A tech optimist reacts to a not-so-optimistic climate report
Aug 12, 2021

A tech optimist reacts to a not-so-optimistic climate report

The UN's latest climate report says some effects of climate change are irreversible. But investor Jay Koh is confident new tech can come online in the next decade to help.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, issued a report this week that laid out, over nearly 4,000 pages, the reality that many are already living: Climate change is here, and much of that change is irreversible — rising temperatures, more and bigger wildfires, extreme droughts and flooding. And to avoid things getting worse, the report says, we’re going to need new technologies that help us capture and remove carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

As part of our series “How We Survive,” we take a look at the role technology can play in a changing climate and how much money is going into it. I spoke with Jay Koh, managing director of The Lightsmith Group, which is focused on climate adaptation technology. He says there’s a climate investment boom going on. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Jay Koh smiles wearing a dark suit, white shirt and red tie.
Jay Koh (courtesy The Lightsmith Group).

Jay Koh: On the one hand, the infrastructure bill, which looks like it’s moving forward, includes now $47 billion to deal with fires, floods and storms in the infrastructure that’s all around the United States. In addition to that, a number of large-scale strategic private equity firms have raised, I think, north of $14 [billion] to $15 billion in the first half of this year alone focused on climate change. So that’s very encouraging that there’s public sector funding that’s going to be going into building the infrastructure in a way that hopefully will survive and be more resilient to climate change. On the other hand, there is private sector capital being raised to invest in it.

Meghan McCarty Carino: You’re an investor who’s actively working in this space, so do you have any advice for regular people who might look at this report or listen to this segment and just want to despair?

Koh: I’m kind of a technological optimist. I think we’re pretty smart as a species, and we can use technology to figure out how these changes are going to start to occur, we can make decisions politically that can reverse some of the trend lines that we’re on, and we can find new entrepreneurs and capital to back them that will generate different sets of outcomes out there. Technologies, looking at satellite imagery, or taking analysis from drones or LIDAR, can help us to understand what the path of this kind of risk is going to look like and reroute packages like [personal protective equipment] and vaccines in situations where there’s wildfires, or Texas shuts down for 10 days. And we can adapt to the environment that we’re in. There are pathways out of this, I think, and technology and investment can help.

McCarty Carino: So you say you’re an optimist, but we have heard critics of carbon capture basically say this is akin to magic — they’re very skeptical that this will ever work at scale. What gives you hope that it can work in time?

Koh: If you had said, maybe 15 years ago, that the cheapest source of power on planet Earth was going to be solar, people would look at you like you had three heads. But that’s where we are today. We made it through a financial crisis, and now the investments that were made around that time by the Department of Energy in the energy transition across the private sector have made it so that people think that solar power is going to be the future. So the speed of change can be done with technology and investment over a decade, decade and a half, and dramatically change your mind.

McCarty Carino: So we’re getting some new Census Bureau data about the resilience of various communities at the local level to withstand climate change. How useful do you think this data is?

Koh: I think it’s incredibly important, particularly because the conversation around climate change, like so many other conversations, really is also one that has inherent in it questions about equity. It turns out that the populations that were most severely impacted by COVID-19, in many cases, were disadvantaged populations. They also bear the brunt of environmental risk as we’ve seen, and they’re now bearing the brunt of climate impact on top of it. So that kind of double, triple whammy problem for those populations is a reality that we need to face and we need to address. I think data like that can help identify where there’s challenges right now, and where there’s opportunities to build back better, I guess, and also plan in a way that actually enables us to prevent these kinds of impacts from happening repeatedly on the same people. There are people that fled [Hurricane] Katrina and went to Houston and got hit by [Hurricane] Harvey, and the populations that were impacted were the ones that had the least resources. I think we’re gonna see that repeated over and over again, both in the United States and in the international context, unless we have the data to identify where those people are and how vulnerable they are.

Related Links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino

We referenced some new data just released by the U.S. Census Bureau, specifically its community resilience estimates, which measure how resilient every single neighborhood in the United States is to disasters like fire, flooding or a pandemic. It’s based on factors like poverty, housing availability, access to health care and rates of disease, and they’ve turned the data into a cool interactive map.

If you haven’t had time to read all 4,000 pages of the IPCC report, MIT Technology Review has a good breakdown of the key role of carbon capture technology in averting the worst outcomes of climate change.

Earlier this year, Molly Wood spoke with James Dyke, an expert in earth systems at the University of Exeter. He’s one of those folks I alluded to who’s a bit skeptical of the idea of carbon capture as a panacea, given that it hasn’t really been demonstrated to work on a large scale yet. He said it can be alluring to look for shiny, new solutions in space-age technology, but he’s putting his faith in the old-fashioned ability of humans to pull together in the face of adversity.

It could happen.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer