If environmental reports published this year were connected to an alarm system, the sound inside the United Nation’s Manhattan headquarters would be deafening—we are facing a five-alarm fire. Myriad reports warned us we must take immediate action to ensure a sustainable supply of clean food, water and air to a human population projected to rapidly grow to 10 billion, all while stemming a globally catastrophic loss of biodiversity and averting the worst economic impacts of a changing climate.
The news was devastating, but not unexpected. The specificity around the short window of time to act was, however. The world’s leading environmental scientists have spoken, and the message is clear: The best time to act was yesterday, so we better start today. The task is much bigger and time is way shorter than previously thought.
While the science says we very likely have no more than 420 gigatons of carbon left to spend, emissions steadily continue to rise every year. Just last year, over 42 gigatons was emitted. That gives us no more than 10 years before we must begin to operate as a carbon neutral planet. Unfortunately, discussions and commitments have yet to translate into measurable change.
And change we must. At stake is not only the health of our planet, but the incredible social and economic progress seen across the world for at least the past 150 years. It’s not surprising that many found themselves glumly nodding in agreement to Jonathan Franzen’s recent article in the New Yorker, titled “What If We Stopped Pretending?”
But fatalism never solved a problem. What does is a formula that has been repeated over centuries of human society—when faced with existential challenges, we have successfully and consistently tackled major societal problems through the simple summation of hard work, progressive governance and technological innovation.
This ideal is what we must embrace in the era of climate change. While people are mobilizing and governments are meeting, what is missing is the third leg of the stool. Investment in technology solutions aimed at environmental outcomes is sorely needed to accelerate the pace, scale and effectiveness of our response to climate change.
The epitome of the innovation we need is best understood as a “planetary computer.” A planetary computer will borrow from the approach of today’s internet search engines, and extend beyond them in the form of a geospatial decision engine that supports queries about the environmental status of the planet, programmed with algorithms to optimize its health. Think of this less as a giant computer in a stark white room and more of an approach to computing that is planetary in scale and allows us to query every aspect of environmental and nature-based solutions available in real time.
We currently lack the data, compute power and scalability to do so. Only when we have a massive amount of planetary data and compute at a similar scale can we begin to answer one of the most complex questions ever posed—how do we manage the earth’s natural resources equitably and sustainably to ensure a prosperous and climate-stable future?
The game-changing potential of this approach is clear, not only for fighting climate change but building a better future for us all. That is not just the hope of an environmental scientist with a background in computer science but borne out by research. A recent report by PwC United Kingdom found that applying AI in just a few areas could boost global GDP by 4.4 percent while lowering emissions by 4 percent. The Global Commission on Adaptation found that investment in adaptation measures would not only avoid human suffering and economic loss, it would bring benefits that outweigh the costs nearly four to one. The incredible benefits from these nature-based mitigation and adaptation solutions and AI-enabled transformations can only be realized with planetary data and computer power.
That will require us to quickly take the three accelerants of the information age—ubiquity of data, advances in algorithms, and access to scalable computing infrastructure—and begin, for the first time in many instances, to apply them to our natural world.
The gap in application and deployment becomes clear as we look at a few key nature-based solutions. Consider forests for carbon sequestration. We should be able to answer how many trees there are, where they are, and how fast they are appearing or disappearing. The same goes for species conservation, or healthy freshwater lakes or the rate of sea level rise in a granular sense of space and time. Right now, at best, we have very limited answers at a resolution that is far too broad geographically and for only a few points in time, and far less data for many other nature datasets.
The world desperately needs better answers. We cannot create a blueprint of action to give us the world and environmental services we want and need without it. With a planetary computer using planetary data, we can ask—and answer—questions such as, What services can or should we obtain from different places on the earth? en route to a day where we can describe what we want for our future and how to get there.
A planetary computer is an ambitious idea. It will require us to build a global network that connects billions, or trillions, of datapoints about our environment with the computing power and machine learning tools to process them into actionable insights that will empower decision makers in every corner of the globe to put sustainability first. And although parts of this plan may seem like science fiction, it could be a reality in the near future.
Construction of the critical components of this planetary computer is already underway. Programs such as Microsoft’s AI for Earth and work by organizations such as Vulcan and Conservation X Labs are headed in this direction. For example, AI for Earth grantee SilviaTerra is using big data to count the number of trees in the U.S., estimate their carbon sequestration potential, and invent new economic markets to reduce deforestation. iNaturalist has created the world’s largest network of citizen scientists, who have now collected over 25 million records of rare and common species around the world. NatureServe is building a tool for precision conservation—the Map of Biodiversity Importance (MoBI), which represents a huge breakthrough in advancing data-driven conservation for at-risk species, without causing undue disruption to local agriculture or development. And the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) is partnering with Microsoft to bring new data about the world’s oceans up from the seafloor and make it publicly accessible for the first time via Pangeo—all while training a new generation of diverse young data scientists in the process.
To be clear, technology is only part of the toolbox, not a silver bullet. Human behavior got us to the present day, and it will take a massive effort from people to get us out of the climate crisis. But given the enormousness of the challenge and the urgency with which we need to address it, shame on us if we’re not using the most powerful tools at our disposal.
As people and governments prepare to raise their ambitions yet again at the U.N. Climate Summit, it’s time to pair ambition and action with a commitment to technological innovation aimed at the environment. The private sector should accelerate its support and investment in these projects and solutions. The public sector should deliver the mechanisms to accelerate these interventions, especially on measures such as a robust price on carbon that reduces carbon emissions while raising capital for technology advances.
The challenge of addressing global climate change feels impossible because we have yet to put our best efforts, technologies and investments to work to fight it. If we do, the opportunities not only for survival but a chance at a sustainable, prosperous and just future for every person on the planet are immense. That promise to address the peril of climate change deserves our renewed optimism, our best ideas and deployment of our best technologies for good—not our resignation.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.