Not because it’s easy | Standing up to climate apathy
October 27, 2022
I’ve been working on solutions to beat climate change for over a decade. I’ve been thinking about the problem since the 90's. Over that period, there has been a noticeable change in society’s attitude. People are becoming aware of the problem and taking more action than ever. Whether through corporates pledging carbon negative footprints by 2040, the US galvanizing hundreds of billions of dollars in cleantech investment over the next ten years through the Inflation Reduction Act, the EU’s New Green Deal which commits most European countries to being carbon-neutral or through the astounding success of clean technologies such as solar, wind, batteries and energy efficiency software — change is in the air and it’s here to stay.Even Direct Air Capture (DAC), the sector in which I founded Skytree, there has been monumental investment — over $1BN — in the last few years as well as a flurry of new players on the scene. There are now over thirty companies focused on drawing down carbon from the air versus perhaps five ten years ago. And core to deploying DAC installations is understanding what ecological and societal co-benefits can be generated. Whether clean drinking water, ocean deacidification, employment opportunities (only requirement being access to air means large-scale DAC can be deployed anywhere), transparent carbon accounting or proportional investment (mostly, developed nations will carry the cost), DAC is just an example of how a systems approach to climate action can be equitable and ecological.
However, I will argue that we are still not doing enough, and by a long shot. I would not necessarily have held that opinion a few years ago. But two things that have changed since then; people have shown they can quickly and drastically alter the way they live, twice, and we’ve suffered from a surprising number of shockingly severe climate events.
A global pandemic & a war
When Covid-19 broke out, the world stopped. We grounded planes. We forced people to stay at home, get tested regularly, not see family and wear masks. Retail and consumer businesses were forced to close and suffered immensely. The world printed trillions of dollars to soften the blow. It was astounding how so much drastic change occurred in so little time.
On top of that, a war broke out. A war that has seen Europe turn away from a key supplier of its natural gas and suffer huge surges in energy prices as a result. Predicted by experts to require eight years, Europe managed to transition away from its supply of Russian gas in only about eight months. The pain is now being carried by households and companies everywhere in the form of higher energy bills. The UK and Netherlands governments alone have pledged €60BN and €23BN respectively to help families carry the cost. And it’s not citizenry alone making drastic changes to their lives in the pursuit of what’s right. Over 1200 companies have curtailed their operations in Russia above and beyond the mandate of existing sanctions, leaving billions of dollars of assets on the table.
Wind, water & fire
Hurricane Ian, which made landfall two weeks ago off the west coast of Florida, resulted in damage estimated to cost the US a minimum of $60BN (or 1% of the federal budget), and thus has become the second most devastating hurricane in US history. Many insurers are now looking to pull out of the region and if they do so, it will mean many individuals will be unable to take out mortgages, thus effectively collapsing the housing market. Rainfall in Pakistan this summer was three times higher than average and resulted in floods covering at least a quarter of the country’s otherwise dry land. The water, which is not receding in many areas, has wiped out at least 40% of cotton crops as well as a large amount of wheat. Already poor and in debt, the disaster has effectively bankrupted the country and may result in mass starvation over the next few months. In 2020, bushfires in Australia wiped out half a billion mammals and over two billion reptiles, while this year, fires continue to wreak havoc in California and even Siberia. Not even Europe has been spared; Spain, France and Greece have seen large swathes of forest go up in flames.
An infrared image of Hurricane Ian over the West coast of Florida. Source: NOAA[/caption]
If we can take such quick and drastic action, either driven by fear of our mortality or the pursuit of democratic freedoms, in so little time, and action that dwarfs any effort we’ve ever taken to combat climate change, then are we really doing enough to fight climate change as a society? Now that our ability to impose drastic change has been proven, do we still have an excuse not to act boldly? It seems that we’re far more capable of change as humans than we allow ourselves to believe.
The consequences of inaction will be far worse than the pandemic and the war in Ukraine - mere tasters of the consequences of severe climate change. And apparently all we need is the right kind of motivation whether fear of our own mortality and economic decline or our moral duty to protect people’s liberty. Luckily these factors will inevitably grow in our collective psyche as the climate emergency worsens and its effects become more apparent. But why wait? Why wait for more devastation to force us into action? Why wait for more mass migration, mass starvation and mass destruction, when we know they inevitably lay ahead?
More money than ever is being pumped into the sector by governments and corporations. Setting carbon credit prices, subsidizing deployment of new technologies such as carbon capture (including DAC), setting emission standards on cars effectively mandating a transition to electric and adopting transparent carbon accounting, will all mean massive steps forward in our fight against climate change. And as a result of the proactive mindset, economic growth and job creation will happen in tandem. A recent article by the Atlantic reflects on how corporate sentiment has actually shifted away from dealing with climate regulations as chore to harnessing the seemingly limitless growth and funding opportunities it offers. The shift is an important one because it moves us from avoiding a negative outcome to embracing a positive one - a healthier and more sustainable mindset which will serve us in the long-game of beating climate change.
A recent chapter in Seth Godin’s new book ‘The Carbon Almanac’ resonated with me deeply. It talks about how since the industrial revolution, and then the post-war boom, we’ve become more and more of a ‘convenience’ society. Convenience rules all. Whether it’s the convenience of having our clothes or dishes washed automatically. Or the convenience of a shorter commute by driving. Or the convenience of having food delivered to us. Or the convenience of cheap, abundant energy offered by fossil fuels.
The reality is that we don’t find life satisfaction in convenience. We find satisfaction in overcoming challenges and in achieving. In dedicating ourselves to our passions, and after much sweat and toil, admiring the beauty of our work. Courage, character, and integrity are not built through convenience. They’re built through conflict, whether internal or external. It’s bravely tackling the challenges we face today rather than kicking the can down the road which leads us out of our predicaments. COP27 is around the corner. The need for climate justice, stronger national commitments and carbon removal technology will all play a large part in the talks. We must rise to the challenge of saving our planet today, not in ten years from now, because by then it may be too late. And not because it’s easy or convenient, but because it’s hard.