The following is part 1 of a two-part interview. Part 2 can be found here.
Last May I graduated from the Presidio Graduate School with an MBA in Sustainable Business. With bright eyes and a renewed sense of hope that our world’s climate problems could be addressed with better business practices, I set out to dedicate my life to mitigating the effects of climate change before it was too late for future generations.
Recently, however, at many forward thinking seminars and conferences like SOCAP, Meeting of the Minds, and even our own Sustainable Industries Economic Forum, I have noticed a subtle – but important – shift in many of the topics discussed. Instead of just focusing on climate mitigation, more and more discussions are based on climate resiliency – or simply put, dealing with the effects of the extreme weather events that have toasted our Midwest, torched our Rocky Mountains, and drowned our Eastern Seaboard in 2012 alone. After coming to terms with the fact that this is our new reality, I have joined these conversations to learn how we should proceed as a human race.
At SOCAP, I spoke with Ben Sandzer-Bell, a Chicago Environmental Hall of Fame Honoree and founder of CO2 Bambu, an organization that creates climate-resilient communities in Latin America and Haiti. Beyond supporting post-disaster reconstruction efforts, CO2 Bambu uses renewable bamboo resources to help communities prepare for future weather events. Their latest efforts focus on building amphibious homes that can float in the event of a severe flood.
While some of his answers in the following interview inspire me – and others scare me – one resounding theme becomes clear: whether we like it or not, the human race must learn to live with an unstable climate.
ZS: Please give me your definition of climate resiliency.
Sandzer-Bell: Climate resiliency refers to a community’s ability to survive with minimized damage the effects of natural disasters, such as flooding and hurricanes, which occur at increased frequency (and level of lethality) as a result of climate change. While no community can be 100-percent foolproof against all forms of natural disasters, communities can anticipate probable future threats and take steps to prepare against these. In Central America, where CO2 Bambu is located, resiliency to flooding is the first priority. Being able to avoid mass relocation post disasters, and being able to reduce the impact in terms of disrupted lives and physical property damage, goes a long way toward making communities climate resilient.
ZS: Why do you believe climate resiliency is the next big thing?
Sandzer-Bell: The statistics that quantify the impact of climate-related disasters are inescapable: for the past 20 years, we have been experiencing a significant acceleration in frequency and scopes of disasters. The frequency of so called '100-year' or '500-year' events, previously considered so rare that they would only occur at these intervals at any one location, are no longer applicable as we are experiencing 100-year events on an annual basis in Asia Pacific and Latin America. That means that there is demand for a solution. That does not yet mean demand that is funded for pre-disaster risk reduction, but certainly there is and will continue to be demand for post-disaster reconstruction. The current paradigm of waiting for natural disasters to occur, then cobbling funding from international donors to help populations of eco-refugees relocate to new safer surroundings, simply does not work. There is plenty of evidence that populations in at-risk regions inevitably return to their ancestral homes. As the reality of increased disasters becomes increasingly recognized, there will be increasing demand for real-life solutions, not just debates about whether climate change exists. Just as climate mitigation thinking led to the creation of a multi-billion dollar clean-tech industry, so too the emerging climate adaptation or climate resiliency thinking will lead to the creation of a multi-billion dollar adapt-tech industry.
ZS: Who will be affected the most by shifts in climate? Who will be affected the least?
Sandzer-Bell: Everyone is affected. It is a fallacy to think that any population on earth can carve out a bubble and comfortably assume they are not affected. Whether or not commentators connect the dots, which is a function of journalistic and editorial priorities, one can denote a higher sense of feeling affected. For instance, whereas European audiences readily grasp the connection between extreme weather and climate change, US audiences have been caught in a highly politicized debate about climate change. As a result, supposedly neutral reporters, such as weather reporters are frequently heard commenting about devastating disasters (floods, drought, fire) and rarely make the connection with climate change, which would significantly help shape the debate in the US population.
Depending on the regions, shifts in climate can result in a range of events, from more flooding, more hurricanes, more draught, more fires, more cold etc. It is not only the higher extremes but also the modifications of the historical calendar that affects populations, making it difficult for farmers to plant, with some confidence that their crops won’t be lost.
There are multiple levels of impact from shifts in climate. ... We can imagine that the population at risk might be, for instance, the 600 million people whose communities are predicted to be impacted as a result of rising waters. But beyond these immediately affected populations, climate change has macro impact as it disturbs, for instance, the food supply. As flooding or drought decimates crops in particular regions, the impact on pricing is immediate, and those at the base of the pyramid, for whom any increase in food prices is instantly felt, are indirectly impacted.
Who is affected the least? Higher-income communities tend to have more funding available to absorb rise in commodity prices, whose material holdings, such as homes, are typically insured (not the case for base of the pyramid housing) and who generally have the financial means to adjust their lifestyles in reaction to climate change related impacts.
ZS: How are citizens in developing countries currently dealing with issues of climate change?
Sandzer-Bell: Developing countries have different coping mechanism for different problems. Generally speaking, they are most vulnerable to disruption in terms of material loss and increase in the cost of daily subsistence. Rising temperatures have an additional burden for developing countries where rural farming employs a higher percentage of the population. Rising temperatures impact not only the crop cycles, but also lead to loss of productivity.
ZS: How might they deal with these issues in the future? What resources are available to help them become more resilient?
Sandzer-Bell: While the West or North has focused significant efforts over the past two decades to try to mitigate climate change by investing heavily in alternative energy solutions that are expected to slow down the rush toward future global warming catastrophic thresholds, the developing world is feeling the brunt of extreme weather now.
While the topic of climate change has been extraordinarily politicized in the United States, the rest of the world is mostly aligned on the recognition that extreme weather is not a matter of a future threat, but rather is quite literally here and now. For this reason, we are starting to see the emergence of organizations, governments, institutions, and private sector actors who allocate resources to develop practical solutions to adapt to our new climate reality as best we can.
The challenge for both the developed and developing world is to start allocating resources toward climate adaptation solutions. Global institutions such as the United Nations are very much aware of this and are starting to focus on the quantification of the impact on poverty alleviation of climate change. This quantification exercise will help move the debate from abstract discussions about politically volatile themes to quantified problems. When faced with the cost of inaction (in terms of human toll and financial damage), lower-cost alternatives to become resilient to natural disasters will become more attractive to governments, NGOs, global institutions, and private sector actors, etc.
Stay tuned for part 2 of the interview, where Sandzer-Bell talks about the future of CO2 Bambu and entrepreneurial opportunities in the climate adaptation space.