Exploring the Intersection of Climate Justice and Computing in the Social, Ethical, and Responsibility for Computing (SERC) Program

By: Chris Rabe, Postdoctoral Associate

Recently, a well-warranted amount of attention has been given to the alarming and intensifying environmental impacts that result from data centers and other areas of computing, such as hardware disposal (or e-waste) and biased AI algorithms. However, not enough scrutiny has been placed on the ways in which computing causes and exacerbates climate injustices impacting the world’s most vulnerable groups at national and international levels. What is more, the world of computing education still lags behind in incorporating both more general discussion of sustainability and more specific issues of climate and environmental justice within the general curriculum. 

data center

A Google Data Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Photo credit: Chad Davis via Flickr

Unfortunately, this means that students currently graduating with computer science degrees at MIT are exposed to a minimal quantity of environmental and sustainability computing content. For example, a recent ESI white paper documented that only approximately 3 percent of the courses within the electrical engineering and computer science curricula at MIT contained content related to either sustainability or climate justice. Informal conversations that I’ve had with computer science students have confirmed this lack of environmental focus in their coursework. 

So, what would a course look like that centers climate justice as a foundational theoretical framework from which to explore the world of computing? 

I am currently leading a reading group as an affiliate postdoc in the Social, and Ethical, Responsibilities of Computing (SERC) program within the Schwarzman College of Computing that attempts to address the climate impacts and injustices of computing and corresponding gap in computing education. SERC was founded to provide a space for students to explore  the broad social challenges that are associated with computing, including political, ethical, philosophical, and legal issues, among others. Our reading group focuses on a core question: What are the ways in which different areas of computing (and computing education) can either exacerbate, or potentially mitigate, issues of climate justice across the globe? 

The interdisciplinary group, which features seven students from both undergraduate and graduate levels across various schools and departments, began to review the above question in October of 2024. Students include Anastasia Dunca (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Major), Ellie Bultena (Linguistics and Philosophy Major), Lauren Higgins (Political Science Major), Jasmin Liu, (Master in Business Administration), Mrinalini Singha (Master in Art Culture and Technology), Sungmoon Lim (Master in City Planning), and Lelia Hampton (PhD Candidate, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science). 

Topics featured in the syllabus include the state of computing education; the impact of hardware production and disposal on communities of the Global South; cloud computing and data center environmental impacts; AI ethics; data science, equity, and justice; and other topics based on student interest. Because this topic is fairly unexplored, the main goal is to expose students to a variety of different subtopics, which would provide opportunities to spark a wide range of interests and academic deliverables. 

During our meetings — of which we’ve had 10 at the time of publication, with 15 more remaining — some topics have garnered more interest. So far, students are most compelled by the broad area of electronics hardware production and disposal. This includes the mining of raw minerals, the manufacturing process, and electronic waste (e-waste), specifically as it relates to the inequitable impacts of these processes on communities around the world, especially the Global South. 

It seems that students are interested in this area for a few reasons. Bultena is intrigued by the history and evolution of electronics manufacturing from an environmental justice perspective, whereas Hampton is currently exploring the intersection of indigeneity and e-waste. Dunca is interested in how to influence big tech to rework their business models or material improvements to reduce e-waste. In addition, our discussions have also focused on a potential lack of awareness among MIT students (and college students in general) regarding their electronic devices and the best way to conserve their lifespan and correctly dispose or recycle them. 

E-waste recycling

E-waste recycling. Photo credit: Fairphone via Flickr

As student interest in these topics continues to be deepened and refined, there are various deliverables that students could produce. For example, the above discussion on student awareness on e-waste has sparked an interest in creating new educational materials for students both at MIT and within other educational institutions. This novel educational material could take on many forms. One option would be to write a SERC Case Study that explores various aspects of e-waste and climate justice, or other adjacent issues. SERC Case Studies are commissioned, peer-reviewed research papers with the specific goal of being used for undergraduate instruction across different fields of study, both for computing-specific students and for a more general audience.

A secondary option would be to create new modules or other educational tools for the Climate Justice Instructional Toolkit, a curricular development project to support faculty and instructors across disciplines at MIT and beyond to better integrate climate justice content within their teaching.

No matter how the students in this SERC reading group communicate their learning experience to the outside world, the main goal is to place much needed attention on the intersections of computing and climate justice to better harness solutions for a more equitable and sustainable planetary future. 

Interested in getting involved in this project? Please contact Chris Rabe at cjrabe@mit.edu to learn more.