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Sep 19, 2019

Where is Big Tech on solutions for climate change adaptation?

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Is there precedent for tech and government working on big problems? How about ... the internet.

Our “Marketplace Tech” series “How We Survive” explores how tech can help the world adapt to climate change. In this installment, we look at how Silicon Valley is developing solutions to the crisis.

In covering Silicon Valley and climate for this series, I figured I’d ask: Is it fair to expect these private companies to make adapting to climate change part of their jobs?

So I asked Mike Mielke, who is with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a trade group that represents most major tech companies. He said that it’s not only fair, it’s in their DNA.

“That’s something that’s a hallmark of Silicon Valley, and a hallmark of a lot of our members, is that when many folks see a problem, a lot of the folks out here see an opportunity,” Mielke said.

So far, the pace of them taking that opportunity is … slow. It’s still mostly philanthropy and internal sustainability goals.

But just this week, Salesforce announced a new product, the Salesforce Sustainability Cloud, that lets companies track their environmental impact and risk. Over at Google, Kate Brandt, the company’s sustainability officer, pointed to a new tech industry task force for adaptation and resilience. It includes Google, Facebook, Genentech, PG&E and Wells Fargo.

“This is a fairly new group, but really our hope is that this can be a place to discuss regional impacts that we anticipate seeing and also identify and implement actions that we can take collectively to partner with communities,” Brandt said.

Near as we can tell, the group is so new it hasn’t really met yet.

Communities in Silicon Valley say implement away, they’re ready to be a market for new tech.

“So I was reading an article last week,” said Kerrie Romanow, the director of San Jose’s Environmental Services Department. “I think that a company came up with a way to do facial recognition on cows.”

She said she thought that was a cool idea, “but it’d be great if there was something that could maybe help us more locally and solve things, like a smart levee, where we get early warning that waters are rising.”

At Google, Brandt told us the company is working on better flood forecasting using artificial intelligence — in India, not California. She also pointed to some other Google climate tools that are still in beta testing.  

Stevens Creek flooding north of the U.S. Route 101 overpass in Mountain View, home of Google’s campus. (Video courtesy of Michelle Le)

But what about the other big tech companies in Silicon Valley, like Facebook? Social media doesn’t seem like an obvious place for climate innovation, but environmental economist Patrick Baylis at the Vancouver School of Economics said it’s a gold mine.

“What we observed through social media posts on Twitter and Facebook in this paper was that you actually see people’s express sentiment changing in response to different temperatures,” Baylis said.

Baylis used data from Facebook and Twitter to track people’s emotional response to changing weather over time. We found him through Twitter when we asked the company if it was doing anything around climate and technology. Baylis said he partnered with Facebook for the research and used Twitter’s publicly available data.

He said he’s not sure he could get the same access from Facebook. The company has cracked down since the Cambridge Analytica scandal. But he said social media companies could help researchers track climate change implications if they organized their data and shared it.

In a statement, Facebook said it’s working toward using more renewable energy and that the company is “working on a number of projects that will ensure Facebook’s platforms serve as powerful tools to support climate action.”

As for other Silicon Valley giants, Alphabet and Apple both run their facilities on 100% renewable energy, and Apple touts its energy efficient products.

Illustration of Alphabet’s campus at different stages of sea level rise. Find out how other tech companies may fare: Climate change impacts are coming to Big Tech’s doorstep.

One barrier to communities and companies working together might be that the relationship between Silicon Valley cities and big tech companies isn’t great right now. Leslie Berlin, a historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University, said tech companies used to be a lot more connected to the towns in the valley.

An early Hewlett-Packard executive was on the Palo Alto City Council; one of Apple’s early founders was on the Cupertino Planning Commission. But these days “we’ve just seen a general suspicion of these companies that have led to a sense that if anything good that they’re trying to do is done from a cynical sort of perspective,” Berlin said.

Berlin said housing costs, traffic and suspicion of tech overall have eroded trust between tech and the residents of Silicon Valley. They’re just not talking.

I asked her if there was any precedent for government and companies coming together to solve a big problem. 

“Well, what would you call the internet?” Berlin asked.

I had to laugh. It’s such an obvious example, but one that never occurred to me until she said it. So all we need is something on the scale of building the internet, but for climate. (It’s not impossible to imagine, people.)

“How We Survive” includes stories produced in collaboration with The Water Main, an initiative of American Public Media

The team

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