BBC Report: Drones and Climate Change

BBC Report: Drones and Climate Change

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Hear the word drone and you’ll likely think of military predator drones: forces of death and destruction. But what about drones as a force for restoration: emergency relief, education or even saving the planet?

I explored the future of drones at the San Francisco Bay Area Maker Faire, on assignment for the BBC World Service; and spoke with drone experts from GoogleX, OpenROV and even….R2D2. The latter was one of my toughest interviews ever. Next time, I’ll bring a droid translator.

My report aired today on BBC’s Tech Tent. Listen to the podcast here or below (starts @17:30)

Here’s a transcript of the report:

R2D2 sets the scene (translations welcome via Twitter)

van Diggelen: I’m here at the SF Bay Area Maker Faire, a “show and tell” gathering of tech enthusiasts, hobbyists, artists and engineers. You could say I’m here to meet my maker… to explore drones designed not for destruction but to make the world a safer, more egalitarian, greener place. Here’s Adem Rudin, who works at GoogleX.

Rudin: This is Project Wing. We’re doing drones for delivery and our end goal is to deliver anything to anyone, anywhere and do it quickly.

We’re trying to build a platform that people can use in whatever way they can dream up…In 2014, we went to the Outback, near Brisbane and met up with a couple of farmers out there, operated for about a week, delivering bottled water, food, two-way radios…

GoogleX Project Wing AdemRudinvan Diggelen: Does it have  some kind of  attachment you can put things in?

Rudin: The package is on the underside and when we want to deliver, we bring the aircraft into a hover and actually winch the package down to the customer waiting on the ground.

van Diggelen: It looks a bit like a stingray…

Rudin: We tried to make it look friendly…unobtrusive and it also is fairly quiet up in the air…

van Diggelen: When you see what’s going on in Nepal…do you see that being a future potential application for this drone?

Rudin: Yes … It would be a very quick, very low cost way to get out, take aerial photographs of disaster areas and deliver emergency supplies directly to people.

van Diggelen: Since this is one of the secretive GoogleX projects, Rudin was unable to give me a timeline for when we might see these Google drones filling our skies.

Audio: sound of bubbles, submarine drone reaching surface, diving down again

van Diggelen: The beauty of Maker Faire is discovering what’s just round the corner.  I found Zack Johnson standing by a huge paddling pool operating a submarine drone – about the size of a shoebox.

He’s the project manager for an  underwater drone called OpenROV that allows anyone to channel their inner Jacques Cousteau. (Check out OpenROV Founder, David Lang’s TED talk).

OpenROV, the underwater drone Johnson: It goes down to about 75 meters and films live video that goes back to the shore and you control it either with an Xbox controller or a USB joystick or with a laptop.

There’s basically two things stopping people becoming Jacques Cousteau. One is price… The other one is know-how.

van Diggelen: Johnson’s DIY kit sells for $900 to a global market. The company supports an  international community of users who share their expeditions online.

Johnson: We call it Open Explorer: it’s a web platform for sharing expeditions. There are people who’re using ROVs to look for sunken tombs, buried treasure, marine archaeology, water sampling, coral reef monitoring

There are some academic applications. Especially regarding coral reefs. That is a big focal point for the environmental movement right now because it’s a great litmus for the health of the ocean.

van Diggelen: So drones will be used in the fight against climate change, to help save endangered species, to deliver emergency supplies and even bring the Internet to remote places in the world. The future of drones is as vast as the open sky. Its only limit? Our imagination.


Want to explore more BBC reports and commentary? Click here for archives on everything from sexism in Silicon Valley to tech solutions to the California drought.

BBC Dialogues: California’s Drought and Your Lawn

BBC Dialogues: California’s Drought and Your Lawn

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

As news broke about Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandatory water restrictions in California, I joined Roger Hearing on the BBC’s Business Matters program to discuss the state’s historic drought and the governor’s slow response.

“We are standing on dry grass, and we should be standing on five feet of snow,” Mr. Brown said. “We are in an historic drought… a new era…The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past.”

Although the governor’s mandate calls for a 25% water use reduction, it probably won’t go into effect until June and will barely impact the farming community, which accounts for 80% of the state’s water use (almond farmers alone use 10%). According to a report by Lisa Krieger, the CA Department of Water Resources confirms that agriculture water use has already been heavily restricted, however the new rules will not restrict groundwater pumping.

Experts at NPR’s KQED say the most worrying part is that this crisis is a glimpse of the future: the low rainfall and high temperatures we’ve experienced in the last four years are now the “new normal,” thanks to climate change.

Here’s an extract of our discussion that starts at 29:00 in the BBC podcast:

Hearing: We know California is sunny…but it’s rather too sunny and not quite rainy enough…and for the first time in the state’s history you have mandatory water restrictions. How does it affect your life and what’s going on there?

van Diggelen: Yes, this is big news here. Governor Brown went up into the Sierra this morning and he stood where normally there would be about five foot of snow and he was on grass. It was such a powerful image to relay to people the extent of the problem: 2013 was the driest on record in the state, 2014 was the warmest. It was like a one-two punch for the environment and finally he’s getting round to doing something. A lot of people, myself included, are asking: Why didn’t you start something a year ago? We saw this coming…(A recent San Jose Mercury News editorial describes Brown’s action to date as “lame.”)

Hearing: What’s it actually look like? Do you notice the lakes ebbing away, the rivers drying up?

California_Drought_Dry_Riverbed_Photo: Wikimediavan Diggelen: There are a lot of reservoirs in the south San Francisco Bay area that are completely dry or close to being dry. A lot of locals are letting their grass go brown. There are a lot of visible ways of seeing this, however you’re also seeing beautiful verdant grass on golf courses, so you could say there is a cover up going on. This is long overdue, there really needed to have been mandates before this, but at least there is something happening now. Gov. Brown is calling for reduction in water use of 25% for the next year.

Hearing: But he can’t make rain. Is there any sign of it coming?

van Diggelen: Our rainy season is almost over. We’re now in April and the majority of our rain falls between September and March, so it’s not looking likely. We may get one or two light showers, but the experts are saying the window of opportunity for a big storm has passed.

Hearing: It’s going to be a long hot summer.


Toward the end of the program (at 48:45 in the podcast), Don McLean fans will be interested to learn that we discussed the “American Pie” manuscript, which goes to auction on April 7th. I couldn’t help remarking how relevant the classic contemporary song is to California today:

“I drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry.”

Sadly, as climate change progresses, dry levees, lakes and rivers are going to be a widespread sight in California. Indeed, that and brown lawns are going to become “the new normal.”

So bye-bye verdant green lawns…

It’s been nice knowing you.

BBC Dialogues: Koch Brothers vs Tom Steyer on Climate Change

BBC Dialogues: Koch Brothers vs Tom Steyer on Climate Change

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

News that the Koch Brothers are planning to raise almost a billion dollars in the run up to the 2016 Presidential election is sending shock waves through U.S. politics. The Kochs are closely linked to the Heartland Institute, an organization described by the BBC’s former environment correspondent, Richard Black as follows:

To itself, it’s a think-tank; to critics, it’s a lobby group, paid to oppose regulation on a number of fronts – including climate change. It’s probably most notable (or notorious) for holding an annual “climate-sceptic” conference in Washington DC.

On the other side of the climate arena is Tom Steyer, a self-made billionaire who launched Next Gen Climate, a Super PAC with the following mission:

“Working at every level, we are committed to supporting candidates, elected officials and policymakers across the country that will take bold action on climate change—and to exposing those who deny reality and cater to special interests.”

Steyer put $74 Million into the 2014 elections,  targeting Republican candidates who reject climate science.


BBC Business Matters features Alison van Diggelen, Feb 2014Last week, I joined Roger Hearing, host of BBC’s Business Matters to discuss the influence of big money in US politics and the Koch brothers in particular. Hearing talked to Andy Kroll a senior writer at Mother Jones about his insightful article, “The Koch Brothers Raised $249 Million at Their Latest Donor Summit” (@26:30 on the BBC podcast).

Here is a transcript of our conversation. It has been edited for clarity (starts @35:00 above, 32:00 on the BBC podcast)

Roger Hearing: What do you think is the effect of money in this scale – we’re talking a pretty massive scale – on US politics?

Alison van Diggelen: It is massive and it seems to be growing. It’s a little bit scary. I can assure you, because I cover climate change, I’m very aware of the Koch brothers. They’re secretly funding climate denial, basically a climate denial machine

Hearing: Can you explain that?

van Diggelen: They have been funding various foundations with wonderful names that you’d think you would get behind, like the Heartland Institute. But what the Heartland Institute spends most of its time doing is pulling apart real scientists’ studies and reports; and trying to undermine them….scientist by scientist, report by report, trying to undermine the credibility of the scientist or the report.

Hearing: I guess they say they’re putting their money behind different views, airing views that are perhaps not mainstream?

van Diggelen: That’s the interesting thing. There’s a huge difference between what people think about climate change in America versus in Europe and the rest of the world. I think, for the rest of the world, it’s a done deal, it’s an accepted truth. But here an America, and I think a lot of people would agree with me on this, the Koch brothers’ machine of climate denial has helped muddy the waters so a lot of people aren’t quite sure, especially if you look at Republican candidates, a lot of them talk about “the science isn’t a hard fact.” They’re wary of actually admitting that there is such a thing as global warming going on.

Hearing: Alison, are there any moves to…we heard that  there was a case some time back going to the Supreme Court…where there was an attempt to try to clear the position as far as money and politics were concerned. Is there any renewed attempt, ahead of the 2016 election to try to restrict in any way how much money can be put into the campaign?

van Diggelen: Not that I’m aware of. There seems to be the dominance of the 1% here in the US. They’re influencing what is happening in the US in four ways: through policy, courtroom decisions, TV ads, and the education system. They seem to be unfettered in their ability. Perhaps the court case you were referring to is Citizens United? But that effectively gave more power to these political action committees and allowed them to create dark money groups where they’re not actually declaring where the money is coming from. It’s all rather doom and gloom.

Hearing: We talked there about the Koch brothers, and they tend to be backing Republican candidates…but where you are, around Silicon Valley there are a large number of very wealthy individuals who have quite a liberal outlook and could deploy their money there. Similarly people in Hollywood. Does that happen too?

van Diggelen: It is happening. The person of note is Tom Steyer. He’s a San Francisco, former money man, who’s now putting a lot of his millions into an organization called NextGen Climate. They are getting involved in politics and they are targeting mostly Republican candidates, those that are rejecting climate science. I’m all in favor of that: exposing these people with their crazy science ideas

Hearing: But that’s big money too…

van Diggelen: I agree. That is big money but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what the Koch brothers are able to leverage from the other side. Tom Steyer has the science behind him and to be honest, it’s shameful that big money from the Koch brothers is being used to fund this anti-science and impact not just America, but the rest of the planet

Hearing: Although the people you’re talking about are trying to put big money in the other side.

van Diggelen: Yes, but I think they’re just trying to make things clear. Science is science. They’re trying to expose the truth of the science and the lies of the anti-science.

Hearing: We’ll leave the argument there. It’s an interesting one…

More from the BBC’s Richard Black story:

“The Heartland Institute is largely behind the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), a project that purports to mirror the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by producing reports downplaying the extent of global warming as well as the involvement of greenhouse gas emissions in producing it.”

Read more from Coral Davenport in the New York Times re a January 2015 US Poll on Climate Change

“Although the poll found that climate change was not a top issue in determining a person’s vote, a candidate’s position on climate change influences how a person will vote. For example, 67 percent of respondents, including 48 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of independents, said they were less likely to vote for a candidate who said that human-caused climate change is a hoax.”

Correction: I mistakenly called the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation during the interview. The transcript has been adjusted to correct this error. The Koch brothers are known to be contributors to the Heartland Institute, via their family foundations, as verified by the Center for Media and Democracy.

Apple’s Insanely Solar Deal: 3 Reasons It Makes Sense

Apple’s Insanely Solar Deal: 3 Reasons It Makes Sense

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

In announcing a massive, unprecedented investment in solar power by a private company, Apple’s Tim Cook said yesterday in San Francisco,

“We know in Apple that climate change is real. The time for talk is passed…The time for action is now.”

Here are three reasons the $850 M solar deal with First Solar makes sense:

1. Money saving: Apple signed a 25 year purchase power agreement which will guarantee the tech company a fixed price for solar power, under the market price for energy in California. Solar prices have declined dramatically in the last 40 years (today’s panels are 100 times cheaper than in 1977) and Apple has timed its agreement to profit from this trend.

“We expect to have a very significant savings because we have a fixed price for the renewable energy, and there’s quite a difference between that price and the price of brown energy,” Cook said.

2. Green Halo Effect: Not only will Apple benefit from a “greener than thou” reputation from their existing fans, but will inevitably attract more environmentally conscious consumers, especially Millennials who care deeply how their tech gadgets and the cloud’s data centers are powered. This will help in its battle with arch rival Samsung which it ridiculed last year in a hard hitting ad campaign.

In addition, in the race to attract and retain the top tech talent in Silicon Valley, Apple’s “green reputation” will be powerful.

The stock market liked this green halo effect and sent shares up almost 2% to history making market cap of over $720B.

“Other Fortune 500 CEOs would be well served to make a study of Tim Cook,” Greenpeace said in a statement.

3. Pioneer for Climate Change: Last year, Tim Cook famously told climate skeptics at an Apple shareholder meeting to “get out of Apple stock” if they don’t like his clean energy strategy.  His visible passion on the issue revealed how strongly he feels about climate change and his commitment to reduce Apple’s carbon footprint.

“I want leave the world better than we found it,” said Tim Cook.

Under Cook’s leadership, Apple has forged ahead strongly with plans to get 100% of its energy from renewable sources. A massive data center in North Carolina is powered by huge solar farms and Bloom Energy’s fuel cells. I anticipate that Silicon Valley’s Bloom Energy will also be part of Apple’s new clean power strategy in California (check back soon for updates).

Apple’s trend-setting, clean energy market making reputation is already impacting other tech companies such as Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon, although Google gets the greenest star for its early action and massive investment in clean energy of over $1.5B.

Read more about Apple’s Green Halo and its battle with Samsung (BBC conversation)

How a clever Greenpeace campaign helped green Apple’s iCloud (KQED report)

More clean energy and cleantech stories

Lesley Stahl: Climate Change Needs Alarm Bell

Lesley Stahl: Climate Change Needs Alarm Bell

One day after the sweeping new rules to limit power plant emissions were announced by the EPA’s Gina McCarthy, China just announced a major carbon emissions cap. Yet the climate change deniers and the the coal lobby are campaigning to preserve carbon polluting energy. It’s valuable to reflect on why these new rules are critical to the future of mankind.

As McCarthy described it, “We have a moral obligation to the next generation to ensure the world we leave is healthy & vibrant.”

Others might be more direct: It’s climate change, stupid.

I recently interviewed CBS 60 Minutes Correspondent Lesley Stahl and she shared her emotional reaction to climate change. She witnessed the rapid ice melt in Greenland and reported about it for Years of Living Dangerously, the documentary series on climate change.

“I thought global warming needed an alarm bell rung before I went, but it was extremely emotional for me to see first hand the ice melt,” says Stahl. “…knowing what it’s going to do for the rest of the planet.”

She’s talking primarily about global sea level rises, but there’s also the devastation that will occur due to rising temperatures, widespread drought and the increasing frequency of deadly storms like Hurricane Sandy.

Find out more about Stahl’s report for the Years of Living Dangerously series here. It’s produced by David Cameron and features reports from Tom Friedman, Matt Damon, Jessica Alba and Don Cheadle.

The interview was recorded at the Foothill College Celebrity Forum Series in Silicon Valley on May 15, 2014.

Check out my interview with Lesley Stahl on Barbara Walters’ legacy.