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Dolly Parton’s new song is a climate anthem — if you want it to be

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Monday, May 22, 2023

In the video for her new song, “World On Fire,” Dolly Parton sits atop a burning world. Blond hair piled and coiffed, her black dress glittering, she looks down into a pit of flames burning the earth. The song rocks a little harder than her usual feathery country oeuvre, and over a driving beat, she lets you know she’s about to get political. Now I ain’t one for speaking out much But that don’t mean I don’t stay in touch Everybody’s trippin’ over this or that What we gonna do when we all fall flat? Dolly spends the next four minutes outlining the sorry state of the world, or at least the nation, punctuating it with a rousing chorus: Liar, liar the world’s on fire Whatcha gonna do when it all burns down? Fire, fire burning higher Still got time to turn it all around. It’s difficult to say whether Dolly explicitly intended “World on Fire” as a climate song, though people are hearing it as such. But that’s how many of Dolly’s more “political” statements and artistic work come across — they tap into the zeitgeist without making any explicit political statements. Dolly is an expert at this. The lyrics, which, as usual, she wrote herself, evoke a certain sense of climate anxiety, a suffocating sense of watching the world’s reliable patterns break down into a muddy mess, of watching politicians divide us even as existential threats bear down. There’s something in this song for anyone who feels the government isn’t doing its job, conservative or progressive or in-between – the only difference is who, precisely, they consider the liar: Don’t get me started on politics Now how are we to live in a world like this Greedy politicians, present and past They wouldn’t know the truth if it bit ’em in the ass. This is a little forward for Dolly, but, classically, it still avoids naming names or taking sides. Dolly walks a narrow bridge. She is among the last universally beloved figures in pop culture, a vestige of an old version of country music where performers were allowed to be a little campier, and when they sang about killing men just to watch them die or begging a prettier woman not to steal their man. Four years ago, the WNYC podcast Dolly Parton’s America helped propel the iconic singer, who has enjoyed several waves of popularity over the past 50 years, beyond her traditional fan base and into coastal liberal consciousness. The host, marveling at the breadth of the audience, called her “The great unifier.” In her home state of Tennessee, people disagree on a lot of things, but if you say a bad word about Dolly, you might find yourself with a sudden appointment in the parking lot.  She’s given her more socially liberal audience a reason to root for her over the past few decades, though carefully and in her way, never along partisan lines, and rarely in a way that would cause her more conservative audience too much ire. She’s acknowledged, for instance, the role of the LGBT community in inspiring her stage persona. Yet when Tennessee banned public drag performances, she kept quiet. She publicly attested her support for Black Lives Matter with a spate of other country musicians as artists reckoned with the genre’s long silence on racial justice. Her speaking up came two years after she changed the name of her long-running dinner show from Dixie Stampede to Dolly’s Stampede after much criticism of its Confederate nostalgia. Parton insisted the original name was chosen out of “innocent ignorance.” (This move did divide some fans.)  Even when she does speak out, Dolly never points fingers. Her message is often softly wrapped in statements about love and kindness.  “Oh, can we rise above? Can’t we show some love?” she asks in “World on Fire.”  In interviews, Dolly has certainly expressed support for environmental causes, in her down-home oratory style. “We’re just mistreating Mother Nature,” she told National Geographic last year.“That’s like being ugly to your mama.” The natural world is its own character in her music, like lovely scenery entwined with nostalgia in songs like “My Tennessee Mountain Home.” People in Dolly’s home community of  Sevier County, Tennessee, are proud of Dolly as a cultural icon and an ambassador of southern Appalachian mountain culture. But some caution against viewing her as an activist. Jessie Wilkerson, a historian at West Virginia University who grew up in Sevier County, has written at length on her complex feelings about the singer. To her, Dolly’s newfound sainthood is somewhat baffling, and it’s clear that while the singer dabbles in politics, “Dolly Parton is about Dolly Parton.”  “I would encourage people to reflect more on what the Dollywood company does on the ground, in the place where people live, instead of assuming that everything she does is by association perfect,” Wilkerson told me. Cars pack the tourist attractions lining The Parkway in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The tourist resort town is home to Dollywood and other entertainment and roadside attractions near the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. George Rose/Getty Images Many East Tennesseeans see Dolly as a businesswoman and entertainer rather than a political figure. And of late, her presence has heralded a slow pouring of concrete over the lush forests and soaring mountains they call home. Dolly didn’t make most of her money from her music, even if she has sold more than 100 million records worldwide. The majority of her $650 million fortune comes from the sprawling business empire she’s built in her home county.   In Dolly’s Tennessee mountain home, over the past couple of decades, tiny mountain towns have erupted into a Vegas-like strip of entertainment venues, theme parks and resorts. Together, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Gatlinburg form the gateway to the Smoky Mountains, and Dolly’s name is written over them all. There’s Dollywood, her 160-acre theme park in Pigeon Forge, yes, but also the DreamMore Resort, the Hatfield McCoy Dinner Theatre, and a complex of wood vacation cabins, some of which burned in Tennessee’s catastrophic 2016 wildfire season. Dolly was “heartbroken” by the fire, and in a $12.5 million recovery effort, gave 900 impacted families $1,000 a month for 6 months. She helped draw national attention to the fires, and sympathy for its victims. She is, to be fair, a generous philanthropist who has poured tens of millions of dollars into a wide range of causes and charities, particularly those focused on literacy and education.  But Wilkerson feels that Dolly, and her companies, don’t own up to their part in damaging the region’s climate resilience or contributing to environmental catastrophe through the cumulative impact of all those cars and private jets. “It’s been the ruination of the Smoky Mountains,” Wilkerson said bluntly. Wilkerson pointed out that the Dollywood cabins that burned were built precariously on mountainsides and ridgelines, increasing the forest’s vulnerability to the ravages of severe weather. It’s not necessarily Dolly’s fault, but there are almost no zoning regulations in Sevier County, and there are consequences for that. If the “greedy politicians” in Sevier County were to make more environmentally sensible decisions, or institute, say, a living wage, her business might suffer. Wilkerson says Parton’s increasingly global audience, and the fact that even she has acknowledged her audience has changed, may have precipitated a more political bent in her music. Our reaction to, and interpretation of, Dolly’s music may be more of a reflection of our own anxieties and concerns than a reflection of the real Dolly. “World on Fire” is like Dolly herself: It’s a hall of mirrors, showing us what we want to see. Maybe, in the end, what we read into it says more about us than it does about her.  This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Dolly Parton’s new song is a climate anthem — if you want it to be on May 22, 2023.

The iconic singer has a long history of taking seemingly "political" positions that say less about her convictions than about our own.

In the video for her new song, “World On Fire,” Dolly Parton sits atop a burning world. Blond hair piled and coiffed, her black dress glittering, she looks down into a pit of flames burning the earth. The song rocks a little harder than her usual feathery country oeuvre, and over a driving beat, she lets you know she’s about to get political.

Now I ain’t one for speaking out much

But that don’t mean I don’t stay in touch

Everybody’s trippin’ over this or that

What we gonna do when we all fall flat?

Dolly spends the next four minutes outlining the sorry state of the world, or at least the nation, punctuating it with a rousing chorus:

Liar, liar the world’s on fire

Whatcha gonna do when it all burns down?

Fire, fire burning higher

Still got time to turn it all around.

It’s difficult to say whether Dolly explicitly intended “World on Fire” as a climate song, though people are hearing it as such. But that’s how many of Dolly’s more “political” statements and artistic work come across — they tap into the zeitgeist without making any explicit political statements. Dolly is an expert at this.

The lyrics, which, as usual, she wrote herself, evoke a certain sense of climate anxiety, a suffocating sense of watching the world’s reliable patterns break down into a muddy mess, of watching politicians divide us even as existential threats bear down. There’s something in this song for anyone who feels the government isn’t doing its job, conservative or progressive or in-between – the only difference is who, precisely, they consider the liar:

Don’t get me started on politics

Now how are we to live in a world like this

Greedy politicians, present and past

They wouldn’t know the truth if it bit ’em in the ass.

This is a little forward for Dolly, but, classically, it still avoids naming names or taking sides. Dolly walks a narrow bridge. She is among the last universally beloved figures in pop culture, a vestige of an old version of country music where performers were allowed to be a little campier, and when they sang about killing men just to watch them die or begging a prettier woman not to steal their man. Four years ago, the WNYC podcast Dolly Parton’s America helped propel the iconic singer, who has enjoyed several waves of popularity over the past 50 years, beyond her traditional fan base and into coastal liberal consciousness. The host, marveling at the breadth of the audience, called her “The great unifier.” In her home state of Tennessee, people disagree on a lot of things, but if you say a bad word about Dolly, you might find yourself with a sudden appointment in the parking lot. 

She’s given her more socially liberal audience a reason to root for her over the past few decades, though carefully and in her way, never along partisan lines, and rarely in a way that would cause her more conservative audience too much ire.

She’s acknowledged, for instance, the role of the LGBT community in inspiring her stage persona. Yet when Tennessee banned public drag performances, she kept quiet. She publicly attested her support for Black Lives Matter with a spate of other country musicians as artists reckoned with the genre’s long silence on racial justice. Her speaking up came two years after she changed the name of her long-running dinner show from Dixie Stampede to Dolly’s Stampede after much criticism of its Confederate nostalgia. Parton insisted the original name was chosen out of “innocent ignorance.” (This move did divide some fans.) 

Even when she does speak out, Dolly never points fingers. Her message is often softly wrapped in statements about love and kindness.  “Oh, can we rise above? Can’t we show some love?” she asks in “World on Fire.” 

In interviews, Dolly has certainly expressed support for environmental causes, in her down-home oratory style. “We’re just mistreating Mother Nature,” she told National Geographic last year.“That’s like being ugly to your mama.” The natural world is its own character in her music, like lovely scenery entwined with nostalgia in songs like “My Tennessee Mountain Home.”

People in Dolly’s home community of  Sevier County, Tennessee, are proud of Dolly as a cultural icon and an ambassador of southern Appalachian mountain culture. But some caution against viewing her as an activist. Jessie Wilkerson, a historian at West Virginia University who grew up in Sevier County, has written at length on her complex feelings about the singer. To her, Dolly’s newfound sainthood is somewhat baffling, and it’s clear that while the singer dabbles in politics, “Dolly Parton is about Dolly Parton.” 

“I would encourage people to reflect more on what the Dollywood company does on the ground, in the place where people live, instead of assuming that everything she does is by association perfect,” Wilkerson told me.

The main street in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee is packed with cars and lined with tourist attractions.
Cars pack the tourist attractions lining The Parkway in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The tourist resort town is home to Dollywood and other entertainment and roadside attractions near the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. George Rose/Getty Images

Many East Tennesseeans see Dolly as a businesswoman and entertainer rather than a political figure. And of late, her presence has heralded a slow pouring of concrete over the lush forests and soaring mountains they call home. Dolly didn’t make most of her money from her music, even if she has sold more than 100 million records worldwide. The majority of her $650 million fortune comes from the sprawling business empire she’s built in her home county.  

In Dolly’s Tennessee mountain home, over the past couple of decades, tiny mountain towns have erupted into a Vegas-like strip of entertainment venues, theme parks and resorts. Together, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Gatlinburg form the gateway to the Smoky Mountains, and Dolly’s name is written over them all. There’s Dollywood, her 160-acre theme park in Pigeon Forge, yes, but also the DreamMore Resort, the Hatfield McCoy Dinner Theatre, and a complex of wood vacation cabins, some of which burned in Tennessee’s catastrophic 2016 wildfire season.

Dolly was “heartbroken” by the fire, and in a $12.5 million recovery effort, gave 900 impacted families $1,000 a month for 6 months. She helped draw national attention to the fires, and sympathy for its victims. She is, to be fair, a generous philanthropist who has poured tens of millions of dollars into a wide range of causes and charities, particularly those focused on literacy and education. 

But Wilkerson feels that Dolly, and her companies, don’t own up to their part in damaging the region’s climate resilience or contributing to environmental catastrophe through the cumulative impact of all those cars and private jets. “It’s been the ruination of the Smoky Mountains,” Wilkerson said bluntly.

Wilkerson pointed out that the Dollywood cabins that burned were built precariously on mountainsides and ridgelines, increasing the forest’s vulnerability to the ravages of severe weather. It’s not necessarily Dolly’s fault, but there are almost no zoning regulations in Sevier County, and there are consequences for that. If the “greedy politicians” in Sevier County were to make more environmentally sensible decisions, or institute, say, a living wage, her business might suffer.

Wilkerson says Parton’s increasingly global audience, and the fact that even she has acknowledged her audience has changed, may have precipitated a more political bent in her music. Our reaction to, and interpretation of, Dolly’s music may be more of a reflection of our own anxieties and concerns than a reflection of the real Dolly. “World on Fire” is like Dolly herself: It’s a hall of mirrors, showing us what we want to see. Maybe, in the end, what we read into it says more about us than it does about her. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Dolly Parton’s new song is a climate anthem — if you want it to be on May 22, 2023.

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

Climate Change and Wild Turkeys: New Study Overturns Conventional Wisdom

A recent research study has discovered that rainfall during the nesting season does not impact the breeding success of wild turkeys, challenging the commonly held...

Research from North Carolina State University reveals that precipitation levels during wild turkey nesting season don’t significantly impact reproductive success, challenging traditional beliefs and complicating predictions about the effects of climate change on these populations.A recent research study has discovered that rainfall during the nesting season does not impact the breeding success of wild turkeys, challenging the commonly held belief about the importance of precipitation for wild turkey nesting success. This revelation provides fresh insights into the potential effects of climate change on wild turkey populations.“We wanted to know how weather influences nesting success right now, and then use that data to assess how climate change may influence wild turkey populations in the future,” says Wesley Boone, corresponding author of a paper on the work and a postdoctoral researcher at North Carolina State University.“Wild turkeys are fairly tolerant of a wide range of conditions, but there are a host of factors that can affect their reproductive success,” says Chris Moorman, co-author of the study and a professor of forestry and environmental resources at NC State. “This work focused on two of those conditions, precipitation and temperature, and how they may influence nest survival during the incubation period.” For the study, researchers focused on daily nest survival, which is whether the eggs in the nest survive any given 24-hour period. Over the course of eight years, researchers monitored 715 turkey nests and collected daily precipitation and temperature data for each nest during the entire incubation period. For temperature, the researchers looked specifically at the extent to which temperatures at each nest varied from historical averages.The researchers analyzed all of this data to determine the extent to which precipitation and temperature were associated with daily nest survival.Findings on Precipitation and Temperature“The most surprising finding was that precipitation during nesting was not a good predictor of daily nest survival,” Moorman says. “It had been widely believed that particularly rainy weather made it more likely that eggs wouldn’t survive.”“We also found that temperatures which were higher than historical averages were associated with higher rates of daily nest survival during incubation,” says Boone. “Peak nesting season is generally in April, so we’re talking about warmer than average spring weather.”“Taken by itself, this might suggest that climate change could benefit turkey reproductive success and, by extension, turkey populations,” Moorman says. “However, we also looked at precipitation and temperature data for the months leading up to nesting season, and at the overall likelihood that a turkey nest will successfully hatch at least one egg. And when we looked at both of those datasets, things get a lot less clear.”“For example, the data suggest that more precipitation in January – long before nesting season – is associated with greater nest survival,” Boone says. “The data also suggest that higher temperatures in January are associated with worse nesting survival. But there is so much uncertainty related to those findings that it’s not clear whether there’s a real relationship there, or if it’s an anomaly. However, it does temper any enthusiasm we might have about the likelihood that climate change will benefit turkey populations.”Reference: “Robust assessment of associations between weather and eastern wild turkey nest success” by Wesley W. Boone, Christopher E. Moorman, David J. Moscicki, Bret A. Collier, Michael J. Chamberlain, Adam J. Terando and Krishna Pacifici, 15 November 2023, The Journal of Wildlife Management.DOI: 10.1002/jwmg.22524The paper was co-authored by David Moscicki, a Ph.D. student at NC State; Krishna Pacifici, an associate professor of forestry and environmental resources; Adam Terando, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey; Bret Collier, a professor of wildlife ecology at Louisiana State University; and Michael Chamberlain, the Terrell Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Georgia.The research was done with support from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, which is headquartered at NC State; and from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, under McIntire Stennis Project Number 7001494. Additional support was provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources-Wildlife Resources Division, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia and the School of Renewable Natural Resources at Louisiana State University.

Coastal women in Bangladesh face health issues due to climate change

Women living in Bangladesh's coastal regions are severely affected by climate change-induced salinity, leading to various health complications. Famiha Suhrawardy reports for Dhaka Tribune.In short:The increased salinity in coastal areas has led to reproductive health issues among women, including miscarriages and difficulties in pregnancy.Local women suffer from waterborne diseases, hypertension, and respiratory infections due to a lack of safe drinking water.Initiatives by Brac, such as the installation of water tanks, have provided some relief, but challenges remain, particularly during dry seasons.Key quote: "It is a very troubling situation for the women living here. Due to the saline water, women face difficulty in getting pregnant and have miscarriages frequently." — Sumi Akter, Mongla resident.Why this matters: This issue highlights the direct human impact of climate change on health, particularly for vulnerable populations like women in coastal areas. It underscores the need for effective environmental and health policies to mitigate the consequences of climate change.LISTEN: Azmal Hossan on the sociology of climate crises in South Asia.

Women living in Bangladesh's coastal regions are severely affected by climate change-induced salinity, leading to various health complications. Famiha Suhrawardy reports for Dhaka Tribune.In short:The increased salinity in coastal areas has led to reproductive health issues among women, including miscarriages and difficulties in pregnancy.Local women suffer from waterborne diseases, hypertension, and respiratory infections due to a lack of safe drinking water.Initiatives by Brac, such as the installation of water tanks, have provided some relief, but challenges remain, particularly during dry seasons.Key quote: "It is a very troubling situation for the women living here. Due to the saline water, women face difficulty in getting pregnant and have miscarriages frequently." — Sumi Akter, Mongla resident.Why this matters: This issue highlights the direct human impact of climate change on health, particularly for vulnerable populations like women in coastal areas. It underscores the need for effective environmental and health policies to mitigate the consequences of climate change.LISTEN: Azmal Hossan on the sociology of climate crises in South Asia.

Arctic wildlife faces dire challenges amid record heat and ecosystem changes

The Arctic's rapid warming is causing significant shifts in ecosystems, posing severe threats to the region's wildlife.Sharon Guynup reports for Mongabay.In short:Arctic species are struggling to adapt to the dramatic changes in their habitats due to climate change.The loss of sea ice is affecting a wide range of species, from walruses to migratory birds.The rapid pace of these environmental changes is outstripping the ability of many species to adapt.Key quote:“Species can adapt over time, but they don’t have time, and ecosystems are really complicated. I’m not clear which species will prevail and where.”— Joel Clement, Arctic climate and policy expertWhy this matters:This situation in the Arctic is a reminder of the broader impacts of climate change on global biodiversity. It highlights the urgent need for effective climate action to mitigate these changes and protect vulnerable species.Read: Shorebird egg theft is becoming a big problem in the Arctic. And climate change is behind it.

The Arctic's rapid warming is causing significant shifts in ecosystems, posing severe threats to the region's wildlife.Sharon Guynup reports for Mongabay.In short:Arctic species are struggling to adapt to the dramatic changes in their habitats due to climate change.The loss of sea ice is affecting a wide range of species, from walruses to migratory birds.The rapid pace of these environmental changes is outstripping the ability of many species to adapt.Key quote:“Species can adapt over time, but they don’t have time, and ecosystems are really complicated. I’m not clear which species will prevail and where.”— Joel Clement, Arctic climate and policy expertWhy this matters:This situation in the Arctic is a reminder of the broader impacts of climate change on global biodiversity. It highlights the urgent need for effective climate action to mitigate these changes and protect vulnerable species.Read: Shorebird egg theft is becoming a big problem in the Arctic. And climate change is behind it.

Climate change triggers severe crawfish shortage in southern US

A combination of drought and extreme weather has led to a dramatic decrease in crawfish availability, impacting the economy and culture in the southern United States.Xander Peters reports for National Geographic.In short:Last year's drought and cold weather spells in Louisiana have caused a significant reduction in crawfish populations.The shortage has led to a 500% increase in crawfish prices, affecting local economies and cultural practices.The situation exemplifies the broader impact of climate change on regional food systems and livelihoods.Key quote:“It'll take four or five years before we get back where we're supposed to be.”— Zachary Hebert, crawfish farmerWhy this matters:The crawfish shortage in the southern U.S. highlights the vulnerability of local food systems to climate change. It underscores the need for sustainable practices and resilience in the face of environmental challenges.Be sure to read: Dead fish carry toxic mercury to the deep ocean, contaminating crustaceans.

A combination of drought and extreme weather has led to a dramatic decrease in crawfish availability, impacting the economy and culture in the southern United States.Xander Peters reports for National Geographic.In short:Last year's drought and cold weather spells in Louisiana have caused a significant reduction in crawfish populations.The shortage has led to a 500% increase in crawfish prices, affecting local economies and cultural practices.The situation exemplifies the broader impact of climate change on regional food systems and livelihoods.Key quote:“It'll take four or five years before we get back where we're supposed to be.”— Zachary Hebert, crawfish farmerWhy this matters:The crawfish shortage in the southern U.S. highlights the vulnerability of local food systems to climate change. It underscores the need for sustainable practices and resilience in the face of environmental challenges.Be sure to read: Dead fish carry toxic mercury to the deep ocean, contaminating crustaceans.

Another Big Question About AI: Its Carbon Footprint

This story was originally published by Yale E360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. Two months after its release in November 2022, OpenAI’s ChatGPT had 100 million active users, and suddenly tech corporations were racing to offer the public more “generative AI” Pundits compared the new technology’s impact to the Internet, or electrification, or the […]

This story was originally published by Yale E360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. Two months after its release in November 2022, OpenAI’s ChatGPT had 100 million active users, and suddenly tech corporations were racing to offer the public more “generative AI” Pundits compared the new technology’s impact to the Internet, or electrification, or the Industrial Revolution—or the discovery of fire. Time will sort hype from reality, but one consequence of the explosion of artificial intelligence is clear: this technology’s environmental footprint is large and growing. AI use is directly responsible for carbon emissions from non-renewable electricity and for the consumption of millions of gallons of fresh water, and it indirectly boosts impacts from building and maintaining the power-hungry equipment on which AI runs. As tech companies seek to embed high-intensity AI into everything from resume-writing to kidney transplant medicine and from choosing dog food to climate modeling, they cite many ways AI could help reduce humanity’s environmental footprint. But legislators, regulators, activists, and international organizations now want to make sure the benefits aren’t outweighed by AI’s mounting hazards. “The development of the next generation of AI tools cannot come at the expense of the health of our planet,” Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey (D) said last week in Washington, after he and other senators and representatives introduced a bill that would require the federal government to assess AI’s current environmental footprint and develop a standardized system for reporting future impacts. Similarly, the European Union’s “AI Act,” approved by member states last week, will require “high-risk AI systems” (which include the powerful “foundation models” that power ChatGPT and similar AIs) to report their energy consumption, resource use, and other impacts throughout their systems’ lifecycle. The EU law takes effect next year. “The models that are able to write a poem for you, or draft an email, those are very large,” says one expert—”too big for most personal devices.” Meanwhile, the International Organization for Standardization, a global network that develops standards for manufacturers, regulators, and others, says it will issue criteria for “sustainable AI” later this year. Those will include standards for measuring energy efficiency, raw material use, transportation, and water consumption, as well as practices for reducing AI impacts throughout its life cycle, from the process of mining materials and making computer components to the electricity consumed by its calculations. The ISO wants to enable AI users to make informed decisions about their AI consumption. Right now, it’s not possible to tell how your AI request for homework help or a picture of an astronaut riding a horse will affect carbon emissions or freshwater stocks. This is why 2024’s crop of “sustainable AI” proposals describe ways to get more information about AI impacts. In the absence of standards and regulations, tech companies have been reporting whatever they choose, however they choose, about their AI impact, says Shaolei Ren, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC Riverside, who has been studying the water costs of computation for the past decade. Working from calculations of annual use of water for cooling systems by Microsoft, Ren estimates that a person who engages in a session of questions and answers with GPT-3 (roughly 10 t0 50 responses) drives the consumption of a half-liter of fresh water. “It will vary by region, and with a bigger AI, it could be more.” But a great deal remains unrevealed about the millions of gallons of water used to cool computers running AI, he says. The same is true of carbon. “Data scientists today do not have easy or reliable access to measurements of [greenhouse gas impacts from AI], which precludes development of actionable tactics,” a group of 10 prominent researchers on AI impacts wrote in a 2022 conference paper. Since they presented their article, AI applications and users have proliferated, but the public is still in the dark about those data, says Jesse Dodge, a research scientist at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle, who was one of the paper’s coauthors. AI can run on many devices—the simple AI that autocorrects text messages will run on a smartphone. But the kind of AI people most want to use is too big for most personal devices, Dodge says. “The models that are able to write a poem for you, or draft an email, those are very large,” he says. “Size is vital for them to have those capabilities.” The IEA projects that global data centers’ electricity consumption in 2026 will be double that of 2022. Big AIs need to run immense numbers of calculations very quickly, usually on specialized Graphical Processing Units—processors originally designed for intense computation to render graphics on computer screens. Compared to other chips, GPUs are more energy-efficient for AI, and they’re most efficient when they’re run in large “cloud data centers”—specialized buildings full of computers equipped with those chips. The larger the data center, the more energy efficient it can be. Improvements in AI’s energy efficiency in recent years are partly due to the construction of more “hyperscale data centers,” which contain many more computers and can quickly scale up. Where a typical cloud data center occupies about 100,000 square feet, a hyperscale center can be 1 or even 2 million square feet. Estimates of the number of cloud data centers worldwide range from around 9,000 to nearly 11,000. More are under construction. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that data centers’ electricity consumption in 2026 will be double that of 2022—1,000 terawatts, roughly equivalent to Japan’s current total consumption. However, as an illustration of one problem with the way AI impacts are measured, that IEA estimate includes all data center activity, which extends beyond AI to many aspects of modern life. Running Amazon’s store interface, serving up Apple TV’s videos, storing millions of people’s emails on Gmail, and “mining” Bitcoin are also performed by data centers. (Other IEA reports exclude crypto operations, but still lump all other data-center activity together.) Most tech firms that run data centers don’t reveal what percentage of their energy use processes AI The exception is Google, which says “machine learning”—the basis for humanlike AI—accounts for somewhat less than 15 percent of its data centers’ energy use. In 2022, Google’s data centers consumed about 5 billion gallons (nearly 20 billion liters) of fresh water for cooling. Another complication is the fact that AI, unlike Bitcoin mining or online shopping, can be used to reduce humanity’s impacts. AI can improve climate models, find more efficient ways to make digital tech, reduce waste in transport, and otherwise cut carbon and water use. One estimate, for example, found that AI -run smart homes could reduce households’ CO₂ consumption by up to 40 percent. And a recent Google project found that an AI fast-crunching atmospheric data can guide airline pilots to flight paths that will leave the fewest contrails. Because contrails create more than a third of global aviation’s carbon emissions, “if the whole aviation industry took advantage of this single AI breakthrough,” says Dave Patterson, a computer-science professor emeritus at UC Berkeley and a Google researcher, “this single discovery would save more CO₂ than the CO₂ from all AI in 2020.” Patterson’s analysis predicts that AI’s carbon footprint will soon plateau and then begin to shrink, thanks to improvements in the efficiency with which AI software and hardware use energy. One reflection of that efficiency improvement: as AI usage has increased since 2019, its percentage of Google data-center energy use has held at less than 15 percent. And while global internet traffic has increased more than twentyfold since 2010, the share of the world’s electricity used by data centers and networks increased far less, according to the IEA. However, data about improving efficiency doesn’t convince some skeptics, who cite a social phenomenon called “Jevons paradox”: Making a resource less costly sometimes increases its consumption in the long run. “It’s a rebound effect,” Ren says. “You make the freeway wider, people use less fuel because traffic moves faster, but then you get more cars coming in. You get more fuel consumption than before.” If home heating is 40 percent more efficient due to AI, one critic recently wrote, people could end up keeping their homes warmer for more hours of the day. “AI is an accelerant for everything,” Dodge says. “It makes whatever you’re developing go faster.” At the Allen Institute, AI has helped develop better programs to model the climate, track endangered species, and curb overfishing, he says. But globally AI could also support “a lot of applications that could accelerate climate change. This is where you get into ethical questions about what kind of AI you want.” If global electricity use can feel a bit abstract, data centers’ water use is a more local and tangible issue—particularly in drought-afflicted areas. To cool delicate electronics in the clean interiors of the data centers, water has to be free of bacteria and impurities that could gunk up the works. In other words, data centers often compete “for the same water people drink, cook, and wash with,” says Ren. In 2022, Ren says, Google’s data centers consumed about 5 billion gallons (nearly 20 billion liters) of fresh water for cooling. (“Consumptive use” does not include water that’s run through a building and then returned to its source.) According to a recent study by Ren, Google’s data centers used 20 percent more water in 2022 than they did in 2021, and Microsoft’s water use rose by 34 percent in the same period. (Google data centers host its Bard chatbot and other generative AIs; Microsoft servers host ChatGPT as well as its bigger siblings GPT-3 and GPT-4. All three are produced by OpenAI, in which Microsoft is a large investor.) As more data centers are built or expanded, their neighbors have been troubled to find out how much water they take. For example, in The Dalles, Oregon, where Google runs three data centers and plans two more, the city government filed a lawsuit in 2022 to keep Google’s water use a secret from farmers, environmentalists, and Native American tribes who were concerned about its effects on agriculture and on the region’s animals and plants. The city withdrew its suit early last year. The records it then made public showed that Google’s three extant data centers use more than a quarter of the city’s water supply. And in Chile and Uruguay, protests have erupted over planned Google data centers that would tap into the same reservoirs that supply drinking water. Most of all, researchers say, what’s needed is a change of culture within the rarefied world of AI development. Generative AI’s creators need to focus beyond the technical leaps and bounds of their newest creations and be less guarded about the details of the data, software, and hardware they use to create it. Some day in the future, Dodge says, an AI might be able—or be legally obligated—to inform a user about the water and carbon impact of each distinct request she makes. “That would be a fantastic tool that would help the environment,” he says. For now, though, individual users don’t have much information or power to know their AI footprint, much less make decisions about it. “There’s not much individuals can do, unfortunately,” Ren says. Right now, you can “try to use the service judiciously,” he says.

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