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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.

The Different Intersections of Digital Rights and Climate

Photo of a poster that says climate change repeatedly

Commissioned by Mozilla, Ariadne Network and the Ford Foundation, Open Environmental Data Project and Open Climate collaborated on two issue briefs for digital rights funders, “Climate Justice and the Knowledge Commons: Opportunity for the digital rights space” and “Environmental Justice, Climate Justice and the Space and Digital Rights.” Authored in January 2022 by Shannon Dosemagen, Evelin Heidel, Katie Hoeberling, and Emelia Williams, these issue briefs have been compressed and shortened for inclusion in Branch Magazine. Read the full briefs and associated briefs.

Climate crisis impacts are affecting every aspect of society. Areas that people previously treated as disconnected from the climate crisis are now being linked. Technology, the Internet, and other digital spaces are no exception. Climate misinformation that spreads online, surveillance tools that are used on climate activists and patents prevent climate change technology transfer. These are all issues worsened by the climate crisis. Fortunately, there is growing awareness of these connections. This analyzes how the impacts of the climate crisis disproportionately affect those least responsible for the crisis. These communities affected have limited resources and power to mitigate or adapt to a climate in crisis.

If we are to address the worst impacts of the climate crisis and protect the most vulnerable communities, more must be done to connect previously siloed work. To this end, we recently wrote two briefs on the intersections of digital rights, environmental justice, climate justice, and the open movement. 

Our first brief situates the related but distinct movements for environmental justice and climate justice, and identifies commonalities between these and digital rights work. The second focuses on how openness and the knowledge commons can support collaborative work in climate justice and digital rights spaces. While these briefs, summarized below, are part of a larger research project meant to inform funding strategies in the digital rights space, our findings and recommendations are relevant to anyone interested in bringing these movements together.

A Shared and Precise Lexicon around Environmental and Climate Justice

Climate justice and environmental justice are often used interchangeably, and while they share commonalities, their respective histories, strategies, and principles set them apart in distinct ways that affect their intersection with digital rights. Environmental justice, closely tied with the US civil rights movement, connects the rights-based struggle against racism and discrimination to pollution’s uneven distribution. Climate justice, on the other hand, is best described as a loose merger between the environmental justice movement, the anti-corporate globalization movement, and the work of international NGOs involved in UN climate talks. It is rooted in the idea that the historical responsibility for climate crisis lies with the wealthy and powerful, yet disproportionately impacts the poorest and most vulnerable. Not all environmental justice communities organize around climate crisis’s direct effects, and not all communities vulnerable to climate crisis suffer from environmental injustice in equal ways.

The Knowledge Commons

Digital rights activists are no strangers to the concept and promise of open—the open source movement has roots in the early days of the Internet after all. In recent years, however, the consolidation of power by a few large tech companies has threatened important work to build the knowledge commons. These commons can be thought of as information and other intellectual goods collectively held and managed by community norms on the Internet and elsewhere. They often include data, software, hardware, publications, and information communicated through other formats.

The knowledge commons presents a powerful and untapped opportunity for digital rights groups and climate activists to collaborate more closely and openly, to learn from each other, and to build consensus on shared values and priorities. The openness inherent in these spaces can not only strengthen trust between diverse groups, but also support more robust participation by disenfranchised communities in science, policy, and organizing.

Considerations for intersectionality in our work 

Photo of a group of police on horses

Environmental Activism and the Surveillance State

Environmental activists have been surveilled, targeted, and attacked by state and private actors since the environmental justice movement began, even before the technologically-enhanced surveillance state became ubiquitous. As activism within environmental and climate spaces becomes more frequent and widespread, addressing the invasive online monitoring, spyware, and phishing campaigns used to intimidate activists will be pivotal to the movement’s success. 

Climate Migration and the Right to Privacy

Photo of two children walking in a refugee camp

As the effects of a warming world render more regions unlivable, either through resource or land depletion, there will be more human migration and people seeking climate asylum, both internally within nations and across borders. People seeking asylum and refugees are at particular risk from the harms of the surveillance state, as states increasingly deploy measures that include biometric data collection and geo-tracking at borders. In the absence of an international legal framework to address climate migration (let alone the digital rights of climate migrants), more work must be done to address alternative methods of processing personal data. 

Finding, Accessing, and Using Environmental Data

The importance of community environmental data is paramount in both the environmental and climate justice spaces, yet we continue to fall flat on creating data that is accessible and usable. While data collection and management platforms have proliferated, the usability features of data are mired in administrative discrepancies, lack of trust and transparency between communities and government, and an unwillingness to break down the barriers that facilitate the discourse needed to resolve these issues. Creating participatory systems of environmental governance will require multi-sectoral cooperation that prioritizes environmental data, the critical infrastructure needed to make it usable, and the rules that govern it.


Photo of a hand holding a phone witht he screen showing social media applications

One of the biggest threats to coordinated and effective climate action is the spread of misinformation online, largely through social media, and often supported by oil and gas companies who stand to lose from climate policies. Climate activists are making headway by calling on governments and companies like Facebook to take steps to prevent the spread of misinformation. However, companies, and at times, digital rights activists and researchers have overlooked languages spoken outside of Europe and North America, risking equity in both understanding of the crisis and agency in the global response. Digital rights and climate justice initiatives can combat this by leveraging openness to promote information accessibility and by demanding better regulations on social media platforms.

Intellectual Property and Barriers to Knowledge

The spread and application of knowledge regarding the nature of the climate crisis requires freer flows of information. However, current intellectual property (IP) and academic paradigms have created barriers to accessing scientific research, and undervalued knowledge created in the Global South. Recent heated debates have centered on the role of IP in transferring environmentally-sound-technologies, preserving cultural artifacts, and sharing educational materials in the face of the climate crisis. Digital rights groups can leverage their expertise around IP and copyright policies to combat the monopolization and hoarding of knowledge.

Promoting Agency with Open Source Methods and Tools

Photo of codes on a computer screen

Relatedly, closed knowledge systems have created harmful divisions between so-called experts and laypeople, as well as between knowledge creators and users. Several open source and knowledge commons spaces have emerged in order to break down these artificial barriers, including the Open Climate community, Open Street Maps, and Wikipedia. These spaces can be used to invite more people to engage with environmental information, and to support dialogue around climate action that is evidence-based, inclusive, and responsive to local contexts.

Constructing New Internet Narratives

Early narratives of the Internet representing utopian, humanitarian, and curiosity-driven motivations around the exchange of ideas and information have given way to more extractive realities, as discussed earlier. However, several initiatives, including this magazine, are fostering digital spaces for re-imagining human-centered futures where technology is an aid rather than a threat. This work may be critical for inspiring the climate justice and digital rights movements in an age when doom and gloom can seem to dominate our communication channels.

How Digital Rights Funders Must Move Forward

There are clear intersections where digital rights funders can affect climate and environmental justice simultaneously:

  1. Incorporate a climate and environmental justice lens on issues of privacy, surveillance, and data protection, for example through discourse and investment in the digital rights of those being affected by climate crisis.
  2. Increase the language and incorporation of digital rights in current environmental and climate bills, and vice versa. Legislative action on environmental justice, as well as digital rights bills and tech investments, can be strengthened with considerations of digital rights, climate, and environmental justice. 
  3. Provide resources for both digital rights and environmental and climate activists, practitioners, and researchers to better understand the implications of each space. These might include funding for training and fellowship programs, and technical support for data infrastructure projects. 
  4. Explore strategies for cultivating the political will necessary for making systems change. Funders can model how technological approaches and digital rights activism can work alongside climate and environmental justice advocates to address the importance of behavior, culture, and governance shifts.
  5. Support the functioning of environmental data as a public good through investments in critical digital infrastructure. Support for environmental and climate information infrastructure, which tends to be underfunded, is critical both for ensuring their sustainability and broad usability.
  6. Create awareness of the role of philanthropy in environmental and climate tradeoff narratives. Giving strategies should clearly frame how funders deal with potentially competing priorities related to privacy, transparency, and accessibility, as well as how they support just transitions that value collaboration over competition. 
  7. Build awareness in the digital rights space on how nuances between environmental and climate justice play out in larger policy decisions. Philanthropy exerts power and can shift conversations based on the terminology used, and signal changing values, priorities, and representation.
  8. Work with funders who understand the priorities in environmental justice communities and can help guide coordinated funding strategies. Funders should build relationships with those who have given strategically at the grassroots level and valued environmental justice organizing as a function of climate justice.
Photo of protesters holding protest signs protesting inaction on climate change

We recommend digital rights funders take the following steps to leverage their work in support of equitable and effective climate action:

  1. Support coalition building around the intersection of digital rights and climate justice topics. This might take the form of accessible spaces where these communities can learn from each other, identify common values, and pursue shared priorities.
  2. Invest in research on the challenges of online misinformation, particularly in languages other than English and in regions outside the U.S. and Europe. Open knowledge commons can help identify and strategize around filling knowledge gaps.
  3. Connect open knowledge production tools (e.g., critical digital infrastructure, open data projects, and open scientific hardware) with digital rights and climate justice. Open tools can support more informed climate action, the inclusion of more diverse perspectives, and provide alternatives to dominant IP paradigms.
  4. Support learning among digital rights organizations so they can understand and identify climate-related threats and opportunities. Fellowships, leadership cohorts, and other training initiatives can also demonstrate the uses of open approaches and build upon existing communities and coalitions.

The climate crisis affects every aspect of society, and its inherently cross-cutting impacts cannot be solved by any one sector on its own. Digital rights actors can apply a “climate lens” to understand how their work is impacted by or contributes to the climate crisis, and to prioritize climate action in their strategies. The open tactics discussed here will be especially useful for supporting more equitable knowledge governance and redistributions of power.

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!”