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The Future of Climate Action Rests on Bold and Innovative Tech

Andrew Grzywacz

Andrew Grzywacz

Last week, amid worldwide climate strikes and Greta Thunberg’s powerful viral speech, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report on the current and projected impacts of climate change on the world’s oceans, and what these trends mean for all of us going forward. Understatement of the century: the news wasn’t good.

The IPCC report details where the trajectory of current CO2 emission output is taking the planet:

  • Increasingly warmer oceans that are accelerating the melting of ice in Antarctica, Greenland and glaciers. Summer arctic sea ice is now at its lowest point in 1,000 years, with the quantity of the oldest and thickest ice having dropped off by 90%.
  • That melting ice contributes to higher sea levels, now estimated to rise more than 3 feet by 2100 – a 12% increase over what was projected in the IPCC’s 2013 report.
  • Rising sea levels pose new flooding risks, particularly for coastal cities worldwide (e.g. Los Angeles, Miami, Sydney, Barcelona, Singapore, Jakarta, San Diego), estimating that by 2050, 100-year floods could become an annual occurrence.
  • Warmer oceans also mean more acidic waters, in turn destroying coral reefs, fueling monster hurricanes and killing entire species of marine life.

While the 2015 Paris climate accords created new hope for averting the worst impacts of climate change, with a shared worldwide goal of keeping the planet’s temperature under 1.5 degrees Celsius, the new UN report makes it clear we’re currently falling way short of the target and the effects are poised to wreak serious harm.

You can’t help but hear those takeaways and think of the words of Mad Men’s Pete Campbell: “Not great, Bob.”

The role of tech in curbing – or adapting to – climate change

The IPCC report is a sobering and startling reminder of the need for major and transformative climate action, right away. And while planting trees or curbing beef consumption can be helpful in staving off the worst of climate change, the real lynchpin of making climate action truly effective and sustainable over the coming decades is going to lie in technology.

Tech offers a wide array of possibilities and applications for climate action, including but certainly not limited to:

  • Building sea walls around coastal cities
  • Rebuilding public transportation systems to be more climate-resilient (e.g. Honolulu’s current initiative of elevating their inner-city rail to protect against as much as a 6-foot jump in sea levels)
  • Carbon capture methods for removing CO2 from the air and burying it in the ground
  • Growing adoption rates of renewable tech (solar panels, wind turbines, LEED-certified buildings) that maximizes energy efficiency
  • Deploying drone fleets for identifying and mitigating wildfire risks
  • Rolling out more fuel-efficient and electric vehicles to reduce carbon emissions
  • Engineering buildings with foundations that are adaptable to rising sea levels

This is just scratching the surface. Half of this list would have been unthinkable about a decade ago; who knows what technology might make possible in the next 10 years?

But it’s also worth noting that many of the examples on that list aren’t about stopping climate change from happening but are helping us to refocus our lives and our society in a way that accepts that climate change is already, in part, a reality. The IPCC report and climate activism make it clear that climate change is a sliding scale: moving quickly and aggressively will make things better, not moving at all will make it much worse. The impacts of climate change are only as good or bad as we allow them to be. But that also means there’s no scenario of climate change not happening; we’re not putting the genie back in the bottle. Going forward we have to think about not stopping climate change from happening but appreciating what we need to do differently to accept some degree of it as a part of our lives.

That’s a role that climate tech engineers and developers will be playing as well, developing new solutions, tools, hardware and software for both lowering the dial on climate change as-is but also creating new ways of living with climate change. Climate action must be pushed on both of these fronts, and technology needs to continue driving the conversation and opening up new opportunities for what is possible.