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Open Climate Then and Now

“We are living in a climate crisis,” announced UN Secretary-General António Guterres as he called for governments to immediately cut emissions to avert a climate catastrophe.

The last year has been a dramatic reminder of how real climate change is: fires, floods, droughts, and food crises haunt populations worldwide. This has also been a year of important advances in fighting the climate crisis: rise of the youth movement, IPCC reports, COP26 meeting, and other political manifestations such as the recognition of a Right to a Healthy Environment. We are approaching more concentrated action on the crises. However, there is still so much more work to do. Now is the time for every part of society to take climate action.

The open movement needs to act as well. In 2021 we, a group of practitioners and researchers in open science, hardware, knowledge, and infrastructure researchers, came together to explore how the open movement could step up to the climate challenge. A year after our first piece for Branch (Open Climate Now!), we are excited that this whole issue is dedicated to the theme.

Since our first community call, we hosted many conversations with people thinking about how open practices can strengthen with climate action. Over the course of 12 community calls, with 20 speakers and 175 participants from across the globe, we identified issues where the open movement could be key actors in a sustainable future. We are happy to share those insights here.

1. Our information environment is polluted by companies and governments who deny or delay climate action. We need to reclaim a robust knowledge commons.

The climate crisis is also an information crisis. The knowledge commons can be an important tool to fight back.

Companies use various tactics to stop or delay climate action, such as: climate denial (arguing that climate change isn’t happening), predatory delay (holding back climate action to continue profiting from the status quo), and the pollution of the information environment (with mis- and dis-information campaigns and corrupted experts). 

The open movement can help clean up the information environment by:

Foregrounding the viewpoints of frontline communities. This can be done by creating open climate data narratives to fight misinformation and help environmental policymaking (Call #4 with Myanna Lahsen and Silvio Carlos).

Distributing information in formats that communities need and understand. These can then be shared with other decision-makers to make progress on demanding climate action. Accessible, reusable, and persistent open data is crucial (Call #7 with Matt Rotta).

Improving the quality of the information, not just the quantity. There is a need to interrogate who benefits from the scientific status quo in the natural sciences and those who do not. Open practices in knowledge curation can help how people accept and engage with science communication (Call #3 with Emma Baker and Lisa McNamara).

2. Digital technologies both help and harm in the fight for climate action. Openness can help address the environmental impact of digital infrastructures.

The Internet and our digital technologies have rapidly expanded energy needs. But these digital technologies can also help us do things such as track deforestation or understand the performance of renewable energy. 

The open movement can reduce the environmental impact of technology by:

Leveraging openness as a tool for replicability, transparency, and impact. Good documentation and access to data are necessary to build sustainable solutions (Call #1 with Tjark Doering and Tobias Augspurger).

Aiming open source at the target of achieving a fossil-fuel-free Internet by 2030. Open data and practice can enable more transparency on the real impact of the Internet and what can be done to make it more energy efficient while breaking up tech monopolies’ control of a green web (Call #5 with Chris Adams).

Foreground the perspective of indigenous communities because sustainability depends on social arrangements. The data analysis of threats has to be combined with digital care for the communities impacted (Call #12 with Narrira Lemos, Luciana Ferreira, Márcia Nóbrega and Bruno Rigonato).

3. Downscale climate science to local levels and work for the “smallest possible policy-maker.”

Going from highly centralized science or policymaking to communities that can act requires attention to the needs at the most localized possible level, whether by using local languages or training local communities.

The open movement can empower the smallest possible policy-maker by:

Integrating local information and knowledge with climate risk and forecasting. Emphasize local adaptations and mitigation practices that can make the best use of expert models. This is particularly urgent for addressing intersectional inequalities with the inclusion of indigenous and local knowledge systems to build trust in relationships, thus integrating resources in multiple languages through “Climate 101” information packages intended for broader dissemination in local settings (Call #3 with Emma Baker and Lisa McNamara).

Supporting shifts in individual choices and personal knowledge. Organizations and environmental scientists might focus on solutions at a bigger scale than on individual behaviors in the environmental and climate space; the larger system shifts occur through individual choices and personal knowledge, which means that they are the sum of the actions of even small stakeholders (Call #2 with Ana Grijalva).

Recognizing the importance of “openness” beyond licensing and open technology. This can support active community participation where the main actors are not necessarily trained scientists, technical experts, or the usual technology enthusiasts, but rather school children and their parents (Call #11 with Ana Tuduri).

4. Free access to climate information by growing the socio-technical capacity of community spaces.

Openness helps with community-making practices around environmental research and activism. It also needs to address questions of scale. For instance, open hardware initiatives have proven to be one of the means we have to collaborate on implementing sustainable technologies that can be sourced and locally produced for carbon footprint reduction.

The open movement can help free access to climate info by:

Encouraging the rise of scientific pre-prints. There is strategic importance in publishing first and reviewing later with the rise of pre-prints to support an environmental knowledge commons. Targeting publishers for open access to climate information will not create long-term equitable solutions, because the problem of article processing charges (APCs) being owed will not be addressed (Call #8 with Iryna Kuchma). 

Including community-based insights, using everyday language to communicate relevant climate research, and creating multilingual content, especially in local languages. This helps regular citizens provide feedback on research are steps that can be facilitated by existing open initiatives and communities (Call #9 with Ruby Damenshie-Brown and Call #10 with Jean-Noé Landry, amongst others).

5. The open movement is a cultural movement in principle, and it can offer value to other movements by operating intersectionally

Open values alone are not sufficient. We need to make sure that open practices meet the needs of local communities. Nevertheless, it can bring a powerful perspective to other movements.

The open movement can help other movements by:

Emphasizing that openness is based on a human-centered perspective where justice is the starting point. This can be a motivator for collaborators in the movement. It is the values around justice, which ultimately drive how we create and share organizational practices, and in turn create the space to work with other movements, like those calling for climate justice (Call #10 with Jean-Noé Landry)

The value of openness is in the ability to explore global narratives, fight disinformation, and rally around important issues with the broad public. The open communities that center local language and local context can enable participation and representation through campaigns on a global scale (Call #9 with Ruby Damenshie-Brown).

Where from here

For the past two decades, the open movement has worked to shift unequal power dynamics in science, technology, and society. From the rise of free and open technologies as infrastructure for peer-production platforms such as Wikipedia, the definition of open data standards and practices, and the application of collaborative values through community science projects, we have created a common wealth of social, environmental, and technical knowledge. Despite our collective achievements, however, we still lack a shared ecological vision in the open community to respond to the climate crisis.

One of the key things we learned is to deal with the tension between the urgency of socio-environmental action and the slow tempo of trust relations that are fundamental for opening spaces for solidarity-building. Against an unjustified, imposed pressure to publish research as fast as possible, there is a real urgency to address climate issues rapidly so that we can prevent some of the most catastrophic trends. One of the brilliant aspects of the open movement has been its ability to collaborate, move collective ideas further, and develop them into collective solutions, but, as the saying goes, if you “want to go far, you cannot walk alone.”

Open Climate is an open invitation for you to join us in this effort in community-building.

We came together in 2020 because we felt the need to connect our work in the open movement with the climate crisis. Was there even a connection, or were our desires forcing a connection? Through our community calls, we have seen multiple ways in which the open movement could help take climate action: from research to policy, from digital infrastructures to community organizing, from public campaigning to knowledge creation and sharing, and from academic training. 

Open Climate has become a catalyst of various initiatives. It changed the perspective of each of us on the organizing team. Shannon and Scann now better understand how the knowledge commons can help with climate justice and how environmental justice is connected with the space of digital rights. Alex has brought lessons from the community calls to craft his message with the Wikimedia movement in addressing climate issues on Wikipedia. Michelle has been active at work with the Green Web Foundation to open up data on how the internet is powered and how to transition to a fossil-free internet by 2030. Emilio has continued expanding Appropedia and teaching about appropriate technologies alongside organizations such as the UNDP. Luis Felipe has been dedicated in the past year to integrating FAIR and CARE principles in collaboration with the HDF Group for an NSF project dedicated to the study of the impact of climate change in Alaska. In the next several years, Shannon and Luis Felipe, alongside other collaborators, are conducting a new project to create a commons for socio-environmental data with support from the National Science Foundation.

Going forward we plan to continue sharing what we have learned with others and give opportunity and space for continued open climate interactions.

During the second half of 2022, the Open Climate collective will begin a fellowship program to support activists, researchers, and other people interested in working at the intersection of open and the climate crisis.

As we move forward, we want collaborate more with the digital rights space and other organizations working on harnessing the power of open and bringing it into climate action. Interested? Learn more on our wiki.

Critical Openness and Digital Sustainability

Last year we devoted much attention during our Green Web Foundation Fellowship to explore how education can help shape more just climate narratives that others will feel compelled to attain.1 We started with the premise that the climate crisis is not only a technical one to assess only through carbon emissions. It is also an existential one that brings up questions about our purpose as humanity and our relationship with nature.

Over the past months, I talked to friends and colleagues from El Salvador working in tech. I asked them if they knew the environmental consequences of their work and noticed that many of them followed similar elements in their career paths:

  • Their work consists of specialized services such as computer programming or graphic design provided to companies overseas based in the Global North.
  • They work primarily as contractors and believe that their decision power is limited. At the same time, their skills are highly specialized and make decisions over important aspects of the organizations’ business models.
  • They have seldomly considered that their work has any environmental impact, or follows the requirements set by their companies or international regulations.

When researching the subject, I realized that it wasn’t just my perception: organizations from the Global North are increasingly hiring highly-specialized workers from developing countries as a way to cut operation costs,2,3 and perhaps unwittingly, to reduce corporate emissions, since this means that fewer workers are coming to an office and fewer offices are built, etc. I thought it was ironic to think of how now these individuals from the Global South, many of them highly specialized, are making critical decisions about the same technologies and services that are driving the environmental impacts in their own communities.

Digital systems are an increasingly important element in this mix because history is also happening in the digital realm while also enabling the devastation of natural resources and climate change. Given the fact that these digital systems exist for the purpose of managing information, the question of openness lies at the heart of the discussion: how we share knowledge shapes our narratives around digital sustainability. We must ask ourselves how we should view openness through a climate lens in an age of unrestrained technological growth.

This article expresses three areas in which openness can influence digital sustainability: the creation of personal consciousness and worldview, the collective and perpetual process of critical thinking, and the actions upon our reality that these dialogues can spark.

Our digital-planetary worldview

The philosopher Vilém Flusser wrote an essay in the 1980s about photography, suggesting that images detach us not only from the material world but also from history. To Flusser, this process of alienation happens because the meaning of an image resides solely on its surface as we stare at it, separating it from its context.4 With this in mind, it makes sense that an implication of new technologies is that it displaces our relationships with the physical world as we bring more aspects of our life into the digital. This idea may not be surprising, as this is how we experience art and other forms of human expression. The difference is that, although we know that digital systems aren’t digital all the way down, as our narratives dwell in a digital world, there are material consequences in practice.5 Yet, we find them hard to grasp coherently. In our post-truth world, this explains why people use songs about how the digital age is our doom for advertising said doom.6

Asking questions about technology and sustainability is a challenge of balancing what we know with what we do not. For instance, we know enough about digital technologies to understand the consequences of humanity’s digital development. Still, at the same time, we must deal with incomplete data and many unknowns, which might be common in other areas of knowledge. This feels very out of place for digital technologies as some sort of digital scientism: we are convinced that digital systems should be able to know and measure everything, even themselves. 

Knowing about digital technologies is necessary to understand how they work and their environmental implications, but knowing how we relate to them as individuals can help us make sense of it from a critical perspective. It allows us to understand their extent and impact, both personally and collectively. When considering what we should see as necessary at a planetary and personal level, transparency and openness are essential. However, this is not always the case for digital services, because are concealed under intellectual property laws or secretive practices. 

Furthermore, a digital division of labor detaches us from a sense of purpose and meaning. For the digital gig economy, this is especially true in a practical sense, where technical decisions impact the business models directly. Still, the lack of permanence and human interactions can create powerlessness. My premise, in this case, is that awareness of the effects of a person’s technical decisions on the local environment is essential to reconnect them with a sense of personhood, history, and the notion of territory.

Nurturing a collective narrative

As a result of this exploration, I am currently developing a digital sustainability syllabus for tech workers who are part of the gig economy, especially those living in developing countries.7 My premise is that bridging the knowledge gap that the gig economy creates (territorial, the digital-material divide, and the lack of solid organizational ties) will help individuals obtain the tools necessary for critical thinking on the subjects of digital sustainability in their settings. However, as I explored the information and tools available online, I concluded that we need open resources that help develop critical thinking instead of relying solely on data. 

How we interact with the environment and our sense of urgency are based not only on what we know but on our worldview lenses, or in other words, how we process this knowledge. For example, I realized this in my experience: about 64% of the energy we use in El Salvador comes from renewable sources,8 compared to 20% in Europe. And at the same time, it is clear that while developed nations produce more carbon emissions, developing countries are the ones most affected by climate change.9 This information led me to understand some of my attitudes towards the climate movement and is also helping me think of ways to address these issues with my peers. The worldview lenses can lead us to different conclusions about what is essential in enabling climate justice.

Our fellowship cohort discussed many of the Paulo Freire on critical education, based on bringing together a constructive dialogue between oppressors and oppressed in a process of liberation. This process can be brought to the aspects of digital technologies10 as our life becomes increasingly driven by digital tools. By doing so, we may find that the sustainability of digital systems is an area where these dichotomies play out in curious ways. For example, we see how climate change is bridging the North-South gap in vulnerability, with many regions in the Global North suffering its effects more commonly at an unexpected rate. We also see that access to technology, especially thanks to open source licenses and tools, empowers people in communities worldwide. These commonalities between power and despair create important spaces where critical dialogues can emerge.

During our fellowship, I found many obstacles as I searched for answers to my questions about the overwhelming complexity of the Internet as a material and immaterial system. It was not because said information was not available, but because I found myself not only looking for facts but for narratives that would make sense to me and for people in the gig economy, especially those who engage with technology yet feel disengaged with the result of their efforts. By learning about technologies and their profound impact on societies and nature, we can come to different conclusions about them. This is why openness is important: accessing knowledge and gaining the skills to act upon our reality is key to forming a worldview. For this reason, considering the facets of our digital persona in this process and ensuring that our digital rights are protected is an important task for open movement. Humanizing is a key to understanding other facets of planetary responsibility.

As a consequence of this, disinformation is also a significant issue to overcome. The problem does not only lie in finding relevant data but in how it is used to shape narratives, and protect our worldviews, and those who are more vulnerable to being bombarded with information. Humans are compelled by stories, which is why we are targeted by fake news and overwhelmed by excessive amounts of information. The open movement has come a long way in the past couple of decades in enabling global access to knowledge and collaboration, but the next hurdle to overcome is ensuring that people can use information in a way that is critical and beneficial in the construction of worldviews and the shaping of their environments. A critical view of openness must ask how accessible knowledge can help personas shape and benefit our environment.

The process of communicating climate data will create a lasting impact when we create spaces for individuals to struggle with information. The open movement will allow this by not only making knowledge accessible but by translating and adapting information, making it accessible, and encouraging others to participate in creating knowledge. In a way, climate change is teaching us that openness must move from a model where information lives in a museum to one where it can be brought to the street and adapted inside the communities that will use it.

A key to critical action

It might sound overboard to ask whether it is possible or not for a coder, by clicking their computer keyboard keys, to generate a hurricane in another part of the world. Still, these are the types of questions that will help us ask about the material origins of the minerals used for making digital hardware, the energy sources that power the Internet, and what are the physical consequences of the digital services we create and use. Openness plays an essential role in making this information available to anyone of us ready to ask these questions, to help them understand its consequences, to draw personal conclusions about our place in history, and to encourage us to interfere with reality. This means that aspects and values around openness as a movement must rally beyond an intellectual purpose.

E.F. Schumacher pointed out that there are two main camps in the discussion about the impact of technologies on society11 (although, admittedly, there are a few more). The first one claims that technologies will “find a way” to solve the problems it is generating and ask societies to be patient while these come. The other camp states that the direction of scientific effort must significantly change if we expect different results that can avert irreversible planetary disasters. This includes climate change. Openness is key to this change, not only because it relates to how we manage information but because access to knowledge can shift a person’s attitude towards the state of the world; this can lead to toppling power structures and enabling a more sustainable future.  The discussion about openness and transparency as values in digital principles, policies, and good practices is relevant because it means effectively viewing our material reality.

Over the past years, the open movement was key in creating a global discussion about how we viewed and shared knowledge that led to protecting the right to share and embracing open licenses, despite an unforgiving intellectual property system. What made this possible was not the theory behind open licenses but the action of a committed community. The open movement is not static and is currently moving towards influencing societies in many action areas. Some are in the realm of practice: how we build artefacts, perform scientific research, and develop digital services alongside better principles of sustainable development. 

We act critically and become agents of change by co-creating with users, y influencing our peers and employers, and showing good examples to policymakers. Radical openness towards digital sustainability might look like good documentation with a section on digital footprints and design principles,12 maintenance and repair programs for hardware and software, projects to extend the life of products, well-organized source code, or even a sustainable business model. Many of these things already exist as successful projects that are part of the open movement; we need to bring them under a lens that enables critical thinking for actors involved, old and new, with climate change as a priority.

Openness, technology, and ideology

The open movement was born under the pretense of creating a more just culture through a cultural theory of copyright, stating that “in this world, all persons would enjoy both some degree of financial independence and considerable responsibility in shaping their local social and economic environment”.13 This was a drastic change from a view of creativity that aims to generate resources as a measure of welfare to one that viewed knowledge as subservient to the fulfillment of the basic needs of society. 

A similar development was brought up by Enrique Dussel when he pointed out that we tend to talk about technology by using ideological languages that relate to humanity’s basic needs. For Dussel, this language serves to understand whether our use of technologies to fulfill basic needs conflicts with profitability as the main criteria and how it affects the environment in underdeveloped nations.14 

Both views aimed to move from a view where both knowledge and technologies serve to create wealth to one where societies can thrive. Knowledge and technologies are elements that shift toward power imbalances yet simultaneously create interdependence among individuals;15 for this reason, the digital sustainability lens brings a slightly different approach to the question of a thriving society. Digital services operate globally, and so do the individuals whose intellectual effort helps shape the Internet. These are questions that working with the tech community in developing countries can help us answer, taking advantage of spaces enabled by openness.

About the Author

Emilio Velis is the Executive Director of the Appropedia Foundation. He focuses on applying open principles for impact in areas such as sustainability and international development.


  1. https://www.thegreenwebfoundation.org/fellowships/
  2. Berg, J., Hilal, A., El, S., Horne, R., & others. (2021). World employment and social outlook: Trends 2021. International Labour Organization, 282.
  3. Iyer, N. (2021, August 31). Remote work risks exploiting workers in low-income countries. Quartz Africa. https://qz.com/africa/2053741/remote-work-risks-exploiting-workers-in-low-income-countries/
  4. Flusser, V. (2013). Towards A Philosophy of Photography. Reaktion Books.
  5.  Sacasas, L. M. (2021, August 12). The Materiality of Digital Culture. Comment Magazine. https://comment.org/the-materiality-of-digital-culture/
  6. Velis, E. [@emilio]. (2022, May 20). Is’t Virtual Insanity about how much the digital future sucks? Https://t.co/xZ65EUBKUn [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/emilio/status/1527632202221199361
  7. Velis, E. (2022). Digital sustainability guide for tech practitioners. Appropedia: The Sustainability Wiki. https://www.appropedia.org/Digital_sustainability_guide_for_tech_practitioners
  8. IRENA. (2020). Renewables Readiness Assessment: El Salvador. International Renewable Energy Agency; 978-92-9260-293-2.
  9.  The Center for Effective Global Action. (2020, November 21). Evidence to Action 2020: Climate Change and the Global South. CEGA. https://medium.com/center-for-effective-global-action/evidence-to-action-2020-climate-change-and-the-global-south-792b643b2ee0
  10.  Srinivasan, Ramesh (2006). Where Information Society and Community Voice Intersect. The Information Society, 22(5), 355–365. doi:10.1080/01972240600904324
  11. Schumacher, E. F. (1972, February). The Economics of Permanence. Undercurrents, 01, 49–54.
  12. Van Amstel, F., Gonzatto, R. F., Junges, E., Costa, R., Veloso, D., da Cruz Costa, K., Marins, P., Giuliano, R., Chuves, V., Fuchs, F., Ferraz, G., & Rückert, A. (2012). Diseño Libre (E. Velis, P. Álvarez, J. Soto Galindo, S. Henríquez, I. Sol, R. Flores, S. Burgos, & D. Palacios, Trans.; 1st ed.). Instituto Faber-Ludens. https://dubsnipe.github.io/disenolibre/
  13. Fisher, W. (2001). Theories of intellectual property: New essays in the legal and political theory of property. New Essays in the Legal and Political Theory of Property. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  14.  World Council of Churches Commission on the Churches’ Participation in Development & Association of Third World Economists. (1979). Tecnología y necesidades básicas. Editorial Universitaria Centroamericana.
  15. Villota Enríquez, J. A., & Ogécime, M. (2019). Os Contornos Da Sociedade Da Informação: Entre Informação, Tecnologia E Poder-Tecnología, sociedad y educación: Desafíos de las Tic en el desarrollo social y sus implicaciones en la práctica educativa. Editorial Universidad Santiago de Cali.

Open Climate Now!

Colorful meandering routes of the Mississippi River
Meander Map of the Mississippi River by Harold Fisk (1944). Source: Public Domain Review

Two global movements—open and climateboth reckoning with privilege and power in their own organizing, should seize the moment to work more intersectionally and learn from each other. The open movement with its values, community and action has the potential to greatly contribute to climate research and activism, and climate scientists and organizers should join the fight for the (digital) commons. We need open climate action, and we need it now! 

Beginning in the fall 2020, we the authors, piloted a series of “Open Climate” community calls to explore how to apply openness to climate action. What resulted was a conversation among a mix of disciplines and practices (sciences, humanities, community organizing, alternatives to intellectual property), backgrounds in the open movement (Free and Open Source software, data, hardware and knowledge) and global experiences that we hope will be productive for larger climate action.

This article is our first meandering attempt at recounting what we have learned thus far about the gaps in our movements and how they came to be and where open movements are doing hopeful work for the planet.

Continue reading “Open Climate Now!”