In an influential recent work of what’s increasingly called “climate fiction”, The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, the opening scene finds many millions dying in a disastrous heat wave. The apocalyptic opening is apt. We should be worried. The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells (2019) underscores the point in hair-raising and exhaustively documented nonfiction–things are getting worse, fast. (Robinson’s book does go on to portray a world that has adapted and changed its ways, via vast and strenuous globally-coordinated efforts–he doesn’t want us to lose hope.)
Here at Techonomy we’ve been activists for responsible technology for over a decade. But the situation has changed. It has darkened. Technologies we and I had high hopes for, like social media, have turned towards trivia, at best, and too often towards destruction. Meanwhile, the earth we depend on has steadily degraded. If technology is going to be a tool for progress, as we’ve repeatedly claimed over Techonomy’s last decade, it must decisively address the climate crisis. The world desperately needs tools to fend off disaster.
Even if you believe it’s possible to achieve the Paris Accords’ goal of “only” a 1.5 degree celsius increase in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels, don’t mistake that for a positive view. To keep the increase that small, which will be damnably hard, will still result in considerably worse global weather disruptions than what we have now–more floods, droughts, heat waves, and hurricanes. So far, global temperatures have risen about 1.1 degree Celsius since 1880. Any additional warming–sadly, already inevitable–will disrupt human society and cause massive suffering.
So the need for innovation is more than urgent. And so while I won’t and can’t call it good news, let’s call it necessary news: climate technology is exploding. And Techonomy is glad to be able to highlight the astonishing range of genuinely impressive new tools and techniques that are emerging. Many, if scaled (another necessary caveat), can radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many others can absorb, repurpose, or sequester the CO2 and other gasses that are today relentlessly heating up our world. We exist to curate conversation about what’s happening, why it matters, and technology’s role.
So at the end of March we are gathering an impressive group of climate and technology leaders in Mountain View, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley for our first Techonomy Climate conference. The goal is to review and encourage tech industry progress towards this, its hardest task and highest responsibility.
The Environmental Defense Fund is Techonomy’s partner in hosting the conference. We’ve admired its work for decades. Unlike many environmentalists, EDF does not look at business with contempt. Instead, it recognizes that business’ contributions to global warming are so large that if it does not reform, there is no hope. And EDF has been in the vanguard. That realization of the centrality of business has been setting in more and more on citizens, activists, and leaders in recent years. At the COP26 conference in Glasgow last fall, some observers found the tone of urgency and action set by many large companies as great or greater than by governments. And happily, EDF has found innumerable ways to help companies change direction. We hope more tech companies will work with them.
Companies large and small increasingly recognize that their long-term success will be greater if they aggressively address climate action in both their products and services and in their interaction with their communities. Many recognize that survival is at stake–obviously you cannot properly serve “stakeholders,” to use the popular term, if those stakeholders’ very existence is threatened.
So as we’re organizing what will be a truly socko program for Techonomy Climate, we’re digging deep into what entrepreneurs, innovators, investors, and businesses of all sizes are starting to do differently. We’ll also explore the intersection of innovation and climate and environmental justice. How do we ensure that the innovations benefit everyone, not just the rich and privileged?
We’re finding rampant innovation in a variety of areas, many of which we’ll tell you more about as the conference approaches. Here are just a few topics:
Emissions management and reduction software and systems
One fantastically-promising San Francisco startup called Watershed became a “unicorn”–valued at over $1 billion by investors–in recent weeks. Its co-founder Taylor Francis is on the conference program. I’ll write more about it soon.
New ways to generate and store energy
One of our sponsors is GE, the largest wind energy systems maker in the United States. (GE, which makes gas turbines, nuclear power plants, and transformers and transmission systems, is involved one way or another in providing one third of the world’s energy.) Solar and wind has been growing fast, as everybody knows, but this topic is more nuanced and fascinating than most realize.
Another speaker will be Bill Gross of Idealab, who has created companies including Heliogen, which concentrates solar energy to boil water and generate huge amounts of power. He also helps spearhead Energy Vault, which has developed a surprisingly simple–if gigantic–battery to store power for peak demand periods. We’ll look at battery technology from several vantages in Mountain View.
Major innovations to monitor today’s pollution
EDF itself is launching a satellite–the first time that’s been done by an environmental nonprofit–to monitor the world’s currently-uncontrolled releases of methane. The co-lead of MethaneSAT will talk to us about how urgent it is to identify and remove methane. It’s about ten times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, so reducing methane emissions may be the most impactful short-term step the world can take to slow warming. And startups and big companies alike have multiple inventive new ways to track today’s emissions so we can do a better job of reducing them.
The need for innovation, collaboration, and acceleration will be underscored throughout the program. Ryan Panchadsaram, who co-authored Speed & Scale with John Doerr, will help us understand the spectrum and state of climate tech innovation. Forward-looking leaders like Suzanne DiBianca, Salesforce’s Chief Impact Officer, and Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s Chief Environmental Officer, will help us understand the state of corporate action and activism.
And there’s so much more–electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, carbon capture technologies, new ways to create food using synthetic biology that generates far fewer emissions, indoor agriculture to grow food with less water closer to customers, and on and on.
Yes, our situation is grim. But putting our shoulders to the digital and technological wheel is just what we must do.
Learn more about Techonomy Climate and register here.