This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its major sixth assessment report on the physical science of climate change. The details are grim, if getting more precise, as better and more comprehensive data becomes available. As my colleague Mike Butcher summarized yesterday, it’s “stern and blunt in its conclusions.”
While many of the themes of the report will be familiar to any person not living under (an ever increasingly hot) rock, one part jumped out at me as I was perusing the documents. The working group assessed that regardless of mitigation and adaptation strategies, many of the negative changes happening to Earth will continue unabated in all future scenarios. From the summary report:
Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level. […] Mountain and polar glaciers are committed to continue melting for decades or centuries (very high confidence). Loss of permafrost carbon following permafrost thaw is irreversible at centennial timescales (high confidence) …
In short, there is already momentum toward a warmer and more chaotic world, and we have limited tools to stop many of these trends.
There has been a rush of initiatives, investments and startups bubbling around the theme of climate tech, with projects focused on everything from improving the yields and decreasing the emissions of agriculture and food production, to improving the power grid, and to reducing the emissions from air conditioning in buildings. Those initiatives are fine and important, but they don’t get at one of the toughest challenges facing us this century: that disasters are here, they are coming and they are going to continue to get more intense as the century rolls on.
Just this past week, we have seen the second-largest fire in California’s state history with the Dixie Fire, currently blazing across hundreds of thousands of acres in the northern reaches of the state. Meanwhile in Greece, hundreds of wildfires are causing an unprecedented crisis in that country. Droughts, floods, hurricanes, typhoons and more are intensifying and ravaging ever more billions of people across every continent.
One response to solving this problem is improving resilience — building up cities and structures as well as food and water systems that are fortified against these natural calamities. Many of those projects though are costly and also time-consuming, measured over the course of decades rather than months.
Instead, we need a more immediate push to develop better disaster response technology today. I’ve covered a wide segment of these companies over the past few months. There’s RapidSOS, which is adding more data into emergency calls to make responses faster and more efficient. There’s Qwake, which raised $5.5 million to build hardware and cloud services to allow firefighters to visualize their environments in smoky conditions. Meanwhile, YC-backed Gridware has also raised more than $5 million to create sensors to identify failures in the power grid faster.
In short, there are a growing crop of disaster tech startups — but more are going to be needed to fight the panoply of disasters that will strike in the years ahead.
There’s so much to do: better mental health resources for victims and first responders, easier access to recovery funds to heal lives, higher-quality sensors and data analyses to identify disasters earlier, faster logistics to evacuate people out of harm’s way. In fact, there are quite literally dozens of fields that need more investment and founder attention.
It’s not an easy market, as I pointed out in an analysis of sales cycles. Budgets are tight, disasters are random, and technology is often an afterthought. In some ways though, that friction is a font of creativity — how to build these next-generation of services and how to sell them is the risk that leads to the potential high return.
As the IPCC’s report made clear this week, the chaotic weather and intense disasters we’ve seen the past few decades aren’t going to abate any time soon. But with ingenuity, we can respond better to the disasters that are already on their way, and save lives and treasure in the process.