Opinion: We Can’t Let Coronavirus Distract Us From Data Collection and Climate Change

We cannot give companies slack on environmental regulations during the pandemic – and that includes those running energy-gorging data centers

Opinion: We Can’t Let Coronavirus Distract Us From Data Collection and Climate Change

In certain circles, a decline in carbon emissions during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic signaled lemonade. It has even been argued that the virus presents an opportunity to rebuild societies and economies, that a shocked globe might finally reckon with the existential crisis that is climate change. Yet, the EPA has relaxed enforcement of environmental regulations for companies who claim that breaking these rules are necessary to respond to the coronavirus outbreak.

The threat of climate change disaster has only been exacerbated by the virus emergency, and part of this threat is directly tied to moving our lives increasingly online amidst social distancing measures. Mass data collection, after all, contributes to climate change.

If it's not immediately apparent why, it's because the metaphor of the cloud occludes a chubbier truth: Our data is held in data centers, buildings that contain computing systems and components. Some of the largest are held by companies like Amazon and Google. They also happen to binge electricity and are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions that, promiscuously harmful, cause air pollution contributing to respiratory disease and provoke climate change.

Their cooling systems, as anyone who has ever paid an air conditioning bill might suspect, gorge energy. Generators for data centers cough out diesel exhaust, and Silicon Valley centers have at times even appeared on the state government's Toxic Air Contaminant Inventory. In the last four years, "unhealthy air days" have increased in major American cities, pollution impairing our immune response at a time that a deadly virus tears across the world.

Worldwide, data centers have a carbon footprint similar to that of the notorious airline industry, researchers predicting that by 2025, data centers will eat up one-fifth of the world's electricity, while generating 14% of the world's carbon emissions by 2040, as much as the entirety of the United States today. Amazon has pledged carbon neutrality by 2040, meaning they will match their electricity consumption with renewable energy purchases, adopt carbon offsetting practices, or approach zero emissions. However, 2040 may prove too late when the UN estimates the difference of a half-degree Celsius could prove disastrous and warns that we have only until 2030 to avert climate catastrophe.

We cannot give companies slack on environmental regulations during the pandemic, and in order to confront three of the greatest threats of the 21st century – climate change, COVID-19, and digital surveillance – we need to adopt a holistic defense that includes more robust data regulations and environmental regulations. Policy measures can mandate an aggressive move toward zero carbon emissions for data centers and restrict the collection, storage, and use of data.

There is hope for bipartisan support of privacy measures. Seventy-nine percent of Americans polled are concerned about companies collecting their data and 64% are concerned about government data collection. That the introduction of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act in the legislature was a bipartisan effort indicates that privacy in the digital commons could prove a point of agreement across the aisle.

The computation is relatively simple. Mass data collection harms the environment. But when we limit the opportunities for our data to be collected, we limit the amount of energy required to store and move it. When we demand stringent emissions policies, we mitigate environmental harm. And when we mitigate environmental harm, our bodies' natural defenses are stronger at a time when we need them more than ever.

Tracy O’Neill is the author of The Hopeful, one of Electric Literature’s Best Novels of 2015, and Quotients, forthcoming from Soho Press. In 2015, she was named a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. Her writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, BOMB, Bookforum, Grantland, Vice, The Guardian, VQR, and The San Francisco Chronicle. She attended the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University.

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data collection, digital surveillance, COVID-19, climate change

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