Skip to main content

How Covid-19 has revealed AI’s potential to tackle climate crises

(Image credit: Image Credit: Moon Light PhotoStudio / Shutterstock)

The parallels between the climate and Covid-19 crises are clear. Both are international challenges which cross political spheres, borders and continents.

Each of them represents a non-human threat, but a threat that can only be tackled (or caused) by human action. And environmental issues are even directly exacerbating the threat of Covid-19. For instance, exposure to pollution has been shown to increase susceptibility.

The risks posed by Covid-19 and our volatile climate will both only be curbed by organisations and governments embracing a sustained shift in priorities. But implementing technology—specifically artificial intelligence—can help build future security.

While there are similarities, there are also critical differences between Covid-19 and climate volatility. Covid-19, after all, is a short term challenge. The implications are severe but within 18 months we will likely have developed a vaccine and social distancing measures are expected to curtail the worst of the spread much sooner.

Climate change however won’t be resolved in months and it won’t be tackled by governments or climate activists alone. Like Covid-19 it needs a united response. Every organisation has a role to play—from farmers and producers to insurers and retailers—as every organisation has, or will, be impacted by the changing climate.

The problem is that organisations are currently in survival mode. There are so many variables and challenges that Covid-19 has presented and extreme weather events, and their implications, seem further away.

But it was just in January when widespread fires engulfed Australia—a severe reminder that extreme weather events can disrupt economies and ecosystems with little warning—just as the pandemic has done.

The pandemic has shown how quickly drastic measures can be taken for the sake of public health. The changing climate presents an existential threat, so what learnings can we take from the response to Covid-19 to help combat climate volatility in the future? And what role can technology play to help organisations and governments take action?

Rapid deployment of artificial intelligence

AI has played an essential role in the fight against Covid-19 from the start.

When the virus was largely contained within China, an international team including Harvard Medical School’s Chief Innovation Officer, used AI and machine learning to find potential reports of symptoms on social media, news and public health data channels in order to map the potential spread.

Since then, as the virus proliferated, AI has been used for everything from modelling Covid-19’s protein structure to understanding the emotional toll the pandemic has had on people living in different US states.

The creativity and pace that businesses, scientists, academics and governments have harnessed AI to help tackle this pandemic is inspiring. And it reiterates why AI is an essential ally in our fight to build climate security.

Like a novel virus, climatic events move in complex, interlocking structures that can be difficult to predict.

And similar to global climate data, the scale of information being gathered on Covid-19 has quickly surpassed human capabilities of analysis.

The stakes of the threat Covid-19 poses to us, however, are instantly graspable. If you catch it, you’re likely to get sick and spread it to others. The clarity and seriousness of these immediate risks makes it much more straightforward to align responses at organisational, governmental and international levels.

With so many variables and potential outcomes, the risks posed by climate are harder to imagine.

Too often this paralyses responses. This is why we need to prioritise embracing a universal notion of climate security. But alongside this, we also need personalised insights into the risks climate volatility presents to every organisation, in order for them to take effective action.

Understanding climate security stakes

Whether floods, droughts or forest fires, extreme climatic and weather events are increasing in their severity and frequency globally.

This is taking a significant toll on an economic, societal and environmental level—from wiped-out businesses, the forced-migration of entire communities or collapsing ecosystems in the Great Barrier Reef.

The macro-problem of climate volatility can only be mitigated through micro actions. To date, governments and businesses have focused on broad climate goals like cutting emissions to net-zero by 2050. While these measures are important, they won’t defend us from the risk climate volatility poses today unless every organisation and stakeholder takes accountability.

Organisations need to understand not just the pressing international need to build climate security, but what each individual can do.

What should we do to ensure our transport and supply routes are prepared for increasing hurricanes in Europe? How can we respond to the changes to European fish stocks as the Gulf Stream slows? As locusts spread across East Africa, how do we get food to those in need? These are some of the questions businesses and governments have to start asking now in order to build climate security across the entire international value chain.

Just like tackling Covid-19, data and AI can help provide us with answers.

Mapping tomorrow’s climate, taking action today

In combination with advances in data engineering, proven Earth Science techniques and machine learning, AI can analyse the vast international climate data pools. In doing so, this information gathered by scientists, satellites and sensors from hundreds of countries can be distilled into personalised, accurate and dynamic maps that tell individual organisations what they need to know.

It’s through this holistic view that individual organisations can ask the questions that matter to their whole value chain, and understand the actions they need to take to build climate security.

Just as the world has had to track, map and model the spread of Covid-19, this view of climate volatility is in reach thanks to the technology we have today.

And, its capabilities are only growing. In years to come we will be able to predict extreme events not only months, but decades in advance, further boosting our ability to take early action and build climate security.

So, all organisations must start addressing the climate crisis today with the passionate application of technology we have seen on display during the pandemic. By understanding the implications and risks of a volatile climate for individual businesses, in 18 months time we might find we not only have a vaccine for Covid-19 but the start of a longer term solution for our planet, and the health of its people.

Alex Rahin, Chief Product and Technology Officer, Cervest