It’s Too Late to Undo Climate Change. We Need Tech in Order to Adapt

illustration of faceless woman in winter coat with a warm orange background.
Illustration: Federico Gastaldi

On the CES floor in Las Vegas this past January, I saw dozens of companies showing off products designed to help us adapt to climate change. It was an unsettling reminder that we’ve tipped the balance on global warming and that hotter temperatures, wildfires, and floods are the new reality.

Based on our current carbon dioxide emissions, we can expect warming of up to 1.5 °C by 2033. Even if we stopped spewing carbon today, temperatures would continue to rise for a time, and weather would grow still more erratic.

The companies at CES recognize that it’s too late to stop climate change. Faced with that realization, this group of entrepreneurs is focusing on climate adaptation. For them, the goal is to make sure that people and the global economy will still survive across as much of the world as possible. These entrepreneurs’ companies are developing practicalities, such as garments that adapt to the weather or new building materials with higher melting points so that roads won’t crack in extreme temperatures.

One of the biggest risks in a warming world is that both outdoor workers and their equipment will overheat more often. Scientists expect to see humans migrate from parts of the world where temperatures and humidity combine to repeatedly create heat indexes of 40.6 °C, because beyond that temperature humans have a hard time surviving [PDF]. But even in more temperate locations, the growing number of hotter days will also make it tough for outdoor workers.

Embr Labs is building a bracelet that the company says can lower a person’s perceived temperature a few degrees simply by changing the temperature on their wrist. The bracelet doesn’t change actual body temperature, so it can’t help outdoor workers avoid risk on a sweltering day. But it could still be used to keep workers cooler on safe yet still uncomfortably warm days. It might also allow companies to raise their indoor temperatures, saving on air-conditioning costs.

Elsewhere, Epicore Biosystems is building wearable microfluidic sensors that monitor people for dehydration or high body temperatures. The Epicore sensors are already being used for athletes. But it’s not hard to imagine that in the near future there’d be a market for putting them on construction, farm, and warehouse workers who have to perform outside jobs in hot weather.

Extreme temperatures—and extreme fluctuations between temperatures—are also terrible for our existing road and rail infrastructure. Companies such as RailPod, as well as universities, are building AI-powered drones and robots that can monitor miles of roadway or track and send back data on repairs.

And then there’s flooding. Coastal roads and roads near rivers will need to withstand king tides, flash floods, and sustained floodwaters. Pavement engineers are working on porous concrete to mitigate flood damage and on embedded sensors to communicate a road’s status in real time to transportation officials.

There are so many uncertainties about our warming planet, but what isn’t in doubt is that climate change will damage our infrastructure and disrupt our patterns of work. Plenty of companies are focused on the admirable goal of preventing further warming, but we need to also pay attention to the companies that can help us adapt. A warmer planet is already here.

This article appears in the April 2020 print issue as “Tech for a Warming World.”

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