Why I Chose Open Source to Fight Climate Change

Earth Day. Time to think about what we’re each doing about climate change.

For me, it’s to create open source software, as part of the Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger Climate SIG:

Video: Why I joined Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger Climate Action and Accounting SIG

So why open source software?

Once upon a time, I believed, like a lot of people, that the solution to climate change was obvious: It’s happening because of fossil fuels. So let’s stop using them. The government should make the rules. Banks should stop funding them. Utilities and businesses should switch to clean energy. Done.

I waited for it to happen. And waited. And waited. Got disappointed, even disillusioned as the climate debate became increasingly politicized while precious time passed.

Then a few years ago, I read The Climate of Hope, where Michael Bloomberg talked about how business leaders and local governments were taking up the climate initiative. It made me realize that we don’t need to wait for someone at the top to fix the climate problem for us. In fact, relying on a top-down solution to the climate problem may fundamentally be impossible, especially with how quickly it’s happening. (See for example the research of Ellinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel prize in economics about the problems of one-size-fits-all, top down governance. Or try getting a building permit.)

So while we absolutely need the right laws and regulations and changes in our institutions, we don’t have to just wait. There’s something else we could use–something that you don’t even think about, even though it’s everywhere.  Turn on your phone.  Get on the internet.  Chat with your friends.  Chances are you, you’ve already used it a dozen times.

It’s open source software.  It runs the smart phones, the web browsers, and the internet servers that power the world.  And what’s really amazing is that it was created without central authorities—governments or big software companies—but rather by collaboration of developers, from students and hackers to those working for big companies. This style is of collaboration is very agile, fast to form and fast to change. It’s also very inclusive–if anybody could access the code, then anybody could get involved and contribute.

Having developed open source software since 2004, for many years as a committee at the Apache Software Foundation, I saw how open source collaboration could happen without waiting a central authority.  The secret sauce of open source development are specialized software tools that allowed multiple developers to each keep a full history of the common source code. Using these tools, any group of people could find each other on the internet, link their repositories, and work together.

The problem, though, was how to replicate that model to climate change. For a long time, there was no tool that could allow a group of climate activitsts to coordinate with each other. Sure, there was social media, but it’s a crude and unstructured dialogue and not suitable for precise tracking of carbon emissions and reductions. That changed, though, as the repository management software became generalized as the blockchain or distributed ledger. With this new tool, I realized we may finally have the missing piece of the puzzle for climate change.  

Today, after a year of collaborating with other open source developers, we have created a set of open source tools, what I modestly call “an operating system for climate action.” The goal of this software is to empower people to work together and stop climate change. As consumers, we don’t have to wait and hope any more. We could band together and demand climate action, through products and services that are climate friendly by our standards. As businesses, we could go on to create those products knowing what consumers want, instead of betting on climate initiatives that fizzle out. Our banks and investors could see real climate action instead of being in the dark. Governments could create programs that work, instead of pushing well-intended rules that don’t make sense in the real world on the rest of us.

Climate change will affect everyone, no matter where you are or what you do.

The solution, likewise, requires everyone to collaborate and work together.

We hope to help make that happen.

OK, back to work.