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.

Taiwan & Tensions with China: Five Recommendations for US Policy

Taiwan has built a vibrant democracy on values Americans share and is an important US economic partner. China is the largest power in the region and sees Taiwan’s fate as central to its own national interest. US leaders need to manage these realities in a way that enhances regional and global stability, rather than framing disagreements over Taiwan as part of a dangerous narrative of inevitable conflict with China. Rhetoric about “winning” wars that neither Americans nor the people in that region want to fight is misguided and reckless. The US can best serve Taiwan’s security, and our own, by stabilizing relations with China in a manner that reduces the dangerous tensions that have built up between Washington and Beijing. The Center for International Policy has developed the following recommendations for US action toward that goal.

Recommendation #1: Ratchet “competition” rhetoric down rather than up

The people and government of Taiwan—as well as nearly all countries in the region—are saying loud and clear that they want a reduction in US–China tensions. Most countries also do not want to be forced to align with one side against the other. 

The United States should amplify statements and actions that bolster the status quo. It should reiterate its longstanding position of strategic ambiguity to both China and Taiwan, and avoid inflammatory symbolic gestures that do little to increase Taiwan’s security but signal to China that Taiwan is moving toward formal independence. While opinion in Taiwan is highly fragmented on what status to ultimately aim for, there is an overwhelming consensus on what to do today: four of every five people in Taiwan want to maintain the ambiguous status quo.

When Chinese official actions warrant criticism, the United States must also take care to clearly distinguish between the Chinese Communist Party-controlled government and the Chinese people. Calling out the human rights violations, repressive policies and authoritarianism of the Chinese government is crucial, but so is countering the increasing vilification of China in American politics, which not only puts the Chinese diaspora and Asian-Americans at risk of increased discrimination and violence; it repeats the dangerous “clash of civilizations” narrative reminiscent of the disastrous “war on terror” era.

Recommendation #2: Support—don’t jeopardize—Taiwan’s self-defense

Meeting the United States’ long-held objective of preserving stability in East Asia and the Pacific requires avoiding and dissuading others from taking actions that increase risks of war, encourage militarist policies, or empower reactionary politicians. America’s key tasks in this regard are to foreclose on the prospect of a future crisis and make miscalculation less, rather than more, likely.

That means robustly supporting Taiwan’s self defense according to a principle of non-offensive or non-provocative defense, balancing the need to defend against and render prohibitively costly Chinese attempts at conquest with the twin imperatives of both preventing war in the first place and reducing the prospects of nuclear escalation should a war occur. Accordingly, US arms sales should focus on capabilities that support the political status quo and preserve strategic stability. That includes systems to help Taiwan blunt Chinese power projection while avoiding new weapons systems that could range deep into the Chinese mainland and eschewing an arms buildup on a scale that would be reasonably misperceived as mobilizing for war. It also means undertaking efforts to ensure Taiwanese cybersecurity and combat disinformation that could stoke belligerent sentiment and trigger confrontation.

Recommendation #3: Foster stability by ensuring the legitimacy of international law survive its tests in Ukraine and Gaza

While differences in the precise circumstances and histories of each conflict are apparent, Chinese aggression toward Taiwan would be subject to the same international humanitarian law (IHL) obligations as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the war in Gaza. The extent to which the United States affirms and acts to uphold the laws of war, human rights and democratic principles with regard to those conflicts has a tremendous impact on the international legal landscape in which China operates vis-a-vis Taiwan.

Failure to champion adherence to international law in these conflicts – either by backing away from material support for Ukraine as it fights illegal conquest or by continuing to largely ignore Israeli IHL violations both in Gaza and in connection with its deepening occupation and annexation of the West Bank – undermines the universality of their application and makes it easier for actors like China to ignore them without fear of consequences from other states. The US unwillingness to take meaningful steps to protect Palestinian lives and rights in the Gaza war has led to accusations of hypocrisy. Continuing that mistaken approach, alongside the movement by rightwing forces in the US to limit or cease support for Ukraine, will only further degrade the international order the US constructed after WWII, eroding an important barrier to China and other actors that may consider more aggressive actions of their own.

Recommendation #4: Invest in the US domestic critical technology workforce, while cooperating with China on shared challenges like climate change.

The Biden administration has already taken steps to increase domestic production capacity for technologies critical to the security and economy of the United States, especially advanced technologies and those essential to address dire challenges like climate change. US technical innovation led the way in the 20th century and should continue to do so as we face new global challenges. Increasing government support for programs to ensure an ample and sustainable workforce for these industries – including through transitional income support, student loan forgiveness and substantially increased across–the-board investments in public education and societal welfare – should therefore also be pursued as a US security priority. 

At the same time, US strategic investments in American democracy, equality, and prosperity must be undertaken in such a way that they do not simply redirect insecurity toward the rest of the world. The technologies needed to survive, mitigate, and overcome challenges like climate change and global health threats will not be built in one nation, and will require significant investment and cooperation from governments across the world.

Both China and the US face tremendous challenges from warming temperatures, particularly in the area of desertification and water security. Cynically exploiting these vulnerabilities in China, as some have argued the United States should, in the hope that they lead to crisis and instability is both immoral and dangerous. Catastrophic or even substantial dysfunction in one of the world’s largest countries, economic engines and a nuclear power would imperil US and global security in a multitude of areas. Instead, the United States should approach cooperation on addressing urgent climate change imperatives – such as working with China to leverage non debt-creating climate finance investments and provide critical technical assistance to developing countries – as an opportunity to build trust and identify areas of mutual benefit on other issues.

Recommendation #5: Advance global priorities that break away from an outdated and counterproductive “Great Power Competition” mindset

The explicit embrace of a “Great Power Competition” worldview by the Biden Administration and much of the US foreign policy establishment drives its fixation on reducing China’s presence and influence around the world. The dangerously unquestioned need to “counter” or even “beat” China in region after region across the globe is not only reactionary, but subordinates US interests at home and abroad to a zero-sum fight that drains US resources and goodwill. China’s leaders, in turn, seem happy to accept the prestige that comes with being the apparently destined competitor of the United States. They shape China’s foreign and military policy with this confrontation paradigm in mind, with Taiwan’s fate teetering at the leading edge.

The United States needs to recognize and secure its interests in the reality of a multi-polar world, rather than futilely attempting to forestall it via a costly and ultimately self-defeating effort to constantly disadvantage China. US military spending is already three times that of China (which is investing much of the difference in sectors like green technology). While China has a larger naval fleet in terms of vessel numbers, the US has far greater naval capability. What ultimately matters is not the actual balance of forces, but what a nation does with its share of the balance–and that has much to do with the overall tenor of relations and policy choices outside the military domain. The challenges that we face globally – among them climate change, political instability and pandemics — require equally global cooperation and cannot be solved militarily. 

To break out of the zero-sum competition that dominates strategic thinking on both sides, a new approach to defining success in global influence is required, focusing on 1) global public goods like universal public health infrastructure and green energy for all; 2) significantly increasing development investment in those countries and regions that have been starved of capital for decades; and 3) guaranteeing human, political and labor rights globally. Building international cooperation around such a transformation of the global economy would reestablish US–China relations  on a new foundation, revive the legitimacy of international norms by expanding the opportunity it offers to people of all countries, and address the truly existential threats humanity faces today.