Most climate tech innovations (at least the ones that crowd my inbox every day) fall clearly into the mitigation category, in the form of software and applied technology that aim to draw down atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.
But an undercurrent of discussion last week during Climate Week NYC centered on the urgent need for adaptation solutions, approaches that aspire to help humans and the planet cope with the climate change we’re already experiencing, as evidenced by headlines about melting glaciers, droughts, heat waves and extreme weather events from around the world. These could include ways of building up coral reefs, creating natural coastal buffers or sophisticated warning systems that warn about wildfires or other extreme conditions far earlier, allowing a coordinated response to mobilize more quickly.
"We can be shocked at the pictures of devastation, but we can no longer pretend to be surprised," observed Climate Group CEO Helen Clarkson in her opening remarks, referring to the devastation in flood-ravaged Pakistan, which on Sept. 25 received a pledge of $2 billion to aid in rebuilding infrastructure and shoring up future resilience.
Recognition of the need for adaptation and resilience is at the center of the conditions behind $3 billion in community development and grant funds announced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in March. The funds, dedicated to disaster recovery, are being allocated with an eye toward long-term mitigation and climate resilience — no more building back for building back’s sake, the mantra of the President Joe Biden-era Federal Emergency Management Agency.
As you might imagine, the need for a more intentional focus on adaptation also factored significantly in Climate Week remarks by representatives from the International Rescue Committee, the European Investment Bank, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This has been a rallying cry and sticking point since COP 15, when developed countries pledged to start paying $100 billion annually in adaptation finance to nations suffering the effects of climate change most severely. That money has for the most part failed to materialize, even though the 2020 promised date has come and gone.
Even though no one doubts the need, it's been tough to pull commitments out of those with relatively deep pockets, and funding will be a major topic of discussion at the upcoming COP 27 in Egypt. According to the experts, adapting to climate change will necessitate the same sort of multilateralism demonstrated during the global response to COVID-19, shaped by local priorities but accelerated by an unprecedented spirit of global cooperation. "The only way to solve the problems of the global commons is by acting together,” said Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director of the IMF. "Trade is a tool for adaptation."
The tools of adaptation
The venture capital community, always a good barometer for emerging technology trends, is showing signs of gravitating towards one of the more active and accessible tools of adaptation, namely, wildfire detection.
One established data platform is Firecast, intended primarily for government agencies. It’s an initiative managed by Conservation International that was instrumental in tracking fires in Amazonia and Indonesia in 2019. Now, a growing number of entrepreneurial startups propose using artificial intelligence and a range of sensing options that run the gamut from cameras to drones and other devices to help communications and corporations get a better handle on wildfire management.
Just this week, a Berlin startup, Dryad Networks, launched a solar-powered sensor network for wildfire detection. It has projects ongoing in America, Europe, Canada and Asia with 230,000 devices ordered for 2023. Its pitch of uniqueness relies on the fact that its technology can flag fires in the smoldering stage, and relay the data using a mesh network communications protocol commonly used for internet of things networks.
Another example is San Francisco-based Pano AI, which last week pulled in $20 million in Series A funding led by Initialized Capital, an early-stage VC firm with more than 200 active companies in its portfolio. The startup has designed a panoramic detection solution that sits atop existing mountaintop towers or water tanks; it uses AI to scan the image feeds and detect the presence of smoke. Human analysts also evaluate the footage, to speed up situational awareness.
"Humanity needs a dual track" for managing climate change, Pano AI co-founder and CEO Sonia Kastner told me, underscoring the need for corporations and communities to both mitigate and adapt to climate change at the same time. "We need to be working on coping with the climate change that is already here."
So far, Pano’s technology is being used in "dozens" of locations in five U.S. states with active wildfire seasons (California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Oregon), as well as in New South Wales and Queensland in Australia. Two customers, utilities Xcel Energy and Portland General Electric, are using the solution to manage assets at risk from fires. Beyond detection, private companies might use Pano’s offering to plan public safety power shutoffs or to help restore power and internet services more quickly.
"We see opportunities to bring additional intelligence to customers at all stages of a disaster," Kastner said. Other logical corporate clients include land owners of all types, particularly timber management organizations, she noted. The intention over time is to use information to warn about mudslides or floods, alongside fire risks. Kastner figures about 15,000 Pano stations could cover high risk areas in the United States.
Another startup counting on the power of AI to aid with climate adaptation is software company Vibrant Planet of Truckee, California, which launched with $17 million in seed funding in June. Its funders include lead backer Ecosystem Integrity Fund and Emerson Collective, funded by the likes of John Doerr, Tom Steyer and Microsoft.
Vibrant Planet calls its Land Tender product an "operating system" for forest management, one centered on supporting wildfire risk reduction and restoration projects. The intention is to allow agencies, park commissions, county offices and others develop plans for optimizing the health of regions through the collection of metrics ranging from endangered species, recreational travels, waterways and so forth.
In late September, for example, a collaboration including the Tahoe Fund and Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation began using the software to start managing about 1.5 million acres in the Lake Tahoe Basin. The idea is to allow all the various stakeholders in a particular region to more easily share information with each other.
"Collaboration is challenging when stakeholders with different points of view on what they value in a landscape, or their backyard, cannot see each others’ perspectives or how different scenarios might play out in the future," said Stacy Caldwell, CEO of Tahoe Truckee Tahoe Community Foundation, in a statement. "Vibrant Planet’s software allows landowners and other stakeholders to develop scenarios that meet their objectives, then share their scenarios with each other to drive to alignment so that we can get more protective and restorative work done faster."
For example, according to Vibrant Planet CEO Allison Wolff, the software assists landowners in picking the right scenarios for management — whether that be planning controlled events such as a prescribed burn right up to the "tree or house" level of data or removing biomass in other ways. The software provides a tree-level view, using Lidar and other imaging technologies.
The company is encouraging landowners to turn to Native tribes for forest restoration techniques. Land Tender gives them a better sense of how to prioritize and value those efforts, by analyzing the benefits associated with certain practices from a carbon finance or water conservation/drought management perspective. "A lot of the trick is aggregating public-level data," she told me. "We are a data-rich country, we are an analysis-poor country." Vibrant Planet plans to change that when it comes to managing a vitally important resource for climate adaptation.
Pano AI and Vibrant Planet are just two ventures focused on adaptation rather than mitigation, but as the reality of our current situation sinks in, I expect myriad similar adaptive enterprises to emerge. As the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee observed last week during Climate Week, "It’s about marrying the knowledge that comes from international experience with the experience on the ground. If you look at the statistics, you get depressed, but if you look at the people, it gives you hope."