Anyone asked to identify the two biggest forces for change in the world today could do worse than choose artificial intelligence and climate change. Both are products of technology whose effects are only beginning to be felt, and the ultimate consequences of both will almost certainly be transformative in every sense of the word. Other than that, there hasn’t been much tying them together. Until now.
Welcome to Climate City, a label that a group of current and former data analysts and entrepreneurs has applied to Asheville, N.C. It might seem an unlikely spot for revolutionary thinking on such matters. We are, after all, nestled in Appalachia’s Blue Ridge Mountains in a state that seems hell-bent on taking the prize for most backward in the nation.
But Asheville is home to the National Centers for Environmental Information, the primary clearing house and analysis lab for the country’s — and increasingly much of the rest of the planet’s — climate data. It’s part of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and until a couple of years ago had the less obfuscatory name of National Climatic Data Center. (Although the name was changed a couple of years ago, before Trump took office, I’m guessing NOAA brass realized that a less inviting target made sense given the science-denying, research-defunding druthers of the party that was and still is ostensiby running Congress.) A few hundred climate scientists work at the NCEI and a handful of other local university and government agencies that are still allowed to care about the climate.
So, to one familiar with the scientific culture of Asheville, it only makes sense that it would be the right coop to hatch the idea of marrying AI and climatology. And hatched it has been, by James McMahon, who for the last year has been the CEO of a unlikely non-profit called The Collider. The year-old organization offers physical space and social networking links to anyone who wants to be part of what is known as the embryonic “climate services” community. Friday morning meet-and-greets over coffee and pastries supplied by local bakeries are becoming a popular networking opportunity. This past week it played host to the annual meeting of the American Association of State Climatologists. (Who knew?)
A proper definition of “climate services” is still a work in progress, but basically it refers to the provision of scientific advice and number-crunching for the benefit of private and public entities that need to worry about the effects of a changing climate. Think the city of Miami Beach, which is facing serious threats from sea-level rise. Think of any large corporation with physical assets. Think most of all about insurance companies. They all need people to tell them what to expect and when to expect it. What we have here is an emerging industry that, instead of just figuring how to forestall climate change, is using its expertise to profit from it.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even climate scientists are entitled for make a buck.
McMahon, a former atmospheric chemist who worked on ozone depletion back in the day, has spent the last year watching, and helping, some of the smartest people navigate the high-tech consultancy start-up maze. More than a couple of senior scientists at NCEI have taken early retirement to pursue this path, and he’s decided to follow suit, after only a year as Collider chief.
His new company will draw on Silicon Valley brainpower and target Wall Street money in an effort to apply artificially intelligent systems to the problems posed by climate change. “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and just waiting for the market to be ready,” he told the Collider gang on his last day at the office. “It’s not, but I am.”
Kudos. I’m no expert in the subject, and have no idea if the plan merits investment. But anticipating what to expect and when to expect it is exactly what AI is all about. And humans haven’t exactly been doing all that great when it comes to solving the climate crisis. Maybe AI will be our salvation? “It will if I have anything to do about it,” McMahon told me while enjoying a slice of the cake served in his honor.
One could argue that humans have already come up with perfectly good solutions. The price of solar and wind power continues to plummet. Economic growth has mostly been decoupled from carbon emissions. And check out those Teslas. Isn’t the real obstacle political and corporate inertia? Yes. But maybe AI could help there, too. Indeed, maybe one of the hallmarks of genuine AI is how well it can be applied to socio-economic challenges.