Applying a climate justice lens to The Engine Room’s work

Becky Kazansky
Laura Guzman
Helen Kilbey

This post was initially prepared by Becky Kazansky, who led the digital rights and climate justice research while at The Engine Room, earlier this year. It was edited and updated by Laura Guzmán and Helen Kilbey for publication.

Last year, The Engine Room conducted research exploring the intersections of digital rights and climate justice, identifying a number of opportunities and pathways for alignment between movements focused on digital rights or climate justice. 

We found that there’s a huge appetite in the digital rights and tech sector for more work on these intersections, but, conversely, that it can be difficult for groups to find the resources to explore new issues, as they are often juggling multiple priorities within their existing remit of work. It can feel daunting or irresponsible to jump into work on a whole new set of issues, especially as it relates to crises as large and complex as contemporary climate and environmental ones. 

We found that it’s possible to take an approach to climate and environmental issues that builds on what an organisation is already doing – in other words, organisations working on digital rights and technology can think about what it would mean to apply a climate lens to existing areas of work. 

This ‘layering’ approach takes inspiration from TER’s research –  which identified a number of existing intersections between digital rights, climate and environmental justice  –  as well as the collective discussions that took place within the larger research consortium, which included fellow organisations such as the Association of Progressive Communications (APC)

Thinking about climate and environmental issues in this way can help an organisation articulate the most meaningful connections between their existing mission and climate/environmental issues, while opening paths to working in solidarity with movements long working to foster change.  

From climate concerns to climate justice

As an organisation moves from exploring how their existing work relates to these issues to articulating desired areas of work for the future, there’s a step that is important to take, which is to ask: how can the work an organisation decides to do on climate, environmental and sustainability issues be explicitly supportive of climate justice? 

As The Engine Room’s research showed, there are many different approaches to climate, environment, and relatedly, sustainability. Some, unfortunately, can perpetuate harm, distract from the most important issues, or place unnecessary/unjust burdens on under-resourced groups and impacted populations. Some conceptions of sustainability, for example, are challenged by the global climate justice movement, whose proponents look critically at sustainability claims by corporations (including big tech companies), and push back against frames that individualise the climate problem (i.e. personal carbon footprint), pushing instead for acknowledgement of the historical processes that have resulted in the present crisis (including colonialism, extractivism, and social inequality, among others), and accountability by powerful institutions.. 

For the climate justice movement’s commitments to be a guiding star to tech and digital rights organisations interested in these issues, it’s important to consider what these concerns and commitments mean in the context of tech and the communities they engage with. 

Diving into already intersecting priorities

Through a series of internal conversations held earlier this year, a few areas that surfaced for The Engine Room include:  

  • Appropriate tech and low-tech ‘solutions’: TER’s focus on appropriate technologies means that when engaging with and supporting organisations through our hands-on Matchbox and LiTS work, it’s crucial to consider how technologies meet needs particular to social, political, and environmental contexts. This means thinking about criteria such as energy intensiveness, accessibility, and access. As a result, TER often discusses so-called ‘low-tech’ solutions, examples of which include data storage platforms that function without internet connectivity, community radio, the use of solar power, and other technologies that function in low-bandwidth and low-electricity environments. These kinds of solutions can support climate-justice-oriented commitments to community self-determination and to sufficiency-oriented and circular economic models. An example that emerged from our environmental justice research is around local environmental data collection efforts, which currently tend to rely on large commercial platforms for data, and where finding more secure, low-bandwidth options is a priority.  
  • Responsible data approaches/data minimisation: a running thread throughout TER’s responsible data work is the importance of data minimisation. Collecting less data minimises the risks of data compromises and leaks, and having less data means less to ‘exploit’ for surveillance, advertisement and marketing. Data minimisation also maps directly to issues around the energy-intensiveness of web platforms and data centres, currently one of the largest concerns when it comes to technology’s impact on the environment. As digital rights advocates often point out, at the moment it costs more to delete data than to keep it, incentivising perpetual storage and greater environmental costs. In one of TER’s climate discussions, a team member suggested that energy intensiveness considerations fit naturally within TER’s existing push for data minimisation. 
  • Digital Resilience: The Engine Room has been articulating an area of work that fits under our umbrella of digital resilience, which brings together safety, security, and sustainability (e.g. financial, wellbeing, environmental) concerns around technology. Within the framework of a research and capacity building project currently underway, the digital resilience team has been exploring the considerations that go into the implementation of solar panels, and aims to evaluate the sustainability of electronics (noting, however,  that it can be difficult to find good information on this — a challenge that we also encountered in our digital rights/climate justice research; you can find some discussion in that report around the difficulties of parsing what ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ means in the context of tech). 

As The Engine Room continues to explore these intersections, we expect more considerations and approaches to surface. Keep an eye on our blog for updates, or get in touch at to swap ideas.

Image by Oli Gibbs via Unsplash.


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