Urgency and Optimism at Skoll-hosted TED Climate Breakfast

The Jeff Skoll Group had the honor of hosting a breakfast event at the recent TED2016 conference in Vancouver, featuring two leaders in the fight against climate change—Christiana Figueres, the head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and former US Vice President Al Gore, now chairman of the Climate Reality Project.

Both climate leaders gave main-stage talks at TED. The breakfast, attended by some 90 TED participants was a chance for a more informal exchange.

Christiana Figueres kicked things off with a combination of optimism and urgency. Last year’s Paris climate deal is hugely important, she stressed; it’s the first time that the world has signed on to a common climate goal. We’re finally all rowing in the same direction.

However this is a first, not a final, step. The targets aren’t ambitious enough to get us where we need to be. But the agreement includes provisions to review and ratchet up those targets. The next five years are key, with intermediate steps to strengthen the Paris commitments expected as soon at 2018.

Al Gore followed with a similar mix of urgency and optimism. His arguments are as compelling as ever, supported by a range of data showing the increasingly negative impacts of climate change. But we now have solutions that we didn’t have before. Renewable energy use is growing significantly, in the US, China, and around the world. Continued improvements in technology and falling prices for wind, solar, and battery storage are strong positive signs.

Conversely, fossil fuel exploitation is creating a new pain point beyond carbon pollution: the financial markets. Investors increasingly recognize the risks of significant stranded oil and coal assets, because we can’t burn known reserves and still have a livable planet. Echoing Christiana Figueres, Al Gore reiterated the need to push forward aggressively: we recognize the problem, we have the answers, but whether we have the will to act is still an open question.

The diversity in the room illustrated the value of—and need for—multiple levels of engagement to advance climate action. One participant urged TED, with its unique blend of participants, to consider a dedicated TED Climate track over this next critical five-year period.

The Jeff Skoll Group presence at the breakfast reflected our commitment to this type of multilevel engagement. In attendance were representatives from the Skoll Foundation; Capricorn Investment Group, one of the world’s largest clean tech investors; Participant Media, producer of An Inconvenient Truth; and my group, the Skoll Global Threats Fund, which focuses on building public and political will for climate action.

We too work at multiple levels, all rowing in the same direction. We couldn’t agree more with both the urgency and the optimism expressed by Al Gore and Christiana Figueres. We’re also excited that Al Gore will speak at the upcoming Skoll World Forum. His talk will be live streamed, and we hope you can watch.

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Angry Birds Get Angry for Climate

We provided some support for a climate change-focused Angry Birds Friends tournament, which kicked off today. We hope to be able to get good insights from the game about what kinds of climate messages seem to engage players the most. Plus, it’s fun! So we hope you’ll play. The Angry Birds folks were able to enlist a lot of global celebrities in creating the game. Watch the launch video below.

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Innocentive Challenge on Water and Climate Shocks

We live in an increasingly interconnected, interdependent, and complex world where the rapid exchange of goods, information, and ideas has brought opportunities and prosperity to many. Yet this increased interconnectivity has also given rise to a heightened vulnerability to systemic risks.

Skoll Global Threats Fund is partnering with Innocentive in a challenge to identify early indications of when a water or climatic event in one location, such as a flood, drought, or heatwave, may trigger direct and indirect impacts elsewhere in the world (for example: large scale migration, food insecurity, social unrest, infectious disease). This challenge:  “What are the ways in which we can identify early indications and/or patterns of complex events that can have triggering effects elsewhere in the world?” This project aims to contribute to an emerging field of big data and forecasting, and the proposed methodology would ideally allow for near-real time monitoring and a method for triggering alerts when early indications are identified.

We encourage you to look at the challenge and share widely within your networks.

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Skoll Joins White House-Led Public-Private Partnership on Climate Resilience

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The Skoll Global Threats Fund is a founding partner of the Climate Services for Resilient Development initiative, a public-private partnership launched by the White House today to provide climate services – including actionable science, data, information, tools, and training – to developing countries to strengthen their resilience to climate impacts. The other founding partners, in addition to the U.S. government, are the American Red Cross, Asian Development Bank, Esri, Google, Inter-American Development Bank, and the U.K. Government.  Our President, Annie Maxwell, participated on a panel of the founding partners at the launch event held at the United States Institute for Peace. You can read more about the partnership on the White House website here.

Jeff Skoll on Philanthropy on 60 Minutes

Jeff Skoll is featured in a November 17 CBS 60 Minutes segment on philanthropy, which focuses on the Giving Pledge. Watch it below.

Big Data and Resilience

Our Climate Director, Amy Luers, is a Bellagio PopTech Fellow this year. She participated in the PopTech conference last week, and has been working with the other Bellgio PopTech Fellows (photo below, Amy’s 2nd from left) on the question of how big data can be used effectively – and ethically – to promote community resilience. They’ve published a white paper, “Big Data, Communities and Ethical Resilience: A Framework for Action,” that you can download here.  You can read a PopTech blog about the paper here.

 

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(Appropriate) Big Data for Climate Resilience?

This was originally published by our Climate Change Director, Amy Luers, in the Stanford Social Innovation Review here.

Big data—the massive data sets that we collect and analyze to help understand complex systems, and that we mine to reveal trends in new ways and at a scale and speed often impossible even a decade ago—is all the rage. It has transformed how we conduct science, business, public health, and humanitarian efforts.

So can big data help local communities, cities, and nations cope with the disruptions and inevitable surprises from climate change? This is the question I explored while participating in the Bellagio/Poptech Fellows retreat sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. Big data has transformed scientists’ ability to understand the climate system and develop plausible scenarios of the future. However, while those roles are important, ultimately society’s ability to cope with climate change will depend less on the accuracy of these projections and more on the level of “resilience derived from bottom-up community efforts.

The answer to whether big data can help communities build resilience to climate change is yes—there are huge opportunities, but there are also risks.
Opportunities

Feedback: Strong negative feedback is core to resilience. A simple example is our body’s response to heat stress—sweating, which is a natural feedback to cool down our body. In social systems, feedbacks are also critical for maintaining functions under stress. For example, communication by affected communities after a hurricane provides feedback for how and where organizations and individuals can provide help. While this kind of feedback used to rely completely on traditional communication channels, now crowdsourcing and data mining projects, such as Ushahidi and Twitter Earthquake detector, enable faster and more-targeted relief.

Diversity: Big data is enhancing diversity in a number of ways. Consider public health systems. Health officials are increasingly relying on digital detection methods, such as Google Flu Trends or Flu Near You, to augment and diversify traditional disease surveillance.

Self-Organization: A central characteristic of resilient communities is the ability to self-organize. This characteristic must exist within a community (see the National Research Council Resilience Report), not something you can impose on it. However, social media and related data-mining tools (InfoAmazonia, Healthmap) can enhance situational awareness and facilitate collective action by helping people identify others with common interests, communicate with them, and coordinate efforts.

Risks

Eroding trust: Trust is well established as a core feature of community resilience. Yet the NSA PRISM escapade made it clear that big data projects are raising privacy concerns and possibly eroding trust. And it is not just an issue in government. For example, Target analyzes shopping patterns and can fairly accurately guess if someone in your family is pregnant (which is awkward if they know your daughter is pregnant before you do). When our trust in government, business, and communities weakens, it can decrease a society’s resilience to climate stress.

Mistaking correlation for causation: Data mining seeks meaning in patterns that are completely independent of theory (suggesting to some that theory is dead). This approach can lead to erroneous conclusions when correlation is mistakenly taken for causation. For example, one study demonstrated that data mining techniques could show a strong (however spurious) correlation between the changes in the S&P 500 stock index and butter production in Bangladesh. While interesting, a decision support system based on this correlation would likely prove misleading.

Failing to see the big picture: One of the biggest challenges with big data mining for building climate resilience is its overemphasis on the hyper-local and hyper-now. While this hyper-local, hyper-now information may be critical for business decisions, without a broader understanding of the longer-term and more-systemic dynamism of social and biophysical systems, big data provides no ability to understand future trends or anticipate vulnerabilities. We must not let our obsession with the here and now divert us from slower-changing variables such as declining groundwater, loss of biodiversity, and melting ice caps—all of which may silently define our future. A related challenge is the fact that big data mining tends to overlook the most vulnerable populations. We must not let the lure of the big data microscope on the “well-to-do” populations of the world make us blind to the less well of populations within cities and communities that have more limited access to smart phones and the Internet.

Trade Offs

The big data revolution is upon us. How this will contribute to the resilience of human and natural systems remains to be seen. Ultimately, it will depend on what trade-offs we are willing to make. For example, are we willing to compromise some individual privacy for increased community resilience, or the ecological systems on which they depend?—If so, how much, and under what circumstances?
From Appropriate Technology to Appropriate Big Data

The opportunities and risks around big data for climate resilience reminds me of the dormant “Appropriate Technology Movement,” brought to prominence with Schumacher’s influential book Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. In the face of rapid technological growth, the appropriate technology movement promoted small-scale, decentralized, locally controlled and people centered technologies. Is it time for an “appropriate big data movement”—one that considers the needs of communities, captures the broader context in which they exist, and pushes society to confront the trade-offs in the decisions (or non-decisions) we are making?

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Larry Brilliant Talks Global Threats at the Pentagon

Our Larry Brilliant spoke at the Pentagon last week on global threats, outlining the interconnections between multiple threats and the need for a systems perspective in considering solutions.  You can watch it here.

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Rethinking U.S. Climate Advocacy

Amy Luers, who leads our climate change work, has just published a piece in the journal Climatic Change about rethinking U.S. climate advocacy. Here’s the abstract:

The US climate movement has failed to create the political support needed to pass significant climate policy. It is time to reassess climate advocacy. To develop a strategy for philanthropy to strengthen climate engagement, I interviewed over 40 climate advocates,more than a dozen representatives from the foundation community, and a dozen academics. My assessment led me to conclude that climate advocates have focused too narrowly on specific policy goals and insufficiently on influencing the larger political landscape. I suggest four ways to improve climate advocacy: 1) Increase focus on medium and longer-term goals; 2) Start with people and not carbon; 3) Focus more on values and less on science; and 4) Evaluate what works and share what we learn. To accomplish these strategies, social scientists and advocates must work together to build a culture of learning. Meanwhile, philanthropy must empower experimentation and incentivize knowledge sharing.

You can download the PDF of the full article here.

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