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A Goldilocks path for working in climate
Between advocating for broad based action and developing super specific solutions there's a third viable way to work on climate and make a difference.
I broadly see two well-defined paths for individuals who want to work on mitigating climate change. The first is getting more people to care enough about the issue such that they are willing to take action. The second is working on specific solutions that decarbonize activities within the five overarching sectors that need to reach net-zero: Energy; Mobility and Transport; Food, Agriculture, and Land use; Heavy Industry; and Built Environment. More recently however I’ve come to see a third available path. It incorporates the more appealing aspects of the two well-defined ones while minimizing some of the downsides. This is what I call a Goldilocks path.
Getting more people to care about climate change and then take action doesn’t usually lower emissions directly. But it does make people more receptive to the changes and solutions required to get to net-zero emissions. As an individual the easiest way to get involved is to join an organization that’s geared towards changing the minds of both everyday people and political leaders. The Sunrise Movement is the most obvious organization in this space. The work to be done here is that of persuasion. Whether it's getting a state government to approve the development of community solar farms or whether it's passing Biden’s climate infrastructure bill, it's all about changing minds. And it’s no longer really about convincing Republicans that climate change is real although that’s still an issue. It’s more about convincing people and politicians that there needs to be even more scale and urgency in dealing with the crisis. The benefit of this kind of work is that the feedback cycle is relatively quick and defined. Elections happen every so many years, laws either pass or don’t, and polls indicate how sentiment is shifting. What’s better is that even if a candidate loses or a bill doesn’t pass, the effort to raise awareness isn’t completely wasted. The effects of this type of work build and accumulate over time. The main drawback in my view to this type of work is that it’s a few steps removed from solving the physical processes of climate change. A law mandating a price on carbon doesn’t mean emissions immediately go down, someone still has to find a way to decarbonize steel manufacturing. And that leads to the other path.
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Decarbonizing activities that have heavy emissions is very different from the work of changing minds. This path is all about the specifics within a given industry. The evaluation for whether you as an individual are being useful is measured by whether your solution is adopted by the market and resultantly reduces emissions. This directness to actual emissions reduction is what separates this from broader efforts to take action on climate. Put another way and as I discussed in another post, there’s fewer mental hoops when working on something like decarbonizing cement making. The work to be done here depends greatly on what activity you pick. And while there are many different solutions, ultimately you have to choose a single one and forge ahead since each requires total dedication. More examples of this type of work would be new geothermal power plants, soil carbon sequestration, or electric aviation. The benefit as mentioned is the directness to lowering emissions. There’s also likely more financial rewards if doing this type of work. One drawback however is that there is lots of risk. That new type of cement might just never work. And while hopefully learnings from one endeavor can be applied elsewhere, it's not guaranteed. Of even more concern is that the feedback cycles can be quite slow and ill-defined. Some industries just have long sales cycles. And sometimes even if a substitute process has zero emissions it might never achieve cost parity. Going down this path is all about choosing to be specific. It prioritizes proximity to physical solutions at the cost of uncertainty.
In the process of exploring that second path, I’ve come to understand a third way. This Goldilocks path involves changing the minds of those within a given industry in order to make them more open-minded to climate positive solutions that relate to their specific domain. It’s not about convincing a conservative farmer to vote for the local Democrat nor is it about genetically engineering crops that inhale more carbon dioxide. It’s about changing the minds of farmers so that they’re ready to fully embrace solutions like tree intercropping or biochar amendment. It’s a combination of persuading people to take action and immersing yourself in the relevant zero-emissions solutions. The work is about raising the awareness of those within a sector to the point where the actions they’re willing to take are aligned with the climate solutions that are needed. For an individual this means having a shorter and more well-defined feedback loop along with having proximity to the actual work of replacing emissions heavy processes. It also means not having to pigeon hole on any one solution. Just like the first path, measurement and charting progress is possible through observing adoption rates. Even before adoption you can survey and poll industry constituents to gauge their willingness to try new methods. And just like the second path, success at such an effort requires having technical knowledge about the climate positive solutions a sector needs. It’s a middle ground between raising awareness for broad based climate action and diving headfirst into a single climate solution. But understanding why this is a viable path in addressing climate change requires understanding the current state of affairs within many sectors.
For many sectors what’s required is not revolutionary technologies but more adoption of just-about ready technologies. There is a small leap of faith that’s required but it’s a leap that’s usually supported by data. It’s also the case that while most sectors have members who are somewhat set in their ways, there’s not a total unwillingness to change. This is best exemplified by farmers who switch to organic farming but only after they’ve seen the neighboring farmer successfully do it. Dan Barber’s The Third Plate in one section chronicles how a whole upstate New York community converted to more sustainable agricultural practices after a succession of farmers saw their neighbors make the change. The needed methods and technologies exist. They just aren’t adopted because someone needs to take that first step of changing their mind and taking a chance. In the construction industry, mass timber provides a similar example. The building techniques are solid, the fire safety test results are impeccable, and the installation times are lower yet adoption has taken a while to accelerate. The hesitance to build tall buildings with wood is what needs to be overcome, not any technological challenge. Again, it’s about changing minds not creating new solutions. One final example from the power sector would be increasing the growth of commercial and industrial (C&I) solar. The financing options are growing and the installation costs are going down, but convincing building owners that they should invest in a solar rooftop is still non-trivial. It's that final bit of hesitance that needs to be alleviated. Working on changing minds within a given sector is powerful because in most areas the solutions are there, they just need to be adopted with more urgency. If the solutions didn’t exist or the unwillingness to change was too high, then just working on advocacy for solutions within a sector wouldn’t make this third path viable.
As an individual looking to effect change, raising awareness for specific solutions in a hyper-targeted way might be the best option. It’s a strategy that’s not as broad as evangelizing the Green New Deal, but it’s also not as constraining as working on a very specific solution such as green-hydrogen steel manufacturing. It’s somewhere right in the middle. There is not enough time to let the market itself bring about climate positive solutions so some people need to do the work of accelerating adoption by helping more people believe that another way of doing things is possible. In any sector if there are more people simply willing to entertain a climate positive solution, then every solution that comes along in the future will benefit. I see this third way of doing things as culture change within an industry as opposed to within a society. The first two paths are well defined and receive much attention. This third path is yet to become as well known but some organizations are doing this work within their respective sectors. Woodworks for construction and the Rodale Institute for agriculture are two good examples. As more and more people pivot their careers towards climate, hopefully this new Goldilocks path will grow more prevalent as people see the opportunity this kind of work represents. Somebody will always need to work on convincing conservatives to care about climate and somebody will always need to work on nuclear fusion. But somebody also needs to make sure that more building owners are open to putting solar on their rooftops by convincing them of the long-term benefits. This is the path for those who want to combine aspects from both of the well established methods for working in climate while forging a new direction that's just right for them and the planet.
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