Can Climate Refugees Find A Home In The Metaverse?

Anmol Irfan is a Muslim-Pakistani freelance journalist and editor. Her work aims at exploring marginalized narratives in the Global South with a key focus on gender, climate and tech. She tweets @anmolirfan22

With a total land mass of fewer than 26 square kilometers across its three coral islands and six atolls, the Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu is expected to be the first nation in the world lost completely to climate change. Facing this very near threat, authorities are working with international organizations to mitigate the impacts of climate change, as well as resettling people in other countries like New Zealand. But there’s a third approach being taken as well – creating a digital Tuvalu. At the Cop27 climate conference in November 2022, then-Minister for Justice, Communication & Foreign Affairs Simon Kofe gave a speech where he said that the threat to Tuvalu left them with no choice but to become the world’s first digital nation.

“Our land, our ocean, our culture are the most precious assets of our people and to keep them safe from harm, no matter what happens in the physical world, we will move them to the cloud,” Kofe said in a video. At the time, Kofe hinged the expectations for a digital Tuvalu on the metaverse. Now, almost two years on from his announcement, experts still remain confused as to what that digital nation can really look like, and more importantly if tech like the metaverse is really the future for the climate action movement.

For Tuvalu, becoming a digital nation encompasses multiple aspects, including a digital replica of the country’s landscapes, digital citizenship, and archives of cultural heritage so that the Tuvalese diaspora can stay connected to their identity, and visit a digital replica of the country they were forced to leave behind. They also want citizens to be able to participate in polls and events. Whether all that can be possible is a question of the sustainability impact of such undertakings, the policies surrounding these decisions and the investment of those in power.

“Technology is for the most part perceived to be neutral, though that is not always in fact the case and of course almost any innovation can be used in both positive and negative ways” says Professor Karen Morrow, professor of Environmental Law at Swansea University. She adds, “It’s taken us a long time in human history to reach a point where there’s enough of us and our technology is invasive enough to change the planet. Some things no amount of technology can help reverse, like dealing with polar ice melting, but what technology can do is help us understand the issues better,” especially when talking about how what we really need is pursuing the law and policy around these issues in a way that leads to action.

The metaverse itself might be abandoned before the people of Tuvalu leave their islands and atolls, but the question of a “digital nation” remains. With such little regulation over, or even research around its energy-impact, backing such a large scale project as a digital migration to a virtual space might just do more harm than good. But that doesn’t mean abandoning any such action. Rather, policy makers should focus on the best course of action for the Tuvalu and the Tuvalese diaspora that prioritizes their needs.

Virtual safety

For Tuvalu’s case, this digitization offers a means to preservation of artifacts and culture – but on a policy level, there’s still little knowledge of how these digital boundaries can be managed. Manann Donoghoe, senior research associate at Brookings Metro, whose work focuses on climate reparations says that a digital nation cannot be the only solution. “I think for a lot of the people of Pacific Island nations, perhaps it makes more sense to be pursuing a strategy where those people can gain sovereignty somewhere else. Australia, for example, is in talks about settlement agreements which are not perfect but you need to start thinking about where you put these communities,” he says. He’s also wary of the way tech advancements have divided the globe in the past. “Unfortunately, a lot of tech advancements in the past have led to increasing division in Global North and Global South countries. If you don’t have strong policy structures about who has access, who’s using them and how, that could happen again,” Donoghoe adds.

Tuvalu may succeed in creating a digital replica of the landscape in the metaverse, but historically, technological advancements haven’t favored Global South nations, and it’s likely that the people’s experience in that digital replica may be coloured with the impact of that history.

Besides offering a digital home for climate, the metaverse could join other technologies used to fight climate change, if it can shift user behaviors away from emissions-generating activity.  Last year, a Cornell study stated that by replacing the air pollutants, the use of a virtual world through the metaverse could potentially lower greenhouse gas emissions by 10 gigatons, and help lower the global surface temperature by 0.02 degrees. To get there, the metaverse needs to join other technologies that facilitate digital learning, remote working and other digital aspects of everyday life. But what about the policy needed to put this future into action?

“There are huge opportunities for advances in technology to enable policy and action. Using machine learning to analyze satellite imagery or field sensors can help to close data gaps. One recent example is [the World Resources Institute]’s work with Meta where we developed a new algorithm for measuring tree height at global scale. As this work matures, we’ll be able to measure an individual tree’s height anywhere in the world, which is critical for carbon measurement, restoration monitoring, and so much more,” says Evan Tachovsky, the Global Director of WRI’s Data Lab.

But even for something as big as WRI, Meta and technologies work has been largely focused on data and inanimate objects, not people. And unlike other data collected, people cannot and should not be so neatly categorized. Nor can their actions be controlled or limited, and with unchecked environmental impact, the Metaverse at this scale may be a climate disaster waiting to happen.

Material Limits

Assistant Professor Robert Verdecchia at the University of Florence worries that policies around technology regulation aren’t sustainable enough for tech to really have a net positive impact. The impact that many optimists are looking for can only be positive when the technology being used isn’t having a negative impact on climate in the first place. “The lack of standards of what sustainable means from an IT perspective then leads in turn to a complete lack of policy, IT is consuming more and more energy and the lack of standardization especially in measurement of sustainability leads to complete lack of policy.”

Which is why Verdecchia and other experts are concerned that not enough policy is being geared towards managing the sustainability and equitable division of AI development. Verdecchia further adds that AI’s energy consumption is currently very high, and that’s not being talked about enough in conversations around taking action.

A 2023 study found that ChatGPT consumes 500 ml of water for every 20-50 simple questions and answers. Another, specifically looking at reducing the carbon footprint of the metaverse, pointed out that training an AI model consumed 284 tons of carbon dioxide, which is more than 5 times the amount of greenhouse gas a car emits in its lifetime. While the research around the metaverse’s energy consumption is much less precise, one comparison can be seen through the energy consumption of transactions. While a credit card transaction in the real world consumes about 149 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy, a similar transaction digitally in the metaverse consumes 2189 kWh, which is 14 times that amount.

Precedent also shows that much of the power for development and mitigation both in terms of resources and finances lies in the hands of the Global North, which raises further questions about equity within policy. Currently a major chunk of technology development, whether it be in projects like the metaverse, generative AI or other similar innovations, lies in the hands of private companies, like Google and Microsoft.

Public-private partnerships to involve these developments in climate action might seem like a good way forward when it comes to scaling them up, but Morrow questions whether these would really be true partnerships at all. “Partnership is a word that’s everywhere, you’ll see it used in climate contexts globally. But the word partnership can only be used if you have the same goal. Furthermore, Big Tech is more powerful than many governments, and that’s not a partnership when power isn’t equal,” she says.

So even when countries like the United States, who have more resources, think of funding projects like Tuvalu in the metaverse, they need to reckon with the power private institutions – who don’t always have citizen’s interests in mind – will have in these decisions. That coupled with the still vague environmental impact of such projects creates perhaps too many question marks for this to be seen as a major solution.

There’s other issues like international collaboration, and putting vulnerable communities first to consider as well. Michelle Solomon, senior policy analyst at Energy Innovation, says, “This is something we think about with the transition of communities, particularly like coal plant communities in the US where the situation may be similar to what Tuvalu is facing  in terms of identity loss. Putting communities first and what the communities priorities are is crucial. Ultimately solutions built from the ground up will be most positive and long lasting for the community.”

It’s why Tuvalu’s example needs to become the starting point for governments to start thinking about how technology can actually be used to benefit vulnerable communities. Verdecchia suggests that might be easier in Global South nations away from the strongholds of the major Big Tech companies. While tech may be the answer to some environmental problems, such mass usage of tech that consumes energy on such a large scale cannot be the answer to an already existing climate problem.

Instead of the last word, Tuvalu’s efforts to preserve the nation in the metaverse can be the start of a conversation. Beyond digital preservation, the effort can spur efforts towards resettlement, physical archives and attempts to preserve cultures in other ways that align with the values of the communities that are most vulnerable.