Engaging Ideas that Matter: Climate Change and Disruptive Technologies

Category: Managing Directors, Portfolio Management

By Doug Cohen, Managing Director, Portfolio Management

Please see Parts I and II of my Political Spotlight from the Aspen Ideas Festival.


I had the privilege of attending the 2018 Aspen Ideas Festival in late June, a gathering place for scientists, artists, politicians, historians, educators, activists, and other great thinkers to present, debate, and discuss some of the most important and fascinating ideas and issues of our time. The sessions generally touched on a wide spectrum of political, technological/scientific, social, and women empowerment oriented themes.

A former professor of mine at Harvard Business School used to say that you will almost always be well ahead of the pack if you can distill any given class or presentation into three key takeaways—as well as one important issue that went unaddressed. Along those lines, here are my key observations from the speakers of the sessions that I attended on the themes of climate change and disruptive technologies.


A ‘Stubborn Optimist’ in the Face of Climate Change

Christiana Figueres—Convenor, Mission 2020; Former Executive Secretary, Framework Convention on Climate Change, United Nations

1) Despite the recent US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, almost all countries have concluded that it is in their self-interest to help save the planet—no discussion is necessary as to whether climate change and rising CO2 levels are real. It is a fact, says Ms. Figueres, and she does not worry about those who deny it. The primary focus is to keep temperature changes below two degrees Celsius. If they increase further than that, it will likely be impossible for the planet and the global economy to adapt. We have the capacity and the technology to effectively combat climate change and to reverse a future of inevitable consequences, such as losing one third of the land of Bangladesh or having 70% of worldwide cities face catastrophe.

2) The challenges of climate change will not be met via charities but must be met via businesses. Governments are also critical and most large countries are ahead of schedule from the Paris Accord. China is moving to close many coal mines and India is embracing solar over coal. By 2030, every vehicle in India will be electric. And despite the current administration, the US is making very favorable progress, largely because of local support and the immense job creation from cost effective renewable technologies. Overall the US is ahead of its 2030 target and hopes to be 5% above target by 2027.

3) The Obama administration was so focused on healthcare during its first term that climate change did not receive the proper attention. However, that changed during the second term. Ms. Figueres is optimistic because she knows countries must find ways to adapt. Insurance companies increasingly argue that the planet will become systemically uninsurable if temperatures rise by three degrees or more, so there truly is no alternative.

--A key question that was not addressed: A comment was made by the moderator noting the 30th anniversary of when Dr. James Hansen told Congress that it was near certain that human emissions were altering the climate and that long-term damage would be extreme. The New York Times ran an op-ed days before his statement confirming that Hansen was largely right. However, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed confirming that he was largely wrong. Is it accurate to say that the science has been definitively settled?

Tip of the Iceberg—The Road to Autonomous Cars

Larry Burns – Mobility and Innovation Consultant (current clients include Waymo); Corporate VP of R&D and Planning at GM from 1998-2009

Tom Wilson – Chairman, President, and CEO of the Allstate Corporation

1) There is no question that the era of autonomous vehicles is coming and that it will change the entire prevailing transportation system. A confluence of technologies will dominate and the US has a great opportunity to be the global leader. People spend up to 90 minutes a day in a car, and with new technologies their entire experience will change. A car will be like a “cell phone on wheels.” The way packages and food are delivered will change radically. Older people, younger people, and people with disabilities will be empowered. Impoverished people who cannot easily get to work at present will be similarly empowered. Sidewalks will be wider and entire cityscapes will change, with less need for parking (new parking lots are already being designed with the thought that they may one day be turned into condos). A “Jetsons” type of flying vehicle is technologically feasible but may be impractical as approximately 70% of current trips are less than eight miles.

2) Cars are highly unproductive at present as they are only used about 4% of the time (up to 33% at peak hours). There are approximately 1.3 million auto-related fatalities every year. The experts predict autonomous vehicles will result in a 90% reduction, equating to 3,000 lives saved per day (including pedestrians and bicyclists). The insurance industry will still find ways to make money, particularly if there are fewer accidents. For example, Allstate may help you pick who to share your vehicle with based on how Allstate rates the driver (the company already has the technology to rate most drivers based on their driving records). Shared vehicles will gain prominence as an interim step before more fully autonomous vehicles are available. The traditional American love affair with driving is already diminishing rapidly—the younger generations do not feel the same way as the prior generation about the need for car ownership. Electric cars likely need to be far more efficient than they are today in terms of charging capability—hydrogen fuel cells are the likely game changing answer, over time.

3) Computers are far more reliable than people. Still, when asked “if three kids jump into the middle of the street and the car has to make a decision whether I run them over or I swerve into a tree to kill myself, who decides what ‘ethical action’ should be programmed into the computer,” it was clear that there are no simple answers to such questions (the answer that the lawyers may have to decide was met with a few audible groans). The argument was made that such decisions will still need to be made 90% less frequently than today. Other challenges relate to the need to reshape public transportation and retrain people, such as truck drivers, for new professions (such training for truck drivers will likely be inevitable as trucking costs could fall up to 50% without the need to pay drivers). Cyberattacks are another threat.

--A key question that was not addressed: As confident as the panelists appeared to be that we are “at the tip of the iceberg” and that the next five years will be critical, the timing of the key transformations summarized above was quite vague. What is the best guess as to the timeline of key events?

Deep Dive: Cybersecurity and the Broad Geopolitical Risk of Digital Life

Monika Bickert – Head of Product Policy and Counterterrorism, Facebook

John Carline – Partner, Morrison & Foerster; Chair, Cybersecurity and Technology Program at the Aspen Institute

Renee DiResta – Head of Policy, Data For Democracy; Research Director, New Knowledge

Tom Fanning – Chairman, President and CEO, Southern Company

Dipayan Piku Ghosh – Fellow, New America; Fellow, Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School

Rana Foroohar – Global Business Columnist and Associate Editor, Financial Times

1) The cyberwar is the most underreported war in US history. Organizations such as Southern Company are attacked millions of times per day (and banks are attacked far more). We are still transforming from people using machines to attack other machines to machines attacking other machines—which will only intensify the risks. Six sectors have been prioritized by the US as critical threats: electricity, finance, telecom (the top 3), water, transportation and healthcare. Meanwhile coordination with the Department of Defense and other entities is ongoing. You have to be aggressive and play offense, not just defense. The US has plans to deal with everything it can see now. There is tremendous coordination of federal, private, and local resources—along with international involvement—to address what remains a legitimate existential threat.

2) China (which has been primarily targeting private companies) and Russia (via election-related efforts in the US and likely elsewhere) are among the foremost foreign threats. However, there are certainly others. The private sector has become increasingly active in sharing threat-related information, as well as technical solutions. Facebook, for example is sharing malware and phishing-related scams with other companies and with the law enforcement. Artificial intelligence and algorithms are, not surprisingly, making the threats more formidable—but also helping efforts to counteract the threats. It’s unrealistic to assume that better defenses will be in place in time to ward off threats to the 2018 mid-term elections or the general elections in 2020.

3) The tension between privacy and transparency remains intense. Facebook is getting far better at identifying fake accounts and purging them. However, the company has over two billion users and 85% of them are outside of the United States. As a result, government and regulatory coordination are difficult. Ultimately, we may see the equivalent of a FICA score that shows the user exactly who is using your data and why.

--A key question that was not addressed: Has the Trump administration’s “America First” policy in any way diminished the coordinated effort with our traditional allies to thwart cyberterrorism?

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