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Climate Change as an Information Problem

Catherine Cronquist Browning, Assistant Dean of Academic Programs and of Equity and Inclusion at the School of Information | April 17, 2023

In 2019, I argued that our information and data scientists should use their skills to support colleagues in the environmental sciences and other disciplines doing critical work on climate change. As we approach Earth Day 2023, I’m revisiting my call and my predictions to see how far we’ve come.

First, a personal note: I had three large trees on my property cut down recently. It was necessary, I think: one had died after being attacked by drought and bark beetles, and the others were following. They were at risk of dropping limbs or falling on our house or a neighbor’s. But it was still painful: I knew hummingbirds and squirrels nested in them; I thought about all the carbon dioxide that they were taking out of the atmosphere. Every month I delayed, I told myself, was another month of carbon sequestration from the two still-living trees, like my own personal carbon offset right in our backyard. How long could I responsibly leave them standing? How soon could I responsibly remove them?

All around me, in California and beyond, I knew people were making similar choices: trees can cause terrible fires when they tangle with power lines; they destroy property and cause injuries and even fatalities when they fall from saturated, mudsliding hillsides. My NextDoor feed was full of neighbors asking for tree service recommendations, ideas for convincing reluctant landlords to trim or cut down their dangerous trees, and reminders of PG&E’s tree-trimming failures. Cut them all down, some people argued.

And so I confronted one aspect of our contribution toward climate change very personally: I knew that trees are one of the best carbon sinks we have, and I also knew that I couldn’t leave mine standing. It was a practical problem, but it was also an information problem: I watched as neighbors swapped well-intentioned half-truths, and sometimes ill-intentioned trolling, about tree care on social media, with the amplification of the online echo chamber; even after some research, I didn’t know who could give me reliable information about the benefits versus the risks of the trees (several arborists simply told me that yes, they should be taken down at some point, although it wasn’t urgent); and I wondered how to convince neighbors who had decided to proactively cut down healthy trees to leave them standing. I had a climate problem, but I also had an information problem, and so, I could tell, did my neighbors.

Addressing the intersection of climate and information problems is where the I School comes in. In the four years since I last reflected on the intersection of climate change and information science, the I School has begun rising to meet this challenge. Prof. John Chuang has developed a new course at the School of Information, Climate, People, and Informatics, which examines, from an academic and professional framework, many of these issues, teaching graduate students in the information sciences to use their skills to address climate change through both mitigation and adaptation. To support this kind of work at the I School, we also now offer the Quigley/Heffernan Family Environmental Fellowship, which supports UC Berkeley School of Information graduate students who are using their skills in data science or other information management disciplines to aid in the reduction of greenhouse emissions or other climate mitigation efforts. Our doctoral student Ando Shah is using his time at the I School to work directly on biodiversity and climate-positive interventions. Many of our master’s student capstone projects are also addressing environment and sustainability, including – to name just a few of the most recent – current MIMS final projects on EVs, soil monitoring, and sustainable lifestyles and MIDS capstone projects on estimating carbon flux and predicting Net Ecosystem Exchange. And, very recently, Prof. Paul Duguid has begun researching the history of greenwashing, to better understand how climate concern is misused and manipulated.

I was delighted to learn that one MIDS capstone project, Pro Dendron, even took on the very challenge that I had encountered personally – evaluating changes in forest dynamics and tree mortality in order to “plan preventative action when possible, plant new trees where needed, and plan for what trees are best to plant in different areas.” (Although, reasonably, the Pro Dendron team’s focus was on forest management, not urban vegetation.) You can learn more about their work on the Pro Dendron website.

Even I School projects that are not directly engaged with climate change cover topics that could, in application, help with this issue. In 2019, I noted that more attention to preventing the dissemination of misinformation on social media was especially relevant in the context of climate change; in 2022, Head of School Prof. Marti Hearst initiated an I School distinguished lecture series on Trustworthy Information, co-sponsored by the Goldman School of Public Policy; continuing work by our own Prof. Hany Farid and his graduate students and collaborators also directly addresses “the spread and promotion of mis- and disinformation”; and master’s student projects such as Fake News Bears take on the challenge as well.

As I look out my window, I can see the stumps of the three trees I had cut down, reminders literally right in my backyard of the human impacts on our daily environment – drought weakening trees for bark beetle infestation, leading to fire risk, tree removals, and less natural carbon capture. Although the scale, scope, and urgency of climate change are frequently overwhelming, the skill, creativity, and socially responsible outlook of our faculty and graduate students at the I School give me renewed hope that we can work together to meet this existential challenge. As we work toward better information dissemination online, better visualization of climate data that we already have, and better implementation of climate related technologies, I trust that I School techniques and expertise will change both the global and the local landscape for the better.