Every coin has two sides, and while climate change can be seen as a disaster for our planet, it can also be considered as an opportunity to improve the way we’ve been doing things and to dream. It is this optimistic mindset that the four panelists gathered for the AFTER TOMORROW event in San Francisco on May 10, 2018 have chosen to adopt. Their common point: fighting climate change, but at different stages of the timeline. Moderator Pete May, president an co-founder of the business-to-business media and events company GreenBiz Group, animates the conversation revolving around one main question: "What dreams do you have for the Earth after tomorrow?"
Imagining the future
Before we even really begin to witness the effects of global warming, some people have already imagined them: the science-fiction writers. A sub-genre, climate fiction or “cli-fi”, has even started to emerge in the past decade. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, set in a Manhattan inundated by sea-level rise, and The Carbon Diaries: 2015 by Saci Lloyd, in which the UK has imposed a carbon rationing in the wake of weather-related disasters, are two good examples of cli-fi novels.
Sylvie Denis, one of the four panelists, will soon be adding her contribution to this genre. Author of several novels and short stories which question new technologies and their impact on our society, she is considered by literary critics as the “Grande Dame of French science-fiction”. For her, « science-fiction is about observing the world we live in and trying to see in which direction things are going. »
These authors have a decisive role to play in shaping the future as their predictions can both warn us about the consequences of inaction, and help imagine solutions. Hence the importance of having them collaborate with scientists and engineers. One famous example of such collaboration is Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination, which serves as a network hub for audacious moonshot ideas and a cultural engine for thoughtful optimism.
Conceiving a sustainable project
Once a project has been imagined, it needs to be conceived. But an eco-friendly conception is no easy business as the whole life cycle of the project must be taken into account: planning, design, construction, maintenance, operation, occupancy, and end of life.
This is where Zoé Bezpalko, our second panelist or “eco-imagineer” as she likes to call herself, comes in. As sustainability strategy manager at Autodesk, her job is to build solutions for the design and manufacturing industries to achieve their sustainability goals. « Generative design is when you feed a computer your design goals and it creates an appropriate design. What I’m trying to achieve is generative sustainability. In other words, having computers help customers incorporate their environmental goals, like reducing energy or the use of certain materials, into their projects. »
Today, as more and more companies have to respect environmental requirements - either to meet governmental regulations, obtain a label, improve their image or be true to their convictions -, having the right design to support them is crucial.
Retrofitting a system
Studying life cycles was not yet a priority during the industrial revolution, which is why it brought us a lot of efficient, but also polluting, solutions. One of them, the car, has always been very popular in the US. In 2016, about 6.3 million cars were sold to American customers, and that same year, transport was the first source of greenhouse gas emissionsin the country. More sustainable solutions, like electric cars, exist, but they remain too expensive for the majority of people.
Having realized this, Marcus Luebke, a 12th grader at Redwood’s Design Tech high school, decided to build an alternative for drivers to allow them to be environmentally friendly without having to spend a lot of money. « I was inspired by an exhibit that presented hydrogen as the fuel of the future. It got me wondering why people weren’t using it more and how I could improve that. And that’s how the project was born. » At only 16 years old, Marcus developed an artificial intelligence to design an optimized hydrogen fuel production system based on the user priorities of cost, efficiency and rate. Plug this system into any gas-powered car, and it turns it into a hydrogen car which only emits water vapour.
Retrofitting, which refers to the addition of new technology or features to older systems, is also applied to other systems in the field of environmental engineering. Houses can be retrofitted by improving the insulation and changing the windows to reduce energy use, and by installing low-flow shower heads to reduce water use for instance. While power plants, which traditionally only produce electricity, can undergo retrofitting to produce both electricity and heat (cogeneration), which can be used for district heating or other industrial purposes.
Reversing the damage
The fact remains that 2015, 2016, and 2017 are the three hottest years on record since 1880. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a faster and more efficient way of curbing global warming than cutting emissions? Well, there is: geo-engineering, or the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change. So why aren’t we using it and why did a 2015 report by the American National Academies of Sciences (NAS) describe it as “irrational and irresponsible”? Because we don’t know what side-effects geo-engineering could have.
There is however a branch of this field called “soft geo-engineering” which may produce some interesting, less intrusive solutions for certain localised problems. Leslie Field, an electrical engineer PhD with 54 US patents to her name, has been in this sector for over a decade now. In 2006, she created Ice911 with the mission of saving the global heat shield that is the Arctic ice cap. Indeed, bright ice reflects 90% of the heat that comes its way, while bare ice reflects 50% of it, and open ocean only 6%. But since 1979, the Artic ice cap has lost 80% of its volume, thus contributing to about 30% of global temperature rise, and could have completely disappeared by 2030. To avoid this disaster, Ice911 has developed a floating reflective material from silica microspheres which mimics bright ice. By using it, more ice can be kept in the Artic in the summer, and the ice sheet can be restored to its previous size over time. Silica, the main constituent of 95% of rocks, has the advantage of being harmless to wildlife and low cost. « We have been testing our solution for a decade and working on climate modelling to understand how it will influence climate over time. We now need to obtain regulations to apply it for real, and I really want to stress the importance of always working with permits in this field to make sure our work is safe », emphasizes Leslie.
What makes these four individuals even more alike than they seem at first sight is that they strive in the spirit of “applied hope”. This concept was defined by Amory Lovins, chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute as « working to make the world better, not from some airy theoretical hope, but in the pragmatic and grounded conviction that starting with hope and acting out of hope can cultivate a different kind of world worth being hopeful about, reinforcing itself in a virtuous spiral. Applied hope is not about some vague, far-off future but is expressed and created moment by moment through our choices. » They are hopeful because they know they have the power to fight climate change, because they are seeing people from different countries and backgrounds come together to find solutions, because the new generation is aware of the situation, and because companies are really starting to understand the importance of sustainability.
Their hopes and dreams for 2100? Leslie imagines a fairer and more sustainable world in which the Artic ice will have been saved, thus ensuring a future for her children and grandchildren, and women all around the world will have access to education. Marcus believes artificial intelligence will have helped us solve global issues such as poverty, famine, strife, and will give people more flexibility to achieve their goals. Zoé simply dreams of a future where the world population will be able to live decently without over-consuming the Earth’s resources. As for Sylvie, observing the world has shown her that history has a way of going faster and slower than one would think, depending on the subject, and that we should expect many surprises for 2100. Maybe she will reveal a dream or two in her next book!
The video of the debate is available on After Tomorrow's platform.
AFTER TOMORROW, launched by the French Consulate in San Francisco, the Cultural and Scientific Services of the French Embassy in the United States, French Tech San Francisco, Institut Français and the French American Cultural Society, aims to confront the perspectives of artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, philosophers, sociologists, writers, to imagine what our world will look « after tomorrow », or by 2050.
ABOUT THE EVENT:
Pete May is President and Co-Founder of GreenBiz.com, a business-to-business media and events company that views climate change and other global environmental challenges as existential threats to business and society, as well as significant opportunities.
Sylvie Denis is considered by literary critics as the “Grande Dame of French science-fiction”, both thanks to her novels and short stories and to her contributions as a science-fiction essayist, critic, anthologist, editor and translator. Her works question new technologies and their impact on our societies.
Zoé Bezpalko is sustainability Strategy Manager at Autodesk, building solutions for the design and manufacturing industries to achieve their sustainability goals and have a positive impact on the planet. She defines herself as an “eco-imagineer”.
Leslie Field, Ph.D., has been working to save polar ice since 2006. An inventor with 54 US patents who has worked at HP Labs, Agilent Labs and Chevron Research, Leslie earned her B.S. and M.S. in chemical engineering from MIT and her MS and PhD in electrical engineering from UC Berkeley. Now she runs both Ice911 Research and SmallTech Consulting and lectures at Stanford.
Marcus Luebke is a 12th grader at Designtech high school (Redwood City), an innovative, free public charter school that strives to turn its students into world citizens by emphasizing hard and soft skills. In addition to efforts in community outreach and politics, Marcus has been working on projects related to the environment and the future since 6th grade, and has recently developed an Artificial Intelligence that designs optimal hydrogen fuel production systems (through water electrolysis), while considering complex and variable user priorities.
This event is presented by the French Consulate in San Francisco, the Cultural and Scientific Services of the French Embassy in the United States, French Tech San Francisco, Institut Français and the French American Cultural Society. It is organized as part of the French American Climate Talks (FACTS).