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AI Fueling Climate Change, Energy Usage and Disinformation

Coalition of over 50 tech accountability and environmental groups sound the alarm on the potential harms of AI to the planet, democracy and information ecosystems.

This week, partners in Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD) — a coalition of over 50 leading climate and anti-disinformation organizations demanding robust, coordinated and proactive strategies to deal with the scale of the threat of climate misinformation and disinformation — released a report that maps the risks that artificial intelligence (AI) poses to the climate crisis.

While sustainability-focused organizations are embracing AI in their efforts to do everything from eliminate greenwash from their communications and food waste from their operations to creating ethical, transparent supply chains and getting a leg up on other common sustainability challenges; caveats around AI’s explosive growth were a major topic of discussion at the most recent UN Forum on Human Rights; and concerns over the intertwined risks of AI-driven misinformation and disinformation topped the World Economic Forum’s 2024 Global Risks Report.

“The skyrocketing use of electricity and water, combined with its ability to rapidly spread disinformation, makes AI one of the greatest emerging climate-threat multipliers,” said Charlie Cray, Senior Strategist at CAAD member Greenpeace USA. “Governments and companies must stop pretending that increasing equipment efficiencies and directing AI tools towards weather-disaster responses are enough to mitigate AI’s contribution to the climate emergency.”

Among the topline red flags presented in the CAAD report:

  • AI systems such as ChatGPT require an enormous amount of energy and water to operate — in 2023, Alphabet/Google chairman John Hennessy told Reuters that each new AI search query requires 10 times the energy costs of a traditional Google search — and consumption is expanding quickly: Statista expects the global artificial intelligence market size to show an annual growth rate (CAGR 2024-2030) of 15.83 percent, resulting in a market volume of US$738.80bn by 2030 — with the US to be the largest market (US$106.50bn in 2024).

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    Deepfakes generated by generative AI technology will present new challenges in maintaining credible public discourse and democracy. Generative AI has the potential to turbocharge climate disinformation — including climate change-related deepfakes — ahead of a historic election year where climate policy will be central to the debate.

  • The current AI policy landscape reveals a concerning lack of regulation on the federal level, with minor progress made at the state level — relying on voluntary, opaque and unenforceable pledges to pause development or provide safety with its products.

“AI companies spread hype that they might save the planet; but currently, they are doing just the opposite,” said Michael Khoo, Climate Disinformation Program Director at CAAD member Friends of the Earth. “AI companies risk turbocharging climate disinformation; and their energy use is causing a dangerous increase to overall US consumption, with a corresponding increase of carbon emissions.”

Previously, the coalition submitted letters to President Joe Biden and Senator Chuck Schumer that call on them to implement climate concerns into proposed AI legislation. The letters echo recommendations made in the report, including:

  • Transparency: Building on the SEC’s recent climate-disclosure mandate, companies must publicly report on energy usage and emissions produced, assess any environmental-justice concerns related to developing AI technology, and disclose how their AI models produce information in a way that prioritizes climate science.

  • Safety: Companies must be able to publicly demonstrate the safety of their products for users and the environment. In addition, governments should develop standards on AI safety reporting and invest in research that maps the risks AI poses to the spread of climate disinformation.

  • Accountability: Governments should enforce rules on investigating and mitigating the climate impacts of AI with clear, strong penalties for noncompliance. Companies and their executives must be held accountable for any harms that occur from use of their products.

“The evidence is clear: the production of AI is having a negative impact on the climate. The responsibility to address those impacts lies with the companies producing and releasing AI at a breakneck speed,” said Nicole Sugerman, Campaign Manager at Kairos Fellowship. “We must not allow another ‘move fast and break things’ era in tech; we’ve already seen how the rapid, unregulated growth of social media platforms led to previously unimaginable levels of online and offline harm and violence. We can get it right this time — with regulation of AI companies that can protect our futures and the future of the planet.”