Learning to adapt
The following is the second part of a two-part interview. You can read part 1 here.
Zach Sharpe: Why did CO2 Bambu decide to focus its efforts where it did? What are your future plans?
Ben Sandzer-Bell: CO2 Bambu has been selected by customers to build post-disaster reconstruction housing for the Base of the Pyramid (BOP), in Central America. Our particular contribution is to provide low carbon footprint homes, which are built primarily of bamboo. It has become patently clear that natural disasters are occurring at a clip whereby each year new disasters are experienced and each of these requires multiple years to recover. Therefore … waiting for disasters to strike, then aggregating global financial support to rebuilt destroyed communities, is a paradigm that no longer works (if it ever did). Central America has experienced a high level of flooding, and can expect only more flooding in the future. For this reason, we felt we needed to adjust the paradigm and seek to offer solutions that would contribute to resilience, i.e. pre-disaster risk reduction and resilience.
We can achieve this by deploying amphibious housing – housing that stays on the ground most of the time, but is built such that the house can lift with the rising water level in times of flooding, then come back down to the ground as the water recedes. This is a conceptual breakthrough for BOP communities that live in vulnerable areas. We are just at the beginning of the design-to-cost process, taking existing and proven amphibious technology from Europe and the US, and driving down the cost, thanks to the use of light-weight bamboo, to arrive at affordable, flood resilient housing.
Our plans are to execute a pilot phase for low-cost amphibious housing in Nicaragua, in an area that is flooded annually, with disastrous effects on the community that lives there, and to demonstrate that at-risk communities can stay put in their ancestral lands. The generally applied solution of relocating entire communities simply does not work. Once we have developed and demonstrated a technically viable solution at a BOP housing price point, we will seek to replicate this experience in other countries, through strategic alliances in selected countries.
ZS: Clearly, developing nations are facing large challenges in terms of climate resiliency. What challenges do developed nations face in becoming climate resilient?
Sandzer-Bell: At the risk of being offensive or provocative to some of your readers, the biggest challenge facing developed nations is apathy in the face of mounting evidence of epochal catastrophe. There is no doubt that developed countries have the intellectual, social and financial capital available to dramatically tackle this global problem. The situation is quite different in the US and Europe/Canada/Australia/Japan. In the U.S. climate deniability has taken hold as a political platform. So long as discussing climate change, climate reality, climate mitigation or climate adaptation remains a dirty word, it is unlikely that the U.S. will rise to the challenge of dealing with climate resiliency. Be it massive and historical drought in the Midwest of the US, flooding on the east coast or wild fires on the West Coast, a large segment of the US population is perfectly content to watch sequential extreme weather events destroy their communities and yet never connect the dots. As long as the US society at large and its political class are not willing to a) recognize the source of the problem and b) start discussing societal trade-offs, then it is unlikely that the resulting impact will be avoided. Likewise, resiliency will require massive and coordinated efforts to gradually minimize exposure to disruption and destruction.
The challenge in Europe is quite different. There, awareness or acknowledgement of climate change is significantly higher than in the U.S. The problem, however, lies in the economic sector. The Euro is faltering, and nearly all European governments face harsh budgetary challenges. In an era of austerity, it is not likely that governmental budgets will be allocated to preventive programs to make societies more resilient. There are of course exceptions, such as the Netherlands, which has a longer experience than most in “living with the sea” and which is tackling rising water with sustained fervor.
ZS: New situations mean new opportunities. What entrepreneurial opportunities are there in the climate resiliency space?
Sandzer-Bell: As many as there were in the climate mitigation space. climate mitigation led to a multi-billion dollar clean-tech industry (wind energy, solar, biomass, low emission cars, low-emission consumer products, etc). This has come from gradual consumer recognition that, all things being equal, tilting toward a climate mitigation solution was overall beneficial. The same thing will happen with adapt-tech. All things being equal, if a solution is more likely to provide resiliency, it will become increasingly attractive to consumers.
It is too early to narrow down the market segments and specific opportunities, but already we can articulate broad areas that are likely to develop over time. But it is already clear that there will be solutions relative to housing, to infrastructure, to access to potable water, to drought resistance for seeds and other foodstuff, to just name a few.
ZS: Do you think there will be a climate resiliency entrepreneurial revolution?
Sandzer-Bell: Without a doubt! Even in the face of stubborn denial, at the end of the day, markets will drive solutions and markets are driven by demand. Climate-related societal disruption will increasingly be measured and quantified, and over time, “lower price tag” solutions will start to be considered, as decision makers can no longer avoid climate reality.
ZS: What will it look like?
Sandzer-Bell: If I had a magic wand, I would design a climate resiliency entrepreneurial revolution around a “whole of society” model. This will not be a situation where business actors proceed in a vacuum. The launch of the industry will come from a convergence of:
- Financial capital by impact investors who come to recognize that the space of climate resiliency merits [being] tackled and who will search for future breakthrough entrepreneurs;
- Entrepreneurs who will react to the emergence of dedicated funds;
- Academia [that] will shift from debating whether climate change is real and will start to focus on resilience as a distinct field of interest, encompassing all fields – from engineering to economics to anthropology;
- Governments and international institutions will allocate increasing portions of their budgets to achieve demonstrable resiliency success on the ground;
- Local regulatory authorities will broaden their traditional approaches to incorporate resiliency mindsets. To illustrate, where building codes and guidance from such entities as FEMA in the U.S. seek to prevent the construction of flood-resilient solutions, such as amphibious housing, they will in due time recognize the folly of current limitations, which do not allow for experimentation in flood prone areas, to eventually develop resilient communities.