What lies at the thorny junction of digital rights and climate justice?

Climate change has become a paramount global challenge, exemplifying itself in rising temperatures, climate disasters, and escalating sea levels.
What lies at the thorny junction of digital rights and climate justice?
What lies at the thorny junction of digital rights and climate justice?

Hyderabad: Climate change has become a paramount global challenge, exemplifying itself in rising temperatures, climate disasters, and escalating sea levels. Despite these tangible consequences, a faction still exists that continues to deny the reality of climate change, by leveraging social media as a conduit for disseminating misinformation around it.

The digital age has created a unique and complex alliance of social media, corporations, and the state which proliferates a specific breed of environmental activists that appear benign to the status quo while at the same time stifling genuine climate justice activism.

New age climate activism through social media

A pertinent case study that highlights the intricacies of environmental activism in the digital era is that of Disha Ravi, a pivotal figure in the Fridays for Future organisation. Comprising mainly young students and professionals advocating for climate justice, the group urges global leaders to address the far-reaching impacts of climate change. However, Ravi’s arrest in early 2021 for sharing a social media ‘toolkit’ related to farmers’ protests raises critical questions about the state’s unjustified response to digital activism.

Similarly, the case of Sadhguru, a spiritual leader and founder of the Isha Foundation, adds another layer to the discourse on environmental activism. The foundation’s alleged violations of environmental norms, including the construction of illegal structures in a reserve forest, raise ethical concerns about the genuineness of Sadhguru’s environmental initiatives. His solo bike ride from London to India, ostensibly part of a Save Soil campaign, helped him claim the title of a climate activist, blurring the lines between spirituality and environmentalism.

Controversial intersections of social media narratives

The intersection of climate justice and the internet goes beyond establishing sustainable infrastructure to utilising the Internet as a tool to support environmental justice movements. Despite the apparent dissimilarity between digital rights and climate justice, they share more common ground than what was earlier thought of. Both issues have a global impact on people and their rights, calling for international collaboration and immediate attention. These interconnected challenges, such as the spread of misinformation and greenwashing by fossil fuel companies through the internet, have far-reaching consequences.

Access to the internet has provided a powerful platform for young activists such as Greta Thunberg to amplify their voices globally. However, the digital space is more of a double-edged sword. In a post-Covid era, where activism predominantly moved to online platforms, activists advocating for climate and environmental justice faced a surge in online harassment, trolling, and state persecution.

While the internet acts as the primary medium for activists to reach a global audience, it also plays a pivotal role in shaping perceptions of who qualifies as a crusader for a cause and which causes are deemed genuine. Case studies of celebrity activists like Disha Ravi, Sri Sri Ravishankar, and Sadhguru highlight the complicated relationship between environmental activism and social media narratives.

Misuse of digital spaces can adversely affect progress

The intertwining narratives of digital rights and climate justice mostly revolve around five major issues. Firstly, the environmental toll of digital infrastructures is evident when examining the carbon emissions of big tech companies’ data centres and undersea cables.

The tech sector contributes to 2 to 3 per cent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. With AI’s emergence, the carbon emission problem of data centres has only increased manifold. Analogous to the oil industry, data is considered to be a highly profitable commodity. And like the oil industry, AI also has a notable carbon footprint.

Secondly, the issue of access to information and climate disinformation arises when social media platforms and big tech companies hinder the dissemination of accurate climate-related information.

Thirdly, climate monitoring faces challenges due to insufficient data, which in turn hampers sustainable efforts and emphasises the need for enhanced data collection and dissemination.

Fourthly, increased surveillance of environmental activists and land rights defenders is a pressing concern, as activists face surveillance through social media, shadow banning, and even arrest, which often pose grave threats to their work.

Lastly, migration justice becomes crucial as the climate crisis causes large-scale migration, pushing many people to move to borders and into areas with heavy surveillance measures in place. It can also mean that these people are at an increased threat level and may face violence both online and offline.

These interconnected issues put in the spotlight the complex relationship between digital rights and climate justice, and highlight the urgent need for comprehensive and coordinated efforts to address these challenges.

Decreasing carbon footprint in internet building blocks

As activists increasingly turn to digital platforms to raise awareness, the internet’s environmental toll, accounting for 3.7 per cent of total carbon emissions, becomes a pressing concern. Balancing the urgency of climate action with sustainable internet practices emerges as a critical priority for the modern world.

The intersection of climate justice and the internet extends beyond creating sustainable infrastructure to encompass the vital role the Internet plays in environmental justice movements. Despite being perceived as vastly different, digital rights and climate justice share commonalities, impacting global populations’ rights and requiring international coordination.

Ensuring safe spaces for climate activists, free from state surveillance and misinformation, becomes imperative for facilitating genuine conversations and advocating for meaningful change.

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