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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Is IT Our Best Defense Against Climate Change?

Information technology is essential to modern society because it makes us adaptable – and that’s precisely what the 21st century will require

  • May 10, 2011

The good news is that, aside from things like the thousands of miles of fiber optic and cable broadband we’ve buried in the ground or suspended from telephone poles, most of the world’s information technology infrastructure is relatively easy to replace – at least for now. That’s the conclusion of a new study commissioned by the UK government in hopes of determining what effects climate change will have on local as well as global IT infrastructure.

The report’s basic conclusion is that, compared to the cost and difficulty of armoring our shorelines, moving our coastal cities inland, and hoping our energy and and transport infrastructure isn’t done in by extreme weather, the direct consequences of climate change for our increasingly dematerialized society are trivial. In no small part because it’s all infrastructure we’re constantly having to replace, anyway. Here’s a visual representation from the report:

This is especially good news, because pretty much every other kind of climate change adaptation the government is counting on is dependent on our digital communications infrastructure continuing to work as promised. The authors note:

A recent report on the systemic interactions of UK national infrastructure stated that the five sectors (energy, [IT], transport, waste and water) were to some extent all interdependent, but that each was absolutely dependent on the provision of energy and [IT].

Smart cities, smart grids, demand response electricity usage, a sharing/acces (vs. ownership) society: you name a climate change adaptation measure, it’s dependent on a fully-functioning, civilization-spanning digital nervous system. Which makes information technology both one of the most adaptable forms of infrastructure we have and one of the most important. Arguably, it’s precisely its adaptability that has made it so integral to everything else we do.

And if you think this is all a bunch of hand-waving, check out this post from the flood-ravaged city of Brisbane. When all else failed – when the power was out, the roads blocked, and the cupboard the only source of food left to the residents of a city who were feeling the effects of a climate change-turbocharged disaster, one urbanist managed to get this on the internet anyway, after writing it on an iPad, through the one piece of infrastructure that still worked – the cell network.

Unfortunately, in some ways our IT infrastructure may becoming more vulnerable to disaster and interruption, after a long trend of it becoming more robust. More on that tomorrow.

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