Taking Back Control
It’s the final Sustainable Futures Report of 2019 - episode No. 45. Yes, I’m Anthony Day and this is the edition for Friday 20th December 2019.
|Image by Skeeze|
In the News
I’ll be commenting on the British General Election, although it won’t take long. More important is the outcome of COP25, the UN Climate Conference in Madrid, where hard-fought negotiations struggled into extra time over the weekend. That’s all for later. First I have another interview for you.
Adapt and Survive
We’ve spoken many times in the Sustainable Futures Report about the causes of climate change and the measures needed to get them under control. The truth is that changes to our climate - the effects of global heating - are already embedded into global systems and it’s as important to be able to cope with them as it is to stop it getting worse. My guest Sarah Tuneberg of Geospiza spoke to me about it.
Well first of all, Sarah, thank you very much for agreeing to take part in the Sustainable Futures Report.
Thank you very much for allowing me to participate. I'm very excited.
I understand that you've been involved in emergency management, emergency planning for 10-15 years. Dealing with all sorts of natural disasters, but I know you are going to stop me there because you're going to say there is no such thing as a natural disaster. Why do you say that?
Indeed, I believe, and I think that the evidence is very clear that there are natural hazards, those weather phenomena or natural phenomenon like earthquakes, volcanoes, cyclones. They happen, but the disaster happens when we have people and human development in the path of those naturally occurring phenomena. So to call them natural disasters - all of these things are very human responsibility for the disaster component. We, as human beings, actively choose to live, to build, to work, to play in highly vulnerable areas. And when there are big consequences where human development and natural hazards align we call them natural disasters, but I think it's a misnomer, and I think it, it makes it feel like we don't have any power in what's happening when really, we did it.
Okay. So, do you think we should be doing more in the way of risk assessments in the broadest context?
Absolutely. I think that we should be doing more and more, even than doing risk assessment, I think there is value in putting the huge amounts of risk assessment data and risk identification data into action into mitigation and adaptation into preparedness. I was talking to a colleague recently and she said you know what - I feel like I'm living in a, in an alarm state, all the time, fire alarms of some sort, going off, whether it's climate or global warming or flooding or pandemic influenza that there's all these threats, but I don't really know what to do about them. And so I think that that's really one of the challenges we face is how we put all of this data and all of this risk into action to really reduce the risk.
A lot of this data I think comes from a wide range of public bodies, well, public bodies or bodies with responsibility to the public ranging from the utilities like the power and the water, the emergency bodies like the fire, and the police. Have you had any success in drawing these together, and being able to actually consolidate the data so you've got a complete picture of a particular situation?
Yeah, absolutely. That's sort of been the route of my professional career is how we draw data and evidence from this huge amazingly diverse set of partners together to make information products that help make important decisions or support important decisions. Yeah, that's where I've spent a lot of my work and the company that I co founded, it's called Geospiza, is that that's the work that we do. The academic universe, the government research universe, utilities, emergency managers all of these parties, create incredible data, but one of the challenges is that in an under-resourced very stressed environment like a disaster, an impending disaster, climate disaster it's hard for people to stitch those together in a meaningful way. They come in disparate forms. They come from all over the internet sometimes in different languages, whether they're different computer languages or actual different languages. And it's hard to make meaning of them and so there's huge value I think in doing that and I think one of the best ways that's really exciting is that mapping technology has gotten so much better recently. So, taking zeros and ones of digital information and making really beautiful maps, this is a way that we can convey information powerfully.
Do you find that all these different organizations are prepared to share the data with you or with some other coordinator? And what about a GDPR is that causing you problems as well?
So the first part of the question is no, of course people are not necessarily prepared to share. I think people develop their data sets. Sometimes I think you have sort of both things happen or a lot of things happen in sort of a spectrum, some people don't want to share they don't know how it's hard work for them. Other people, I think especially academic and government researchers, they've done this, it’s their life's work and they're excited to have it used, they don't necessarily know how. I think lots of times you get a little bit siloed, you get a little bit myopic because you're working on your own research and you think, oh, that oh there's a whole bunch of people who could use it. That's exciting. So I think there's a spectrum there. GDPR is interesting. We have built our work to be fully GDPR compliant. To be aligned with that because we are building a global company at Geospiza and we believe that that's a place to start. But yes, I think that things like GDPR, and in the, in the US, we have a law called HIPAA the Health Insurance Portability Privacy Act (maybe don't quote me on that) but it's HIPAA, it's about medical data privacy and our experiences, even though that has pretty much nothing to do with what we do. People are always worried they're like “oh does this violate HIPAA?”, and I imagine GDPR similar does this like that, a lack of knowledge makes people reserved and concerned. And so some better guidelines, some better ideas about how it really does apply in certain circumstances could be hugely powerful, but I think the, the reservation is always conservative people move conservative and then you have to sort of pull them along.
Right. Okay, I suppose you get all the local organizations together, you managed to consolidate their information. Is that a question - who actually takes a lead, and and takes the decisions based upon the information that you've been able to consolidate?
Absolutely. And I think you end up in two different situations. One is sort of the emerging unfolding disaster. And then the other one is the longer range situation what are we talking about five years 10 years from now and I think those parties can be really different. And the biggest challenge happens when those two pieces come together. So when we're talking about for example, increased flooding, as a result of climate change, climate change lives started with Planning sometimes and flooding lives with Emergency Management so how do you get those parties together to be able to collaborate on mitigation and preparedness activities? It is that as a huge challenge.
Okay. Okay, well just assuming that you get all the people talking together and you have this body of information. And let's say a flood is forecast. What does this information management allow you to do that has been lacking in previous national natural disasters?
Geospiza’s specific product and the work of similar companies, allows public safety entities, corporations who have lots of employees or customers in an area, anybody like that, to understand who, on a very granular geographic level. What the population, looks like, and what their needs might be. There might there be a neighborhood that's likely to flood where there are a lot of people who rely on public transportation so if we give them an evacuation order, they're going to need some sort of support to get out. There might be a lot of people who rely on public support in some sort of food aid or rental aid and so if we need them to evacuate we're also going to have to provide some sort of food aid or something like that. Then the other piece is, what infrastructure is in place in those geographies, that we might want to get back on line quickly? So is there a power station that we need to get or is there a key employer? And that becomes really relevant.
There's a wide range of disasters going on in the world at the moment, one of the most notable ones of course is these fires in Eastern Australia which have now got to the size of Greater Sydney itself. I don't know whether there's been planning, I don't know that there hasn't been planning. But how would you approach something like that, particularly as we recognize that it is only spring in Australia at the moment - they haven't really started the fire season, so things could get worse. Where would you go from here?
Yeah, it's a, it's like a deeply challenging set of problems and we experience it very similarly in the United States right now where what used to be a very defined fire season is no longer, now we're dealing with it, year long. Australia situation is unbelievable. So I think that there's been some really interesting changes. One is that previous hesitation, the sort of previous plan planning strategy was that people were encouraged if they wanted or permitted if they wanted to stay and defend their houses. One of the things we know about fire behavior is that it's not actually the flames usually that caused the fire and a wildland fire situation, it's the sparks that move ahead, and they settle and then it causes the fire to move very quickly. They fly on the wind and start the fires - it's not really the flames. So if you can have people who stay in defend their own homes and put out these advanced sparks and advanced sort of cinders. You can stop fire and you can you can build fire breaks. One of the very different situations that Australia is facing is that the fire is so big and so fast and the conditions are so dry, again, likely as a result of a changing climate that they've encouraged people to leave. They cannot, they don't they don't want them to stay, the fires are moving too fast and maybe can become overwhelmed by them very quickly. I think this marks a really significant change in risk communication, which is public officials globally have been very bad at being honest about what might happen. And they have a tendency because they want, I believe they have a tendency because they want to be encouraging and they want to be supportive to not …. or maybe they don't know because they're politicians and they're not, they don't want to believe that themselves. They don't effectively communicate the risk. And they don't use the data to communicate the risk. So I think this is a really interesting time and I'm excited to learn from it. Australia is really changing what they're telling people and they're telling people to leave, and they're evacuating huge amounts of people to some economic loss, like all sorts of disruption happened when you, when you evacuate people. So I think this is a really interesting time and I think it will be an example that we will draw from from, as we see this happen more and more whether it's from flood or wildfire that we're just going to have to move a lot more people around, and that is something we're not great at.
How can we educate public officials, how can we change their attitude and make them more aware and make them also aware of the opportunities of integrated planning, through having a broad spectrum of data to draw on?
Do you run training courses for example?
Absolutely we run training courses, we advocate, we lobby. I think conveying data is the best way - some well-designed maps in this world of well-designed infographics, getting some real evidence-based data in front of politicians to give them concisely and clearly what they're facing is the most effective strategy, and I think lots of times it's important to link it to the long term growth or economic development component. I think most politicians feel the day-to-day pressure of ensuring their constituents are healthy, happy, and having economic expansion. And so if you can show them how these things play together, there is huge value. And not to mention I will, I'll add another thing which it's hard to convey but a natural hazard in the United States - we say in the emergency management community that snow storms are Mayor killers, that this relatively modest regularly-occurring event of a blizzard in the United States is the surest way to lose your job as a mayor because what seems like it should be very simple which is snow clearance is actually very expensive and very complicated. And we've seen several mayors of large cities, lose re-election or have to resign their office because they handled it very poorly. One of the best examples is Marion Barry who was a DC a mayor of Washington DC, went to the NFL Pro Bowl in Hawaii, when there was a huge snowstorm in Washington DC and he was seen on TV in this very warm weather, when all of his constituents were stuck in their homes, and that was the end for him, and we've seen that happen in Boston and Chicago. And so, there is a very real implication of mishandling these natural hazards and natural events. People depend on the government to deliver services and and politicians should be prepared to deliver on that or explain why they can't and lots of times you can't, it's expensive and it's hard and so being really transparent is difficult.
Okay, well, it's expensive and it's hard to say. [Yeah] And as climate change… I mean, we are doing everything we can to stop climate change getting any worse but we have built a certain amount of climate change into the system. You're already seeing or frequent more intense, or violent storms, so there will be more natural hazards. That’s the word, Yes Yes. Do you think that we are going to be able to upgrade our emergency planning to cope with the challenges that climate change is inevitably going to bring us whatever we do about emissions? Over the next 10, 20, 50 years?
I don't know, I am fairly disheartened at the moment. Honestly, I think that one of the biggest sort of heartbreaks I have is that the emergency planning and preparedness structures globally are very disparate. And that you see everybody doing an okay job, some people doing a great job but very few people doing an excellent job. And those communities that are especially vulnerable to the hazards of climate change also having the least well developed Emergency Management Planning preparedness strategies, and I think a lot of, like, Ho Chi Min city is a good example where new modeling shows that Ho Chi Min city is going to experience far more flooding than we ever imagined, and sea level rise is going to happen way more quickly. And there's huge populations of not particularly affluent people who are going to need help, and we don't have a great system in Vietnam. Similarly, I think of the Gulf Coast of the United States, where you have lots more cyclonic activity, lots more large rainfall activities that cause flooding, all sorts of unprecedented events happening, and not great. We're not very good at evacuation and we don't have a lot of tax base in those communities to support perhaps buying people out and moving them other places. So it's a really big challenge and I think also, in lots of communities but especially in the United States, we have a racially disparate emergency management system and a racially disparate land use pattern where people of colour and poor people live in highly vulnerable geographic areas, and they're going to bear the disproportionate brunt, and I don't know what we do about that at the moment but it's the part that feels hardest.
Certainly some very challenging thoughts there. These issues, particularly about the less wealthy nations, are being brought up now at COP 25 in Madrid.
So tell us a little bit about your company.
Yeah, so my company is called Geospiza. We take our name from the genus of finch that Darwin studied on the Galapagos to develop his theory of evolution, and we feel like it's our link to our mission of helping our customers, adapt to a rapidly changing climate. And we built it - we have built internet-based platforms, web platforms, that ingest huge amounts of data, lots of it - this open data we were talking about about risks and hazards and climate modelling and population-based data around the world and we visualise that in a really beautiful map-based interface that allows all of this very complex disparate data to be understood in a very fast and very easy way. And then we build decision support tools. What we really care about is putting data into action to help make good evidence-based decisions. So we do a lot of adaptation pathway modelling, which is an academic strategy for climate based planning that comes out of the Netherlands where you link the decisions you need to make to get to your end goal to the real time data so you know when you need to change your strategy. So for example, do we need to elevate, and when do we need to elevate because we can't do all of our climate adaptation and mitigation strategies at once it's just too expensive. So how do we sequence them to get the best benefit, and we use machine learning and a little bit of AI to help support those decisions.
Thank you very much for that. We will put a link to your website on the blog which accompanies the podcast. I'm going to put a link to your TEDx talk as well.
Sarah, thank you very much for talking to the Sustainable Futures Report.
Thank you for having me.
Sarah Tuneberg. Her company, Geospiza, is at geospiza.us and I recommend that you look at her TEDx talk. You can search or find these links on the Sustainable Futures Report blog.
Election. Blues won.
Yes, we’ve just had a General Election in the UK with an overwhelming victory for the Conservative Party. I’m disappointed with the result, mainly because I believe that Brexit will severely damage our country. This is not the forum to discuss politics, so I’ll leave it there. The new government’s policy on climate change will be crucial. Prime Minister Johnson refused to take part in a TV climate debate. This could be climate scepticism or it could be simply part of his strategy to avoid the press wherever possible, which was evident throughout his campaign. Calling XR activists uncooperative crusties living in hemp-smelling tents, as he did back in October, does not bode well. As with everything else on the government’s to-do list, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Far more important than Brexit and far, far more important than the UK is the climate crisis, so I shall continue to make that my principal focus in 2020. As you know COP25, this year’s UN Climate Conference, has come to an end. Scheduled to close on Friday 13th, negotiations continued into the following Sunday, and many are unhappy with the outcome.
If the pledges made in Paris in 2015 are fulfilled, warming is likely to be held to around 3℃, far in excess of the 1.5℃ which is now believed to be the maximum that temperatures can be allowed to rise without causing catastrophic damage to agriculture and coastal cities. Signatories to the Paris Accord agreed to report back in 5 years and present revised proposals for the future. Although a full five years will not have passed until next year there were few signs that the major emitters have met their current commitments or have made much progress in establishing more realistic commitments for the future.
Brazil, Australia, the US, China and other major emitters were all accused of holding up progress. I mentioned last time that they spent much time arguing over which words it was permissible to use in conference documentation. The US remains a party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) even though it has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, claiming it will damage the competitive position of the nation. Smaller nations set out their plans for reducing their emissions, but the effect of these will be dwarfed by the actions of China and the US, by far the largest emitters of GHG, who account for around 50% of the total between them.
There were disagreements over carbon markets and the responsibility for assisting poorer nations already suffering the consequences of climate change, principally from sea-level rise. It was generally agreed that the final agreement was an uneasy compromise, leaving much to be decided at COP26 in 12 months’ time.
Meanwhile the BBC reports on an article in Nature that describes how Greenland ice is melting seven times as fast as in the 1990s, with obvious consequences for sea levels.
It’s more than worrying that faced with an emergency that affects the very existence of humanity world leaders can do no more than talk - and defer decisions for one more of the 10 years that some scientists say is all we’ve got left!
In the Bank of England’s Financial Stability Report published this week Governor Mark Carney says, “What we’re looking for management at banks to do is to think through their strategy about their exposure to industries… …that could be increasingly and materially exposed to climate risks. And the question is how resilient is your strategy if you are concentrating your lending in areas that will be potentially severely affected 5, 10 plus years out?”
Back in October he was warning that firms ignoring the climate crisis would quite simply go bankrupt.
Also this week the Bank published “The 2021 biennial exploratory scenario on the financial risks from climate change.” This is a discussion paper and is open to comment from anyone until 18th March 2020. They say,
“The Bank will use its 2021 biennial exploratory scenario (BES) to explore the financial risks posed by climate change. The exercise will test the resilience of the current business models of the largest banks, insurers and the financial system to climate related risks and therefore the scale of adjustment that will need to be undertaken in coming decades for the system to remain resilient.
Conducting a climate stress test poses distinct challenges compared to conventional macrofinancial or insurance stress tests. To ensure it is effective in light of these challenges, the Bank is using this discussion paper to consult relevant stakeholders on the design of the exercise. This includes financial firms, climate scientists, economists, other industry experts, and informed stakeholder groups.”
Find out more and submit your own comments via the link on the Sustainable Futures Report blog.
Mark Carney leaves his post as Governor of the Bank of England early in 2020 and will become a UN special envoy for climate action and finance. He is clearly committed, to the extent that he will receive no salary for the role.
COP26 will take place in Glasgow at the end of next year. The UK’s relationship with the UNFCCC and commitment to the Paris Agreement is through its membership of the EU. This of course starts to change as we enter our transition period towards Brexit in 2020, so the UK will presumably have to make its own commitment to the Paris Agreement as it prepares to host this crucial conference.
We’re close to the end of another Sustainable Futures Report, the 45th and last for 2019. Do you remember that I asked for 100 words on what we should do in 2020? That will form the theme of the next episode which will appear on 3rd January. Quite a lot of people have come back with ideas, including Carol Dance from Sydney, Australia. Thanks, Carol. I’ve got both your emails.
There’s still time - just - to add your own 100 words to what we should do next year. Drop me an email at email@example.com as soon as you can, and if you want to record it on your phone and send that to me as well then so much the better. Ian Jarvis has sent me some more ideas so we’ll look at those next time as well.
…for now, for 2019. Enjoy your Christmas holiday - it’s an ideal opportunity to catch up with all those Sustainable Futures Reports you missed during the year. Thank you for supporting me as a patron, thank you for listening.
I’m Anthony Day, and remember, I don’t just do podcasts. If you want a keynote speaker at your conference or a workshop leader to bring your team up to speed on what the climate crisis means for them and your organisation, you know where I am. Now taking bookings for February.
And, as has become my custom in this festive season, let’s play out with something different…
The UN climate talks are over for another year – was anything achieved?
UN climate talks end with limited progress on emissions targets
Bank of England