DATELINE SOUTHERN-CALI-CAGO: Speedy Spring

For years, I joked that Chicago would be one of the few climate change winners. My home city sits next to 20% of the world’s fresh water, surrounded by some the most fertile soil anywhere (thank you, Pleistocene glaciers). While a flooded New York City would be distributing buckets for citizen bail brigades, Texas would toast and the West Coast would crack, erupt, drown-by-tsunami and otherwise suffer the onslaughts of climate-triggered geological debacle. Meanwhile, my little weather-maligned speck on the planet would finally look like paradise. Take that (tornado-blasted) Hawaii.

Of course, I also said that below zero temps and window-high snows kept the riffraff from California at bay and that if the best thing you could say about a place was that the weather was good, run.

But now, after a week of record shattering pleasant weather (we no longer merely break records), watching the winter-that-never-was skip past spring and move straight to summer, suspicions nag that this can’t be good. Will June be August? With no snow pack and spotty rain, are we headed for a drought? What will this do to the Great (and I do mean great) Lakes?

While the birds are in full competitive song, daffodils daffing and forsythia sything, tens of thousands of street pot holes are not being born, a generation blighted by the lack of freeze/thaw cycle.

So as I trade in my snow boots for Birkenstocks, grab some sun-block cream and head to the beach, it is with a certain “enjoy it while it lasts” trepidation. Although the skies above my head are blue and the air soft and fragrant, record shattering tornadoes fueled by the same record shattering heat have torn up more than a dozen states, chewing up land, annihilating whole towns and irreversibly changing the course of survivors’ lives.

A few weeks ago, a group of insurance industry representatives gave a few members of Congress who were willing to listen an earful:

“From our industry’s perspective, the footprints of climate change are around us and the trend of increasing damage to property and threat to lives is clear,” said Franklin Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America. “We need a national policy related to climate and weather.”

Property and casualty insurers in the United States experienced an estimated $44 billion in losses last year when hurricanes, droughts, tornadoes and other natural disasters were more severe, longer, more frequent and less predictable than in the past.

According to Swiss Re, the average weather-related insurance industry loss in the U.S. was about $3 billion a year in the 1980s compared to approximately $20 billion annually by the end of the past decade.

“As a member of the global insurance industry, we have witnessed the increased impact of weather-related events on our industry and around the world,” said Mark Way, head of Swiss Re’s sustainability and climate change activities in the Americas. “A warming climate will only add to this trend of increasing losses, which is why action is needed now.”

— Pat Speer, Insurance Networking News (HT ClimateAdaption)

The average cost of weather-related insurance pay-outs is up seven-fold in the US?! Even for those who don’t “believe” in climate change (honestly, this is not a matter of faith but fact), insurance bills never lie.

Meanwhile, the Asian Development Bank, another hotbed of bean-counting realists, just issued a report connecting the dots between climate shifts and mass human migrations. In just the past two years, 42 million people have been displaced by climate-driven weather disasters in Asia. That’s the equivalent of the population of 5+ Chicago metro areas collectively getting up and moving. They can’t go home again.

In Canada, it is ticks that are on the move, exponentially expanding the range of the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Pine beetles, which have been chewing through billions of trees over the last 20 years, turning the country’s famous forests into net carbon emitters, are in their salad days, churning out multiple generations of little nibblers in an ever-lengthening warm season.

On the flip side, Europe, clobbered by a newly minted snow machine fueled by arctic melt-water, will be digging out for some time.

FLUKE OR FUTURE?

According to phenologists, those tireless, mostly volunteer record-keepers of daily change who meticulously chart the annual emergence of plants, migrations of animals and other seasonal markers, 2012’s headline-grabbing weather fits neatly into long range trends.

We are seeing strong trends almost wherever we look. In the last decade, we’re actually now starting to be able to say OK, well, we see patterns of plants and animals coming earlier. And we have better and better climatological records, temperature records, and we can start to link those together. And there’s a paper coming out it seems every week now that’s saying OK, here’s a trend in bees coming out 10 days earlier over the last 130 years, and we can attribute that to warming temperatures.

— Jake Weltzin, ecologist and the executive director of the USA National Phenology Network / NPR Interview  (HT ClimateAdaptation)

TECH FORECAST

Lost in the din of overhyped apps and endless debate on the merits of aggregation at SxSW (re the latter: sharing is good—and so is giving credit where it is due) was an annoucement of yet another SxSW conference: ECO, slated for October.

As worthy and wonderful as it no doubt will be, it seems like a missed opportunity not to have had at least a mini-ECO conference overlapping the Interactive party.

Imagine if the critical mass of digitally adept entrepreneurial thinkers had actually been presented with a worthy challenge, rather than left to literally twiddle thumbs keeping creepy tabs on alleged “friends” because it’s fun (yes, looking at you Highlight).

Instead of “situational awareness” of the stalker kind, we actually need Situational Awareness writ large to help navigate a dangerously shifted and still shifting climate. This is about food supplies, water resources, migrations of man, beast, plant and microbe. This is about the future.

Clean energy, carbon footprints and conservation, yes, but also sturdier materials (see Neri Oxman’s video at the end of this post: “And You Can Print That, Too”), savvier  supply chain logistics and speedier humanitarian response.

If problems present opportunities, techies, this is your moment to shine.

The World Bank is sponsoring a first-ever competition called Apps for Climate. Submissions will be posted online for public review in early April, but already the discussion on how best to crunch big data has proved valuable.

Over at the UN, the Global Pulse group is mining data for early signals to slow crises—humanitarian disasters that can take years to make the news. “Finding out today what was happening two years ago is an exercise in history,” noted GP’s director Robert Kirkpatrick, in an presentation at O’Reilly’s Strata Conference last year. “There must be a better way.”

At this point we are talking about triage: how to keep bad from getting worse. But the real goal is resilience.

As I sit here looking out my screened window at a specular June day in mid-March, smelling the fresh scent of new growth, reveling in the haze of maple tree blossoms and red buds a’bursting, it is hard to believe that this isn’t the way things are meant to be.The birds and bugs and bulbs seem to be adapting just fine. Whether the rest of us can catch up is anybody’s guess.

— J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

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Nina Leopold Bradley on Phenology:

Abundance for Whom? Diamandis, Big Pictures, Context and TED


On the first day of the annual TED conference last week, environmentalist Paul Gilding and X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis squared off on our species’ prospects. It was a pairing of a decidedly gloomy bad cop (Resources depleted!) and irrespressibly cheerful good cop (We can tech our way to abundance!).

I really do admire Diamandis’ optimism. The technologies he talks about are stunning. Yet I found myself wondering: Abundance for whom? Diamandis uses a very species-specific metric. Humans are thriving: there are more of them than ever and, taken as an aggregate, living longer, healthier, more prosperous lives. So far, so Hans Rosling.

But we are, in fact, in the middle of a mass extinction ("Climate change models flawed, extinction rate likely higher than predicted"). For countless species, lifespans are shrinking. Many no longer have lifespans. The abundance their presence made possible is no longer available. It is not so easy to invent a mechanical bee (though there have been efforts of a sort). 

Diamandis blames the media for putting us all in a bad mood with nonstop “if it bleeds, it leads” news. The implication: attitude counts. And it does. But there actually are a lot of bad things happening. Those stories are true.

The reality is not so black and white. One can be deeply troubled by world events and inspired by the promise of technology at the same time. What one cannot do is brush away the reality of abundant loss: of species, habitats, biodiversity, clean air and non-record breaking weather.

By the time a clear connection can be proved between specific weather events and climate, it will be too late, though evidence is certainly mounting:

GRAND CHALLENGES

Diamandis talks a lot about “humanity’s Grand Challenges.” The X Prize Foundation has tackled some genuinely awe-inspiring projects, spearheading advances in everything from commercial space travel to a tricorder-style medical diagnostic devices.

But there are some other kinds of equally Grand Challenges—a little less sparkly and sci-fi cool—that could also benefit from a little more tech.

Exhibit A: The khapra beetle, an itty bitty omnivore munching its merry way through the world’s breadbaskets at an increasingly alarming rate, with implications for humans and pretty much any other species that likes to eat.

or…

Exhibit B: The pine bark beetle which has destroyed 6 billion-with-a-b trees over the last 15 years, just in North America, turning what were once carbon sinks into net carbon emitters (dead trees don’t absorb atmospheric carbon and burn easily).

Without tackling the khapra beetle, there is no point developing more productive, or flood and drought tolerant crops. That is, unless, of course, the point is to address beetle hunger.

Likewise, protecting trees from pine bark beetles would be considerably more effective for slowing carbon emissions than pricey and iffy terraforming schemes, such as seeding iron filings in (increasingly acidic) oceans.

Don’t get me started on what’s ailing the bees and what a game-changer that’s shaping up to be…

We need Diamandis’ enthusiasm and evangelist’s talent for sparking imagination. But the vision and metrics must be broader and deeper. Slick charts illustrating a trajectory of human prosperity driven by Moore’s Law dazzle and mislead. The subtext is that we are a path to a kind of tech-enabled perfection: the Singularity.

The vision is inspiring, but could be so much more if it were…grander, set in the context of Earth’s Grand Challenges 

We are part of a whole that is being ripped apart at the seams. It is our past, our future, our hope.    

— J . A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

  

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