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Web development and climate change

This week the Pacific Northwest of the United States recored record temperatures. Similarly, New England and the Northeast are being hit with a heatwave as well.

It’s not just a US problem, of course.

Jacobabad in Pakistan is becoming so hot that it’s at the extreme end of what humans can actually survive, and may soon be uninhabitable.

What’s that got to do with web development? We’re making it a lot worse.

World Wide Waste

Gerry McGovern is the author of a book called World Wide Waste. In it, he talks about the role that the tech industry plays in global warming.

Digital is physical. Digital is not green. Digital costs the Earth. Every time I download an email I contribute to global warming. Every time I tweet, do a search, check a webpage, I create pollution. Digital is physical. Those data centers are not in the Cloud. They’re on land in massive physical buildings packed full of computers hungry for energy. It seems invisible. It seems cheap and free. It’s not.

What we do professionally has a huge environmental impact. Gerry puts some numbers to it.

  • 231 million trees would need to be planted to deal with the pollution caused as a result of the data US citizens consumed in 2019.
  • 16 million trees would need to be planted to offset the pollution caused by the estimated 1.9 trillion yearly searches on Google.
  • 80% of all digital data is never accessed or used again after it is stored, according to a 2018 report by Active Archive Alliance.
  • 90% of all sensor data collected from Internet of Things devices is never used, according to IBM.

Digital feels cheap and transient, and it’s making us wasteful AF.

We are, as an industry, fueling a global crisis that will eventually affect us all. But first, it will affect the most vulnerable.

How hot is “too hot”?

This morning, I came across a really interesting (and terrifying) Twitter thread from climate change activist Matthew Lewis about the web bulb temperature.

“Wet bulb” temperature is the temperature + relative humidity at which water stops evaporating off a “wet” thermometer bulb. If air is sufficiently humid (saturated w/ water vapor), evaporation will no longer cool the bulb, and it gets continuously hotter.

This matters for humans, because our bodies regulate heat via evaporation: sweat glands carry heat from body to the skin surface, where it evaporates, dissipating heat into the air. As long as you stay hydrated (and take salts! salt is important), you can stay cool at high temps…

So, what does this have to do with you? Well, up until last ~ 40 years, wet bulb temperatures were extremely rare on this planet.

But that’s over, now. We’re already seeing multiple wet bulb temperatures per year in multiple locations. By mid-century, parts of the Southeastern U.S will see weeks of wet bulbs every year.

Near the end of the thread, Matthew addresses the coming humanitarian crisis this is going to create as the places where a huge number of people live become literally uninhabitable.

People with lots of disposable income can put off feeling the consequences of climate change for a lot longer than low income folks.

They can work indoors. They can stay comfortable with air conditioning. They can move somewhere else. And because of systemic racism and generations of white supremacy, minorities are more severely impacted by climate change.

Many of the city’s heat islands are concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods, where fewer people have air conditioning or tree cover to keep their homes cool, said Reverend Mariama White-Hammond, the city’s environment chief.

She and others noted that much of the disparity could be attributed to the city’s history of racial inequity, in which banks “redlined” certain neighborhoods, making it difficult for people of color to obtain mortgages and leaving those neighborhoods with less green space and other public investments.

The modern web is making this worse

Look, we’re not single-handedly causing or fixing this. Tackling climate change is going to take massive, concerted effort at a national and global scale.

But we’re absolutely, as an industry, making it worse.

We need to stop treating data as cheap, disposable, and low-impact. It’s not. We need to stop building sites that are so big and energy intensive.

And perhaps most importantly, we need to stop building things that encourage wasteful behavior.