News Release

AI and social media may be fuelling the climate crisis, say researchers

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of British Columbia

Dr. Hamish van der Ven


Dr. Hamish van der Ven

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Credit: Dr. Hamish van der Ven

Generative artificial intelligence and social media can undermine efforts to address climate change, argue researchers in a new forum article published in the journal Global Environmental Politics.

UBC professor Dr. Hamish van der Ven and his colleagues argue that generative AI – including large language models like chatGPT – and social media can take attention away from pressing global issues, foster feelings of hopelessness and reduce capacities for creative thinking and problem-solving.

A common conception is that AI, social media and other tech products and platforms are either neutral or potentially net positive in their impact on climate change action.

"Most analysis that we’ve seen to date focuses on counting the direct emissions associated with the life cycle of tech products," said Dr. van der Ven, assistant professor of sustainable business management of natural resources. 

"We know, for example, about the direct impact of internet infrastructure like server farms, bitcoin mining and similar structures. But there is very little examination of the adverse and indirect impacts of generative AI and social media on the climate. These technologies are influencing human behaviour and societal dynamics, shaping attitudes and responses to climate change."

He noted that AI and social technologies can lessen our focus on the climate crisis. "In offering always new, ever-changing content, social media platforms can take attention away from slower-moving issues. The other side of that is constant exposure to negative news on social media may also erode optimism and increase feelings of hopelessness. All this could prevent us from organizing or taking collective action on climate change."

The researchers are calling for a cautious review of generative AI. As people become more dependent on it, we could find our capacity for creativity and forward-thinking solutions decreasing, noted Dr. van der Ven. Both social media and AI are known to contribute to the spread of false or biased information – which can hobble the actions we need to take on climate change.

"We urge more skepticism about individuals and businesses that position digitalization as a solution to the climate crisis. We are calling on researchers to shift some of their focus away from direct impacts and towards indirect impacts of internet-enabled technologies. Only through fact-based analysis can we achieve a more holistic understanding of the internet's true impact on the climate," he added.

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