The internet can feel like a mystery. Few of us sit here and contemplate the mechanics behind how a tweet, for example, gets from point A to point B (or the algorithms that go into what makes something go viral, for that matter). To start, there’s a whole underground (and underwater) system that makes the internet possible. It involves miles of cables and loads of energy. But how often do we stop to think about the infrastructure that goes into making this possible? Or about the people who lack that infrastructure and, therefore, access to the internet?
It seems like President Joe Biden has the topic on his mind. His American Jobs Plan, released last week, proposes spending $2 trillion over the next 10 years on infrastructure upgrades to our roads, bridges, water systems, and internet systems. According to the Biden administration, some 30 million people in the U.S. lack access to high-speed broadband infrastructure. And among those who do have access, not all are able to afford it given how expensive internet costs.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re diving into what nationwide internet access could mean for the climate movement. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. More people online means more people learning about the climate crisis—and more people potentially plugging into online communities that peddle in climate denial. Surfing the internet isn’t without environmental consequences. These days, nothing is.
When the pandemic sent the world into lockdown in 2020, Katharina Maier transitioned her activism online. As an organizer with Fridays for Future USA, Maier was used to meeting people in person to strategize and mobilize. Taking that work virtual wasn’t easy, but it was necessary given the urgency of the climate crisis. Going digital also allowed people from different regions in the climate movement to connect more meaningfully with one another.
But Maier wants to reach even more people and invite them to join her cause. That’s why she’s excited about President Joe Biden’s proposal to increase internet access across the U.S. As part of his $2 trillion American Jobs Plan, the president aims to bridge the digital divide that currently exists in the U.S. Connecting communities to the internet requires miles of underground wires that transmit the codes and data we share and receive when roaming the web. Historically, this has been challenging to build in rural communities where houses are far apart or the terrain is less friendly to such infrastructure. Meanwhile, urban communities have struggled with equitable access given the high cost of internet bills.
Biden wants to tackle both issues by building out more broadband infrastructure and holding internet providers accountable to reduce the cost. The how of this plan remains a giant question mark, but its ambitious goals signal a shift. The lockdowns brought on by COVID-19 emphasized how much work needs to be done in this area as classrooms went online, offices shut down, and doctors turned to telemedicine. This remains the reality for much of the U.S., and access to the internet shouldn’t determine a person’s success or well-being during such chaotic times. Expanded access, however, could be a critical force for climate organizers like Maier.
“There’s so much on the internet that enables what we do and fuels what we do,” she says. “Getting people more internet access is definitely beneficial to the movement, and so much of what we do is helping individuals find out why and how they matter and they can make a difference.”
As activists center their work around environmental justice, in particular, this access could help them better provide support to Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color, Maier says. Black, Latinx, and Native American communities are among the least likely in the U.S. to have an internet connection at home, yet their voices are among the most-needed in the extremely white climate space. Digital infrastructure is one barrier this Biden proposal could help eliminate.
“It’s very hard to be inclusive without internet access ,” Maier says.
Still, bringing more people together online won’t inherently help climate organizers. That depends a lot on who joins during this new wave—and where on the internet they congregate. We’ve already seen the danger of a president who seemed to tweet lies for fun. We’ve seen that scientific fact isn’t enough to dissuade people from fearing the unknown. Climate denial thrives in the unchecked airwaves of the web. As does white supremacy. And that’s something worth thinking about in building a future that provides more people access to not only science and news, but also misinformation and conspiracy theories.
A paper published in the American Journal of Political Science in 2015 found that internet access may increase “partisan hostility” as the authors word it. They write, “We suspect that it is increased exposure to partisan information that accounts for the observed effect of broadband access on affective polarization.” This, of course, is no reason to avoid expanding internet access, but the ripple effect of connecting like-minded people online may be equally disastrous to the climate movement as it would be beneficial.
“There’s just tons of bad information out there,” says Julian Brave Noisecat, the vice president of policy and strategy at Data for Progress, a progressive research group. “There are lots of publications and cult-like online communities like QAnon that prey upon people who feel alone in this day and age or feel cast aside in various ways, and the balance of that and good information reaching people in those vulnerable circumstances who might be swept up in various political and social movements built around conspiracies is a very real thing. And I don’t think we’re doing a very good job of combatting that right now.”
Brave Noisecat—who’s written about the need for the president’s plan to go even bigger—worries whether more people online would actually put the climate movement further behind. After all, the internet does more than connect people to other people. It connects us to more pathways for consumption. E-commerce sales were up 44 percent in the U.S. last year compared to 2019. How many of us are guilty of browsing sale after sale? How about relying on Amazon for our toilet paper or groceries? All these little actions—even working digitally from our inefficient homes—come with environmental costs. And they could add up, especially as more people come online.
“It’s very hard to be inclusive without internet access .”
That’s why the Sustainability in the Subsea Telecommunications Cable Network exists. It formed in January as the Decarbonizing the Subsea Cable Network to research and find solutions for the carbon emissions attached to internet access, but members quickly changed the name after recognizing that carbon emissions are just one facet of the problem, says Hunter Vaughan, the environmental media scholar-in-residence at the University of Colorado at Boulder who’s a part of the international team taking on this project.
“The goal, really, is to work with companies to try to move the future of the industry in the most environmentally sustainable direction possible,” he says.
Transitioning to clean, renewable energy could help reduce emissions from data centers and cloud computing, but what about the cement and construction necessary to house giant servers? Or the mineral extraction to manufacture all the devices we use to access the internet? Everything from smart TVs to routers come with environmental costs. Americans replace their phones once every two years, according to 2019 data. While Vaughan appreciates the president’s language around equity in his internet access proposal, he notes the importance of global equity, too. He hopes to see tax policy that targets the Big Tech companies making billions off this societal transformation.
“The admirable principles of the wording here, I think, needs to go further to acknowledge the social justice ramifications on a global scale of how these products are made, how they’re distributed, what the environmental ramifications are of deriving their basic raw materials,” Vaughan says. “If we can acknowledge that there’s a massive economic disparity that’s a product of that digital transition, then that profit should also be taxed in order to help fund this type of program.”
Digital technologies make up around only 1.5 percent of global carbon emissions, but how will expanded internet access affect that? It’s a question that requires further investigation, but some internet operators—like fiber optic provider Cogent and Spain-based Telefonica—have not recorded increased greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 despite increased traffic volume. That signals that more internet access does not automatically lead to more emissions.
Internet access for all is a beautiful goal—and a necessary one. It’ll finally make space online for marginalized voices who have long been searching for connection. It’s up to world leaders, including Biden, however, to figure out how to pay for such upgrades and how to do so without exacerbating an already precarious crisis—all while maintaining equity for all in mind.