Walking the Talk
The Vibe Shift Is Here:
What That Means for Us and the Planet in 2023

From my perspective as a scientist who’s been working on climate change and environmental resilience since before the crisis made front-page headlines, here are the four biggest trends I foresee defining 2023.

Despite the headwinds encountered globally, we ended 2022 with reason for optimism: The year saw marked progress for climate and oceans, and a global vibe shift to prioritize the health of our planet. We are in the midst of a major transformation evidenced by the way humans interact with one another, the activism of a new generation, how business is conducted, consumer expectations of companies they support, and overarching sociocultural values.

In the early days of the new year, we have the unique opportunity to set the tone for what 2023 — a year that is certain to be crucial in determining the severity of the climate crisis — will look like for the planet.

From my perspective as a scientist who’s been working on climate change and environmental resilience since before the crisis made front-page headlines, here are the four biggest trends I foresee defining 2023:

1. Increase in climate and environmental activism

Climate change is happening, leaving millions of people to suffer the impacts and putting biodiversity at even higher risk. Many people are left feeling powerless.

But instead of paralysis and anxiety, 2023 will see an increase in activism. The past years have proven that large institutions like the UN will not solve the challenges we face today. The glacial pace that it takes to obtain global agreement to pledges and climate treaties — and then actionizing them — is ill-suited to the solutions we need today. This general realization is driving new activism: We see that it’s up to us to create the change needed.

This year, climate activism will take many forms:

  • Direct action: Actions such as activists throwing cans of soup on major artworks will continue or increase because many people, vulnerable to climate change and feeling ignored, want to catalyze real action.

  • Consumer activism: Individuals will increase their meaningful purchasing and investment choices to reflect their environmental values. The general public is realizing that investing in the planet is an investment in themselves and their children. This trend will increase the heat on financial institutions and corporations.

  • Shareholder activism: We saw this emerge in 2022 in the boardrooms of oil companies, with shareholders using their equity stake to put pressure on company decisions around climate change. This will grow in 2023: Money speaks.

  • Scientific activism: For decades now, scientists have been publishing peer-reviewed reports and publications alerting politicians and the public to the consequences of climate change — consequences that are now happening. More of them are speaking up publicly and pressing for action.

  • Career choice activism: In the late part of 2022, I met several young people who had changed jobs specifically to pursue positions where they feel they can act directly to influence climate change and the environment. We’ll see more of this in 2023.

These climate trends are starting to forge new communities united by shared planetary values and compelled to act. Now is the time that CEOs, corporations, boards and politicians who have fiduciary and moral obligations should be paying attention and getting ahead of these trends with stronger and meaningful ESG and climate policies.

2. AI technology’s influence grows and becomes a force in science and climate decisions

Artificial intelligence (AI) has evolved rapidly, becoming increasingly sophisticated and capable of solving ever-more complex problems at a rapid pace. AI is transforming science, speeding up the rate of data collection and analysis. In 2023, the use of AI will accelerate and become more critical to climate change and biodiversity decisions.

  • Scientists use isotopes to track how water moves through the hydrological cycle — flowing between oceans, skies, land and rivers — and studying how climate change is altering these patterns. The analysis has often been a complex and slow process. Now using AI, scientists can quickly analyze and interpret the vast amounts of data that already exist in global repositories.

  • With Ocean-Shot, the coral reef restoration project I launched last year off the coast of Antigua and Barbuda, we’ve placed AI cameras on the ocean floor to monitor reef and ecosystem biodiversity patterns, and reef recovery. These data will drive our decisions on the next reef restoration effort.

In the coming year, AI will help speed up data interpretation, predictions and decisions. For instance, adaptive management — a type of “learning by doing” — has become the hallmark of ecosystem assessment and endangered species management, typically relying on slower long-term data gathering, models and assessments by scientists. AI can potentially fast-track this process and identify problems early on, before it's too late to make adjustments.

3. Restoring nature goes mainstream

The importance of nature and healthy ecosystems for combating climate change, sustaining biodiversity, and supporting our own survival is finally being realized at every level. The US government announced in 2022 that it would start to incorporate the value of intact ecosystems into US economic indicators. This trend will expand and amplify in 2023, with investments being prioritized in the public and private sectors.

Nature itself provides the tools to fight climate change — it has the potential to sequester 30 percent of the carbon we produce. Governments and developers are — and must increasingly — invest in and utilize these nature-based solutions moving forward. Here’s what that can look like in action:

  • Restoring and protecting wetlands, maritime forests and coral reefs can help to significantly mitigate coastal flooding and erosion while protecting lives and property from sea level rise.

  • City green spaces and tree-lined roads aid in absorbing carbon emissions, reducing the effects of urban heat islands.

  • For coastal cities, transforming concrete barriers into bioswales — like this recent Queens, New York project — and protecting wetlands help to better manage water runoff and stormwater drainage, while simultaneously providing cooling shade for residents during heat waves.

4. Increased investment into carbon capture and alternative energies leads to more industry consolidation

Globally, we depend on a reliable supply of energy to fuel our cars, power our laptops, and energize our coffee machines. The war in Ukraine was an eye opener for many of us that, despite our many investments into renewable energy sources, we have minimal options for reliable energy sources that are not based on fossil fuel.

The good news is that these global geopolitical events are catalyzing investment in alternative energy sources and carbon-capture technology.

In 2023, we will see more investment — but money is no longer so “cheap,” and financing will also come with a greater emphasis on return on investment that will favor certain startups and technologies. This will lead first to a greater number of startups, but then more consolidation and faster scaling of those companies and technologies that emerge as leaders.

Some fear that carbon-capture technology will remove the impetus to reduce fossil fuel usage and become a corporate greenwashing tactic. The fear is not misplaced; however, when it comes to the climate crisis, this is an “all hands on deck” moment. Technology is not the sole answer — it’s part of a series of solutions that must also involve emissions reduction and widespread renewable energy adaptation.

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