In a changing climate, how can tech help us survive?

May 13, 2019

Climate change is here.

On "Marketplace Tech," we’re launching ongoing coverage looking at how tech can help us adapt to that change. It’s a series we're calling "How We Survive."

So far, much of the investment and energy around climate change has been about mitigation — that is, slowing carbon emissions, reducing temperature rise, perhaps even geo-engineering carbon out of the air or sequestering it in the ground in order to stop warming.

But increasingly, climate scientists, investors and entrepreneurs are talking much more seriously about adaptation — that is, how do we harden our cities and water supplies and infrastructures against climate change? How do we engineer crops that can grow in places and temperatures they were never designed to grow? How do we make cities and states and countries and homes less dependent on centralized resources when the power goes out and give people the tools to save themselves if they need to?

Adaptation isn’t a new part of the climate conversation, but as one climate advocate put it recently, it’s long been the “poor cousin” of climate change policy. That’s changing. And in coming months we'll look at the data, the engineering and the technology around this growing branch of study and investment.

A United Nations special report from last year said we really only have about 12 years to staunch the worst effects of climate change, and that at the current rate of warming, we'll see $54 trillion worth of increasingly deadly damage. Researchers are starting to figure out where millions of future climate refugees might go. The UN reported last week that a million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction, with warming only speeding that trend, and that human health and survival are at risk as a result.

The trajectory is brutally unyielding.

William Collins is a climate scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and has been an author on several UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments.

“Look, I could write six more IPCC assessments. They're all going to say the same thing,” Collins said. “They’re leading in a very straight line, and the challenge here is not to draw that line even further." He said many scientists are "eager to stop writing reports and start diving into creating solutions.”

Last year Collins founded the the Environmental Resilience Accelerator as a joint project between the Lawrence Berkeley lab and University of California, Berkeley, to start researching solutions for adapting to climate change. One of its first projects involves a city block in Oakland, California, and installing solar panels, gray water technologies and heating systems that don’t rely on the electrical grid. The goal is to make the area more self-sufficient in an increasingly uncertain environment around resources.

Collins said the real point is to start doing something.

“You can lecture people all day long about what they should do,” he said. “I really want to pivot from telling people what they should do to showing them what they can do.”

Of course any long-term, at-scale solutions are going to take money — a lot of it. Some private investors see climate adaptation as both an opportunity and an imperative.

Jay Koh is managing director of private equity firm the Lightsmith Group, one of a bare handful that exist specifically to invest in adaptation technology. Koh says climate change is, first and foremost, a humanitarian disaster, and that private money is absolutely necessary to fund all of the companies, technologies and data we’ll need to survive increasing extreme weather.

He acknowledges that the tech part of the that triangle is still emerging.

“Part of the challenge is when most people try to imagine what adaptation means, they think of giant seawalls around Manhattan or putting domes over cities or some kind of futuristic Jerry Bruckheimer scenario,” he said.

In reality, although there will be (and already is) innovative tech being developed, a lot of answers might involve transferring tech from one part of the world — where people really know how to deal with floods or drought, for example — to parts where those climate effects are just now being felt.

Koh said the first first step in adapting to climate change, and the opportunity for immediate investment, is “climate intelligence.” That is, we can’t start to deal with the problem until we understand its scope, can accurately predict its impacts and get everyone using roughly the same data.

For our first set of conversations in "How We Survive," we’ll be taking deeper looks at some of that climate intelligence gathering, as well as where the private money is coming from — and looking more closely at adaptation technologies in progress. We’ll also talk about how adaptation is actually quite controversial within the climate community. If we focus on engineering our way out of the problem, do we undermine efforts to mitigate it?

After our first full week of coverage, we’ll add new stories on specific technologies, communities and ideas around climate adaptation every two weeks. I hope you’ll get involved. I want to hear your thoughts, your story ideas, your suggestions and feedback. I’m truly excited about this coverage. I think it’s important, timely, and in a way, hopeful. As Collins told me, so much about the climate conversation can feel exhausting, hopeless and frustrating. Solutions won’t be easy, cheap or without politics and problems — but it’s nice to get to talk about them at least.