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Learning in the open

This post is part of the Green Web Fellowship. Fellows are exploring the intersection of digital rights and climate justice; and are reflecting honestly on what they learn. More about the fellowship and the fellows.

Presenting new research climate justice x digital rights

In 2021 Ford, Mozilla and Ariadne launched a research project with the aim to understand what responsible grantmaking on the intersection between digital rights and climate/environmental justice can look like. Today we are proud to present 8 new pieces of research. The Engine Room as the key research partner in this project is presenting a landscape analysis. In addition we are publishing seven deep dive issue briefs created by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), BSR, and the Open Environmental Data Project and Open Climate. In this blog I will offer a sneak preview on what you can expect from these different pieces of research.

The below bullets will allow you as the reader to jump to a specific report summary:

Landscape mapping

The Engine Room report ‘At the confluence of digital rights and climate & environmental justice: A landscape review‘ provides an overview of how an extremely diverse set of communities and movements work across the intersection of climate justice and digital rights. Why should you read it?

A recurring theme in discussions I have had on climate and tech is that people feel they do not know where to start. This report is a great place to start as it offers an accessible and thoughtful overview into different climate and environmental justice issues that emerge from technological innovation. The Engine Room specifically outlines five issue areas;

  • the environmental toll of digital infrastructures;
  • access to information and climate disinformation;
  • climate monitoring;
  • increased surveillance of environmental activists and land defenders;
  • migration justice.

Next to these five issue areas the report offers insight into cross-cutting themes and challenges. Take for example the reports section on the need for a shared worldview between communities, movements and sectors. Here the Engine Room acknowledges that the climate justice and digital rights movement have different languages, histories and entry points into issue on climate and tech, but connect working towards an intersectional lexicon to more fundamental ideological differences. In their research they found that within and between the movements there are different ideas on how to define and address injustices, and the movements have distinct and conflicting views on the role of the state and market in addressing harms and fostering solutions.

Issue briefs

1. Mapping the gaps between digital rights and environmental justice actors in the global South

APC issue brief offers a deep dive into the gabs between the digital rights and environmental justice movement. They argue that digital rights involvement in climate issues to this day has been ad hoc and focussed on isolated issues rather than having it be a core strategic concern. In their issue brief they identify four important gaps that limit joint action;

  • Awareness of each other’s advocacy terrains.
  • Different relationships to power.
  • A general absence of cross-over advocacy concerns as core strategic agendas
  • Gaps in capacity building: Evidence of low-hanging fruits

All four gabs are worth elaborating on, but my Aha moment when reading this issue brief was on the different relationships to power. Here APC refers specifically to the relationship with the private sector. Environmental groups have adversarial and contested relationships to agribusiness, energy and other extractive sectors, while some digital rights orgs. collaborate with Big Tech or Big Tech initiates programs related to digital rights. Any meaningful action on the intersection on climate and tech thus requires a clear articulation of the relationship with the market.

The issue brief ends with avenues where the relationship between digital rights and environmental justice actors in the global South could be strengthened

2. Environmental and digital rights: Exploring the potential for interplay and mutual reinforcement for better governance

This issue brief by APC explores what those working in the internet governance sphere can learn from governance debates on environmental issues. The deep dive starts off very strongly by highlighting the commonalities between the two governance issues; global in scope, need for action of market, state and citizens in management and protection, cross cutting policy areas, and linked to exercising key rights. They also translate these commonalities into governance questions that still need to be addressed. 

What allowed me to ground their argument was the example on applying environmental law to regulate the environmental harms of the internet infrastructure. In this blog post I wrote about the impact of data centers beyond carbon and how these infrastructures are increasingly becoming a foci point for conflict over land, water and energy.

APC asks would it be possible, using the Aarhus Convention, to demand more information on the massive natural resource-dependency of data centres, the environmental cost of using and manipulating data, and the projections of greenhouse gas emissions from our use of technology?

3. Extractivism, mining and technology in the global South: Towards a common agenda for action

This third APC issue brief clearly explains the challenges and conflicts around mining of natural resources needed tech hardware, what they refer to as extractivism. It offers clear examples of the harms in the DRC, in Mexico and Brazil, and in the Lithium Triangle in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia.

They deliberately use a broad definition of extraction to include both rare metals and minerals needed for digital devices and the consumption of other natural resource, such as water in both the mining and the data process. This framing is important as it will allow digital rights actors to connect the environmental tool so the internet to the broader profit-driven extractivist approach of the technology sector.

“Extractivism” in the context of this brief refers to the formal and informal mining of minerals used in the production of technology in the global South.


4. Addressing the impact of disinformation on environmental movements through collaboration

The fourth and final issue brief presented by APC engages with how the operations of disinformation/hate speech and the data economy impact the discourse on climate information and the safety and security of the environmental researchers, NGOs and activist.

The issue brief highlight how paid speech by the fossil fuel industry is a problem. Not only do social media companies continue to receive ad revenue from disseminating climate disinformation, the study conducted by InfluenceMap shows how these post spread. Influence map found that in the United States, 25,147 Facebook ads with misleading “greenwashing” messages from just 25 oil and gas organisations were seen over 431 million times.

5. Climate Justice & the Knowledge Commons: Opportunities for the digital rights space

When looking at the intersection of climate and tech there is a tendency to look for answers by looking towards the future or to the work other movements are doing. In this deep dive on the knowledge commons the Open Environmental Data Project and Open Climate argue that we also need to look at our own histories and the values that have shapes the digital rights movement to find avenues of cooperation.

The digital knowledge commons will be a critical space for facilitating communication about, and collaboration around, climate action. Resources are needed, however, to ensure these spaces remain accessible and inclusive, and that they don’t perpetuate existing social injustices.

Evelin Heidel, Shannon Dosemagen and Katie Hoeberling

Drawing from their own experiences working at the intersection of the climate and open movements they highlight five areas where digital rights groups can collaborate with climate justice activists:

  • Addressing misinformation around climate change on social media platforms, especially in
    languages other than English, and in countries other than the U.S. and Europe.
  • Understanding how intellectual property might act as a barrier for knowledge about the
    climate crisis or for the deployment of climate solutions.
  • Building a linguistically, geographically, and socially diverse knowledge commons with open
    tools that can address important knowledge gaps on climate change information, including
    climate crisis responses.
  • Exploring new future narratives to build a common path towards a better Internet: more just,
    inclusive, and equitable.
  • Using a climate lens to analyze digital rights issues, such as privacy, surveillance or artificial
    intelligence, and understanding how climate change might impact digital rights

6. Environmental Justice, Climate Justice, and the Space of Digital Rights

In this issue brief the Open Environmental Data Project and Open Climate explore the different histories of the climate justice and environmental justice movement (from US vantage point). This deep dive came about after the authors noted that we (the initiators of the broader research project) used the terms climate and environmental justice interchangeable. They argued that in order to be a responsible grant maker on the intersection of climate and tech intersect we need to be aware of the distinct histories and struggles that shaped these two movements.

This issue brief is an important read for those who want to learn more about the differences and commonalities of the climate justice and environmental justice movements, and where digital rights issues may intersect. They specifically identify three areas;

  • The relationship between the surveillance state, environmental activists, and the right to privacy
  • Climate migration and the right to migrant privacy and protection
  • The ability to use, collect, and understand environmental data

What I enjoyed reading where the examples the authors used to illustrate that not all people affected by climate crisis are affected equally, and how not all environmental issues should be collapsed under climate justice, even if climate justice is intimately connected to environmental justice

7. Building a High-Quality Climate Science Information Environment: The Role of Social Media

BSR argues that a healthy information environment is crucial in fighting the climate crisis, and offers a deep dive in the issues around climate misinformation. If you are interested in learning more about climate misinformation and why social media platform responses have been lacking, this is the issue brief for you. It starts by unpacking climate misinformation and the different ways it manifest on social media and changes over time. The report then offers a good analysis of how social media platforms ‘traditionally’ deal with misleading or harmful content on their platforms, and why their responds to the climate misinformation has been lacking. They conclude with recommendation for social media platforms, civil society, and digital rights funders.

None of the major social media platforms include climate change in their misinformation policies, implying that they do not view climate misinformation as something that is likely to lead to physical harm, especially imminent physical harm. As a result, platforms currently do not remove climate misinformation from their platforms.


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