Four Approaches We Can Use to Address Climate Risk. Now.

According to the 2018 Report of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, “bold climate action could deliver at least US$26 trillion in economic benefits through to 2030, compared with business-as-usual.” Well. That sounds fantastic, especially considering the millions of people out of work, the drain of pandemic-related closures on state and local budgets, and the fact that we have an awful lot of work to do on our infrastructure as it is.

In the discussion below, I identify the four key areas related to addressing climate risk that we, as a society–including companies, governments, private citizens, schools, and all the rest of us–can implement today. Considering everything we’ve seen over the last year, from the record-setting fires on the West Coast to one of the busiest hurricane seasons on record, the United States is generally on board with resolving this issue, likely because it’s starting to directly affect every one of us.

But first, how did we get ourselves into this mess?

It started just a couple hundred years ago. We, as a global society, embraced the first three industrial revolutions as immensely beneficial to human systems; the steam engine, the age of science and mass production, and the rise of digital technology brought with them advancement at levels we never thought possible. Our world fundamentally changed. Along with societal changes and perceived improvements in quality of life, our actions introduced greenhouses gasses into the atmosphere at rates rarely seen before in the history of the Earth. Average air temperatures increased, ice caps started to melt and sea levels to rise, ocean currents began to shift with the introduction of colder water at the poles, and droughts and storms both became more extreme.

This is climate change, and it imposes significant risk to the environmental, economic, and social aspects of human civilization and natural ecosystems. We are now challenged to find new ways to live, a way that is more resilient and sustainable and that finds equilibrium within our world. The fourth industrial revolution will directly contribute to our success in doing so, mixing AI, robotics, IoT, and other advanced technologies with traditional cultural engagement in communities across the globe.

Impacts of climate-related extremes—such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires—include altered ecosystems, food and water scarcity, damaged infrastructure and housing, and death rates and illness, not to mention impacts to natural systems, without which we cannot survive. Across the globe and in countries at all levels of development, these impacts correspond with a distinct lack of preparedness for the levels of climate variability we now see. Those who feel it worse, of course, are those individuals and societies without the resources to escape or recover from extreme events, thus increasing the risk of conflict, hunger, and poverty.

While climate change is a global issue, it is felt on a local scale. Villages and municipalities are therefore at the frontline of adaptation. In the absence of formal national or international climate policy direction, cities and local communities around the world must respond to their own climate risks. However, the available tools and technologies tend to be underfunded, disconnected, and hard to find.

So…What Do We Do?

Four components are required to comprehensively address climate change: mitigation (i.e., undo it), adaptation (i.e., live with it), resilience (i.e., thrive in it), and education (i.e., making climate change data/feedback loops accessible, understandable, and logical for those outside the climate-focused community). Each Component, if its thesis is successfully executed, feeds back into the success of the next Component. Thus, the success of one Component enhances the next, and together they create true resilience, building human and natural systems that thrive.

And each of these Components encourages economic growth in the communities in which they are implemented by creating new jobs, embracing solutions that make our cities and our actions more sustainable, and regenerating a degree of equilibrium with the natural planet that helps us all truly thrive.

No. 1: The Mitigation Component. Reducing or reversing climate change involves identifying, supporting, and investing in companies that develop technology to reduce the release of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, typically by reducing the generation of these gases or building carbon sinks to capture and store them. The objective of mitigation is to eliminate, mitigate, or remediate the influence of human activities on carbon content in the atmosphere, allowing the Earth to naturally return to a global carbon equilibrium, while adaptation solutions are implemented in the interim.

Mitigation can and should be conducted at local, regional, national, and global levels. Different technologies may be most effective in different regions and cultures.

The success of mitigation technologies can and should be monitored at local, regional, national, and global levels, as appropriate. They typically include measuring concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and improvements in energy efficiency savings to consumers.

The implementation of mitigation technologies may require engagement at a local level to start; rebates to consumers have a high buy-in rate and are an effective tool to reduce consumer use of electricity and water: the larger the city; the greater overall benefit is recognized. In the U.S., converting a state’s vehicle fleet from diesel/gas to electric is easier after a municipality has done it—and proved measurable benefits (air quality, cost savings, more jobs)—first. On the other hand, carbon credits require a market to trade and set value, and a market generally must be larger than a single city.

No. 2: The Adaptation Component. Technologies are under development that help communities and individuals to adapt to life in a changing climate, i.e., adjusting to actual or expected future climate conditions. While mitigation is critically important to stop or reduce ongoing impacts of human activities on carbon content of the atmosphere, it is rather too late to completely undo it. Climate change is happening, and its impacts are felt on every continent. The goal of adaptation, therefore, is to reduce our vulnerability to the harmful effects of climate change (e.g., sea level rise, more extreme weather events, and food and water insecurity). Adaptation also means that we actively embrace any potential beneficial opportunities associated with climate change (e.g., longer growing seasons or increased agricultural yields in northern regions). Engineered and technological options are among the more common adaptive responses, often integrated within existing programs such as disaster risk management and water management. Adaptation is most effective when social, institutional, and ecosystem-based measures, as well as the extent of constraints to adaptation, are considered and incorporated into solutions; this leads to resilience and, ideally, the development of antifragile human and natural systems.

By its very nature, adaptation tends to be a local or regional solution focused on solving a problem specific to that area, whether using sensors to track sea level rise and map urban flooding for cities and insurance companies, implementing new agricultural techniques, building sea walls, purifying water, or tracing and eliminating recently arrived pests and disease.

What makes this Component different, therefore, is that often the impacts of climate change—floods, droughts, disease, poverty—are already happening, and the pain is felt acutely by the community. And a community or region in pain is far more willing to try new technologies to address their issues than, say, a community in Iowa asked to switch to a plant-based diet in order to save the Amazon Rainforest from deforestation and the subsequently massive release of stored carbon into the atmosphere (and, of course, the methane from the newly grown cows). The feedback loop is generally very clear, and the benefits tend to be far more obvious to measure.

It takes time, however, as all big problems—and their solutions—do. Many of the adaptation technologies incorporate a second-order effect that includes data collection, insights, and the subsequent action by others based on those insights. Others, of course, offer a first-order impact such as the building of sea walls against rising waters.

No. 3: The Resilience Component. Developing and implementing solutions to build thriving communities in a changing climate. While adaptation allows us to live with climate change (see: sea walls), resilience allows us to thrive. This is the second-order impact from exceptionally implemented adaptation technologies and approaches. The National Academy of Sciences’ definition of resilience references a “system’s ability to plan for, recover from and adapt to adverse events over time.” Highly resilient systems can adapt in such a way that the functionality of the system may improve with respect to the initial performance, enhancing the system’s resilience to future adverse events; this is antifragility. Antifragile systems do not just bounce back but bounce back better. They thrive and improve because of, not in spite of, volatility and uncertainty. They do not respond or react to change, they feed on it. So: take the highly resilient systems, emphasize the value that the system could add as a result of experiencing stress, and then innovate based on that experience.

People, especially the poor and elderly, who live within urban cores, are at considerable risk from heat island impacts. Technologies to address these impacts can include painting the city white (an adaptation) or creating greenspaces that thrive in higher temperatures (resilience), thereby shrinking or eliminating the heat islands, improving air quality, reducing stormwater runoff, and enhancing water quality.

On the other end of the spectrum, we can consider rural communities, especially in relatively arid regions. Water is critical to the success of food production (and human life), regardless of whether we are talking about a home or community garden or an agribusiness. In arid regions, soil is often dry and barren for months – if not years – on end. Rainstorms are infrequent, but my goodness are they intense! And in many cases these storms can wash away what crops managed to survive. But what if that water could be captured and used throughout the year? What if the intensity of the storms could be harnessed, and the more intense the rain, the better, because runoff can be captured and used for crops, to recharge the aquifers? What if areas with plenty of (some might say too much) water could size their stormwater and coastal systems in such a way as to retain water for transport to areas that need it? Maybe that’s infeasible, but with wars to be fought over water, maybe it’s the first step.

Alternatively, systems that encourage open borders, decentralization of currencies, and work-from-anywhere approaches mean that resources are shared, people can pull themselves out of poverty, and local communities can thrive through diversity. But this sort of solution is exactly why we need education.

No. 4: The Education Component. While we can work to solve climate change from the top down, implementing mitigation, adaptation, and resilience strategies will only be a band aid until change can occur from the bottom up. Expressing the data and the causes and the impacts of climate change in a way that is logical and embraceable and adaptable by every person at every level in every community is the only way we can effectively mitigate our risk and adapt to the changes that are already happening. A significant number of people within the most populous countries in the world live in poverty and have yet to experience their first industrial revolution. When they do—if they follow the pattern of Europe, the U.S., and much of China—they too will embrace the trappings of newfound wealth. As a species, we humans tend to desire and hoard our resources. Once we have them, we like to show them off. That means a new motorbike (fossil fuels), new phones (fossil fuels used to mine the materials and ship the phone), meat during meals for the first time (cows in particular, and especially factory farming, generate vast quantities of methane), and all this multiplied by a magnitude greater than what we have seen to date.

Therefore, one focus of education may be on the value of living well, but simply, thereby improving our quality of life as individuals and as a species (granted, this is something that is easy to say when I have always had enough). Or it could focus on the costs of manufacturing in terms of environmental impact, or on the value of community over profit. We need to change consumer patterns regarding consumption, just like we did with smoking: it used to be cool; now it is just dumb.

A second focus then is quite obviously political: those with money and power want to retain money and power. Many of them have become wealthy by exploiting the human need to acquire. Reducing our acquisitional tendencies threatens their future success. However, mimetic theory consistently demonstrates that that we can teach people how to feel and act: according to Rene Girard, “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.” Again, policy and influence are not easy projects, nor are they fast. But the long-term implications are extraordinary for the future of human society.

A third focus, as discussed briefly under resilience, is the value of decentralization and diversity, focusing on community. Many people in equatorial regions live within a future “hot zone,” areas of the planet deemed unlivable by 2070, and will be forced to leave or risk starvation. Climate migration has already begun and will continue. Consistent messaging to local communities, regions, and countries to embrace these migrants—incredibly brave people who take one very big chance on the unknown—means that these communities will learn to enhance their own cultures through the addition of the newcomers’.

For education to be successful, we need to understand our actions, see their effects, and live the benefits.

In Summary…

Climate impacts every aspect of daily life: from the air we breathe to the food we eat, our infrastructure, and our health. Companies and organizations across the world have started significant and valuable work toward solving the climate crisis through technologies that address everything from mitigation to education. However, we are missing some of the critical components that these technologies require to attain measurable and effective reach. What resources, testing, and partnerships are available tend to be scattered and inefficient to acquire, comprehend, and implement. Ensuring that these technologies can try new things and innovate, and that all communities can work with them, will be critical to our success in (re)achieving global equilibrium.

About the author

Erin Rothman

Talk stormwater with With more than 15 years of environmental consulting experience, Erin observed so many opportunities for innovation in the stormwater industry. With those in mind, she founded StormSensor to enthusiastically embrace new technology to help solve the problems of an age-old industry.