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Communications of the ACM

Letters to the editor

Computing's Role in Climate Warming


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As a computer scientist, I was embarrassed to read the Viewpoint "Conferences in an Era of Expensive Carbon" (Mar. 2020) from four fellow computer scientists. If these scholars truly believe what they write, that humans are causing the planet to warm, that they are not just eagerly joining the herd, then they need to show the way. The job of computer scientists is to make bits dance on the head of a circuit and that requires the field's lifeblood—electricity. Since 63% of U.S. electricity is currently generated from fossil fuels, they need to reduce their electricity usage by that amount. They must take seriously their own stated beliefs and stop the planet from further warming. They need to immediately cut their time on the computer by 63%. In the classroom, they need to turn the projector off for most of their lectures. At home, they need to shut off lights and appliances for a majority of each day. If they drive an electric car, they need to reduce trip lengths by two-thirds. If they don't take these CO2-mitigating steps, then they don't really believe there is a problem. And the solution they propose becomes similar to many academic exercises that professors put their students through.

Daniel Ouellette, Detroit, MI, USA

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Authors' Response

We entirely agree that everyone concerned about climate change must urgently translate their concern into action. To be effective, such action should focus on the biggest opportunities for reduction. Air travel to conferences is the biggest contributor to our own individual carbon footprints, by a huge margin; we suspect the same is true for many scientific researchers and academics. However, since conferences also serve an extremely valuable social function, it would be rash to advocate simply taking them away. Instead, organizations like ACM should help create a future in which their scientific meetings are sustainable. Our proposals for publicizing carbon footprints and putting a price on carbon are steps in this direction.

Benjamin C. Pierce, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Jens Palsburg, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Michael Hicks, College Park, MD, USA
Crista Lopes, Irvine, CA, USA

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Editor-in-Chief's Response

I applaud the advocacy of real change to reduce the carbon impact of the computing community. We have many constructive dimensions to consider, including reducing travel for conferences (virtual!), but also directly in the carbon emissions tied to both the creation of computing hardware and its operation (see "What Do DDT and Computing Have in Comment?" (June 2020, p. 5) and "Owning Computings Environmental Impact," (Mar. 2019, p. 5) for ideas on how to reduce carbon emissions while society continues to reap growing benefits from computing. Ouellette further suggests conservation techniques; these can be effective, but "bright green" approaches that seek to maintain and expand activity, while reducing environmental damage are certainly easier to adopt.

Andrew A. Chien, Chicago, IL, USA

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Location, Location, Location

In the article "Can You Locate Your Locations Data?" (Sept. 2019, p. 19) Sarah Underwood discussed several approaches to mitigation, though indicating there's no one solution. An approach not discussed, but which would certainly provide added privacy for those more aware of and concerned, lies in the phone itself.

Two apps not at present available, as far as I know, could help. One would limit access to GPS data to privileged apps that do not send that data outside the device. The second would disable the communications capabilities altogether, so there would be no tracking through network transactions, thus reducing the phone (or tablet) to a pocket computer.

As an aside, there should be corresponding capabilities to disable the camera(s) and microphone.

Navigation could be achieved either by accessing a map application prior to travel and saving it, or downloading maps, such as those provided for personal GIS/GPS systems, or loading a basic GIS and its maps for local navigation on site with no outside communication.

For those who do care deeply about such issues, these two capabilities would greatly mitigate the perceived risks in being tracked on personal errands or sensitive professional activities and would not depend on the ambiguities—or outright lacunae—in the provisions of multiple corporate privacy policies. Moreover, they could be implemented without extensive legal or legislative effort, which can be difficult and/or expensive to enforce, and often of questionable effectiveness.

N.L. Sizemore, Sierra Vista, AZ, USA

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Editor-in-Chief's Response

An interesting technical solution which begs the question, if the change is not compelled by government, who has the incentive to drive its creation and widespread adoption? Given the economics of scale, and the current situation that privacy seems only to be a compelling concern for a minority (for example, DuckDuckGo remains a minor player), what could tip the scales and drive creation of a vibrant growing alternative ecosystem?

Andrew A. Chien, Chicago, IL, USA

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An Army Lesson

J. Paul Reed's article "Beyond the 'Fix-It' Treadmill" (May 2020, p. 58) was quite interesting and certainly a step in the right direction. Although it postdates my retirement from the U.S. Army by 16 years, you might find interest in the report: "Army Lessons Learned Program."1 In my day, we used to simply do AARs—After Action Reviews. Technical, communication, and people vectors are involved when done correctly.

Carl A. Singer, Passaic, NJ, USA

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References

1. Department of the Army. Army Lessons Learned Program, 2017; https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/ARN2887_AR11-33_Web_FINAL.pdf


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