May 16, 2019

In a changing climate, we need tech to adapt

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Innovations include smart tech for agriculture, advanced data-driven risk assessment and all new inventions for drinking water.

Our series “How We Survive” is focused on how tech can help humanity adapt to climate change. The list of tech adaptation solutions is long and broad, and includes existing technology as well as innovations we’re just starting to develop.

There’s figuring out how to deploy more existing technology to the most vulnerable parts of the world and updating infrastructure. Then there’s applying artificial intelligence to climate predictions, and even — eventually — space colonies.  

For now, we’re looking at a few areas — on Earth — where innovation is already occurring.

One growing market is around risk assessment. Emilie Mazzacurati is founder and CEO of the climate data firm Four Twenty Seven based in Berkeley, California.

She said her goal is to help businesses and investors “understand and integrate projections from global climate models, and plan for the physical impacts of climate change.”

That work is all about “big data.” Mazzacurati says her company draws from more than 40 models for predicting global climate events, and given their complexity and detail, “those models are not for the faint of heart.”

So Four Twenty Seven has developed tools that extract and process climate data and apply it to real economic decisions. The company helps real estate developers decide where to buy and advises on preparations for extreme weather.

Other scientists and entrepreneurs are focused on tech that ensures basic needs are met, like food and water.

Water management will be a major problem in agriculture, said Laura Kuhl of Northeastern University. She said simple tech, like drip irrigation, needs to spread to more small farmers in developing countries. The high-tech part comes in to help decide when to irrigate.

Kuhl sees “fascinating innovations occurring in terms of how we use artificial intelligence” in precision irrigation.

Other startups are focused on self-sufficiency, like making homes or schools or whole neighborhoods less reliant on big, centralized systems like the local water utility.

Cody Friesen, CEO of the Zero Mass Water, is developing solar-powered technology that harvests water straight out of the atmosphere via something called a “source hydropanel.” The $6,000 internet-connected panel basically creates drinking water out of water vapor.

Super cool solutions like that are enticing. But: “There’s a danger of kind of technological optimism could start to creep in,” said Northeastern University’s Kuhl.

Tech alone can’t solve mass adaptation or ensure survival in the face of climate change. She said major political and social change must accompany tech development and deployment.

Otherwise technology solutions may not be available to the people who need them most, and only those who can afford them will benefit.

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How We Survive
How We Survive
Climate change is here. Experts say we need to adapt. This series explores the role of technology in helping humanity weather the ...
Climate change is here. Experts say we need to adapt. This series explores the role of tec...