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Gen AI and social media divert people's attention from climate crisis

Are we too busy scrolling on social media to save the planet from climate change? It’s a question that might make you want to hurl your smartphone into the nearest recycling bin, but it’s a pressing concern raised by Dr. Hamish van der Ven, a professor at the University of British Columbia, and his colleagues.

Their assertion? Our beloved generative AI tools, like the ever-so-helpful ChatGPT, along with our social media habits, could be dousing the flames of our climate change efforts.

Digital impact

Dr. van der Ven argues that the typical view of technology’s role in climate change is too narrow. “Most analysis that we’ve seen to date focuses on counting the direct emissions associated with the life cycle of tech products,” he says.

We’re all familiar with energy-guzzling server farms and the digital gold rush of Bitcoin mining. However, the UBC professor points out another issue. There’s a less obvious villain lurking in the shadows.

“There is very little examination of the adverse and indirect impacts of generative AI and social media on the climate,” Dr. van der Ven warns.

He’s referring to the way these technologies shape our behavior, our attitudes, and ultimately, our response to the looming crisis of climate change.

Social media distraction from climate issues

Ever found yourself mindlessly scrolling through social media, your eyes glazing over as you absorb an endless stream of news, memes, and targeted ads? That’s the first part of the problem, according to Dr. van der Ven.

“In offering always new, ever-changing content, social media platforms can take attention away from slower-moving issues,” he explains. Climate change, unfortunately, falls into the “slow-moving” category, and our short attention spans, honed by the digital age, might not be up to the task.

But it gets worse. “The other side of that is constant exposure to negative news on social media may also erode optimism and increase feelings of hopelessness,” Dr. van der Ven points out.

Doom-scrolling our way through the latest climate disasters can leave us feeling paralyzed and defeated, exactly the opposite of the mindset needed to tackle this global challenge.

Generative AI

As for generative AI, it might be a double agent. Sure, it can help us craft eloquent emails and whip up creative content, but Dr. van der Ven cautions that our growing reliance on it could have unintended consequences.

“As people become more dependent on it, we could find our capacity for creativity and forward-thinking solutions decreasing,” he observes. Could our digital assistants be dulling our own problem-solving skills? It’s a disturbing thought.

Misinformation on social medial and climate change

The researchers also highlight another concern. Both social media and AI can amplify false or biased information. This makes climate change discussions more complicated.

Misinformation can disrupt public understanding and support for climate action. It can hinder effective policy-making and delay critical measures needed to address climate change.

By spreading incorrect information, these technologies can create confusion and skepticism, making it harder to mobilize collective efforts and implement effective solutions.

This amplification of misinformation poses a significant challenge to achieving meaningful progress in combating climate change.

Cautious optimism and critical thinking

So, are we doomed to a future of digital distraction and AI-induced apathy? Not necessarily. But Dr. van der Ven and his colleagues urge us to take a more critical look at the role of technology and social media in the fight against climate change.

“We urge more skepticism about individuals and businesses that position digitalization as a solution to the climate crisis,” he says. We need to ask tough questions and demand evidence-based answers, rather than simply accepting the promises of tech evangelists.

The researchers call for more research into the indirect effects of internet-enabled technologies. They urge us to move beyond the simple tally of emissions. We need to delve into the complex ways these tools shape our thoughts and actions.

“Only through fact-based analysis can we achieve a more holistic understanding of the internet’s true impact on the climate,” Dr. van der Ven concludes.

So, the next time you find yourself lost in a digital rabbit hole, remember that the climate crisis demands our attention, our creativity, and our collective action. Don’t let the glow of the screen blind you to the urgency of the moment.

The study is published in the journal Global Environmental Politics.


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