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Making Sense of Climate Adaptation by Leveraging Climate Language

Posted by Zein Tawil

How mapping bottom-up climate action can drive more strategic climate solution responses and help us adapt thoughtfully. 

At the recent COP26 climate summit, a Minister from the Pacific island country of Tuvalu announced that it would be seeking to retain legal status as a country even if its entire territory were to become submerged [Reuters]. He was standing thigh-deep in the ocean in an area that used to be dry land. His speech made it clear—the effects of climate change are here today.

When it comes to tackling the climate crisis, we typically think about solar power, electric vehicles, and carbon capture to mitigate future climate change. But Tuvalu’s story is the tip of the iceberg of climate adaptation — the messier, less-defined problem of how human civilization will respond to the changes that are here now and predicted to accelerate over the next 30 yrs — even if mitigation efforts are successful.

In order to help define this messy space, Primer recently partnered with Vibrant Data Labs, a social impact data science group, to make sense of this broader and more diverse climate landscape. Crunchbase and Candid provided data on over 12,000 companies and nonprofits funded in the past 5 years that are addressing climate-related topics. Primer’s natural language processing (NLP) engines mined these organizations’ descriptions to generate one of the first-ever, data-driven conceptual hierarchy of topics to better understand the shape of our current response, and its potential gaps. This unique perspective comes bottom-up from how the private and social sector organizations on the ground describe what they do — not by what is most spoken about in the news or social media.

Our analysis suggests that while new technologies are emerging to address climate mitigation, existing organizations that have historically tackled structural inequities (e.g, gender equity, migrant rights, homelessness) are uniquely poised to address climate adaptation challenges which permeate every aspect of civil society. Our sample showed these organizations are beginning to add a climate lens to their work on diverse social issues.

Defining the Climate Space

We created a hierarchy of interrelated topics based on the company descriptions. Using this hierarchy, we are able to surface the broad topics in climate work and also drill down into specifics. 

Examining the topics in this way revealed there are two major branches: one dealing with topics related to preventative technologies (Environment And Renewable Energy) and the other with topics addressing the human impact of change (Public And Social Benefits).  This computational technique led to a close split between mitigation and adaptation. It’s exciting that our method could organize these topics in a way that gets close to how a human would do the task.

The topics underneath our mitigation branch (Environment and Renewable Energy), are what one may expect: “Water”, “Nature and Conservation”, and “Energy, Storage, and Energy Waste”. Adaptation work is much more varied and therefore harder to define. Our analysis can help us paint a crisper image of this emerging landscape.

This topic hierarchy shows organizational distribution on climate change topics, with higher convergence at the top vs the bottom.

Climate Change as a Social Issue

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines adaptation as “the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects” [IPCC]. Using this definition, we see some top level branches that are climate adaptation. As the earth warms and extreme weather becomes the new normal, Disaster Relief and Preparedness will be critical to serving areas affected.

A less obvious topic might be Community And Neighborhood Development. The subtopics within it seem like quite standard areas pertaining to social issues such as: Health, Affordable Housing, Human Rights, Government Advocacy, and Gender Equality. Looking deeper into the language of these organizations we can see how they are incorporating a climate lens to their work.  For example, here is the description of one of the organizations working in Gender Equality:

MADRE is an international women’s human rights organization founded 37 years ago.  We partner with grassroots women to create social change in contexts of war, disaster and injustice. To advance women’s human rights, MADRE supports grassroots women to meet their basic needs as a bridge to develop their advocacy and political participation….

…. Our actions to confront climate change today will decide the futures of our planet and of generations to come. You can join the women leading the way.    Climate change is a global threat, and poor, rural and Indigenous women are hardest hit. They are impacted first and worst by the food shortages, droughts, floods and diseases linked to this growing danger. But they are more than victims. They are sources of solutions, inventing innovative, locally-rooted responses.    Through our Women Climate Defenders initiative, MADRE’s grassroots partners enable their communities to adapt to climate change. They build clean water systems to guard against drought and seed banks to preserve future harvests.

This is an example of how an organization that has been addressing women’s human rights for 37 years can contribute today to building climate resilience in the most vulnerable communities. It also highlights how climate adaptation requires addressing diverse, interdependent topics.

We can dive deeper into the Gender Equality data to understand the key topics that organizations in this field are working on today. A quick glance at this chart shows a wide range and diversity of topics in the climate adaptation cohort, from Human Rights to Infrastructure to Youth Organizing and Antidiscrimination.

The topics which co-occur most frequently with gender equality cover a range of socially minded topics which are not all tightly related to gender equality.

Let’s compare it to a topic from our climate mitigation set, Nature Conservation and Environment

The topics which co-occur most frequently with nature conservation and environment are very conceptually similar and mostly related to climate mitigation.

Organizations in this cohort work on Sustainability, Renewables, Water Conservation, Sustainable Agriculture, and Wildlife Preservation. It seems that most of these issues are more proximate to each other.

To further peel back the layers on current climate solutions, let’s take a deeper look at “crowding” or “spreading” of focus areas by organization. With NLP, we can approximately measure organizational “topic coherence” which tells us if a given organization optimizes on breadth or depth, and exactly how far apart the topics are within that cohort. We created a score from 0 to 1 that calculates how similar an organization’s topics are to each other—we call this the “organization focus score”. Organizations that focus on a narrow set of topics will have scores closer to 0. We can then extrapolate to the topic level to measure how narrowly focused the organizations in each topic are. When we plot this out from 0 to 1, we see topics relating to climate adaptation (Public and Social Benefit) are being addressed by organizations that are more broadly focused than the organizations addressing climate mitigation (Environment and Renewable Energy) topics.

The topic coherence score measures how closely related the topics a given organization works in are to each other. A score of 0 closer to 0 indicates the topics are very similar and a score closer to 1 means they are all very dissimilar. Climate adaptation topics (Public and Social Benefit) contain organizations with a more diverse set of focus areas than the climate mitigation topics.

Our analysis reveals that, while an organization working on mitigation will typically be working on a single, defined solution, organizations working on climate adaptation are fighting on multiple fronts.  


“In an interconnected world, it is exactly this messiness that funders need to embrace”, says Vibrant Data Labs’s Eric Berlow. “Traditional venture capital tends to fund focused, scalable solutions, with easy-to-measure outcomes, like renewable energy. But the climate crisis is an ‘all hands on deck problem’. Winning on one corner of the problem is an important piece; but if structural and systemic inequities in climate adaptation are not addressed, like the people of Tuvalu above, we all lose. We all feel the climate impacts of supply chain shocks, forced migration, civil unrest, and war. The most recent IPCC report suggests these trends will exacerbate over the next 30 years even if renewables and carbon capture solutions are successful. Climate funders will have to adopt a more holistic multi-pronged approach to rise to this challenge.”

Conclusion

As climate change becomes more and more a central part of our lives, understanding the landscape of solutions and providers gives us perspective on the magnitude of the space. We used NLP to analyze the work of over 12,000 companies to better understand where private and public organizations were focusing their efforts. In doing so, we highlighted the broad set of topics that are climate related and illustrated that many organizations working across the diverse social sector are now adding climate solutions to their efforts to enhance equity and resilience.

In a coming post, we will present our partner, Vibrant Data Labs’ story in which they take this analysis a step further to highlight the solution areas that are receiving the most funding.