The Future Is Now for Homes Without Natural Gas

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Will the home of the future be one without gas stoves, heating units and water boilers? It will be if you decide to purchase a new home in Berkeley, California, which just became the first city in the country to ban the use of natural gas in new buildings. This is a groundbreaking move that could herald a new era of construction—one that results in the adoption of more sustainable sources of fuel and electricity across the country.

“Berkeley has a long history of being the first in the nation to do something, from implementing curbside recycling in the early 1970s to eliminating Styrofoam in the 1980s,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin said in a press statement. “This week, history is repeating itself with our vote to prohibit natural gas in new construction.”

Until relatively recently, natural gas has mostly been ignored as a primary climate change culprit. For years, the climate movement focused on more emissions-intensive fossil fuels such as coal. Some even considered natural gas a “bridge fuel” between coal and renewables, as it could fill in energy demands with lower emissions until solar and wind power were ready to pick up the slack.

That argument is not heard much anymore. Part of the reason is because the United States has successfully shifted more electricity production away from dirty coal. Coal consumption for power generation fell from a peak of 1,045 million short tons (MMst) in 2007 to an estimated 739 MMst in 2015, and is expected to drop all the way to 651 MMst by 2020, according to recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The other reason is natural gas is not actually that sustainable, nor climate-friendly, in the long term. The fracking boom has devastated landscapes across the U.S., with strong evidence of groundwater pollution and even earthquakes due to land instability. Moreover, the venting and flaring of natural gas into the atmosphere by drillers is now a key contributor to the U.S. carbon footprint, and may be negating any climate benefit from natural gas’s relatively cleaner profile.

That is why, over the past few years, a new movement has emerged to shift U.S. energy away from natural gas just as the country had been shifting away from coal. It is no surprise that it was a city that made the first move to reduce natural gas consumption. Cities have been at the forefront of climate action, particularly after a certain climate-denying president took office in 2017. Through partnerships like the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, over 100 cities have committed to 100 percent clean energy while others have pledged carbon neutrality. And there are already signs that other cities are looking to follow Berkeley’s move.

“Given the urgency of reducing emissions to avoid the worst impacts of global warming, Berkeley’s ordinance is significant because it sets in motion what could be a huge breakthrough in building decarbonization,” Mark Specht, an energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a blog post last month.

If cities are to meet their climate targets, they’ll need to dramatically cut natural gas consumption. Berkeley estimated that an astounding 27 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions came from natural gas. Meeting its own pledge means ensuring less natural gas usage in residential and commercial buildings.

“Buildings, and the natural gas burned inside, are a big contributor to global warming,” Specht wrote.

There’s another benefit, too. It’s cheaper to build homes without gas hookups, which are also a hazard during natural disasters such as the earthquakes, for which California is at risk. If they are designed properly and are less costly, homes built in the future could both help the environment and address ongoing affordable housing shortages.

Berkeley is not a big city, with a population of just over 100,000, so its impact alone will be small. That is why city leaders hope that other cities will follow and make natural gas-free homes as common as curbside recycling, another Berkeley first, is today.

“What city, county or state will be next?” said Arreguin. “I call upon you to contact your local, regional and state representatives to keep the momentum going.”

Image credit: Mario Mesaglio/Unsplash

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More Investors Exploring Nature-Based Growth Opportunities

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Can capitalism drive environmental stewardship? That’s what Ethical Corporation is suggesting in its Restorative Climate Strategy Briefing.

In an industry driven by crunching numbers and making profits, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that investors at the top of their game are looking to the next decade—not the next quarter—and for smart, sensible narratives that resonate.

Investors wooed by bamboo

Investing in a bamboo farm in Nicaragua may make heads tilt, but this material’s potential is what EcoPlanet Bamboo sold to its investors. This example in Ethical Corp’s briefing details how a well laid out business plan compelled investors to take part in an environmental restoration project⁠—not for the sake of charity, but for profit gains.

Step one is planting bamboo on degraded land that was once rainforest—destroyed to make way for agriculture, then cattle. Step two: Set up a pulping facility the following year to make tissue and toilet paper, reducing the country’s reliance on imports. After the first year of operation, the business became self-sustaining. Bamboo is different from other agricultural and forestry commodities, where the source of revenue dries up after you chop. Bamboo grows up and out. So long as proper pruning techniques are implemented, manufacturing opportunities can scale substantially after five years.

The third part of EcoPlanet Bamboo’s plan expands into those longer-term growth opportunities. The company is piloting a closed-loop biorefinery to make moulded pulp for disposable containers to replace plastics and Styrofoam. An agreement with South Africa-based Mantis hotels equates to future expected gains when the luxury hotel group moves away from single-use plastics and begins to use EcoPlanet Bamboo products.

Large corporations are investing in nature-based solutions too

PepsiCo offers another restorative economy success story in this briefing. The restorative economy isn’t inclusive to only startups and eco-minded small businesses, Ethical Corp says—to date, more than 100 corporations have invested more than $38 million in water funds.

Water is an essential element to PepsiCo’s supply chain and production processes. The company has set a number of goals that aim to contribute to its Positive Water Impact, meaning its efforts and partnerships are designed to enable long-term, sustainable water security for its business and communities that depend on water availability. Accordingly, PepsiCo says it has established an integrated approach to watershed management through a partnership with The Nature Conservancy to restore watersheds in the United States, Latin America and South Africa.

Through this partnership, PepsiCo is working directly with farmers, landowners, businesses, and communities to build efficient irrigation systems, protect upstream forests and establish water funds to replenish at-risk watersheds. In 2018, in Latin America alone, the partnership replenished more than 76 million gallons of water to watersheds.

In its briefing, Ethical Corp reports that more than 40 percent of watershed sources worldwide have been degraded by development, resulting in impaired downstream flows. Working with farmers and communities to reduce chemical runoff and conserve water creates a beneficial way to improve water quality and quantity—and secure water-dependent supply chains like PepsiCo’s.

Nature: The most proven technology to address climate risks

The prevailing takeaway in the Restorative Climate Strategy Briefing is that “companies are realizing one cost-effective way of tackling the climate crisis is by restoring and protecting the biodiversity of the planet … nature is the biggest proven technology to address climate impacts.” 

Regeneration—of agriculture, the environment and local communities—ensures that all inputs and outputs are conducive to the health of everyone: upstream and downstream, people and planet. If global carbon reduction goals are to be met by 2030, companies must implement more regenerative practices to support the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit.

Image credit: Luca Florio/Unsplash

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How Video Game Companies Can Learn from Social Media's Failures

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Earlier this week, I commented on the narrative we keep hearing from some politicians every time there is a mass shooting: that video games, not guns, are to blame. My response was to reiterate what many researchers in science and academia have said—that blaming the video game industry is wrong. To video game companies, I said: Stand up for yourselves, and don’t let others steal your narrative. The facts, as discussed in publications like Vox, make the argument loud and clear.

As one of our TriplePundit writers reminded me in a recent email back-and-forth: “[Blaming video games] is a distraction from the real issue, which is guns. A radicalized person without access to guns can only do so much damage.”

Video games don't cause mass shootings, but do host mass chatter

Well, as with any argument, there is always a caveat—which is often forgotten in this politically polarized climate where everything is shouted as black and white with absolutely no shades of grey. Plus, no company wants to have politicians wag fingers at them, as finger wagging can eventually be followed by endless headlines and, naturally, policy changes—which is why there are reports that one retailer is cracking down on video game ads, yet will still sell guns.

To his credit, Kellen Klein, director at Future 500, pointed out something completely valid, and I’m glad he did. In an email exchange we had, he wrote:

“While it's true that there is no proven link between video games and violence, there is increasing evidence of a link between dialogue occurring on video game platforms and alt-right/nationalist/violent offline behavior.

“So while video game companies might justifiably argue that their actual games aren't encouraging mass shootings, I think some critics might not totally absolve them of responsibility.

“I can imagine a moment in the near future where stakeholders ramp up the pressure on video game companies to better monitor and control the dialogue that occurs on their platforms—similar to how they've gone after Facebook and other purveyors of online ‘connection.’

“The bottom line for me is that video game companies are increasingly looking like social media companies, and thus would be wise to learn from the mistakes of their big tech ‘peers.’”

While I was reviewing sources for my Wednesday article, I did come across plenty of commentary pointing this out, including on news sites such as Slate.

Video game companies are an easy target, but . . . 

Here’s one reason why I didn’t add that nuance to my article: The same talking heads and politicians who have made video games the straw man, including Fox News host John Scott, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, have conveniently left out the detail that there is more data indicating the links between gamers and heinous offline behavior. It could very well be that these same leaders are just ignorant (wouldn’t be the first time) of this trend—or they simply choose to ignore it because, in the end, it would undercut the argument they are trying to make to their political supporters. It’s pretty hard to say, “Video games are dangerous because some people, well, they may act out based on rhetoric we shout out in public.”

In hindsight, I should have brought up that point. I was wrong not to.

Klein’s point about video gaming companies coming close to following the same path as social media companies is well worth exploring. It’s true that part of the appeal of video games is the camaraderie that can develop while playing anything from Words With Friends (where you can chat with your friends' moms and dads) to Fortnite (where you can talk with your classmates or your pals in the office) to Assassin's Creed Odyssey (where you can engage with that weirdo who lurks in an undisclosed ZIP code).

Once upon a time, social media united the world

But remember that when the likes of Facebook and Twitter first emerged, they were first touted as tools to help unite and bring everyone in the world closer together. As we have seen, many feel the opposite has happened, as these services can tear us apart: If you have unfollowed people after they spouted opinions that made your skin crawl, just know that right now I can see you nodding your head in agreement.

There are countless reasons why social media platforms have found their reputations battered, including the fact that as they became trusted sources of news, they resisted any such regulations that apply to media companies, arguing that they were “technology” companies. The lobbying paid off and, well, we know how that played out.

In fact, it’s clear that social media companies have learned little, if anything at all, starting with Facebook’s tone-deaf decision to rebrand two of its assets as “WhatsApp From Facebook” and “Instagram From Facebook.” And while the response of many social media users is to migrate to different platforms to avoid any and all vitriol (or your parents' friends), the evidence suggests such moves may be in vain.

Instagram: Far more than selfies

Take Instagram, which for many users is seen as a safe haven from the annoying VagueBooking (you know, the people on Facebook who say “I’m having a bad day” as it’s your job to feed their attention-seeking and ask what’s wrong) to even worse, the public shaming, not to mention the conspiracy theories including Hillary Clinton’s nefarious luring of little kids with pizza.

So you think Instagram is safe, cause after all, it’s just food, memes, selfies, abs, duck lips and pets, right? Well, not so fast. There’s no shortage of evidence suggesting the photo-sharing site hosts its share of white nationalism, alt-right conspiracy theories and other hateful behavior. Facebook has said it is working to ban such content, but once again, describing these policies as reactive is an understatement at best.

The video game industry would be wise to learn from social media companies’ ongoing failings. This discussion is hardly new. In early 2018, the head of Xbox called for more inclusive gaming and urged the sector to monitor the tone of online spaces they had helped launch. And last fall, a contributor to The Hill suggested gaming companies put teeth into their terms of service as well as disclose any data related to hate speech occurring within their virtual worlds.

It’s ridiculous enough games like Fortnite have been linked to marriages breaking up; it should not take a senseless act of violence strongly linked to chatter on video game platforms to have gaming companies take stronger action. It’s better for companies to actually enforce what’s in the small print, rather than to have find their reputation in tatters after a tragedy.

Felix Lichtenfeld/Pixabay

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In Hawaii, TMT Protesters Put Astronomy, and Developers, on Notice

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Probing deep space, exploring the early universe, investigating exoplanets for life. How could something like Hawaii’s Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), with all of that potential, go wrong?

A history of colonialism is complicating the telescope’s high aim. And this episode serves as a reminder to building developers and construction companies—anyone involved with such a complex plan—about why they need to look very carefully at the types of projects they should pursue. Otherwise, overlooking—or outright ignoring—local context, history, and culture can turn what at first seems to be a marquee project into a public relations and brand reputation nightmare.

Protesters in Hawaii and around the world are rallying with the call “We are Mauna Kea,” in reference to the mountain where the telescope is set to be built. Most are gathering on the mountain itself, on the access road to the summit, for the purpose of halting construction of the TMT. Protesters have remained on the road since July 17.

TMT’s project leaders aspire to join the 13 telescopes already operating on the dormant volcano. Mauna Kea has some of the most ideal conditions for astronomical observations in the world—a high elevation, a stable, dry and cold climate, as well as minimal light pollution.

From the TMT team’s perspective, they have thoroughly included the community in their planning efforts. The project’s backers say they have conducted 20 public meetings and have promised significant contributions to Hawaii’s youth—including $1 million a year to support science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education on the island. The team behind the telescope says it has already given over $5 million to its THINK Fund, which supports Hawaii’s schools, students and teachers.

The persistence of protests and their recent growth to a worldwide movement, however, raises the question: When can a corporation, research institution or even an academic community be confident that they have adequately listened to stakeholder communities?

The largest instrument on the mountain

Despite continued opposition from the native Hawaiian community and allies, the TMT’s backers say they will proceed with their plans. As of the beginning of August, nearly 20 percent of the entire project has been completed—much of it in far corners of the world—from Japan to India. The TMT is projected to be the largest observatory on earth when it is completed, with a resolution 12 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.

As the project’s organizers continue to build and prepare on the Mauna Kea site, they are also pursing permits for Plan B, the Canary Islands, although conditions won’t be as ideal as Mauna Kea’s summit—and Canary Island environmentalists say that they would seek legal action against the move. 

What TMT has done right

The TMT team has communicated with the local community more comprehensively than any other telescope project previously built on the mountain.

It is also important to note that TMT has chosen a site on the summit that it claims will impact cultural and environmental features as little as possible. Assessments did not find archaeological shrines or features, burials, or endangered plants or insects within the site. The site is also located where the telescope will not be visible from culturally significant areas and where minimal grading is required.

Despite the care and thought put into planning, TMT is missing the bigger picture. Opponents are wondering why another telescope is going on the mountain at all.

Building on a troubled history

Astronomy has claimed the summit. Opponents of yet another Mauna Kea astronomy project point out that it will be located on ceded land from the Hawaiian kingdom that has been held in trust for native Hawaiians. The land is currently a conservation district under the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). In 1968, though, the DLNR granted the University of Hawaii (UH) a 65-year lease for over 13,000 acres on the summit.

UH was given a permit for one observatory, but others were built subsequently without permits, and were only given permits retroactively, after the public spoke out.

Mismanagement has continued. A video by Kanaeokana—a network for Hawaiian language, culture and education—visualizes a timeline of trouble on Maunak Kea, from sewage, fuel and toxin spills to the failure of UH to adopt rules to manage public activities on the mountain.

Even the state’s governor, David Ige, who recently lifted his protest-related emergency declaration, admitted in a public statement in 2015: “We have in many ways failed the mountain. Whether you see it from a cultural perspective or from a natural resources perspective, we have not done right by a very special place.”

A 1998 audit of management on the mountain reads, in part:

“We found that the University of Hawaii’s management of Mauna Kea Science Reserve is inadequate to ensure the protection of natural resources. Efforts to gather information on the Weiki bug came after damage had already been done. Trash from construction was cleaned up only after concerns were raised by the public. Old testing equipment constructed in the early years of development has not been removed as required by the lease agreement.

“We found that new technology requires the university to change its approach to future development within the Mauna Kea Science Reserve.”

A new telescope—bigger, better and more far-reaching—raises a red flag for native Hawaiians, who have been disputing observatory development since UH’s lease began. The fear is that development on the sacred summit will continue, even escalate, all without the change in approach recommended 20 years ago.

“We have to draw the lines in the sand, say: 'No. No more already,'” telescope opponent Walter Ritte told Hawaii News Now in July. “You already have 13 telescopes, and now you’re going to put a giant one up there. This is the beginning of another Waikiki up our sacred mountain.”

Legally, TMT has no further hurdles toward construction. Last year, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in favor of the telescope in a case contesting TMT’s permit over concerns about Mauna Kea management and conservation.

Part of the ruling was that five telescopes will be dismantled and the land be returned to its original state.

Space race over all else

To many, the summit of Mauna Kea looks like a space race over all other concerns.

Paul Coleman, an astronomer and physicist at the University of Hawaii, illustrated this perspective to The Atlantic in 2015. “In modern astronomy, you must go with the biggest telescope you can build to the tallest mountain you can find. That is the defining thing for astronomical growth.”

Astronomers at the institutions building TMT, and elsewhere, are catching onto a perspective shift that must occur for any semblance of harmony to be achieved. Last month, astronomy graduate students from across the country penned an open letter opposing the treatment of peaceful protesters on Mauna Kea.

Others are voicing their opinions on Twitter. “Astronomy is awesome, but it’s not life or death. We can take the time to do things right and set an example,” tweeted Emily Rice, assistant professor of astrophysics at College of Staten Island, CUNY, who did graduate work using the Keck telescope on Mauna Kea.

TMT is an example of a high purpose that can be taken even higher. Brands should watch how TMT responds in the coming months to learn either from its success or failure to change its course. The pursuit of the edges of the observable universe, shared by all people, deserves cultural unity.

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ClimateTech: A New Investment Genre for Startups Emerges

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There’s HealthTech. FinTech. InsurTech, AdTech and AgTech. And biotech, of course. Is “ClimateTech” the newest emerging sector where technology-based startups are entering to combat climate change?

Given how quickly savvy entrepreneurs identify ways to transform an industry, it seems only natural that they are identifying tech-aided advances to help solve climate adaptation and resilience challenges. Activity certainly is accelerating and it will prove interesting to see if socially responsible investors take note. After all, venture capitalists may be wary since many made money-losing bets during the so-called CleanTech era in the 2000s.

So, what is ClimateTech? The Collider, a three-year-old Asheville, N.C. nonprofit dedicated to helping the world prepare, adapt and become resilient as climate change intensifies, defines this term as a “rapidly emerging industry in which data-driven products are developed to enable communities, companies, and governments to understand their risk and exposure to the effects of climate change and take action to adapt and become resilient.” (Take a look at The Collider’s infographic below.)

At least three resilience-focused ClimateTech categories can be classified. They are:  

  • Energy resilience: Two years ago, according to one report, utilities had invested over $2.9 billion in distributed energy companies. Distributed generation falls into the classic CleanTech venture capital definition, and wealthy investors such as Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos have been pouring money into the billion-dollar Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund for distributed generation and other energy tech. For instance, they have funded Sierra Energy, whose waste-to-energy gasification technologies are modular. And the Australian startup Omnicarbon provides the first artificial intelligence core smart city platform to partner with cities to achieve a sustainable, resilient and decarbonized future.

 

  • Climate risk analytics: While investors become more sophisticated in how they harness data to select the startups most likely to thrive, there also is money to be made in investing in the analytics themselves. For example, Moody’s acquired Four Twenty Seven, Inc., making it an affiliate and giving the rating agency access to a giant database of granular climate change risk analytics. Bloomberg reasoned that the acquisition potentially signifies “the beginning of a major shift in how markets price risks related to climate change.”

 

  • Agriculture: Sure, this could fall under AgTech, but such precision agriculture products as software management, data analytics, water efficiency and seed innovations are closely related to climate change, recruiting younger farmers and luring venture capital investors focused on agriculture, including Avrio Capital and Anterra Capital. Boston-based Indigo Agriculture, for one, develops microbial and digital technologies that improve environmental sustainability and consumer health, among other things.

While social impact investors haven’t been shy in investing in disaster recovery and big tech firms have donated sizably after extreme events, ClimateTech goes beyond do-gooding to find bottom-line benefits. While traditional CleanTech investments have slowed, these three climate resilience tech investment areas suggest there’s money to be made while combatting climate change.  

In fact, the genre is so ripe that a ClimateTech Wiki has emerged. The site offers a platform for both mitigation and adaptation/resilience technologies; give it a look and consider what climate resilience you can invest your time or treasure in.

Image credit: Hugh Han

A primer on ClimateTech
A primer on ClimateTech

 

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With Transatlantic Voyage, Greta Thunberg Joins Movement to Clip Airline Sector's Wings

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Teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s announcement late last month that she would sail across the Atlantic to attend the United Nations Climate Summit in New York this September was met with approval by her fellow Swedes and other Europeans who are giving up air travel to reduce their carbon footprint in a growing “flight shame” movement.

That has airline industry officials worried, even if it has yet to seriously make a dent in air travel. Alexandre de Juniac, head of IATA, warned Unchallenged, this sentiment will grow and spread,” at an airline summit in Seoul in June, according to Reuters.

The airline industry represents 2.4 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions, according to Carbon Brief: but its emissions are growing fast, with passenger numbers projected to double to 8.2 billion in 2037.

In Sweden, the airline industry is feeling the impact of “flight shame,” from the Swedish “flygskam”, where the grassroots initiative Flygfritt has convinced 14,500 Swedes to renounce air travel in 2019 (aiming for 100,000 in 2020). Swedavia, which operates Sweden’s 10 busiest airports, reported domestic passenger numbers are down by 8 percent from January to April this year, compared to a 3 percent decline in all of 2018, according to the Guardian.

For Thunberg, who stopped flying in 2015 and got her parents to join her, there was no question that she had to find a different way to get to New York, as she explained to U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who kicked the climate debate in high gear in the U.S. with the Green New Deal. In a conversation arranged by The Guardian, Ocasio-Cortez told Thunberg, “If you land in New York, we will give you a Queens’ welcome!” 

Thunberg’s school strike movement to shine a light on climate change inspired student strikes in more than 1,600 cities in 125 cities. Whether her decision to cross the Atlantic on a zero-emissions sailboat sparks a resurgence of ocean travel remains to be seen—but her influence among youth activists is considerable.

Thunberg will be crossing the Atlantic with Team Malizia on a 18-metre (60ft) yacht, a high-speed planing monohull built for the 2016-17 single-handed, non-stop round-the-world Vendée Globe race. The vessel is owned by German property developer Gerhard Senft and sponsored by the Yacht Club de Monaco. Thunberg said she is refusing all commercial sponsor logos and “no money or future payments are involved.”

Such vessels don’t represent a realistic solution to most climate activists who spurn transatlantic air travel. There will always be exceptions, like the couple who had given up air travel for their low-carbon lifestyle but needed to travel from Switzerland to Australia for a wedding and spent 200 hours on trains and a fortnight on a cargo ship.

Meanwhile, there has been more talk about all-electric airplanes, but that young industry most likely will need many more years before such options can scale up. Meanwhile, citizens concerned about the rapid growth of the global travel sector have plenty of targets in their line of sight.

The cruise industry could next be a likely focus for climate activists; a passenger’s carbon footprint triples in size when taking a cruise, reports Forbes. Along with other environmental impacts, such as the disposal of sewage and other wastes in the oceans, his industry has been under increasing pressure to address these challenges.

One example of the global pushback against cruise lines is that last year, Norway pledged that its scenic fjords will become zero emission zones by 2026 and will only welcome electric ships. Over the past several years, Venice and other cities in Italy have demanded that cruise operators make their ships “compatible” with local infrastructure and environment. And officials in Dubrovnik, Croatia signed a memorandum of understanding with the global cruise industry as locals feared the surge in port visits has aroused fears that the popular destination “has lost its soul.” Watch for other countries to follow the lead of Norway, Italy and Croatia—in which case Greta Thunberg may have more travel options the next time she decides to venture away from her hometown.

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Buyout Benefits: Retreating from U.S. Climate Risk Zones

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John Holdren, who was President Barack Obama’s science advisor, has contended that when it comes to climate change, we basically have three responses: “mitigation, adaptation and suffering,” with a combination of them offering the way forward. Within adaptation, three choices also exist: adapt, prepare or retreat.

But in the United States, what constitutes retreat? Or, as a friend of mine at the Federal Emergency Management Association, reflecting his military background, prefers to term it: “retrograde” or “retrograde in force.” Another way to put it is by using the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s favored term, “buyouts.”

HUD, arguably, is the biggest retreater. Its Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant program, as well as various state and local government programs that match FEMA-funded efforts, have paid for buyouts in climate risk zones across the country. The state of New York, for instance, has used CDBG-Disaster Recovery program funds to purchase 1,277 homes in its New York Rising program since 2015, while New York City acquired 120 homes in its Build it Back Program after Hurricane Sandy

Federal rules require a buyout to be the acquisition of real property—residential, commercial, agricultural or vacation—and it must be removed and follow subsequent land use and deed restrictions that require the land be for non-structure use. Generally, buyouts are valued at the pre-disaster price and are available for properties located in a flood plain or disaster risk-reduction areas defined in a post-disaster action plan.

As for buyout benefits, there are several reasons why they may tempt citizens, including:

  • Move people and their homes out of harm’s way, minimizing repetitive loss of property.
  • Restore the natural sponge function of a flood plain.
  • Provide additional green space and coastal or rivers-edge buffers. 
  • Offer long-term cost savings to a municipality by decreasing disaster and damage-recovery fund demands.

However, recovery programs face challenges. In many instances, there isn't enough public or political will to support a buyout program. As Pete Plastrik, vice president at Innovation Network for Communities, notes in his coauthored report, Can it Happen Here? Improving the Prospect of Managed Retreat by U.S. Cities, leaders “can foresee that considering retreat would produce substantial political, financial and emotional pain locally—an array of immediate and intimidating difficulties with little gain in the short run.”

Plus, since the programs are generally voluntary instead of being about taking property by eminent domain, low participation can result in a checkerboard of houses with some neighbors taking the buyout and others staying put. The results include decreased cost savings, the loss of any infrastructure buffer and opportunities to avoid repetitive losses. In addition, tax base implications can arise if residents move outside of the local government area and bought-out residents struggle to fund replacement housing at a price that matches their buyout proceeds. Of course, the social impacts, both on those who move away from their community and those who stay, are real and quantifiable.

As the number of buyouts grows over time, paid for with U.S. taxpayer dollars and forever impacting affected households and communities, important questions should be addressed:

  • What are clear and replicable guidelines and policies for appraising home values that protect both tax payers and homeowners?
  • How can we ensure those who move do not resettle in places that face future risks – which would mean potentially repeated future buyouts, especially since coastal families might choose to find homes with familiar coastal assets?
  • Since lower-income housing, including public housing and mobile homes, have historically been developed in flood plains, how can these residents be accommodated in dignified affordable homes out of harm’s way?

These are serious questions to ponder—and they will not recede anytime soon.

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Twilio.org Pledges Enormous Boost for NGOs' Crisis Response

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“When it comes to people in crisis, communications can be the bridge between life and death,” tweeted Erin Reilly, vice president of social impact at Twilio and general manager of its social impact arm, Twilio.org, earlier this year, as she described the drive behind Twilio’s social mission that is intertwined with its core business.

Pledging 50 percent of resources for good

Today, Twilio.org pledged to dedicate 50 percent of its resources to nonprofits working in crisis response related to substance abuse, sexual assault, mental health, domestic abuse and disaster relief. This is in addition to the $5 million in grants Twilio.org will commit to nonprofits from its Impact Fund by the end of 2019. Twilio.org also has 3,500 Impact Access program members, which are nonprofits that have received $500 of credit in donated product, representing an additional $1.75 million in product donations. This adds up to $11.25 million in Twilio.org grants and product donations since 2017.

Twilio is a $16 billion cloud communications company that facilitates communications by enabling phones, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), and messaging to be embedded into Web, desktop and mobile software. Launched in 2008, today Twilio has 64,000 customers across 180 countries, with a revenue of approximately $650 million in 2018. Some of its customers include Match.com, Airbnb, American Red Cross, Whatsapp, Salesforce and the New York Times.

The social impact journey of Twilio.org

“Early on, we saw a trend of nonprofits using Twilio to help advance their missions, so we wanted to make sure that our technology is easily accessible to them," Reilly told 3p. "That’s why we launched Twilio.org in 2013 by providing $500 credit and 25 percent discount to qualifying nonprofits. We generate revenue from nonprofits that pay us to use our product, albeit at a discounted rate. That gives Twilio.org resources to reinvest into social impact."

Twilio.org gained more momentum by participating in the Pledge One Percent movement, committing 1 percent of the company’s equity to fund Twilio.org for 10 years. “Prior to taking the pledge, we knew we wanted to prioritize social impact, but we hadn’t committed a number to the cause," Reilly explained when asked about the rationale behind participating in the program. "We had already donated and discounted our product, and engaged our employees, but we wanted to step it up by committing our equity. Pledge One Percent provided a clear precedent that we could follow. Even when we acquired Sendgrid, who was also a Pledge One Percent member, we added the value of one percent of its equity to Twilio’s pledge.”

Crisis Response Technology Network launches for nonprofits

Twilio.org’s commitment of 50 percent of its resources for nonprofits working in crisis communications also includes the establishment of the Crisis Response Technology Network, which will bring together organizations delivering crisis response at scale via technology. Engineers and program specialists will convene quarterly to identify barriers and opportunities to utilizing technology to improve response times and serve more people who are in crisis.                                                            

Charter members of the network as announced at Twilio's Signal conference are nonprofits RAINN, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (Center on Addiction), Child Helpline International, Tech Matters, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children and the Trevor Project. The Network is open for membership to nonprofit organizations that are utilizing communications technology to better serve communities in times of crisis.

The strength of the triple bottom line

Twilio’s venture into social impact has not only strengthened the value proposition of the company, but also its relationship with clients and employees: “Our commitment to Twilio.org has also reassured our for-profit clients," Reilly told us. "When a business sees our commitment to supporting a suicide helpline and staking its effectiveness on the reliability of our networks, they know that we can handle big challenges. For our employees, the Twilio.org commitment has a similar effect. Employees are going to do the extra work to test the platform because they know that every message matters.”

“At the end of the day, social impact will not be successful if it’s a ‘nice-to-have,'" she concluded. "I believe that the success of the ‘for-profit’ and ‘for-good’ arms of Twilio are intertwined. As one grows, so does the other.  Creating a virtuous cycle between the two and actively making them inextricably tied is important for the sustainability of both efforts."

Image credits: Twilio.org; Arseny Togulev/Unsplash

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Twilio.org Pledges Enormous Boost for NGOs' Crisis Response
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Twilio is committing 50 percent of its social impact division's resources to NGOs working in crisis response, adding to millions in similar investments since 2017.
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When Brand Reputation Confronts Employee Activism

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Several household brands have been in the news for taking a stand on racism and confronting other offensive content in traditional and social media. That concern is also at work behind the scenes, within the enormous business-to-business (B-to-B) sector. A recent decision by the leading independent public relations agency Edelman provides an interesting example of that dynamic, because it illustrates how employee activism can have an influence on high-level decisions on matters of brand reputation and corporate responsibility.

Why this global P.R. firm dropped Geo Group

Edelman has been in the news recently after reports surfaced that it agreed to represent the for-profit prison company Geo Group last spring, only to disentangle itself from the relationship earlier this summer.

That decision is not difficult to understand from a brand reputation perspective. The field of for-profit prisons is not a particularly savory one, and Geo Group has earned notoriety in recent months for documented incidents of inhumane treatment of immigrants at some of its facilities.

Geo Group is not the first high profile name to be turned away by Edelman in concert with a broader social trend.

Back in 2015, The Guardian reported that Edelman cut its longstanding relationship with the American Petroleum Institute, spinning the business off to a former subsidiary, Blue Advertising. The decision followed upon a movement within the public relations field to stop representing climate change deniers.

As another indication that the Geo Group decision may have been carried out with brand reputation in mind, earlier this summer Edelman released a comprehensive survey titled, “2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: In Brands We Trust?” The report highlights a shift in the way consumers perceive brand reputation. Turning out a good product is no longer enough to protect a company’s reputation, Edelman's researchers have found (emphasis added):

“…consumers have many more reasons to question how much they trust a brand. Will it protect their data and privacy? Use automation responsibly? Tell the truth in this era of disinformation? In short: Can consumers trust a brand do the right thing?” 

The evolving role of employee activism

To be clear, it is possible that high-level executives at Edelman took the lead in terminating the relationship with Geo Group for reasons other than brand reputation. In an official statement provided to the media, an Edelman spokesperson explained the decision as an ethically neutral one.

However, last week the trade publication Ad Week reported at length on the episode and suggested that brand reputation did play a central role in the decision. Additionally, Ad Week suggested that employee activism was also at work.

Citing anonymous sources both inside and out of Edelman, Ad Week reported that "the firm opted not to work with The Geo Group because of internal pressure from staffers protesting the partnership and worries that the potential blowback could endanger relationships with other clients.”

Ad Week based its reporting partly on two insider sources at Edelman, who claimed that employees spoke up after receiving an internal email announcing Geo Group as a client.

The publication also noted the relationship between brand reputation and employee activism:

“Executives were concerned about employees’ objections to the business, the sources said, but they also feared public awareness of the relationship might damage Edelman’s reputation.

Among other trade publications to carry the story, PR Week also cited a report in The New York Times, indicating that Edelman dropped Geo Group after several “employees were ‘disturbed’ by the work and asked not to work on it.”

Appearances, aside, employee activism works

Even where employee activism does not achieve immediate results, companies can still suffer reputational damage.

A worst-case scenario was recently offered up by the home furnishings company Wayfair, which suffered through a high walkout demonstration at its headquarters in downtown Boston when it failed to respond to employees’ concerns over the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants.

The impact on talent recruitment can be especially concerning when other companies in the same field have taken steps to listen and respond.

The Edelman decision, for example, has thrown additional light on a reported “ethical crisis” over immigration issues at Ogilvy, another leading public relations firm.

That is no idle concern. In 2017 the research and consulting  firm Povaddo found that “more than half (57 percent) of those working in America’s largest companies feel that their employers should play a more active role in addressing important societal issues.”

Those findings have been borne out at Facebook, for example, where employees petitioned to take Peter Thiel off the company’s board of directors over his support for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 election cycle.

At Amazon, employees have been advocating for the company to step up its efforts on climate change. At Google and Microsoft, employees have been petitioning their companies over surveillance and immigration issues.

None of these instances have had a direct or dramatic impact on high level executive decisions — yet. As top firms compete for talent and loyalty, high level decisions about brand reputation will become increasingly entwined with the social concerns of employees.

Join us at 3BL Forum: Brands Taking Stands – What’s Next, at MGM National Harbor, just outside Washington, D.C., on October 29-30, 2019. The two-day event will continue our newly established tradition of bringing corporate leaders together on a fast-paced main stage, keenly focused on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind their thinking as we navigate a rapidly changing business environment. Receive a 25 percent discount using this code PUNDIT2019AUGUST when you register here during the month of August, 2019.

Image credit: Hédi Benyounes/Unsplash

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When Brand Reputation Confronts Employee Activism
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Recent events reinforce how employee activism influence high-level decisions related to both brand reputation and corporate responsibility.
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The Video Game Industry Could Sure Use a Sanofi Moment

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Remember when Roseanne Barr lost her job last year after a late-night racist Twitter rampage, which resulted in ABC firing her from her show's reboot? Barr blamed her use of the prescription sleep aid Ambien for her behavior, but the drug’s manufacturer, Sanofi, was having none of it. Someone alert at the social media controls of Sanofi tweeted, “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”

It was a great moment for the pharmaceutical industry, of which the sector has had few in recent years considering all the sordid stories and litigation in which many in big pharma find themselves mired.

The video game industry could use a Sanofi moment.

In the wake of the tragedies that occurred in El Paso and Dayton, plenty of politicians, including the U.S. president, have directed much of the blame at video games. Many of these companies’ publicly-traded stocks dropped this Monday after leaders including U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tied last week’s violence to gaming.

There’s no shortage of research that has shown that there are no links to video games and violence akin to what to caused over 30 deaths last weekend. Mind you, this is an old argument: in the early 1940s, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia blamed pinball machines for a bevy of social ills. Fast forward several decades, and the record shows that academic studies, like this one published earlier this year, have confirmed that no matter how violent video games may be, there is no link to aggressive behavior.

But that stubborn argument persists, even though simple logic dictates that video games are found in almost all countries on earth – but none has the level of gun violence to the degree that the U.S. has. Plus, as a 2015 Pew Research Center study pointed out, video games are enjoyed by all genders, ethnicities and races.

Yet as an industry, the video game industry has largely been silent and has allowed various leaders define its impact on society. A quick review of leading gaming companies, including Ninendo, Activision Blizzard, Namco, King Digital and even Zynga (okay, well they are the Farmville and Words with Friends people), don’t reveal a peep – either on their site or in emailed statements disseminated to writers, journalists or bloggers. The same goes for Microsoft and Sony.

One could argue that speaking out only puts these companies, executives and employees in an uncomfortable position as they are no longer above the fray. Plus, these accusations have gone on for years, but U.S. consumers still buy and play video games.

But food and beverage companies have long fought back against accusations, and scientific evidence, that their products can have a negative impact of public health. We’ve watched pharmaceutical companies dodge responsibility for the opioid crisis. Giant tech firms have also been vocal in countering criticism that their business practices led to the manipulation of U.S. elections.

One of the view gaming industry executives to push back is the CEO of Take-Two Interactive’s CEO, Strauss Zelnik. During an interview Monday with Barron’s, Zelnik, who is at the helm of the company who has given us Grand Theft Auto, said:

“We’re just sickened and saddened by these senseless tragedies. That said, blaming entertainment is irresponsible. Moreover, it is highly disrespectful to the victims and their families. The fact is entertainment is consumed world-wide...but gun violence is uniquely American. So we need to address the real issues.”

Like several of its publicly-traded competitors, Take-Two’s stock took a hit shortly after the president’s statement about the El Paso and Dayton shootings, only for it to have rebounded and recovered any losses as of press time.

And no, so far we haven’t seen any ties between Grand Theft Auto and violence.

The bottom line is that the video game industry has science, academia and common sense on its side. These companies’ leaders could do a society a favor by pointing out the facts – and in turn urging politicians to redirect their focus on solving this massive problem, instead of deflecting blame and gaslighting the U.S. public.

Join us at 3BL Forum: Brands Taking Stands – What’s Next, at MGM National Harbor, just outside Washington, D.C., on October 29-30, 2019. The two-day event will continue our newly established tradition of bringing corporate leaders together on a fast-paced main stage, keenly focused on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind their thinking as we navigate a rapidly changing business environment. Receive a 25 percent discount using this code PUNDIT2019AUGUST when you register here during the month of August, 2019.

Image credit: Alex Haney/Unsplash

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The Video Game Industry Could Sure Use a Sanofi Moment
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Remember when the pharma giant Sanofi smacked down Roseanne Barr last year? The video game industry needs such a moment - Leon Kaye writes why.
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