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Can Big Data 'Solve' Climate Change?

And if so, are the trade-offs worth it? A renowned futurist weighs in. Next in the 'Are We Screwed?' series.

Geoff Dembicki 20 Mar

Geoff Dembicki reports on energy and climate change for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

Funding for this article was partially provided by the Climate Justice Project of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, with support from the Fossil Fuel Development Mitigation Fund of Tides Canada Foundation.

[Editor's note: The Tyee's sustainability reporter Geoff Dembicki is on a months-long journalistic quest to answer the big question of his millennial generation: Are We Screwed? Find a complete list of his dispatches as they appear here.]

Digital data gets people thinking big these days -- like, metaphysically big. It's not totally surprising. Ninety per cent of all such data was generated by us (and our machines) in the last two years, an explosion raising dystopian concerns about free will, human identity and self-knowledge. Yet Big Data's promise is equally utopian. It's seen by some as the best hope we've got to fix climate change. "We have this tremendous possibility," said futurist Gerd Leonhard. "But what's the trade-off?"

Leonhard spends much of his time probing such questions and delivering keynote speeches on them. Since 2001, his website claims, he's "addressed over 350,000 executives and professionals." I reached Leonhard recently by Skype at his home in Switzerland, during a brief lull in a lecture circuit that's become "rather intense," he admitted with a chuckle. Leonhard's March itinerary alone included speaking gigs in Istanbul, London, Mumbai, Zurich, Sao Paulo, Geneva, Dubai and Birmingham.

About 2.5 billion people are now connected to the internet. Leonhard thinks the number will likely double in the next five years. Factor in the rapid global spread of smartphones, sensors and networks, he argues, and we may soon be generating enough useable data about human activity to "pretty much solve" the problem of climate change. Yet Leonhard has also taken to quoting Sophocles, the ancient Greek playwright, who wrote, "Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse."

First, the good

Yes, you read the line about solving climate change correctly. The gist of Leonhard's argument is that climate change is really an energy dilemma: too many fossil fuels, not enough clean alternatives. And energy, when you really get down to it, is about data. You can't run a city, province or country without such data: how much energy you need and where that energy will come from. As data about these things becomes primarily digital, he said, it can be used to "orchestrate our world more efficiently."

Here's one recent example. You may have read about a tech firm called Nest that was earlier this year acquired by Google for $3.2 billion. Nest designed a digital home thermostat with sensors that monitor one's daily routine. You leave home, the temperature goes down. You come back, it goes up. That doesn't seem like a big deal. But if those types of efficiencies were implemented across the entire global economy, one study estimated, carbon emissions might drop nearly 10 gigatons.

That's more than the 2010 emissions of the U.S. and India combined. Data also affects energy supply. It's much easier to bring wind turbines and solar panels onto the grid if you have real-time digital data about the energy they're producing. As such data sources explode, as well as the technologies they enable, Leonhard said, it may become "feasible in the next 10 years to dramatically reduce CO2 [emissions]." And that, he went on, "would pretty much solve" the problem of climate change.

Now, the bad

Consider the implications though of this scenario. It not only requires a planetary trove of digital data spanning the full range of human activity -- everything from your morning routine to the flight patterns of cargo jets to streetlights in Mumbai -- but companies able to collect, analyze and interpret it. If such data, as many have speculated, becomes as vital to the 21st century economy as oil was to the 20th, then truly vast power will accrue to the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon.

These emerging "oil companies of the internet," as Leonhard calls them, will have ever-greater access to our private selves. And in place of the "greenhouse effect," which this economic shift may plausibly solve, could arise a new "glass house effect." "While climate change acts on the physical world, the glass house effect acts on our inner lives," wrote Capital University's Dennis Hirsch. "We will pass on to our children a depleted ecosystem for the cultivation of the human personality."

Leonhard described this bind as our "Faustian bargain" with internet giants like Google. "We didn't pay much for anything," he explained, "and in return we gave our data." It seemed reasonable at first, but as the real world merges with the digital, as smartphones and street lamps and whatever else connect to vast global networks, there becomes "huge potential for a complete surveillance state," he said, which "could be far more damaging than the original problem" of climate change.

So, what now?

It's a dystopian vision, and I asked Leonhard if he could foresee some type of Occupy-style protest against it. "Yes, absolutely," he said. "But right now few people are concerned, because they're very much enjoying the [internet's] benefits." In fact, a friend emailed a few days later alerting me to the hundreds of activists who packed Oakland city hall last month in protest of a new surveillance centre -- built and operated, potentially, with Google's assistance.

Still, for most people the internet remains a symbol of convenience and possibility, much as automobiles were to 1950s North America, Leonhard argues. Back then, "you [would] happily drive your car burning lots and lots of fuel," he said, "and it wasn't clear for a long time" what the consequences would be. By the time they were clear, we'd built an entire culture based around car travel: freeways, suburbs and shopping malls. "We don't want that to happen with data," Leonhard said.

To a large extent it's already happening. Who can imagine life now without search engines, email and e-commerce? At the same time, Leonhard doesn't believe we should begin dismantling this digital infrastructure. Responsibly managed -- say, by a global privacy protection standard -- our explosion of digital data could fulfill an equally utopian promise: as one of our best hopes to stabilize the climate. So I asked Leonhard in conclusion: Are we screwed? "I think it's not too late," he said.  [Tyee]

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