AI's Climate Impacts May Hit Marginalized People Hardest

A Brookings Institution report warns that energy-hungry artificial intelligence tech will worsen the climate crisis

Artificial Intelligence digital concept abstract brains inside light bulb .

CLIMATEWIRE | It’s been celebrated for its potential to save lives through improved forecasting during deadly weather.

But artificial intelligence also plays “a significant role in exacerbating the climate crisis” and could widen gaps that have left marginalized people highly vulnerable to global warming, warns a Brookings Institution report released Tuesday.

“By fundamentally changing how we live, both AI and climate change could tip the scales of U.S. communities in ways that are unfair or unjust,” says the report, written by two Brookings Metro analysts and a visiting fellow.

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The report from the left-leaning think tank cited comments earlier in January by OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, who said at the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, that “we still don’t appreciate the energy needs of this technology.”

The authors highlight AI’s soaring energy consumption as it undertakes increasingly complex tasks. Training a chatbot requires roughly the same amount of energy as 1 million U.S. homes consume in an hour, the report says.

“The more we ask models to perform wide-ranging tasks, the greater the amount of energy and carbon necessary,” the report says.

In addition to releasing growing amounts of greenhouse gases, AI data centers require large tracts of land and consume large amounts of water.

“With climate change creating droughts and water shortages, data centers face heightened scrutiny for their unsustainable practices,” the authors wrote, adding that some projects in the Southwest “strain communities already ravaged by water scarcity.”

The report is a sharp contrast to other research touting AI’s potential to help with climate change by making storm forecasts more accurate and quickly available. A Government Accountability Office reportin December said that AI could “significantly speed up forecasting,” which would lead to “more timely [emergency] responses that can save lives and property.”

The Brookings authors acknowledged AI’s potential but warned that the technology’s environmental costs could fall disproportionately on people of color and low-income communities.

“AI is a vital tool to reduce climate harm, but it cannot be allowed to further inflame disproportionate negative health and environmental outcomes for underserved communities,” the report says.

AI’s climate impacts are heaviest in areas already reliant on fossil fuels, which are often near poor communities, the report says. “These circumstances could perpetuate historical environmental inequities related to extreme heat, pollution, air quality, and access to potable water.”

Two papers published in July in Nature warned about potential limitations of AI in weather forecasting, saying the technology learns forecasting from historical weather data that does not include recent major hurricanes and heat waves.

The report was written by Brookings Metro Senior Research Associate Manann Donoghoe, senior fellow Andre Perry and visiting fellow Joseph Keller.

Donoghoe and Perry wrote an essay in March that called for U.S. climate reparations from federal and state government agencies. Reparations would involve both monetary payments and “a shift toward a more equitable and antiracist climate change policy,” they wrote.

Perry has written and spoken extensively about race in the U.S. and the persistent racial disparities in wealth.

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.

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