choosing to send a text instead of an email could lower carbon footprints considerably. Another important practice in reducing carbon emissions is choosing to support companies that prioritize environmentalism and power their platforms using renewable energy such as Microsoft and Google. Although their programs are not completely powered by sustainable energy, they are working in the right direction (Griffiths, 2020). Finally, improving the efficiency of data centres is another crucial step in decreasing the internet's overall carbon footprint. In the last decade, data centres have made numerous changes to improve efficiency, but their energy consumption, nevertheless, is too high. One adjustment that data centres can make is to reduce their dependence on ventilation systems. The equipment that is used to store and process information is required to remain at a certain temperature, expending a great deal of energy. By effectively insulating the buildings and directing the airflow towards the equipment, data centres can minimize their negative contributions to the climate crisis (Marashi, 2020).

The internet is a useful resource for gathering and disseminating information; however, this information can be manipulated to serve certain false perceptions. Misinformation is becoming increasingly prevalent with the increase in social media and internet usage, particularly an issue for controversial and political topics such as climate change. Deceptive information regarding climate change often promotes a skeptical and denialist narrative, attempting to discredit climatological facts (Treen et al., 2021). The spread of misinformation can be partially attributed to both “echo chambers” and “algorithmic bias”. Echo chambers are “homogeneous clusters of users with a preference for self-confirmation,” (Törnberg, 2018) advancing climate change skepticism via positive reinforcement. Algorithmic bias is similar to echo chambers in the sense that both validate a perspective by surrounding an individual with ideologically harmonious content. The difference between the two phenomena is that echo chambers fortify beliefs with like-minded individuals while the algorithmic bias achieves the same by amplifying reaffirming social media content. These misinformation practices can create polarization regarding climate change and imprint doubt into the minds of impressionable individuals (Treen et al., 2021).

With the overwhelming quantity of false information concerning climate change, it is essential that media platforms regulate and educate users on misinformation. Social media platforms such as Facebook have begun to take measures against the spread of false information by flagging posts and removing accounts that repeatedly or purposely misinform the public. Although their actions are operating in the right direction, these companies' efforts should be more drastic to minimize bias as well as anti-environmental propaganda. Media platforms have an obligation to be more efficient in detecting misinformation as well as promoting verified climate science. During the 2019 Australian wildfires, claims that the fires were the works of radical leftists evincing the urgency of climate change submerged. When these rumours spread, it was not until over 70,000 individuals saw the post that it was removed by Facebook (Frost, 2020). With over 50,000 employees, Facebook should have the means to prioritize improving its response rate when validating information (Statista, 2021). Although this may be difficult to enforce without individuals worrying about their “freedom of speech” being impeded upon, regulating misinformation is an essential aspect of climate activism.

Despite the negative impact of the internet on the progression of global warming, it possesses beneficial capabilities in spreading awareness and promoting activism. The internet is widely interconnected, allowing for a diverse range of information to be propagated. This connectivity is essential for educating broad audiences on the urgency of climate change and the importance of climate advocacy (Mavrodieva et al., 2019). Social media in particular has been known to connect youth from across the world to strike from school in hopes of increased government intervention in the climate emergency. What began as an individual effort by Greta Thunberg to challenge the Swedish government became a worldwide effort with millions of protestors in over 100 countries (Fridays for Future, 2021). Her success in stimulating activism and raising awareness demonstrates the capacity that the internet has for change.

The internet has also become a major source of news, with 8 in 10 adults in the US getting their news from a mobile device (Shearer, 2021). This substantial portion of individuals using the internet as their main source of information creates a network allowing for the easier spread of important ideologies (Mavrodieva et al., 2019). If a family only watches right-wing news such as Fox News, using online news resources gives access to more accurate climatological information.

While peer-to-peer climate advocacy is an essential aspect of the movement, public figures are capable of reaching a larger and more diverse group of individuals. Celebrities tend to use a more emotion-based approach to mobilize environmental action, invoking fear and hope in the public. This method of spreading awareness can reach individuals who aren't particularly educated on climate science and appeal to their emotions to facilitate changes. Speaking on environmental issues is beneficial for these influencers as well as the environment by enhancing their public image while encouraging public engagement (Park, 2020). Celebrities are known for partaking in performative activism, imploring the importance of environmental action without putting their statements into practice. Despite the hypocrisy portrayed by these individuals, the impact on society and the climate as a whole offsets the unfulfilled claims (Doyle et. al, 2017). Public figures' ability to provoke activism is demonstrated through Leonardo DiCaprio’s efforts to spread awareness through his documentaries The 11th Hour and Before the Flood. In his documentaries, DiCaprio explores environmental devastations caused by climate change (Before the Flood, 2016). Millions watched both films and became some of the most-viewed documentaries in history (CCAC, 2018). The presence of a celebrity in the films was a major contributor to their success and proliferation of climate consciousness.

The internet has a substantial impact on the climate crisis. The overuse of mobile devices and the inefficiency of data centres contribute a sizable amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further warming the planet. Climate misinformation in the media has a similar effect, discrediting proven environmental theories and potentially reducing the number of people making sustainable life choices. The internet has a positive impact on climate change as well, by bringing awareness to important matters, promoting activism, and interconnecting individuals internationally. Both negative and positive contributions have a major influence on the outcome of climate change. It is essential to be educated on the impact of one’s actions on the environment, and how you can live your life more sustainably, while also being aware of the false dichotomy that everything must be either purely good or bad.


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