The stories we tell when we talk about carbon and climate change
There’s nothing quite like a pre-caffeinated carpool with strangers to inspire a stroke of insight.
For those less familiar with the "shared" route option that’s become increasingly popular through Lyft and Uber, a pretty diverse spectrum of potential experiences is available — determined primarily by the chattiness factor of your driver and, of course, your fellow passengers and how glued they are to the Twitter and Instagram feeds on their phones.
I was taken aback this week when, before my seatbelt went "click," our driver, Rhonda, a fourth-generation Oakland, California, native, asked, "So, what’s your work in the world all about, honey?” I was even more shocked to discover that I was sitting next to a fifth-grade environmental science teacher and up front was a cleantech entrepreneur working to scale innovative GIS mapping applications aimed at improving the sustainability of agricultural practices.
"Ouch. Good luck with that," said the science teacher, when I shared that my work is focused on accelerating solutions to climate change. "Humans are the worst thing that’s ever happened to this planet. You know we’re doomed, right?”
A bolt of despair radiated outwards from my chest — not, of course, because I agreed with him, but rather thinking about the extent to which this person’s perspective about the future of Earth is shaping the impressionable hearts and minds of the elementary school students who will inhabit it long after he’s gone.
But wait, it gets better.
"Carbon is the root of all evil," the startup entrepreneur chimed in, referencing this week’s breaking news that CO2 emissions are still increasing and the world’s growing demand for energy has led to higher emissions from coal-fired power plants this year than ever before. I was considering writing my VERGE Weekly piece on that very story, until my fellow Lyft riders gave me a better one. Even more ironic is that this young woman works in the agriculture sector, where carbon can be more valuable than gold when it’s in the right place.
Finally, Rhonda spoke up, too, telling her version of the all-too-common story of East Oaklanders who, for generations, have lived in disproportionately polluted communities and subsequently suffer a disproportionately long list of negative health impacts.
I couldn’t help but tell them about VERGE — about the massive economic, environmental and social opportunities that stand to be gained from accelerating a clean economy — and especially about the new conference we’re launching this year and officially announced last week: VERGE Carbon.
What struck me as I found myself explaining the emerging carbon removal landscape is that it’s about so much more than just removing the carbon we’ve already emitted into the atmosphere for the sake of reducing global warming. It’s about restoring that carbon in the soil — where it increases water retention, crop yield and carbon sequestration capacities — and transforming it into materials, products and new fuels in ways that unlock its tremendous and inherent value.
I explained that with all this talk about the urgency and imperative of solving the climate crisis, it's important to remember that carbon itself is not the villain. Carbon is an essential building block of life. You’re wearing it. You ate it for breakfast. Heck, you’re made of it. The carbon cycle is one of the most beautiful and complex natural cycles that sustains life on Earth. Our imperative today is to move beyond seeing carbon as the enemy and to embrace our role as stewards in restoring and rebalancing it.
I used my remaining time with this eclectic bunch to share as many examples as possible of carbon’s value, and the good things humans are doing to harness it. I told them about the new Regenerative Organic Certification that was all the buzz at this month’s Natural Products Expo, and how big companies such as General Mills and McDonald’s are turning dirt into climate goals through carbon farming. I told them about the crazy-cool startups that are gaining traction, such as Climeworks and so many others, by decreasing the cost and increasing the efficacy of direct air capture. I further explained how this is enabling companies such as Interface and Nike to create innovative new products out of captured carbon.
As we sat in rush-hour congestion, watching several massive cranes building the next wave of dense urban development in downtown Oakland, I explained how concrete — the most widely used, human-made material in existence, and the source of about 8 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions — quickly could become "climate-friendly," thanks to steps being taken to develop new products and processes that sequester more carbon than they emit.
I could sense a newfound open-mindedness and curiosity setting in among my fellow riders, albeit not without an understandable dose of remaining skepticism. Dare I say, there was even a dash of optimism and excitement.
In the end, this 18-minute encounter offered several important reminders: The climate doom and gloom out there is real. And those of us who have the privilege to work across the landscape of solutions have an opportunity — indeed, a responsibility — to arm ourselves with clear, compelling stories of what success looks like if we get this right, including all that’s going right already.
After all, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are as a species and what we’re capable of — even among strangers in carpools — may just be as powerful as the technologies and new business models we develop. Maybe even more so.
Speaking of stories and solutions: The nomination window for our fourth annual GreenBiz 30 Under 30 closes April 5. If you know rising stars in the field of sustainability, please nominate them for the recognition they deserve. We are also accepting nominations through May 1 for Accelerate at Circularity 19 — a great way for early-stage entrepreneurs with circular economy solutions to step into the spotlight.