Climate change AI must not become a battleground for nations

We need regulation of AI to protect the huge potential the technology has to accelerate action to stop global warming. Globally agreed standards would also prevent misuse of the powerful technology. COP26 Glasgow will consider an intergovernmental “roadmap” on AI’s role in fighting global warming, but it needs to go much further. It needs to lock in an agreed regulatory framework before it is too late.

​What we cannot afford is global power players creating their own regulatory systems to favour their political agendas. Climate change artificial intelligence has huge potential to swiftly inform and instruct global citizens who see climate change as the most important crisis the world has faced. Already, across cities, industries, transport networks, agriculture – AI is being used to combat climate change. We need all of these initiatives to be actioned across the world as soon as possible. But further, AI technology will be developed to create new ways of dealing with global warming as research budgets increase. Predictably, as political leaders begin to grapple with AI potential, some are looking to consolidate their own powers or lock in economic advantage.

​For example, China is looking to oversee and control AI algorithm recommendations, and content, while conversely, making AI more transparent and accountable to users. Britain is looking to adopt loose regulations to enable competitive advantage in innovation. The EU is looking to export its system designed to provide trustworthiness. The US is taking its standard libertarian approach of piecemeal regulation to deal with problems as they arise.

​Probably the most important use AI will ever have is in developing climate change solutions and coordinated actions. This requires a trusted, enmeshed system of climate change AI clusters all running on the same regulatory system. Just like the internet does, in most cases. At the moment, we have a mess of competing AI regulatory drafts, none of which will do the job for global reach climate change AI.

​We need the important nations in AI research and development to quarantine climate change AI from the usual win/lose political paradigm. If a patchwork of national flawed regulatory systems is created instead of a free, transparent and accountable global standard for climate change AI, we all lose. And what we lose is the opportunity to turn around the climate crisis extremely quickly. AI is able to be upscaled in months, it can have immense reach, and it can quantify results. It could be the trusted source of strategic action for many millions of global citizens and responsible businesses, states, cities, and countries. It could help us to change the world.

​For many politicians, that is the problem, right there.

​Instead of the collaboration that global citizens are crying out for, we have the battle lines being drawn up. On one side, fossil fuel industries, which are fighting for their existence, not ours. We have authoritarian regimes, which are likely to attempt to ensure that climate change AI does not take off in their countries and destabilise their existing top down governance system. If the UN did its job It would be far more difficult for any nations, including those spouting pious sentiments while seeking economic advantage, to weaponise AI regulation to serve their own interests and leave competing nations in the cold. COP26, while showcasing AI, should also have climate change AI protective regulation near the top of its agenda.

​Optimisation of all the climate change initiatives before COP26 is essential, otherwise, the “winners” in the arena of competing AI regulation will have their dubious set of standards exported to other countries which cannot afford to be left behind, or countries with dependence status. All of this may be the usual operating style of global commerce, but in the case of climate change AI, it is the death knell. Competing regulations will create space for manipulation of content and AI generated recommendations, and ultimately, take away trust and the opportunity of global citizens to deal with climate change quickly and justly, on a global basis. Good efforts, like those of the European Union, will be doomed to be outliers.

​There is room for hope, however. It is obvious that China has a more nuanced approach to both climate change and AI regulation than some of the people it has had to deal with in the recent past. It is possible that if China is treated with a bit of respect, a dialogue may be opened up. In the case of climate change AI, the people must be allowed to exchange information, however uncomfortable this freedom may be to the regime. China is a research leader in AI, and it has already shown that it is aware of the risks of coal fired energy, while it grapples with short term shortages. Meanwhile, the US states that AI regulation will be to the benefit of the US. That is a short-sighted and unethical position in respect to climate change AI. The EU’s position may represent a starting point. We also cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by the flash and spin of climate change denying full-chrome wing nuts, or those who seek to delay progress in action on climate change.

​The saddest aspect of the AI regulatory race that is ramping up, is that the good parts of all of them could create a detailed, protective climate change AI regulatory system with responsible independent governance, that all could accept. Properly authenticated information, transparency of recommendations by AI algorithms and the ability to opt out, auditing of AI used, privacy protection, exposure of malicious or political manipulation with recourse to human oversight, and the rest. We would have climate change AI regulation fit for purpose, so that research money would benefit all, strategies developed could be actioned across the globe, and commerce could engage global citizens on many levels of climate change activism. This could enable fast uptake of renewable energy and end our extremely dangerous dependence on fossil fuels. It could modify our human endeavours in ways that could be demonstrated to be effective in dealing with the climate emergency, and amplify new solutions as they emerge.

It isn’t too late. We need to talk.