Warming Trends: Weather Guarantees for Your Vacation, Plus the Benefits of Microbial Proteins and an Urban Bias Against the Environment

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

Sleeping Beauty Castle in the rain at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, on Thursday, March 12, 2020. Credit: Jeff Gritchen/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images
Sleeping Beauty Castle in the rain at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, on Thursday, March 12, 2020. Credit: Jeff Gritchen/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

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A Growth Market, Thanks to Climate Change

A long-awaited vacation like a day at a theme park with the kids, a night glamping with the girls or a weekend on the slopes can quickly be ruined by rain. And as climate change brings about more frequent extreme weather, more customers may become wary of committing to trips at risk of being spoiled by a storm.

That’s what motivated Nick Cavanaugh, a climate scientist with a background advising a hedge fund on weather risks, to start Sensible Weather, a company that insures trips against weather events. The company’s Weather Guarantees are offered and sold to customers when they’re paying for a hotel room, ski rentals or theme park tickets online. If the day of their activity calls for rain, Sensible reimburses customers for the expense of their tickets or accommodations. 


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For example, if a customer is buying $100 worth of theme park tickets, Sensible will offer them a Weather Guarantee for a percentage of their total based on the risk of adverse weather based on the location and date of their excursion, say around $10. If there is rain in the forecast during that day, Sensible will text the customer in the morning and offer them a reimbursement for their tickets. 

Sensible, started in 2019, now has thousands of customers and is growing quickly, Cavanaugh said. It operates like an insurance company, using newly-developed technology that can quickly assess risk of bad weather and offering an option for customers to buy protection when they’re about to pay for a trip. Weather Guarantees are currently available on a few camping websites and theme parks, but Cavanaugh said he is hoping to soon make the product available on major travel booking sites. 

The data behind the risk analysis is based on historical trends, but Cavanaugh said, as the climate changes, greenhouse gas emissions and future warming projections will also be integrated to ensure the company is prepared for more extreme weather events. 

“For any given consumer, you go on a vacation, you take a chance, and this is not a catastrophic risk, but to that consumer, if you only have one week of vacation a year it might be catastrophic,” Cavanaugh said. “If you’ve been looking forward to it, it’s a serious expense.”


As Long as the Immigrants Are Birds and Insects

Species are migrating poleward out of their native environments as global warming raises temperatures, which may pose challenges to wildlife managers as newcomers arrive, potentially disrupting native species. 

But a survey given to British birdwatchers and wildlife observers shows that most have a positive outlook on these climate refugee species. The survey asked more than 300 wildlife observers about eight bird species and eight insect species that have shifted into the United Kingdom in recent years. They were strongly opposed to the idea of eradicating newcomers, a study based on the survey found, and emphasized the need to preserve biodiversity.

“One of the things we were thinking of is whether [respondents think] climate change is bad, so therefore, the species moving due to climate change are also bad, which we didn’t see any clear pattern of,” said lead author Jamie Cranston, a Ph.D. researcher at the University of Exeter. “Most people were sort of neutral or sort of sympathetic.”

The survey focused on wildlife observers because they were more likely to understand the implications of range-shifting species and would potentially be involved in collecting data on these species, Cranston said. 

“Nature is something that we manage for the public good. So therefore, it’s the right thing to do to consult people about how it should be managed,” he said. “It’s got to be a balance of different people’s views, and also the interests of future generations.”


Could Make for a Good Burger

An alternative protein source produced by fungi could reduce our demand for land- and water-intensive animal proteins like beef.

In fact, if humans replaced 20 percent of their intake of beef and other ruminant animal products with this alternative protein, deforestation could be cut in half by midcentury, scientists have calculated in a new study in the journal Nature. 

The study looked at microbial proteins, which are a meat substitute with similar protein content and texture to conventional meat. The microbial protein is produced in a fermentation process, similar to alcohol or bread, and fed by sugar in a bioreactor. Researchers from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research modeled future projections to 2050 under which microbial proteins replaced animal proteins, resulting in less land used for pasture and crops to feed livestock. Their results showed that even a relatively small amount of adoption resulted in a “more than proportional” benefit on the environment, said study co-author Hermann Lotze-Campen, head of the Potsdam research institute.

“For the same amount of protein produced, you would need to use much less land, you would avoid deforestation and therefore protect valuable ecosystems,” he said, “and you are also reducing everything related to feed production. The fertilizer used for feed production, the water for irrigation for feed production, you basically take away those effects, and so the overall footprint of the food sector would be reduced.”

In addition to the benefits for the environment, microbial protein would not need a specific climate, since it’s produced in a controlled environment, Lotze-Campen said. But, these products are still not widely available. One company that sells microbial proteins is U.K.-based Quorn, which is available in 16 countries, including the United States.

To achieve the environmental benefits, Lotze-Campen said, more technology will be needed to scale up production and get the products to be cost-competitive with traditional meat products, plus consumers would need to be willing to try these alternatives and substitute them for beef and other meats in their diets.

“How quickly will people pick this up?” he said. “That’s a bit hard to predict.”


City Dwellers and the Environment

People who live in urban coastal areas are less likely to have a complex understanding of how humans and ecosystems affect one another, a new study found. Researchers think this might be connected to a lack of exposure to natural coastlines as more human infrastructure occupies these environments. 

The study, published in the journal npj Urban Sustainability, was based on surveys taken from residents living on the east coast of the United States and found that people who lived in urban areas with shorelines that had more infrastructure, like seawalls and boat ramps, had more uniform perceptions of ecosystems than groups outside of urban areas. 

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Urban respondents tended to think about human and environment interactions in a more linear way, the study conducted by researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) found, while non-urban respondents had a more systematic view of these interactions. For example, linear thinkers may understand that if humans overfish, that might lead to a decrease in the fish population. But a systems thinker would have a more complex view, understanding that a decrease in fish population from overfishing would lead to a shortage of fish and more regulations and restrictions for fishermen.

“In reality, humans are impacting the environment, and the environment is impacting human lives, and there is a feedback loop here,” said lead author Payam Aminpour, a postdoctoral fellow at NIST. “The linear thinking is that you only see the direction one way, either from human to ecosystem or ecosystem to human. You don’t see the interactions, the feedback loops, bidirectional or reciprocal relationships.”

The survey also found that respondents from urban areas were less likely to adopt pro-environmental behaviors, like giving money to a conservation organization, voting for a candidate based on their stance on environmental issues or changing buying habits based on the environmental impact of a product. Aminpour said he believes this could be connected to the lack of exposure to natural environments, though that cannot be definitively proven in this study. 

Study co-author Jennifer Helgeson, an economist at NIST, said that this simplification of knowledge in urban populations could lead to reduced interest in protecting natural ecosystems, especially as a growing proportion of the world’s population is living in urban areas. Two-thirds of people are expected to live in cities by the middle of the century, according to the United Nations.

“We have this vision of living in urban areas as having less impact sometimes,” said Helgeson. “But I think we show that there can be a real balance here of having more negative impacts if you’re not in tune with these natural systems.”