United Nations: Step Up on Climate Change AI Regulation

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres started the September 2021 United Nations General Assembly by hurling stones at “billionaires joyriding to space while billions go hungry on earth”, while himself failing to provide a global regulatory or operational framework for a wide roll-out of climate change Artificial Intelligence. This effectively rules out effective action by the said big tech billionaires, who oddly enough, aren’t keen to be seen as global dictators.

This leaves nobody happy, particularly the huge global population desperate for climate change action. Without it, billions will certainly go hungry on earth, and also thirsty. They will lose their homes and be part of a desperate migration from the devastation that will accompany climate change. The UN is moving at a snail’s pace on the key answer, which is climate change AI.

The UN in April this year launched the first artificial intelligence tool for rapid natural capital accounting, which will make it easier for countries to measure ecosystems. The AI tool uses the ARIES (Artificial Intelligence for Environmental and Sustainability) platform so that countries can apply the new international standard for natural capital accounting, the System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA). That is it. Where is the broad regulatory framework to allow the start of hybrid public/private partnerships to create real change, including change that may be uncomfortable for some countries and will condemn some industries?

The UN initiative keeps the power over this AI in the hands of national politicians, the very crowd who are responsible for holding back climate change action in many countries (notably, Jair Bolsonaro).

The UN could consider making itself useful by creating a regulatory and operational framework for the rapid development and deployment of independent wide ranging climate change AI clusters.

Let’s look at ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). It was founded in 1998 and grew out of a US Government commitment to transfer the policy and technical management of the Domain Name System to a non-profit corporation based in the US, with global participation. It has all worked extremely well. ICANN has responsibility for IP address space allocation, generic and country code top-level domain name system management, and root serve management functions,

“As a public-private partnership, ICANN is dedicated to preserving the operational stability of the internet, to promoting competition, to achieving broad representation of global Internet communities, and to developing policy appropriate to its mission through bottom-up, consensus-based processes.”

It is obvious where I am going with this, but there are a few major issues to be addressed. As an aside, I was a founding member of ISOCNZ, a voluntary New Zealand Committee that set up the commercial domain name system in New Zealand. As the first Public Policy committee chair, I was part of the frantic scramble to get the show on the road during a time of rocketing uptake, but I also saw at close range the avid and unhealthy interest of the New Zealand Government in obtaining cryptography keys. And that is a dedicated democracy.

I saw that independence is key, and the trust of private organisations in supporting such a system is essential. Legal protection is also extremely important.

To achieve a very fast roll-out, participation of key players like the US and China is necessary. Given that the US has a fairly clear position and a track record, let us look at China.

China has one of the world-leading artificial intelligence capabilities, with huge resources poured into research. China also has a highly educated citizenry who know they are being denied freedoms online, and China may need to attempt to justify its authoritarian approach by investing heavily in climate change AI and demonstrating climate change action in order to keep its own citizens onside. China has already indicated its high level of awareness of the climate change issue by declining to invest in fossil fuel powered energy production in developing countries. However, its own climate change situation is dire.

China is an expert player of the long game, and also has bad history with the West it is never going to forget. The same could also be said of Russia.

A UN governance body to regulate rapid uptake climate change AI would need to be shown to be independent and inclusive. It would need to involve the countries mentioned above in its foundational processes. It would need to take the risk out of public/private hybrids coming up with bold initiatives in the space. It would need to develop standards for authentication of information, standards to ensure that computing power and corresponding climate results were emissions positive, assure legal protection of climate change AI’s, and to develop policy, as per ICANN, with a grassroots structure.

Who would develop this structure? I would nominate Helen Clark, experienced, organised, ethical, and a former nominee for UN Secretary General.

We need real leadership. If the UN won’t step up, who will start work and force its hand?