A look at how artificial intelligence will interact with our efforts to deal with climate change.
I will remember 2022 as a breakthrough moment for artificial intelligence (AI). I have luddite tendencies, and I worry a lot about how our society will respond to rapid changes unleashed by advances in AI. So I reacted to the public releases of AI products this past year with a mixture of fascination and concern.
As a climate scholar, I find it natural to wonder how these forces will interact with climate change. Will AI help humanity cut emissions and adapt to climate change, or will it only make matters worse? I’ve come to believe that the right answer depends on whether you think the real challenge with addressing climate change is a technological problem or a power struggle.
Image generated by DALL-E
(prompt: “robot scientist working with human to save the environment.”)
AI tools are amazing
To think this column is worth reading, you have to already have had an “AI moment.” If you haven’t already spent hours pondering the avocado chair, stared in awe at a GPT-3 demo, or tried to top, “write a biblical verse in the style of the king james bible explaining how to remove a peanut butter sandwich from the VCR,” then stop reading. Go do those things for a while. Then take a long walk, think about humanity, and hug someone you love.
The first prompt I fed to ChatGPT was “write a column in the style of Severin Borenstein.” (I assume this is a common entry.) Three seconds later, I had seven passable paragraphs endorsing electric vehicle adoption, but noting challenges related to range anxiety, charging infrastructure, and pollution associated with upstream electricity generation from coal and natural gas. It was too milquetoast to have actually been written by Severin, but it was a eureka moment. I could immediately see both how this tool could make me better at some parts of my job and how a moderately improved version could replace me.
The default view is techno-optimism
I’ve come to think of the impact of AI on the climate in three tiers. The third, most distant, tier is some hard-to-contemplate long-run: either robots take over the planet or they solve all our problems and leave us in a utopia. The implications for climate change make for a fun conversation over drinks, but it is too speculative for the EI blog, even for me.
The first, most proximate, tier is what you find when you Google phrases like “AI and climate change” or “will AI help or hurt the climate?” What mostly comes back are consulting reports and mission statements from socially-conscious start-ups claiming a variety of ways in which advances in data analytics can help mitigation and adaptation efforts. Highlights include smarter grids, improved transportation networks, highly accurate disaster prediction, and ways of generating better data–on emissions, on mitigation, on forestry, on vulnerable populations.
I generated the text of this slide from ChatGPT (prompt: “bullet points about synergy between AI and climate mitigation and adaptation, in style of consulting PowerPoint deck”); the image is from DALL-E (prompt: “synergy symbol, style of consulting presentation”); the arrangement is from PowerPoint’s automated Design feature.
Much of this is credible, and improved data analytics will surely help. But the richest questions are in the middle tier, where the impacts are harder to predict.
A few observations on the middle tier
The middle tier in my taxonomy is the way in which vastly improved AI will drive changes in productivity, the economy, and society, over something like the next five to fifteen years. Here, the point is that AI is a new, fundamental tool that promises to enhance the productivity and creativity of some workers, to displace many others, and to shift concentrations of wealth and power. I predict that big changes are coming, and faster than most people realize.
How does all this impact the climate?
First, AI might accelerate economic growth. Many think growth will undermine climate progress, with some adhering to the view that degrowth is necessary. There is certainly a positive link between economic activity and emissions, which gives this view an obvious logic. Deep decarbonization, however, requires significant structural and societal change, and change is easier to achieve when the economic pie is growing.
Second, the rise of AI may aid climate innovation. Lots of research in economics has suggested that innovation is slowing down, but advances in AI could reverse that trend. And, we need more innovation to deal with the climate, not just in science and technology, but also in policy and economics, in marketing and communication.
At the same time, AI’s innovation potential is not limited to green technologies. It could be used to drive down the cost of fossil fuel production and other industries that generate emissions. Economists use the term “directed innovation” to indicate when society, through policy or other forces, steers research and development in one direction or another. The critical question is whether we’ve reached the point where as a society we are willing to prioritize addressing climate change, so that innovation on balance be climate positive. I’m mostly optimistic.
What makes me pessimistic, however, is a third factor, how AI tools may induce social division. The suite of AI tools that are rapidly developing will disrupt many new industries and displace millions of workers, many of which now enjoy comfortable white collar desk jobs. This may ultimately prove to be a form of creative destruction that leads to a better future, but in the meantime it seems most likely to increase income inequality, create new concentrations of power and wealth, and sow social division. Because climate progress will require an unprecedented level of global cooperation, it is best pursued in a world with less social upheaval.
A fourth, and maybe most important, way that AI will impact climate is by making the politics of climate worse. AI tools like ChatGPT, in the words of Ezra Klein, “drive the cost of disinformation to zero.” Vested interests, from petro-states to old fashioned oil companies, that wish to obstruct the policy and social cohesion needed to accelerate the clean energy transition have a powerful new tool. Tools like ChatGPT have no obvious relationship to the truth. They are trained on prediction and association, and they can just as easily be used to persuade people of falsehoods as open them up to the truth.
Image generated by DALL-E
(prompt: “robot holding the scales of justice with earth on the scale, in style of Banksy.”)
This month, the Ohio legislature passed a resolution that officially labels natural gas a “green” fuel, and Wyoming legislators introduced a bill to ban electric vehicles. In such a world, it is easy to imagine super-powered disinformation, applied asymmetrically, becoming a powerful tool for entrenched interests that swamp the beneficial effects of things like precision agriculture and improved grid analytics.
In the end, the optimistic case for AI aiding the climate makes sense if you think that the main problem with addressing climate change is a need for more technological solutions, and better and lower cost ways of implementing the technologies that we have. If, on the other hand, you view the climate struggle as a pitched battle between partisans, you may well come to a different, darker view.
I am a hall-of-fame worrier. I triple check that doors are locked when I leave a room and pester traveling loved ones to text me when they arrive at their destinations. I worry about earthquakes and floods, about social division and inequality, about the effects of social media and screen pollution. I worry about the status quo. I worry about change. And I really do worry a lot about AI.
At the same time, I can’t help but be charmed by the new AI tools. They are fun and clearly spark creativity. I thus find myself leaning towards an optimistic view of what they can do for the climate, and for humanity more generally. But to ultimately decide how I should really feel, I went to the source:
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Suggested citation: Sallee, James, “Can ChatGPT Save the Planet?”, Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, January 23, 2023, https://energyathaas.wordpress.com/2023/01/23/can-chatgpt-save-the-planet/
James M. Sallee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Berkeley, a Research Associate of the Energy Institute at Haas, and a Faculty Research Fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research. He is a public economist who studies topics related to energy, the environment and taxation. Much of his work evaluates policies aimed at mitigating greenhouse gas emissions related to the use of automobiles.