“Good, Better, Best: How Sustainable Should Computing Be?”
Communications of the ACM, December 2021, Vol. 64 No. 12, Pages 6-7
By Andrew A. Chien
“The grid faces major challenges to decarbonize, and we can and should help accelerate the process.”
It has been quite a year. Increasing numbers of uncontrolled wildfires and extreme weather events have inspired new awareness and activism around climate change. This awareness has reached a broad range of computing communities: software and system developers, cloud operators, researchers and academics, policymakers, and increasingly business executives. The awakening of the community is evident in common questions: What is the problem? What can I do? Why can’t we do that? And there have been especially vibrant debates around AI/ML’s growing environmental impact.
As financial pressures on climate risk and reputation grow, computing industry executives have made new commitments to reduce carbon emissions and impact. They are responding to pressure and expectations of investors, peers, and customers. How much should we demand?
In Western capitalism corporations do “what they must” to secure their current and future profits. It falls to our awareness, activism, and engagement to drive the corporate profit calculus. I believe we should expect them to do heroic things—far more than the corporations “think” they can do, or “know how or can price” to do. This is essential to overcome business conservatism. And we can drive that corporate behavior with who we choose to buy from, work for, and respect. And frankly, who we consider to be a climate “greenwasher” or worse “a climate destroyer.” So, my answer is that we should set the bar high and expect computing and particularly tech companies reaping billions in annual profits to not just mitigate computing’s own damage, but to drive progress on climate change broadly and aggressively.
About the Author:
Andrew A. Chien is the William Eckhardt Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Chicago, Director of the CERES Center for Unstoppable Computing, and a Senior Scientist at Argonne National Laboratory.