My relationship to the climate crisis

This is a lightly-edited version of a self-intro I wrote for someone in the (awesome!) My Climate Journey Slack group. It got pretty long, but seemed worthwhile. The basic prompt was: how are you thinking about and relating to the climate crisis?

  • My graduate training was in neuroscience, where I studied the computational side of vision in mammals. I wouldn’t have guessed it at the time, but the main thing I took away from that whole phase of my life is what might be called the “perceptual lens”. Translated to the world of (usually data-driven) products, this amounts to: what matters about a software system is its ability to directly and intuitively shape an individual’s understanding of the world, and their ability to act naturally and appropriately in light of that understanding.

  • I am a systems thinker. I get frustrated when a problem or challenge is handed to me with a framing or scope that doesn’t seem right. My work style switches between making problems bigger and asking questions until I have an approach that feels right, and then diving very deep to execute. I am convinced that the climate crisis will demand a wholesale crossing of existing boundaries - in expertise, fields of research, political alignment, and more - to be addressed with any success.

  • Following on that thought, I do not believe that a technocratic approach will be sufficient. I’m a tech guy, and I work in the medium of software, but no matter how much CO2 we pull out of the atmosphere the global political economy must evolve significantly. A good litmus test for me is the Green New Deal: leaving specific measures aside, it seems clear to me that taking on the climate challenge is inseparable from social, economic, and environmental justice. There’s a huge amount to say on the subject, but suffice to say that it makes no sense to think about the climate crisis as a phenomenon that is separable from the rest of our lives.

  • At the same time, I’m a full-on, small-c capitalist. Well-designed and maintained markets are amazing. The climate crisis is, among other things, the mother of all collective action problems, and markets and price signals are far and away the best tools we’ve developed for coordinating behavior across time, space, culture, motivations, etc. So when I say “the global political economy must evolve significantly”, that’s not code for down with capitalism.

So that’s a bit on my perspective. Now my approach/thesis, as it currently stands.

High-achieving groups like this [referring to he MCJ Slack population] - entrepreneurs, investors, and technologists alike - gravitate toward mitigation, and negative emissions specifically. It’s tech-heavy, has clear metrics, and it isn’t all tangled up with the messiness of people and politics. But climate impacts are already here, and are guaranteed to get worse for some period of time - even if we are wildly successful on the mitigation/decarbonization side of things.

For that reason, and because I’m something of a masochist when it comes to problem selection, I’ve been drawn to the adaptation and transformation side of things. Part of this is stuff like seawalls and managed retreat and hardened infrastructure, but that only scratches the surface. The shift will be so massive and secular that I feel the need to look at it from several perspectives to really get a sense of it.

  1. By 2030, just about every category of consumer preference will have been changed to some degree by the climate era. Some of those shifts will be obvious in purchasing decisions, others buried in supply chains and transmitted quietly by price signals. But the cumulative effect will be massive - the climate economy will just be the economy.

  2. The cultural and psychological shifts will be just as profound. We’re in this odd moment right now where the size and significance of what’s coming, and how much our lives will change, is becoming clear to most people - I know you can relate. But it’s still 98% unknown at the level of lived experience, and almost completely undigested. I feel confident saying that 2030 will both feel and be much more different from 2020 than our present day is from 2010. It’s going to be wild.

  3. One final lens is on human collaboration and organization. There’s so much to be done in empowering people - individuals, small teams, larger affinity groups, whole populations - to make things together, govern themselves, and enjoy each other. I think it’s important to develop these collective capabilities alongside our mitigation and adaptation efforts, both to help us solve our collective problems and to help us feel less alone in the face of these scary situations.