YOU’RE INVITED: A tech-climate convergence, far from the sluggish center

Colin Sullivan

July 15 2021

Hello! Today we launch an excellent newsletter. It’s free. It's here.

It’s called Climate Is Everything, because climate change really is about everything, and that makes it too easy to give it a confused shrug and back away, especially when heat waves aren’t pummeling the western United States and testing power grids up and down the Pacific Coast.

Our goal being to draw attention to the crevices of progressive and entrepreneurial action — and philanthropic possibilities. To make better funding decisions as a family foundation focused on the maker movement and social justice, and maybe in the process help “climate action” beat the climate crisis into submission, bit by bit.

But anyway, here’s our first “big idea” post. We’ll be offering several articles a week, in addition to a news log, updated constantly. We hope you’ll subscribe and get involved. Thanks for stopping by.

'Living through a revolution'

Today’s mind bend: The sci-fi novel “The Ministry for the Future” and what we can do to avoid its most dire predictions about global warming’s acceleration in the 21st Century.

Reading that book and debating its merit is the sort of activity that excites us at Preston-Werner Ventures (PWV). Our staff, whose locations span several time zones, whose roster includes web developers as well as activists and academics, held a freewheeling Zoom roundtable recently to discuss the novel and weigh our response.

The novel jogged more questions than answers, but that’s often the point of our debates. We think of our meetings as a kind of internal TedTalk driven by a desire to do what Kurt Vonnegut said in the novel “Player Piano”: “ … to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center.”

Too often it’s the sluggish center, we think. Too often the center is a slow-moving status quo that ignores a persistent shift in nature that humans (mostly) caused, and that means all of us — and some countries more than others.

The book is by the American writer Kim Stanley Robinson. It was published last year. It envisions a near-future climate disaster starting with an Indian heat wave that kills millions. We’re not talking 100 years from now, either. This crisis is NOW and deals with: the likelihood of extreme-heat fatalities; intermittent electric grids; whether the living are responsible for future humans in the first place; the toothlessness of international carbon regulation; and how very expensive it would be to stop Antarctic glaciers from melting into the oceans — assuming such a feat were possible.

Called “our culture’s last great utopian” by the “Los Angeles Review of Books,” Robinson has ventured into terrain not many artists have been willing to visit. Many have tried to anticipate the near-future only to see the heralded date pass — the 1981 movie “Escape from New York” comes to mind, in which Manhattan Island becomes a federal prison, in 1997 (umm, nope!) — but in Robinson’s case, the point isn’t to entertain or box-office fantasize so much as demand serious political attention now.

Our suggestion is read this book, even if the “L.A. Review of Books” called it Robinson’s grimmest work to date. Certainly it’s uncomfortable and deals with the presence of catastrophic times, but that’s why we think it’s worth the attention. Aren’t we all a little closer to catastrophic times, as temperatures soar, viruses spread, capital buildings get invaded and wildfires spread earlier and earlier every year?

Here’s a selection, from the first chapter, during which (spoiler alert) an American NGO worker gets trapped in a prolonged Uttar Pradesh heat wave, where the combined might of extreme temperatures and humidity exceeds what a human body can sustain, especially when the power grid fails. The result (sorry to report) is the prospect of cooked humans, out in the wide open.

“The air was still hotter than the water. He watched sunlight strike the tops of the trees on the other side of the lake; it looked like they were bursting into flame. Balancing his head carefully on his spine, he surveyed the scene. Everyone was dead.”

The action then spirals from that event, taking us on a wild ride through difficult enviro-realities ranging from eco-terrorist morality plays to which societies can afford air conditioning to entrenched bureaucratic malaise. The story comes with an earnest subtext amid the apparent chaos: What’s there to do about all this right now, when carbon caught in the atmosphere has surpassed historic thresholds and shows no signs of abating?

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Catastrophe having become sharper as we cope with the last five years, no doubt. Reviewing Robinson’s novel in the Oct. 2020 edition of the “L.A. Review of Books,” Gerry Canavan, an English professor who dabbles in essays about ecology and science fiction, inventoried the last half decade. He noted that we’ve lived through: “the coronavirus pandemic; the emergence of CRISPR gene editing; too many droughts, hurricanes and wildfires to count; the legalization of gay marriage in many countries, including the United States; mass shooting after mass shooting after mass shooting; the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements; the emergence of self-driving cars; Brexit; and the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.”

“It is not an easy read, with none of the strategies of spatial or temporal distancing that make Mars or the Moon or the New York of 2140 feel like spaces of optimistic historical possibility,” Canavan wrote. “It’s a book that calls on us instead to imagine living through a revolution ourselves, as we are, in the here and now. Robinson … hasn’t lost heart exactly — but he’s definitely getting deep down into the muck of things this time.”

Among the novel’s clever tricks is an exploration of near-term solutions that’s baked into that muck, some of them difficult to swallow in an age where political violence is all too real. These include outright murder of those corporate souls deemed most responsible for avoiding decarbonization (ecoterrorism) and a technically ambitious plan that would extract water from under Antarctic glaciers, to refreeze it on land and slow rapid melting.

The staff at PWV was more interested in entertaining these ideas conceptually than advocating a single proposal. We took seriously the suggestion that homicide might be deployed, for instance, but we quickly rejected felony crime as unlikely to help.

“You can’t just take out specific individuals … and expect to solve the problem,” said Tom Preston-Werner, PWV’s co-founder, during the recent Zoom call. “It’s the system. It’s a machine. You take out one cog and another one gets slotted in.”

Jake Werner, PWV’s director of Policy and Political Research, agreed. In his view, assassination or causing physical wreckage, as the Earth Liberation Front did in the 1990s only to see several of its members behind bars, ultimately backfires.

“We don't ever want to hurt people,” he said, “and it creates a really bad political backlash.”

This point touches on the larger context of our debate, which was to consider climate solutions with respect to how a family foundation like PWV might best spend its money to help alleviate warming. It’s a dilemma faced by many looking to shift a chunk of their privilege and wealth from the global North (the more “developed” part of the world) to curb heat-trapping emissions while aiding the global South.

Where to focus, after all, when the enemy is a complex, ever-moving and cross-jurisdictional global economic target that tends to hurt the poorest humans first?

“Who should invest in the extreme and dangerous options?” asked Theresa Preston-Werner, PWV’s managing director and co-founder. “Is this best suited for philanthropy?”

“These are the questions we have to ask,” agreed Tom Preston-Werner. “It seems like we’re incapable of solving this problem by changing policies.”

Is air the new oil?

Other “immediate” actions considered by the novel included seeding the stratosphere with man-made aerosols to reflect heat away from the planet as well as a “marine cloud brightening” technique that sprays saltwater into lower-level clouds — both of which have potential but probably need millions more in research dollars to approach viability. The National Academies of Sciences issued a report recently in that vein that calls for $100 million to $200 million in federal U.S. dollars to be spent on examining such efforts, which theoretically anyway might help avert the kind of tragic heat wave imagined by Robinson.

The report leaves one wondering if a few NAS technocrats have been reading Robinson’s books. Loosely known as solar geoengineering, the term refers to strategies meant to cool the Earth by either absorbing heat at high altitudes or reflecting it at lower altitudes. Particles could be distributed by airplane or ship, and would function in much the same way volcanos tend to cool the planet following eruptions.

Theresa Preston-Werner, in her quest to develop a more coherent vision for climate philanthropy, cited the $100 million to $200 million range discussed in the NAS report, suggesting that foundations such as PWV and others might be able to manage that level if governments focus elsewhere. It’s these kinds of decisions that really could make or break a nascent technology idea from the venture-philanthropy side — and why PWV weighs all options when deciding how to invest or donate its money.

“You put a couple of family foundations together, and you’d be able to fund that and not be waiting for government to figure it out,” she said.

Jae Pasari, PWV’s climate program manager and the scientist of the group, offered that foundations are already the first movers on solar radiation management, with the Grantham Foundation so far the biggest funder. Marine cloud brightening is perhaps the most likely approach to emerge from this crowd, he said, because it can be tested more easily by ships crossing oceans and “has a lot better chance for social license,” as it involves saltwater projected into the atmosphere rather than man-made aerosols.

But the topic is not without controversy. Many on the environmental left fear that consideration of technological interventions would hurt broader plans to green the economy with clean energy sources to avoid emissions from the source. In a Dec. 2020 interview with “Rolling Stone,” Robinson acknowledged an “intense prejudice against the idea of geoengineering” but called the position “a category error” that may not pay attention to “the realities of the danger that we’re in.”

“This notion that whatever we do we’re going to get ‘Snowpiercer’ or whatever, or it’s just an excuse for rich people to continue doing what they’re doing,” he said. “Well, some of that’s wrong, and you know this. You put dust in the atmosphere and five years later it’s gone. It’s an experiment that won’t go awry and kill the world. And then some of it is just outdated. The situation that we’re in now, niceties about protecting the feelings of the rich are going to be completely irrelevant if we are in desperate need. So it all needs to be on the table.”

Robinson added that he loves the green new deal and believes there’s room to consider all options in concert. He doesn’t believe these solutions are exclusive.

“That’s really a smart document,” he said, in the “Rolling Stone” piece, of the green new deal resolution introduced by the New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “It’s not naïve. It’s not primitive. It’s a fully articulated plan that takes in a lot of social elements that are very smartly done. So this is not a naïve crowd. There’s something hubristic about the phrase geoengineering, and it looks like a Silicon Valley techno silver-bullet fix that is against the grain of the total program that the left is insisting on, which I totally agree with.”

image A National Academies of Sciences graphic on geoengineering.

Bigger picture, Pasari also thinks it’s a mistake to target a single solution or technology to help solve the climate crisis, meaning foundations with a tech-industry ethic are best served by spreading around their investments and grants. He argued for a portfolio approach that’s honest with itself about, for instance, the emergence of industries that are likely to focus on carbon removal from the atmosphere not for altruistic aims but to turn a profit.

Until carbon is actually stripped from the atmosphere, he said, the gains will be limited to slowing the rate of emissions or slowing the growth rate — not reducing carbon already stuck in the system. He cautioned that many fossil-fuel emitters are “setting themselves up” to make products from the removed carbon, much to the ire of many activists, but that could also result in a net-positive outlook for lowering trapped emissions, depending on how new industries evolve.

“The air is going to become the new oil,” he said, in reference to products that might be derived from trapped carbon. “You could end up with the same players with same amount of power … [so] figuring out how to thread the needle is difficult.”

Seven generations forward

The debate on these topics comes as Elon Musk has established a $100 million XPRIZE to lure technology companies into finding cheaper solutions to capture, use and store carbon. So far, Musk’s prize has attracted 200 entrants from the United States, Canada and India, with more entrants expected from China, Russia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, according to a recent article in Climatewire.

Sponsors of the 15 most promising technologies will earn $1 million "milestone prizes" and compete at the end of four years of testing for a $50 million grand prize. Stripe Inc., a San Francisco financial services company, has sponsored a more modest contest, awarding $1 million a year to companies looking to revolutionize carbon capture and storage solutions.

To Pasari, the role for family foundations in this space might be to “fill the gap” and fund technologies or NGOs that are not usually selected by sovereign governments. This dovetails with how several of our staff members saw parallels between how global North nations in the novel ignored the fictional heat wave in India and economic disparities evident during the Covid-19 pandemic. The same wealthy countries, Jake Werner said, have been criticized for keeping Covid vaccinations to themselves to protect profits for domestic industries, even if it means more deaths in less-developed nations — though President Biden has said he’s willing to lower those protections and has offered millions of vaccines to other countries in recent weeks.

Nevertheless, Jake Werner sees striking similarities in terms of wealthy-nation ambivalence in response to the novel’s tragic heat wave and pharmaceutical companies’ inclination in the real world to protect intellectual property on vaccines.

In both cases, Werner believes the global North is wrong-headed not only for environmental justice reasons but for simple economics. The danger is letting the global economy collapse to maintain vaccine profits, and he sees the same dynamic evident in the climate change debate.

“There’s an overwhelming case for the rich countries to do something about this, and they’re not,” he said, adding that he thinks current modes of neoliberalism have to change. He's not against capitalism per se but tends to support notions that it has to shift.

“We’re in a position where we can still change this, if we do the politics right,” he said. “It’s not like it’s working well even for the elites. They’re constantly afraid of anything going wrong.”

To Yari Greaney, PWV program manager for Local Politics and Environmental Justice, what’s required is a cultural shift in how we relate to the world — and she admits the shift “gets really existential really quickly,” but she still hopes for a movement towards the Iroquois’ “Seventh Generation Principle” that states we should plan for sustainability seven generations ahead of today.

“I wonder what it takes to get people to think about that time horizon,” she said. “It’s probably easier than infinity but a hurdle nevertheless.”

Turning such forward thinking into action can’t come soon enough. The International Energy Agency has found that global energy demand in 2021 is on track to surpass 2019 levels, as many parts of the global economy surge out of the pandemic. IEA notes that carbon emissions dipped in 2020, by 5.8 percent, but that drop is seen as temporary. The agency expects energy-related carbon emissions in 2021 to increase by 4.8 percent, on a year-over-year basis.

Moreover, the prospect of soaring temperatures surpassing what humans can tolerate appears to have become present-day reality in Pakistan. The Telegraph ran a real horror story late last month that investigates the hottest spots on the planet, noting that wet-bulb temperatures (humidity plus heat) have been documented above that level, meaning the body can no longer cool itself by sweating. Such temperatures can be fatal in just a few hours, the Telegraph reports.

With all this in mind, it bears noting that a number of climate-related measures are currently on the table in the U.S. Congress, with the White House having said it wants a clean energy standard (CES) in the budget reconciliation bill. That comes as over 75 companies, including General Motors and Apple, have urged Congress to adopted an 80 percent carbon-free electricity standard by 2030, in an effort spearheaded by the investment group Ceres.

Preston-Werner supports a CES and has funded several groups fighting for climate measures in Congress, including Evergreen Action, Green New Deal Network, Sunrise Movement, ENVENT Lab and Climate Changemakers.

And more to the direct point, the first large-scale deployment of “direct air capture” in the United Kingdom was announced late last month by a Canadian-British business partnership. The project would seek to remove up to 1 million metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere annually and store it in seabed reservoirs.

Also, the Biden administration has announced $12 million in Energy Department funds for six U.S.-based DAC research and development projects. It’s unclear at this point if more dollars for such projects would be made available by the reconciliation bill.

And here’s the link to the NAS report on solar geo-engineering research funding.

Look for much more on these important but difficult debates in the near future, as we search for better ways to help. Our other story this week profiles Tom Preston-Werner on topics near and dear to his heart: hacking and picking locks. Please check it out.

— by Colin Sullivan

Sullivan is the former West Coast bureau chief and congressional editor for E&ENews. He’s based in Washington, D.C.