The next great innovation burst is upon us

Except this time, it is a now-or-never leap. Innovation we cannot do without.

Have you noticed the tectonic mindshift? As July became August, starting with the first part of the New York Times Losing Earth series published August 1, we’ve been treated to a string of stories in the mainstream global media that share one overwhelming punch line: the world has lost the war against climate change.

That, in fact, is the message of this week’s The Economist cover story. The headline actually reads “is losing” instead of “has lost.” But did you read the article? It might as well have said “has lost,” since there is zero chance now of keeping below the 2ºC higher-temperature threshold beyond which extreme weather grows exponentially and irreversibly.

By some measures, the inflection has already begun, and global temperatures have still only risen 1ºC above the historical average.

So the press stories have poured in. Here’s Scientific American on coastal cities’ growing acceptance of massive retreat, as sea levels threaten entire neighborhoods and critical infrastructure. A Newsweek headline says Mother Nature has gone mad, and the story runs down the fantastically global and brutal nature of 2018’s climate explosion.

For their part, The Guardian and Al Jazeera quote leading experts saying this is, indeed, the new normal and will only worsen from here. The Guardian, in another story, suggests we now call it the hothouse effect instead of the greenhouse effect, given how high temperatures will go.

The coverage goes on. And on. Just since August’s dawn. It’s not that the science has changed or that we haven’t known for some years this was coming.

What is new is the widely shared view in the mainstream media, which signals that the realization is finally becoming…accepted. The consensus has evolved from purely scientific to broadly cultural. And that will make all the difference.

To what, you might be understandably tempted to ask? If we can no longer prevent climate change, what difference can we make?

A chance to make history

To be sure, every conceivable effort to reduce carbon must continue unabated. It might make the difference between a livable 4ºC future, at least for some — the most likely current projection for century’s end — and a truly unthinkable world beyond that. And besides, even when placed lower on the priority list, sustainable practices still come with great daily benefits, so by all means stay on course.

But the far bigger difference we can make today, the new priority #1, is climate adaptation, or the countless things we can do at every level of life, business and policy, to make our homes, communities, cities, countries and companies as resilient as possible to nature’s worsening wrath.

Not just to today’s really bad wrath, mind you, but adaptation against the climate change of 2050 and beyond, which will make today’s variety pale by comparison.

Today’s highest imperative is for each of us and all of us to wrap our arms around those near-term scenarios, for they are indeed so near, and prepare as best we can starting now, knowing how long the usual idea-to-investment-to-execution cycle takes, along with the community education and public awareness process of mobilizing people into serious action. Wait a few more years, and it truly will be too late.

On this, for hope to remain alive and well, all eyes must be placed on the world’s adaptation innovators. This is the brave new front.

One of history’s great innovation leaps beckons. Unlike all that came before, though, this time it is a now-or-never leap.

So far, most action has happened on renewable energy, the latest being the looming perovskite revolution, which perhaps more than anything else will allow properties to get off the climate-vulnerable grid sooner rather than later.

But that is one among many. A similar or bigger wave of innovation must now take place, simultaneously, across multiple other fronts. To name a few:

  • Water & droughts. The precious liquid will surely grab far more headlines in the coming years, and one powerful solution will likely be desalination plants and methods to turn our vast oceans into drinkable, potable water. Progress has been short. It needs to skyrocket.
  • Food. Even with all the innovation going on, there is no climate scenario where enough conventional land or outdoor agriculture survives to feed the world’s population. None. The one best way to go is protected farming in massive indoor spaces, where the action has barely just begun.
  • Heat & wildfires. Ask your favorite urban-heat expert today how to battle this spreading scourge, and you’re likely to get these great answers, focused on buildings and urbanism. To counter the wildfires that stem from dryness and heat, no such answers yet exist. And even these urban heat solutions will prove insufficient to battle the heat waves coming. Needed, and not yet happening, is a new generation of products that allow us, our vehicles, our properties, even our clothes, to breathe and live as close to normal as possible.
  • Plagues. Remember that history class, when you learned of the epic plagues that wiped out entire city populations? Well, welcome to the near future — if, that is, we don’t innovate solutions today. This is a little-mentioned dimension of climate change that might become one of the most mentioned consequences.
  • Migration. Think there’s an immigration crisis today? Allow me to introduce you to tomorrow’s version. The UN predicts 200 million climate migrants by 2050, and that’s the low end! Could be as many as one billion people fleeing all of the above (heat, fires, plagues, food and water scarcity) plus floods, coastal storms and sea level rise, climate-related wars, and more. Where will they go? How will they live? How will cities replace/relocate infrastructure and services? The innovation here is more policy, political and diplomatic, than product or brand. But it is innovation nonetheless. And it better happen FAST.
  • Jobs and skills. This is where the artificial-intelligence transition and the growing divide between digital haves and have nots, intersect with the economic dislocation, if not global-economy collapse, anticipated by any realistic 2050 climate scenario that does not include these innovations. Exactly how will most people make a living? This requires a fairly massive rethinking of development, which would be the seminal contribution here, one that has yet to begin. The time to start, it seems, is right about NOW.

So, if you’re really wondering what difference you and we can make in a world ravaged by climate change, start here. Start or join one or some of these conversations. Become a 2050 Adaptation innovator.

If you’re in a company or NGO that can innovate, become an internal change agent and entrepreneur, or spin off a life-saving brand of your own. If you’re an adaptation professional in a city or government, find ways to innovate further, to evolve from green city to adapted city. Get into the long game, even as you continue scoring immediate wins. But no matter where you find yourself, help make your circle and your world future resilient.

The consensus is upon us. Unavoidable catastrophic climate change is now the accepted norm. The illusion that we can escape this fate and fall short of 2ºC is over. We rarely get to live, and fewer times capitalize on, true turning points. Inflection moments.

We are now living in one. Seize it.

Pioneering Deep Climate Adaptability as a business value driver and Adaptation Ambition for faster mainstreaming. Because societies adapt only if companies do.

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