Climate Change Report: Yep, It's Real, Dire and Needs Cleantech Startups


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Nobel Prize-winning group of scientists that mainstreamed the idea that carbon emissions were the main cause of climate change, on Saturday released a summary of their findings aimed at policymakers (pdf). It’s being called a “grim report,” with “more explicit” information — and an increased sense of alarm. In reality, not a whole lot is new in the report and not a whole lot is going to happen as a direct result of it.

Experts we spoke to this week expect that the U.S. and China will continue playing economic and ecological chicken, and that’s too bad, because the IPCC scenarios –- as grim as they may be — are probably underestimating the severity of the situation. That means it’s time to start funding companies that focus on our ability to adapt to, not just mitigate, what looks increasingly like inevitable climate change.

Inez Fung, co-director of the Berkeley Institute for the Environment, pointed to a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as evidence that the model used by the IPCC scientists, known as A1B, is already broken. Emissions are accelerating faster than predicted, and that acceleration looks likely to continue.

The report outlines what we already know — China’s getting much of the blame for that acceleration, as well it should. They’ve built the equivalent of the entire coal industry of the United States –- the No. 2 coal economy in the world — within the past decade. It was very quick, and also very dirty.

But the U.S. has to lead on this issue, and it’s going to need key allies emerging from Silicon Valley (thanks, Al) whose combined political weight rivals that of the entrenched energy interests. As Craig reported this week, they will have a major fight on their hands as cuts in the energy bill look likely.

For cleantech companies, this is no purely ideological battle. Changes in U.S. policy at the global level would mean a transformation of the cleantech industry. Even a moderate policy shift away from protecting oil and coal interests towards promoting clean tech would be a major breach in the armor for energy companies. Without Big Government protecting Big Oil, the Lilliputian startup armies would stand a better chance at forcing the hand of the energy companies to invest more in cleantech too, or become obsolete. It happened with big media.

With or without a major shift in U.S. policy, which is unlikely to happen before January 2009, when a new president takes office (bringing $10 billion in funding), a new breed of environmental company is likely to emerge over the next few years that will focus on adaptation measures, not mitigation.

My colleague at, Brandon Keim, has been following some of these companies: algae bloomers, for example, and cloud seeders here and in China.

The problem is that once we get going with geo-engineering, we’ll never be able to stop. For old-school environmentalists, that’s a nightmare. But for greentech entrepreneurs, that’s recurring revenue.

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