The Winners of Climate Change — Techno-fixes

The information for the article below comes from Windfall — The Booming Business of Global Warming, from author McKenzie Funk. Focused on the crucial fact that global warming, along with the humans it affects and who are affecting it, is global, this book means to provide an answer to the increasingly urgent question “What are we doing about climate change?”*


Techno-fixes represent the ideal that innovation and market forces can save us from climate change. They are more proof that technological defenses against climate change are generally going first to people who can afford them, those who are emitting the most carbon, who are taking care of themselves before turning to the developing world.

Snowmaking

Over the last century, Europe’s Alps have lost half their ice, one-fifth of it since the 1980s. The Pitztal, in the Austrian state of Tyrol, is the highest of the five Austrian resorts used for fall and spring skiing. One measure of the Pitztal Glacier’s decline is that one of the ski lifts built atop it has had to be moved three times in twenty-five years, another is the giant, insulated blanket the resort cloaks over the glacier every summer, hoping to slow the melt. Some 80 million tourists come to the Alps each ski season. Some 1.2 million Tyroleans, including nearly everyone in the Pitztal, depend on glacier skiing for their livelihoods.

Across Europe, across the world, an economy is imperiled. In early 2007, slopes were bare the week before the famed Hahnenkamm World Cup race in Pitztal’s neighboring Kitzbühel, and helicopters had to fly in 160,000 cubic feet of snow at a cost of more than $400,000. The next winter, dome-encased indoor ski areas, including the seven-hundred-vertical-foot SnowWorld Landgraaf in the low-lying Netherlands, were officially added to the European race circuit.

In 2009 Pitztal produced its latest salvo in the war against melt: it deployed a snowmaker, one of the world’s first models of the IDE All Weather Snowmaker, a $2 million device capable of shooting out thirty-five thousand cubic feet of snow in twenty-four hours at any temperature on any day of the year. “The economic impact of global warming is beginning to show,” the snowmaker’s press release read. “IDE’s All Weather Snowmaker brings under your control what previously could not be controlled!” It came from Israel, the “start-up nation”, a country which has historically challenged its harsh environment relying on Enlightenment ideals: faith in reason, faith in capitalism, faith that any problem has a rational solution if man is rational enough to find it.

Snowmaking has become a billion-dollar global industry. Cannons now spray man-made snow on nearly half of Austria’s ski terrain, sucking up roughly 500,000 gallons of water per acre of artificial snow. Across the Alps, snowmakers use more water than does Vienna, a city of 1.7 million people—as much water per acre, it turns out, as a typical field of wheat.

Water scarcity

“If there’s a market for anything, it’s water. In 2020, about one-third of the world’s population will have no access to secured freshwater. The average water consumption globally is between fifty to a hundred liters a day. So now multiply that by 2.5 billion people! That’s all you need. If you ask, what’s a market potential, that’s a market potential!”
Dr. Etan Bar, environmental-engineering professor at Ben-Gurion University

For the desalination industry, melting glaciers are particularly auspicious: what comes after melt is drought. Glaciers and snowfields are water reservoirs, trapping water from precipitation uphill in winter and releasing it in summer, just when it is most needed. In the glaciers, disappearing ice is disappearing water storage.

Diminishing glaciers and winter snowfall are already affecting people from all over the globe:

Where Consequence
Tropical Andes Seventy-seven million people have their water supplies declining due to shrinking glaciers, along with the hydropower providing half the electricity in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru.
Asia Two billion people in five major river basins—the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, and Yellow—depend on Himalayan meltwater. The range’s glaciers, which irrigate millions of acres of rice and wheat in China, India, and Pakistan, lose an estimated four to twelve gigatons of ice a year.
Spain The Pyrenees have lost nearly 90 percent of their glacial cover over the last century ago. The country is becoming so dry so quickly that some warn of “Africanization”—of the Sahara jumping across the Strait of Gibraltar.
Southern California, United States 40 percent of the water supply is on track to disappear by 2020 due to melt in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada.

Wherever rising heat and melt has induced drought, people are trying brand-new ways to cope with the situation:

Where Action
Peru A scientist won a World Bank award for his proposal to paint the Andes white and repel the sun’s lethal heat.
India’s Ladakh region A retired engineer built a $50,000 artificial glacier in the shadow of the Himalaya, collecting runoff in rock-lined ponds that would freeze and attach to an existing glacier in winter.
Barcelona, Spain In 2008, Barcelona imported five million gallons transported in a converted oil tanker, becoming the first city in mainland Europe to resort to emergency water imports.
China The central government is diverting rivers at a scale the world had never seen: the $62 billion, three-canal, 1,812-combined-mile South-North Water Transfer Project will someday move 4.5 trillion gallons each year from the Tibetan Plateau, home to nearly forty thousand melting glaciers, to the cities in the country’s arid, industrializing north. In the meantime until the project is completed, China’s Weather Modification Office produces rain by shooting silver-iodide pellets into its skies using rocket launchers and 37-millimeter anti-aircraft guns.

Desalination plants

“People will drink Pellegrino out of the tap, and they’ll take showers in Pellegrino.”
An engineer from desalination plant builder Poseidon Resources, claiming the water they produce could be engineered to have the exact mineral content and taste of Pellegrino

Massive desalination plants are also on the rise. Between 2003 and 2008, 2,698 plants were built worldwide, and hundreds more were under construction. After building the then biggest and most efficient desalination plant in the world—the 86-million-gallon-per-day (mgd) plant in Ashkelon, Israel—, Israel Desalination Enterprises won contracts to build nearly four hundred of the world’s desalination plants, including:

  • the largest plant in China, a $119 million job
  • a 43-mgd plant in desiccating Australia, a $145 million job
  • a giant, 109-mgd plant north of Tel Aviv in Hadera, a $495 million job
  • two contentious 50-mgd plants in Carlsbad and Huntington Beach, California

There is a problem though: desalination plants use vast amounts of power. Power plants use vast amounts of water for cooling. If they are fueled by coal, or, to a lesser degree, natural gas, they also emit vast amounts of carbon—the Carlsbad desalination plant, the largest in the United States, may get most of its energy from coal; it will then emit 97,000 metric tons carbon emissions a year, that is more than a dozen island nations. Carbon furthers warming, warming furthers drought, and desalination begins to resemble a snake eating its own tail.

As much as snowmaking won’t save the mountain glaciers, desalination will not save the world. If anything, it can only save the rich parts from the fate befalling the rest.

Ashkelon, Israel On the hunt for potable water, Israeli desalination engineers invented the world’s greatest snowmaker, a product now in use in the melting Alps. Source: McKenzie Funk, http://www.mckenziefunk.com/book#gallery

Ashkelon, Israel
On the hunt for potable water, Israeli desalination engineers invented the world’s greatest snowmaker, a product now in use in the melting Alps.
Source: McKenzie Funk

Sea-level rise

Experts in flooding, the Dutch are not especially worried about climate change—and would gladly sell you a seawall. Their faith in techno-fixes is grounded in a landscape that has become almost entirely man-made. Two-thirds of its population lives and 70 percent of its GDP is generated below sea level. In a testament to its seawalls, the Netherlands lie at the bottom of Maplecroft’s Climate Change Vulnerability Index, near northerly Iceland, Denmark, Finland, and Norway: 160th out of 170 countries surveyed.

As the rest of the planet began worrying about the sea, the Netherlands started aggressively promoting its water management expertise abroad, from dredging and engineering firms to amphibious architects. It does not lack prominent international success stories: Manhattan looks the way it does partly thanks to land reclamation by early Dutch settlers in what was then New Amsterdam, and the Netherlands’ continued existence itself is its best advertising.

Artificial islands

“We can transform you from climate refugees to climate innovators”
Dutch Docklands’ Paul van de Camp addressing the president of the Maldives

Rather than erecting barriers to keep the water out, development company Dutch Docklands intends to build a floating world on top of the water. It designs not houseboats but islands and infrastructure: highways, apartment buildings, parks, airports, churches, and mosques, envisioning floating and hybrid cities as big as 100,000-person Delft. Their IP-protected designs are eminently exportable, mainly aimed at low-level, sinking islands, like Tuvalu and Kiribati. These islands can’t expect to save themselves by ringing their various atolls with seawalls—the scale and cost of it is inconceivable, but artificial islands hold more promise.

Maldives, the lowest-lying country in the world, a relatively wealthy tourism destination for the rich and famous, has already been feeling the effects of climate change: hotel chains cannot make long-term investments into beach resorts whose beaches are eroding away. Dutch Docklands’ website stated they would soon ink agreements with the Maldives for everything from floating villas to a floating marina. Greenstar, a two-million-square-foot floating garden island with shops, restaurants, and a conference center that was originally designed for Dubai, would be recycled and rebranded as a Maldivian national icon. “The green-covered, star-shape building symbolizes Maldivians’ innovative route to conquer climate change,” read the ad copy. “This will become the Number 1 location for conferences about climate change, water management, and sustainability.”

Protecting from the flood

“The consequence of ‘New Orleans’ is that the Americans have placed orders with a number of Dutch companies to the value of 200 million dollars”
Piet Dircke, director of Dutch multinational Arcadis’ international water program

At a cost of $7.5 billion, in 1997 Netherlands completed its Delta Works: dikes, dams, and tidal barriers that make up the world’s greatest coastal defense network. The Maeslantkering is the crown jewel of the Delta Works, an enormous storm-surge barrier at the mouth of the port in Rotterdam, one of the largest moving structures on the planet. The barrier consists of two curved, floating gates, each one twice as long as the Statue of Liberty is tall, that swing closed when there is a storm surge of at least three meters high. Built to withstand all but a one-in-ten-thousand-year storm (even though climate change could muddy the math), the Maeslant barrier took six years and $500 million to build and install. Since then, it has been used only once, in 2007.

When it comes to seawalls, storm-surge barriers, and other city-scale defenses, Dutch firms are confident their services will be needed. After helping build storm-surge barriers for Venice, New Orleans, London, and St. Petersburg—metropolises that could afford to pay much more than any island nation could—, Dutch companies would target New York City. Dutch multinational Arcadis, a $3.3 billion, twenty-two-thousand-employee engineering firm, offered a proposal to safeguard the city. “You can’t seal off New York with just one barrier,” Arcadis’ international water program director Piet Dircke said. “You need an East River gate. On the New Jersey side you need a gate. At the Verrazano Narrows you need a gate. And you need a gate near Jamaica Bay if you also want to protect JFK airport. There are four holes, luckily not more than that.” The task would be lucrative: the Narrows gate alone would come at a cost roughly estimated at $6.5 billion.

Dircke’s proposal for the Narrows would protect Manhattan from a twenty-two-foot surge. However, it comes with one downside, one unavoidable evil: when water from the storm surge is blocked, it doesn’t just disappear, it flows elsewhere. If a surge came barreling toward a Verrazano barrier, it would do the hydrological equivalent of a bounce, landing instead somewhere else. Wall Street, the most moneyed place in the world, would be saved. But Arrochar and Midland Beach on Staten Island, Bath Beach and Gravesend in Brooklyn—these and other immigrant-heavy neighborhoods, just outside the Narrows, poorer than the core, just above sea level, would be destined for an even bigger surge, and they would likely be underwater.

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in late October 2012, there was not yet a barrier, just a hint of what was to come. Water flooded subway tunnels and power stations, and the cityscape went dark. Across the stormy Atlantic, in the Netherlands, Arcadis’ stock jumped 5.6 percent, capping a 43 percent rise for the year.

Rotterdam Harbor, the Netherlands The Netherlands, protected from storm surges by massive barriers like the Maeslant, pictured here, is selling its flood-fighting expertise to a worried world. Source: McKenzie Funk, http://www.mckenziefunk.com/book#gallery

Rotterdam Harbor, the Netherlands
The Netherlands, protected from storm surges by massive barriers like the Maeslant, pictured here, is selling its flood-fighting expertise to a worried world.
Source: McKenzie Funk

Climate genetics

Genetic modification is the logic of climate adaptation taken one step further: instead of changing how and where life is lived, it changes, however modestly, what life is.

Dengue

The yellow-fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti, is better known as the primary carrier of dengue fever, for which there is still no vaccine. Urbanization, globalized trade, and increasing air travel have helped grow dengue into a global epidemic three thousand times more prevalent than it was in the 1960s, causing as many as a hundred million infections and twenty-two thousand deaths in more than a hundred countries each year. Aedes like it hot, and they prefer humans to any other animal. They are attracted by the CO2 we exhale with every breath, and their potential range expands, many scientists believe, with every ton of CO2 our industries emit.

In 2009, the first dengue outbreak in the United States in seventy-five years took place in Florida. To battle it, the Mosquito Control District would dispatch sprayer-equipped helicopters, raining insecticide over the city. Because the Florida legislature had limited local governments’ taxing authority, the district was burning through its cash reserves. So it wanted genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes approved, and released into the city. The flagship product of British company Oxitec, the patent-protected Aedes aegypti OX513A carries a suicide gene that would theoretically doom the next generation to an early death. Sent out by the millions to breed with native Aedes, it would make dengue transmission impossible. After “sterile” Oxitec mosquitoes were released every week for six months, native Aedes aegypti population would be reduced “to zero or near zero.”

Finding cure to mosquito-borne illnesses is among the top priorities to the world’s largest charitable organization, the $33.5 billion Gates Foundation. The foundation has given:

  • a $19.7 million grant to a mosquito-modding consortium that included Oxitec and a number of public universities (geared toward open-source mosquito varieties, not OX513A.)
  • $13 million to a group in Asia and Australia trying to infect Aedes with a dengue-zapping bacteria
  • $62 million to the long-stalled international Dengue Vaccine Initiative
  • half a billion dollars and counting to a partnership with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to hasten a long-awaited malaria vaccine

Some people are worried about transgenic mosquitos released in the wild. If Aedes aegypti is wiped out, might not Aedes albopictus, the Asian tiger mosquito which can also transmit dengue, come fill its ecological niche? Oxitec claims to have found a solution to this problem: Oxitec’s campaign against aegypti could happily morph into a campaign against albopictus. Another concern is potentially more worrisome. Studying Oxitec’s papers and regulatory filings, researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Germany’s Max Planck Institute found out that, in the lab, nearly 3.5 percent of the larvae born to a modded male and wild female somehow survived, even without antidote tetracycline. (OX513A mosquitoes are not technically sterile. By inserting into them a synthetic DNA known as tTA—a fusion of DNA segments from the bacteria E. coli and the herpes simplex virus—, Aedes aegypti can mate and produce offspring, but these would not grow past the larval stage without the presence of the common antibiotic tetracycline). Considering that 100 million mosquitoes would be weekly released in a 5 million people city, nearly 3.5 percent of these is a big number. “There is the plausible concern,” they wrote, “that females could inject tTA—the fusion of E. coli and herpes DNA—“into humans.”

But if releasing GM mosquitoes in the wild sounds spooky, it gets even more so. Some scientists are warming up to the idea of modifying bacteria and wild animals—not just crops—to adapt to the new climatic reality. In 2012, a study by NYU professor S. Matthew Liao proposed reengineering humans themselves to produce smaller, less resource-hungry, less emissions-intensive offspring. Months later, the first conferences on using “de-extinction” and “synthetic biology” to preserve the natural world were convened by the National Geographic Society and Wildlife Conservation Society. If we can create a GM bacteria that induces plants’ roots to grow, then the Sahel needs not become the Sahara. We can already manipulate stem cells. We can already reconstruct lost genomes. We can already clone. The polar bear need not ever go extinct. If a species disappears because Arctic sea ice disappears, we already have the power to bring it back to life.

Agriculture

In the United States, genetically modified crops have penetrated the market almost completely since their arrival, making up 94 percent of planted cotton, 93 percent of soybeans, 88 percent of corn. They have spread to two dozen other countries, and the value of the global GM market has jumped by 7,500 percent. The numbers will only rise along with the temperatures, for the world is on the verge of seeing not only crops with drought-resistant tweaks but millions more farmers—Chinese, Nigerian, Indonesian, Brazilian—with just enough money to buy genetically modified seeds.

Emerging in the race for climate-ready crops is publicly-traded firm Monsanto, with revenues of $11 billion a year. Its stock is held by everyone from Deutsche Bank’s climate funds to the Gates Foundation. It was a subcontractor for the Gates-funded African Agricultural Technology Foundation, which had received $40 million to develop drought-tolerant corn for five sub-Saharan countries. In 2009, the continent’s first varieties were tested under the South African sun. Two years later, Monsanto’s MON 87460—also a genetically modified, drought-resistant variety of maize—was quietly deregulated for use in Iowa, Indiana, and Nebraska, United States.

Since 2008, Monsanto and what is called the five other “Gene Giants”—BASF, DuPont, Bayer, Dow, and Syngenta— have requested at least 2,195 patent filings related to “abiotic stress tolerance”—resistance to extreme temperatures, resistance to droughts, resistance to anything in the environment that is not living but not friendly. Dominating the climate-patent race was the $2.5 billion partnership between Monsanto and BASF, “the biggest joint biotech R&D program on record”. When they identified a useful gene sequence in one plant, they would often file for a patent on it that applied to multiple plants. One issued to BASF in late 2009 is representative. “We claim . . . a transgenic plant cell transformed with an isolated polynucleotide,” begins U.S. patent 7,619,137. The plant cell was found in any of the following: “maize, wheat, rye, oat, triticale, rice, barley, soybean, peanut, cotton, rapeseed, canola, manihot, pepper, sunflower, tagetes, potato, tobacco, eggplant, tomato, Vicia species, pea, alfalfa, coffee, cacao, tea, Salix species, oil palm, coconut, perennial grasses, and a forage crop plant.”

The Gates Foundation, which shares its founder’s focus on techno-fixes, and whose collaboration with Monsanto has helped Monsanto justify products meant for people who couldn’t afford them, has notably spent not a penny on helping the world cut carbon emissions. “We believe the best way for the foundation to address climate change is to help poor farmers adapt,” read an overview of its agricultural strategy.


*McKenzie Funk spent six years reporting Windfall, traveling around the globe interviewing people who, driven by ideology, fear, or hard-nosed realism—or all three—, thought they were doing the necessary thing to come out ahead in a new, warmed world, people who thought climate change would make them rich.

McKenzie Funk and his book, Windfall

McKenzie Funk and his book, Windfall

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