The Case for Climate Optimism
And thoughts on Tucker and the post-Twitter diaspora
A flower emerges from the floor of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, the site of Pueblo Bonito. Look it up!
As usual, the full version of this newsletter is available in Puck.
I’m once again on the road, filming the second season of my PBS show America Outdoors, and sending this dispatch from a very remote region of New Mexico, which is testing my mobile broadband resourcefulness.
In between these shoots I’ve been going podcast crazy. I had a wide-ranging and fun discussion with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway on their Pivot podcast last week. We talked about everything from the A.I. Drake and Weeknd song to signs of healthy democratic life in America to my marriage. And we’ve wrapped season four of my own How To Citizen podcast with a focus on how changing our internal state can affect the world outside and help us live together better. It’s a surprisingly moving conversation with Dr. Sam Rader, who I’ve mentioned before in these emails.
Finally in the what-I’ve-been-up-to department, the tech-themed streaming show I made with Lenovo is airing every Saturday and Sunday on Bloomberg TV. Check your local listings? I feel like a time traveler writing that sentence.
In today’s dispatch, I’m going deep with good news on climate. Yes, there is good news on climate!
Tucker’s Next Act: Tucker Carlson has been fired from his third cable news network in his career. Of course, he wasn’t let go because of his amplification of racist tropes, defense of violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, or his lethal amounts of smarm. The full and true reasons for his ousting aren’t entirely clear, but the best explanation of who Carlson is and how he’s likely to respond has come from my colleagues Tina Nguyen here, and Dylan Byers here.
Four days after his dismissal, Carlson took to the new Twitter, offering up a two-minute video recorded. To my ears, he feigned outrage at the lack of actual debate in U.S. media, ranted against elites, and vaguely hinted at some form of comeback. It would have been more direct if he just dropped his Substack link like everyone else, but the tease worked. Tens of millions of views and counting suggests many people want to know what Carlson will do next.
If history is a guide, he’ll set up shop, make plenty of money, and wield far less influence than he did from the perch of Fox News. When is the last time you heard about Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly driving the political or cultural narrative? Do they tell Republican candidates or elected officials what to believe? I hope their past is Carlson’s prologue, but history can be an unreliable guide given the rapid changes underway in media and technology. Perhaps Carlson might build his new hub on Twitter. Musk craves attention and stunts, after all, and Carlson can provide that. This could accelerate the transformation of Twitter into a clubhouse for conspiracy, crypto, and right-leaning content that’s already underway.
Speaking of Twitter…: Meanwhile, some of what I predicted about Twitter back in November appears to be coming true as people tire of the technical instability and emotional volatility encouraged by new management. Twitter as a home has become far less attractive by many measures (the blue check situation, censoring links and mentions of competitors, significant advertising problems, just to name a few). There’s a wave of emigration, creating a Twitter diaspora on a variety of alternative platforms.
There are almost too many to name at this point. Post and Artifact cater to the news-sharing and discussion community on Twitter. Spill isn’t up and running yet, but is organized around the power of Black Twitter. I recently got access to T2, co-founded by former Twitter execs and my former boss at The Onion, but haven’t had time to explore it significantly. Mastodon is still my primary Twitter alternative space. And just this week, there was buzz around BlueSky, a decentralized Twitter clone initiated by then-C.E.O. Jack Dorsey when he still ran Twitter. I got a text from a friend who is decidedly not an early adopter on any of these platforms, and she wanted to know how she could get an invite, so maybe that’s the new Promised Land? There’s no clear consensus on where everyone should go, and I remain convinced that there will be no single “winner” or replacement for Twitter, and that the service and culture as we knew it are dead. Video is clearly the more successful organizing principle for social media, and the rapid deployment of generative A.I. will further change the game. We could have entire social networks populated by bots conversing with each other, making Musk’s initial faux-critique of Twitter actually true.
And now for the main event…
The Case for Climate Optimism
Another Earth Day has come and gone, and once again the planet is hotter. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N. group that provides regular updates on our warming world, is a frightening read—the word “unprecedented” appears with alarming frequency—and scientists and world leaders alike are starting to speak more directly about the threats we all face. As U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said, “Humanity is on thin ice, and that ice is melting fast. Our world needs climate action on all fronts—everything, everywhere, all at once.” But still, there are some silver linings out there, and I want to focus on positive actions and signs of hope.
To start, I enlisted my most committed climate-aware friend: Dahni-El Giles, my first-year college roommate, who is now Sustainability Advisor at UpRhizer.com and Legal Counsel at Sila Nanotechnologies. For our 20th college reunion, Dahni-El created and facilitated an interactive workshop for Harvard’s class of ’99 entitled “The Optimist’s Guide To The Climate Crisis: How To Do More Than Hope.” It’s something he continues to do for companies and organizations around the world, and I can see why. Using the En-ROADS interactive climate simulator, he had us adjust dozens of policies and behaviors—electrifying transportation, shifting to plant-based diets, etcetera—to see their impact on global temperatures, CO2 emissions, sea level rise, and more. It was a powerful exercise that left me feeling less overwhelmed and more hopeful.
But the biggest takeaway arrived during an email exchange with Giles last week. After I told him I was writing this piece, he noted: “Depending on where we are in our future global warming trajectory, every avoidant tenth of a degree saves millions of human lives from death, and tens of millions of human lives from forced climate migration.” He added, “There’s also tens of millions of animal lives, which are essential to a healthy biosphere. No matter how you look at it, all progress matters!”
Giles is a veritable wind-up toy when it comes to climate knowledge and perspective. In a text thread with a few friends, I asked for examples of positive climate news (essentially winding him up), and he flooded the chat with links and stories. There was the recent International Energy Agency report, which highlighted the rise in electric vehicles (global market share for EVs is now around 14 percent, up from under 5 percent before 2020); wind and solar produced a record amount of the world’s energy last year, covering the vast majority of new energy needs; and in the U.S., where we tend to have trouble facing big challenges productively, we’ve experienced five years’ worth of clean energy investment in just the past 9 months, thanks in large part to the Inflation Reduction Act. He also mentioned an upcoming high speed rail conference in the U.S., and that several projects are underway in California, Texas, and Cascadia, a place I had to look up (it’s essentially a bioregion encompassing the Pacific Northwest).
But of course, optimism and its close relative—hope—have their caveats. Unchecked and ungrounded, they can lull us into a delusional and disconnected sense of comfort, in which we don’t take any positive steps to realize a positive future. On the other hand, their opposites—pessimism and despair—can be equally unhelpful without action in the face of a clock that’s ticking and a metaphorical house that, in many cases, is literally on fire. In this bleak reality, we have to pursue optimism with action—and if we do enough, our optimism becomes justified and real.
Of course, it’s not “enough” just to alter personal behavior from the bottom up, or to agitate for government and corporate change from the top down. We need to do it all simultaneously. This brings me back to my conversations with Giles and his “Optimist’s Guide to Climate Change” workshop. For him, “optimism” includes action, agency, and influence over our future—along with our recognition of a challenging reality. I’ll sign up for that, and fortunately, I’ve recently been heartened and made more optimistic by some novel uses of technology that could help instigate the personal and political actions necessary to keep life thriving on Earth.
In the remainder of this piece I go on to write about
Decarbonization & Decolonization
On Earth Day this year, Apple featured a consumer financial product called FutureCard, in its App Store (I’m an investor). It’s essentially a cash-back payment card that rewards cardholders for reducing the carbon associated with their purchases. It creates an economic incentive (think tax breaks, but far more direct) for shifting our consumer behavior. No, it won’t save the whole planet, but it helps, and we need all the help we can get. They also launched GreenGPT, “generative AI chatbot designed to help you adopt a low-carbon lifestyle and discover cash incentives and other financial benefits of climate-friendly living.”
The idea of our personal “carbon footprint” was created by Ogilvy & Mather in the early 2000s on behalf of BP. Their devilishly clever goal was to shift the burden of responsibility away from big business, and onto individuals and in so doing, avoid regulation. But that doesn’t mean the idea is entirely useless. I think it’s disingenuous for us to abdicate all personal responsibility in favor of calls to exclusively “change the system” or “make big business change.” These same systems and big businesses also respond to customer demand and behavior, which is us. We’re all part of “the system.”
Another example: a new company called ReSeed (where my wife is an advisor and where we also invest) which is a novel player in the carbon markets. The company figured out how to measure carbon captured on small parcels of land, and use that technique to compensate smallholder farmers, largely in indigenous communities in the Global South, for the value of the carbon they naturally capture through regenerative agriculture practices. With this extra income, farmers can invest in even better carbon-capturing, regenerative farming techniques. These “farm fresh carbon credits” are based on measured activity, not vague promises of future tree-planting. And the fact that the entities buying the credits are generally from the developed world (which created the problem) while those getting paid are from communities that did the least harm (but are suffering the most) creates a compelling virtuous cycle. If we really care about justice, decarbonization must also include decolonization. We need to create a world where those who played a role in the extractive capitalist behavior that led to the climate crisis play an active and remunerative role in solving it. ReSeed is an example of this.
Climate researchers have a terrifying name for fossil fuel projects with the potential to release 1 gigaton of CO2, enough to blow through any chance we have of limiting global temperature rise to sub-apocalyptic levels and create catastrophic conditions for life in the process. They call them “carbon bombs.”
Regroop is an app that combines short form video and group calls-to-action to diffuse these carbon bombs before they go off. The app invites you to sign up for a climate action campaign, and gives you a single action each day, delivered in a short, straight-to-camera videos reminiscent of anything you’d see on TikTok, Instagram, or YouTube Shorts. The actions are informed by grassroots activists, climate research, and savvy communications strategy.
These daily doses offer a gentle ramp into the hard work of activism, but the magic of Regroop isn’t just in small, solo acts—it’s in the fact that our individual actions are coordinated across a universe of fellow actors, and together we’re having an impact which the app reports out every week. There’s a powerful theory of change behind this app which I learned more about in a conversation I had in Paris last fall with Christian Vanizette, one of the creators of the app, and co-founder of a global volunteer network called MakeSense. Our full conversation is available in a recent episode of How To Citizen
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