'Climate City' Lines Up To Advance Climate Change Issues In Trump Era

Jan 31, 2017

The common area of the Collider
Credit Matt Bush WCQS

NPR will be in Asheville on Tuesday February 7th for the latest 'Going There' event.  Weekend All Things Considered host Michel Martin will lead a night of performances and discussion on the topic 'What Happens When Your Hometown Gets Hot?' at the Diana Wortham Theater.  Tickets for the event have sold out but there will be a live stream that night to watch.  You can also join the conversation on Twitter by following @NPRMichel and @WCQS using the hashtag #HotHometown.  In the week before the event, the WCQS news team will feature stories on issues facing Asheville because of its increasing popularity.

The federal government’s role in studying climate change will change under President Donald Trump.  One of the many controversies during the first two weeks of his administration is a push to prevent federal agencies that are studying the climate from publicizing their research. 

Few places in the country would feel the difference more than Asheville, the so-called 'Climate City' because it's home to the headquarters of the National Centers for Environmental Information.  That office stores all federal climate data, and produces an annual report looking at global temperatures.  The most recent study found 2016 was the hottest year on record.  That's the third straight year that’s happened.

The unknowns over what will happen to federal government climate science studies multiply daily.  That’s in part because the people producing that information can’t or won’t say anything about the future.  Deke Arndt of the NCEI had this to say during a conference call with reporters on the 2016 study - “We provide these assessments and these analyses for the benefit of the American people.  That’s kind of what we do.  Our mission is to describe the state of the climate, and our methods on how we got there.”

So with government researchers unable or unwilling to discuss what will happen next in the face of a president who once called global warming a hoax perpetrated by China to hurt U.S. manufacturing, it could be up to private firms to advance the cause.   

A few blocks away from the NCEI is the Collider, a business incubator for firms working on climate science.  The proximity to the federal office ensures it's usually busy, but Friday mornings tend to be when it’s most crowded, as the ideas produced from a week of work come flowing out in talks between all those who use the Collider as a base of operations.  

“It’s really great to go to get a cup of coffee, and bump into someone who’s thinking on climate and health.  Or climate and agriculture.  Or climate and data.  And just have those small interactions that spark new ideas in our team", says Andrew Jones, the co-director of Climate Interactive.  Their goal is in the name according to Jones – find ways to get people to interact with climate science that don’t involve reading a long research study.  “Research shows showing people research doesn’t work”, he muses.  To that end, they took the research and produced a series of interactive infographics for the New York Times, showing what would happen if the U.S. or China dropped out of United Nations agreements on climate change.  Ellie Johnston of Climate Interactive says also they came up with a role playing game resembling model UN where "people play UN climate negotiators and experience what it’s like to be in their shoes.”

Working just cubicles away from Climate Interactive is Francesco Aimone with Induction Food Systems.  “We got our funding from NASA to look at ways to feed people when we start colonizing Mars", he says.  "Part of that is how do you have a sustainable solution?  How can you make food and make good food in a way that doesn’t have a carbon footprint?”  Aimone says much of their business is with food processing plants.  “Food processing is the fifth most energy intensive industry in the United States.  It doesn’t seem like it, but it really does have a pretty big carbon footprint.  The stats from the government say we waste 56% of the process heat that’s generated.  So of the heat we use to make food, we lose half of it because of inefficient process.  Our system lets you capture 95%.”

Losing his funding from the federal government is a pressing concern for Aimone.  But while that may go away, what won’t he says is customer demand for products or processes created in response to climate change.  “What I’m seeing from the food and agriculture side…consumers want more local food.  Meaning less transported, less carbon footprint, more sustainability.  I don’t see the administration having anything to do with that.  I think it’s all about what the market does.”

Ellie Johnston of Climate Interactive takes that a step further, saying, "If the White House says they will stand in the way of that, I think they will find the goals that they tout - job creation, economic development, all of these things will then be undermined.”

The Collider’s anchor tenant, the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center, is an example of a firm which weathered a similar political climate change when it comes to climate change.  Jim Fox, the director of NEMAC, says they used to do a lot a work for the state of North Carolina.  But around five years ago, that all began to go away.  That’s when the General Assembly passed a bill banning the use sea level rise projections in crafting policies specific to the North Carolina’s coastal region.  “Political climate changed in North Carolina, and they were no longer a large funder of our work", says Fox.  "But we were able to replace that with other people who were interested.”

His advice to climate science firms in the Trump era?  Diversify - don’t just have the government buying or investing in your work.  “It’s never clear about who your major investors are going to be.  But if you continue to position yourself so that you’ve got a handful at least of different investors that represent different interests, then you have a much better chance of having a sustainable cash flow”, says Fox.

That knowledge and experience gives hope to Collider CEO James McMahon that private firms can carry the torch on climate change.  “The problem of climate change is bigger than any election cycle.  And the solutions are bigger than any election cycle.  And they have a life of their own.  Because the economics have tipped.  Clean energy is now cheaper than dirty energy.  Businesses are realizing it’s cheaper and (smarter) to take climate into account than ignore it.  So the economics have already tipped.  We are beyond any political cycle.”

But he adds it would be a whole lot easier if the federal government stayed involved the next four years.