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Our House Is On Fire: The Climate Emergency and Computing's Responsibility

By Bran Knowles, Kelly Widdicks, Gordon Blair, Mike Berners-Lee, Adrian Friday

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 65 No. 6, Pages 38-40
10.1145/3503916

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We are writing this as the world's leaders gather at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). In today's news, Boris Johnson is "upbeat," reporting that if this were a football match, the world is down only 5-2 or 5-3, as opposed to 5-1 only a few days earlier. As China's leaders (conspicuously absent) haggle over whether the target should be 2 degrees Celsius warming instead of 1.5 degrees, and nations engage in a pledge drive to reach an unfathomable 28 gigatons emissions reductions by 2030, it is easy to lose sight of what is really at stake here. We are talking about the risk of catastrophic climate change and whether we going to have a planet habitable for human life.

What is computing's pledge? Beyond being keen to innovate digital 'solutions,' are we going to address our contribution to the climate emergency? ACM recently released its first Tech-Brief,1 which was designed to communicate to an audience of policymakers some of the key headlines regarding the climate impacts of computing. The brief was in part a response to proposed climate strategies that entail investment in digitalization based on unproven climate gains without acknowledgment of the carbon costs of such endeavors. The overall message of the piece is that computing is by no means immaterial,10 and given that computing's emissions are rising, we cannot assume that continuing to do what we have been doing is going to produce a sudden reduction in computing's footprint.

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