New technologies present significant opportunities to better manage natural resources and safeguard the environment. For instance, artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly being applied in the context of agriculture, climate finance, renewable energy, and transportation in order to achieve operational efficiencies that vastly exceed those achievable through human decision-making alone. However, at the same time, their introduction and the speed with which they are introduced pose serious governance challenges to a planet in the throes of a human-induced climate crisis. Distributed ledger technology threatens to undermine state sovereignty while presenting a decentralized form of financial transparency. Facial recognition algorithms are being used to identify activists participating in social justice protests. Digital devices such as ‘wearables’ and social media applications collect petabytes of personal data that can be weaponized to influence the outcomes of elections or place private information in the hands of technology companies or governments. Therefore, central to the task of maximizing the environmental benefits and mitigating the potential pitfalls of novel technologies is understanding how their use is governed, by whom, and to what end(s). The Earth System Governance project’s latest research framework presents a number of themes relevant to this endeavor, including Democracy & Power, Architecture & Agency, Justice & Allocation, Anticipation & Imagination, and Adaptiveness & Flexibility (see Burch et al. 2019). Thus, the aim of this Special Issue is to take stock of and advance the rapidly evolving conversation regarding the promises and perils of AI and digitalization from an Earth System Governance perspective.
Edited by Joshua Gellers