We just officially hit the global temperature threshold that climate scientists have been warning that we absolutely should not—if we want to maintain a healthy planet. The world has had its first year-long breach of the 1.5-degree Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) temperature rise that countries had agreed at the 2015 “COP” conference in Paris not to exceed. Though breaking the Paris Agreement was long expected to happen (even by chief negotiator John Kerry), we’ve now undoubtedly entered the era of coping with devastating climate change, not simply trying to avoid it.
Scientists, economists, politicians, and more still have to focus efforts on cutting carbon dioxide and its much-underestimated sibling, methane. That can help an already bad situation from getting nightmarish. But there’s no doubt now that adapting to a changing planet is a top challenge for humanity.
Softening the Blow of Climate Change
Without being pollyannaish (this situation is dire) we can look to some positive developments in science and logistics. In the U.S., for instance, as the frequency and cost of natural disasters keeps going up, the death rate is actually dropping. From the 1980s to the 2010s, the number of $billion+ disasters per year rose 297%, from 3.3 to 13.1. Unfortunately, deaths also went up, from 295 to 523. But that comes out to a much-smaller 75% increase. Meanwhile, the country’s population has increased 46%—meaning that the growth in fatalities, on a per-capita basis, is even less.
A smaller increase in deaths is nothing to celebrate, but it’s a sign that we’re finding ways to make natural disasters less deadly.
Technology is making these relative gains possible. Last year, Worth spoke with Ali Mostafavi, director of the Urban Resilience.AI Lab at Texas A&M University. He described how AI is helping his team better predict natural disasters, and coordinate response and recovery in the aftermath. “Using AI, we can ingest datasets related to storm rainfall, plus flood gauges and past flood models, so that we can have better predictions of areas that will be inundated,” he said. Social media also provides enormous insights into how people are experiencing disasters. But the ambition of tech tycoons—in this case, Elon Musk making it harder to access data from X (aka Twitter)—could jeopardize that.
On the pollution side, we are finally getting to a good tipping point: CO2 emissions may be starting to level out, even as the global economy continues to grow in the post-Covid era. Again, this is small-comfort. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently calculated that emissions need to drop by a whopping 60% in just 11 years to get the Paris Agreement back on track. Frankly, that probably won’t happen. Just the existing plans to expand oil and natural gas production and exports in the U.S. will probably doom those plans. (Although the Biden administration is pushing to slow the growth or gas exports—a very dicey political move in a presidential election year, and one that will surely be dropped if he loses.)
Slowing Climate Pollution
But here, again, tech offers an opportunity to soften the blow. While CO2 emissions from gas are bad, leaks of unburned gas are potentially as bad as emissions from coal. That’s because the primary component of natural gas,-—methane—is 100 times more powerful at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2 is (at least in its first decades, before it starts settling out of the atmosphere). Cutting down on leaks is a huge, and relatively easy, way to pull a horrible problem back to just a really bad one. Cleaning up methane was the low-hanging fruit touted at the latest COP meeting in fossil-fuel rich Dubai.
And AI can play a huge role in getting leaks under control. For instance, U.S. and UK researchers have deployed machine learning to troves of inspection documents of oil and gas facilities over the years. That allows them to predict which ones are most likely to have major leaks, and focus on finding them. “The model’s predictions have resulted in an almost threefold increase in the probability of finding unintended emissions during an inspection,” says Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, who helped develop the tech.