In the hunt for the ultimate climate change “disrupter,” Silicon Valley in recent years has sought out ways to apply technology to a problem that many are concerned our digital footprint is only making worse: climate change.

In the last year 12 to 18 months, a new front line has emerged in the arena of moving toward a net zero goal. That is artificial intelligence, or AI, which can be applied in a variety of ways to help prevent further destruction of our natural world. Or at least that is the goal of those placing millions of dollars in investment stakes in recent months. For Wall Street firms, the aim is to sharpen the implementation of net zero principles in part by financing a transition to renewable energy alternatives that in turn may in part rely on AI technology.

Some in the technology community are convinced of its power to foster change, although theologians and other scholars are not convinced that AI’s applications should proceed unchecked. Some of the concerns are over the usefulness of AI in making a lasting impact. In faith/science circles, the discussions often center on ethics and truly measuring the lasting benefits to society.

The company One Concern is an example of an AI/climate tech disrupter. The company builds models to simulate community resilience and response to earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters. It recently raised $45 million from a holding company of one of Japan’s largest insurance companies. Company executives say that Hurricane Ian provided an opportunity to test its digital twin technology. A digital twin essentially is a virtual model meant to mimic a real-world object. According to One Concern, its advanced resilience analytics accurately predicted how many customers would be without power across eight Florida counties that were hardest hit by the hurricane.

Other examples are ag-tech companies that rely on sophisticated climate forecasts to come up with data points for farmers seeking greater insights on crop performance and yield in a changing climate. Another AI adoption arena is in water risk management where technology can help pinpoint long-term risks of water stress and scarcity.

But not all AI or machine learning (ML) applications are as impactful in providing actionable details or in helping to fix societal woes. A large group of computer scientists from around the world published last year research in the journal ACM Computing Surveys (Feb. 2022) on the topic, “Tackling Climate Change with Machine Learning.”  Authors included Google AI’s John Platt and they studied whether AI was helping or hurting our shared aims to protect the planet.

Scholars admitted there are a great number of arena’s where ML is not applicable, but also a number where it has yet to be applied where it could be. Some of these include mitigation, adaptation and tools for action across transportation, the electric system, farms, forests, cities and buildings, as well as in efforts to promote carbon dioxide removal.

The technologists say there is a need for a concerted effort to identify how these tools can be used to tackle climate change. A group called ClimateAi was founded in 2017 by Himanshu Gupta, a former advisor to Al Gore, and seeks to offer climate risk modeling tools for use in business.  Gupta said in an recent interview, that the company seeks to climate-proof global economies and supply chains, while aiming for “zero loss of lives, livelihoods and nature.”

Some AI developers have joined forces in this mission, yet some say they are unsure how best to proceed and have begun actively seeking input from the ML community at large. However, computer scientists readily admit that the technology may also be applied in ways that hurt the planet, such as for fossil fuel exploration and extraction. Also, some of the models are themselves energy-intensive to run and to train.

“Finally, technology is not in itself enough to solve climate change, nor is it a replacement for other aspects of climate action such as policy,” the authors wrote in the ACM journal article. “Many technological tools useful in addressing climate change have been available for years but have yet to be adopted at scale by society.”

So while some computer scientists are even skeptical over the impact of AI on climate change, fewer even agree on whether AI is always beneficial for society when looking at its widespread adoption across social media, culture, business and with the growing encroachment into our daily lives.

Last year, some have even theorized (and then were debunked) that AI – specifically Google’s LaMDA – had attained consciousness recently. The declaration filled some with excitement and others with dread of what it could mean for humanity’s future. AI’s potential seems limitless in that it can be used to promote war or peace, scarcity or plenty and can even fuel greed as much as philanthropy.

Should theologians and the church at large embrace AI as having a role in helping the planet and assisting us in meeting complex challenges? AI’s critics say it is about guiding society’s use in the most beneficial way. And with machine learning, one’s point of view can determine the inputs one uses. That in turn can change the impact AI can have.

Systematic Theologian and Archbishop Emerita of the Church of Sweden, Antje Jackelén, views the situation as one where AI, in order to be beneficial to people and the planet, a number of challenges have yet to be met.

Ethics, she writes, should be involved from the beginning rather than being called upon when problems first arise. Faith communities need to play a prophetical, diaconal, ethical and theological role, according to Jackelén, in her paper “Technology, theology and spirituality in the digital age,” published in the March 2021 edition of the Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science.

In the era of AI, the question for Jackelén remains of how humans relate to each other, nature, themselves, and the transcendent. In her view, AI is forcing society to rethink common concepts such as trust, communication, work, death, personal integrity and privacy.

“Periods of great transition require spiritual resilience from individuals as well as from societies,” Jackelen writes.

Perhaps climate change is the greatest transition facing ourselves and our progeny today. It can be easily seen to be ushering in a time of upheaval where resilience is deemed essential. The reality of ‘eco-anxiety’ is just one intersection where religion and science more broadly may have a positive role to play.

Later this summer, IRAS will be considering the role of technology in combatting climate change in their summer conference under the theme, “The Wizards of Climate Change: How Can Technology Serve Hope and Justice.”

The discussions promise to be insightful.  Questions that arise may include whether we should we consider technology as potential savior and life-giver?  Where does a changing climate lead us in our faith in a loving God? How do our actions change? These questions may be just some of the areas of exploration that theologians and parish pastors will be dealing with for years to come.

Back to aligning human life with the algorithmic potential, however, the answers of theologians and scientists may have some similarity. The computer scientists in the ACM paper said that they hoped that machine learning would be useful in accelerating effective strategies for climate action. They too assume that it is ultimately up to humanity to decide how to act on such knowledge.

Susan Barreto
Susan Barreto

Susan is an author with a long-time interest in religion and science. She currently edits Covalence, the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology’s online magazine. She has written articles in The Lutheran and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science newsletter. Susan is a board member for the Center for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, the supporting organization for the Zygon Center and the Zygon Journal. She also co-wrote Our Bodies Are Selves with Dr. Philip Hefner and Dr. Ann Pederson.

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