Oct 21, 2019

Why We Need Data Science in the Fight for Climate Justice

By Catherine Cronquist Browning

Climate change may not seem like an obvious information science issue. Isn’t this the realm of environmental scientists and social activists? Yes — and we continue to need their expertise and leadership as desperately as ever. But we must also recognize that understanding, communicating about, and addressing climate change is a large-scale and multifaceted information challenge that information and data science methodologies can and should help address. Climate change is also an issue of social equity. Using all the tools at our disposal to respond to it comprehensively is ethically incumbent on us, not only because we need to preserve our only habitat for ourselves and our children, but also because we must ensure that disadvantaged people don’t bear the burdens of climate change disproportionately.

UC Berkeley faculty, researchers, and students in the Environmental Science, Policy, and Management Department and many other departments, schools, and units are already at the forefront of climate science and formulating responses to climate change. Just a few weeks ago, the campus announced a new California-China Climate Institute “to spur further climate action through joint research, training and dialogue”; earlier this year, UC Berkeley co-founded the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate. A recent post in the Berkeley Blog explains work by Prof. David Romps (Earth and Planetary Science) and Dr. Jean Retzinger (Media Studies, retired) on the failure of the media to communicate the basic facts about climate change effectively. (Do you know the five basic facts?) UC Berkeley students, faculty, staff, and community members participated vigorously in the Global Climate Strike in September 2019 and continue to advocate for increased attention to this critical area. These are just a few of the most recent examples of how the campus community is already deeply engaged with this important work.

It’s incumbent upon our information and data scientists to think about how to use their skills to support the initiatives and research projects of their colleagues in the environmental sciences and other disciplines doing critical work on climate change.

As UC Berkeley continues to develop our new Division of Data Science and Information, and to build interdisciplinary connections across campus, it’s incumbent upon our information and data scientists to think about how to use their skills to support the initiatives and research projects of their colleagues in the environmental sciences and other disciplines doing critical work on climate change. At the School of Information, we already have some faculty and graduate students thinking carefully about this, including Prof. Cliff Lynch’s recent seminar presentation on cultural stewardship and climate change and student projects predicting solar panel adoption and using virtual reality to show participants the connections between sustainable practices and their consequences pertaining to climate change. These types of projects, linking the tools of information management, machine learning, data visualization, social psychology, virtual reality, and other information science concepts with the realities of climate change, must become increasingly common.

Some of the ongoing conversations in information and data science that are especially relevant in the context of climate change include:

  • preventing the dissemination of misinformation on social media
  • minimizing the effects of online echo chambers that reinforce preconceived ideas 
  • ensuring more widespread and democratic access to information 
  • creating, organizing, managing, and analyzing large-scale datasets (for example, ongoing readings from 750,000 power poles, towers, and substations in areas prone to wildfire, or global marine data)
  • visualizing information in effective ways
  • applying behavioral science and social psychology to consumers to determine what interventions will be successful 
  • understanding the intersection of local, national, and international laws, policies, regulations, and agreements that together form a network of environmental regulations
  • using scenario thinking to project likely futures and plan responses accordingly to prevent or alter them
  • designing systems both physical and virtual that encourage low-impact use in a variety of creative ways

The information and data sciences hardly have a monopoly on all of these concepts, many of which are interdisciplinary. At the same time, information professionals must come to understand themselves as particularly well-equipped to support and engage with climate scientists, researchers, and advocates. I’m not the first to observe this; the NSF has been supporting a data-driven approach to climate change for years. In 2015, UC Berkeley’s Social Science Matrix hosted a seminar on Data Science and Climate Change. From 2015 through 2020, Berkeley is running DS421, a National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) interdisciplinary graduate training program at the interface of data, social, and natural sciences. The independent group Climate Change AI supports using machine learning to address the climate crisis, and National Geographic agrees.

Beyond disciplinary engagement, it is also crucial to understand that climate change is a social equity issue. Economically disadvantaged people in our local communities and around the world are both more likely to be affected by climate change and less likely to have the resources or flexibility to adapt to it. The American Public Health Association publishes an extensive guide on Climate Change, Health and Equity that elaborates many of these connections in detail–and that explains how, due to historical and continuing inequities in the United States, African-American, Native, and Latinx communities are often situated to be affected more extensively and intensely by climate change. We have to recognize that being insulated from the effects of climate change, or having the ability to take steps that shield you from those effects, are forms of privilege that are not available to everyone in equal measure. Put simply: if you care about equity, you need to care about climate change.

Economically disadvantaged people in our local communities and around the world are both more likely to be affected by climate change and less likely to have the resources or flexibility to adapt to it...Put simply: if you care about equity, you need to care about climate change.

Many of the things individuals can do right now to combat climate change and to avoid its consequences require money, time, information, and other resources that aren’t equally distributed to everyone. Buying solar panels is great if you can afford them — and a house to put them on. Changing your diet to include less red meat and more local produce is great if you have the time, money, access to the right foods, and the nutritional information that you need to make those changes. Not everyone can make it to the four-hour-long, once-a-week farmer’s market in their community — some people are busy working their second job, can’t afford the higher prices, or live in a food desert. We need to take all the steps we can as individuals while recognizing that others in different situations may find it harder or impossible to take those same steps, and we must advocate for systemic changes that make green choices easier and cheaper for everyone. Having the luxury to respond to climate change cannot remain the privilege of the elite.

On a cautionary note, the information sciences and the tech industry have an unfortunate history of sometimes jumping in to “solve” longstanding social problems without thoroughly researching them or consulting the affected communities. We must be wary of technological utopianism and of assuming our own experiences are universal, and we have to acknowledge that information and data science can help address climate change, but only in collaboration with environmental science helping us understand the scope and nature of the problem and specific communities collaboratively participating in the design of solutions. 

As information and data science researchers at universities, public sector organizations, nonprofits, and private companies all orient themselves toward helping address climate change, it’s crucial that everyone recognize the prior and continuing work of environmental scientists, the networking and communication that activists have already done, and the real needs of affected people and frontline communities–not just our imagined version of what their needs are likely to be. We must follow our own rigorous methodologies and best practices to research what is already known and which problems are most urgent. We must be led by the people who are most acutely feeling the effects of climate change, and listen when they tell us how they want to be supported.


Originally published as “Why we need data science in the fight for climate justice” by the UC Berkeley Blog. Reprinted with permission.

Catherine Cronquist Browning is the Assistant Dean of Academic Programs and of Equity and Inclusion at the School of Information

image of protesters at climate strike
Data and information science has a critical role to play in the fight for climate justice and equity. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)
photo of Catherine Cronquist Browning
Catherine Cronquist Browning

Last updated:

October 23, 2019