The Breeze - Issue #6

Three words, choosing the future, climate investing panel, infectious disease

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This week I’ve been thinking about how we talk about the climate crisis. Three words specifically: pollution, sacrifice and opportunity.

Who came up with “emissions”? What a clever euphemism. No one says, “Drat, look at the emissions in the air!” Pollution is more accurate.

Choosing to drive a fossil fuel-burning vehicle is choosing to pollute. When we include the externality (pollution) in the action (driving), we start to understand the full impact of the choice. Let’s call it pollution from now on.

With cities under coronavirus lockdown, pollution is down too. People are able to see and appreciate clear skies. I hope both of these trends endure.

I’m inspired by tweets like this one, accompanied by the image below:

For the first time in 30 yrs the Himalaya are visible within 100 miles across India due to lower levels of air pollution after 21 days of their lockdown. Pandemic and human health issues aside, inspiring to see how direct changes can so quickly & positively affect our planet. (source)

It’s a beautiful outcome and image. See more compelling pics of clear skies (including before & afters) from all over the world in this thread.

Clean air isn’t just about pretty natural visuals; it’s a health issue too. Pollution kills >4M people worldwide every year. Last week a Harvard study linked exposure to fine particulate matter (ie pollution) with increased risk of death from Covid-19. (More at Grist)

When the economy starts back up, pollution will likely return. But perhaps by seeing the mountain range and breathing fresh air, people will realize that less pollution is desirable. If we want this feature of society to stick, we can continue working from home and driving less.

This brings me to the next word: sacrifice. It came up in conversation with my friend and fellow climate tech investor Hampus Jakobsson.

To make a broad generalization, in western culture we think of sacrifice as giving something up. The conventional idea regarding climate is that people don’t want to sacrifice their standard of living, such as turning down the thermostat and putting on a sweater.

There’s a nuance to sacrifice that is maybe more eastern or spiritual (again, broad generalization): sacrifice is not about losing, but about gaining. You sacrifice something to get somewhere. A sacrifice is offered intentionally. You let go to transform. To become a parent, you sacrifice free time, adjust your life, and raise a kid. The sacrifice is real, but you can’t get the upside any other way.

We’re doing this with Covid-19. We’re intentionally sacrificing social interaction to flatten the curve. We recognize the consequences of the virus and are balancing accordingly. We’re sacrificing economic progress for health. We focus on the goal, not that which is lost.

We haven’t come to a similar threshold in climate. We want to believe that we can keep going as usual — that making enough micro changes will be OK. We’re not acknowledging that we need to make major changes as we have with the coronavirus pandemic.

Do we not yet recognize the consequences of climate change? Do we need a coronavirus-like threat to make the consequences more clear? We watched Wuhan, Iran and Italy fall from coronavirus before taking the threat seriously in the U.S. Are we waiting to see other communities become devastated by climate change before recognizing the threat to our own?

In a recent note to her community, Solstice CEO Steph Speirs wrote about the transformative process of shedding one’s skin:

In biology, shedding one’s skin is called “ecdysis.” Snakes shed their whole skin in a process that can take up to two weeks. During ecdysis, the new skin becomes soft, more permeable, and more vulnerable to disease and predators. During this phase though, the animal also expands, since growth is otherwise constrained by the rigidity of the old exoskeleton. Over time, the new skin hardens.

Snakes have to shed their skin as they grow; otherwise they become constricted and die. Humans shed skin too. It’s just flaky and not as rad. But if we don’t shed that which no longer serves us as we grow, we constrict and die.

Are we as a population ready for the shedding? Can we give up our fossil fuel-burning ways that no longer serve us, release our skin, and transform to rise to our climate challenges? If not, how might we get there?

Which brings me to the third word: opportunity. Perhaps we don’t see what our sacrifice allows us to become. We can have clean air and healthy lungs by moving to renewables. We can reduce the incidence of infectious disease by preserving natural habitats. We can have food abundance by improving our land use. We can thrive in our communities by preparing for extreme weather events.

As Dr. Jonathan Foley of Project Drawdown says, our opportunity is a chance to build the future. “MLK didn’t go around America saying 'I have a nightmare’.” He gave us his dream. Dr. Foley invites us to think of ours and to reimagine our world. We get to — it’s a privilege for each of us to work on today. (More below.)

May we recognize the consequences of the climate crisis, choose transformation, and work for clear skies ahead. 🙏🏻

Which Future Will We Choose?

Dr. Jonathan Foley’s talk at ClimateLink SF in December 2019 is the best overview of Project Drawdown that I’ve found. If you’ve been looking to wrap your head around Drawdown quickly, this is it.

We’ve known about Greenhouse Gases (GHG) since Eunice Foote published the first report linking carbon dioxide with climate change in the 1850s. We now know precisely how much each gas contributes to the atmosphere and what we can do about them.

The GHG contributors:

  • 62% is CO2 from fossil fuels

  • 11% is CO2 from land use

  • 3% is CO2 from chemicals such as cement production

  • 16% is methane, mostly biological

  • 6% is nitrous oxide, e.g. from fertilizer overuse

  • 2% are F-gasses, which don’t put a hole in the ozone but still heat the planet

Dr. Foley elaborates on the many potential solutions, which fall into 3 main categories:

  1. Reduce emissions to zero

  2. Support and enhance nature

  3. Empower people

The solutions exist, now is better than new, and we need bold leadership to build the future.

Aside: my fav part is min 28:33 when Dr. Foley says he loves the concept of sustainability, but freaking hates the word. “This word sucks! If I went up to you and said, ‘Hey, how’s your marriage these days?’ and you said, ‘Well, it’s sustainable,’ I’d be like ‘Oh god, you can get help, it’s OK, we’ll help you out.’” 😂

Sustainability is therefore my bonus word. Dr. Foley says we should be talking about it as thriving!

He ends with an apt quote from author Robert Wilson:

The future is up for grabs. It belongs to any and all who will take the risk and accept the responsibility of consciously creating the future they want.

Watch the talk

Panel: VC Perspectives on Climate Tech Investing

Nicole Kelner and Chris Powers hosted a Climate Investing Panel this week with the MCJ community. The first 30 mins featured perspectives from 3 climate tech investors.

Here are my highlights from each investor:

Monica Varman, G2VP

  • It’s a fallacy to believe your product is differentiated because it’s sustainable. It has to be better and sustainable.

  • She’s interested in supply chain management: consumers want to know where their products were made. She’s also looking at automating carbon tracking and accounting.

  • The biggest misconception about climate tech investing is that it’s impact investing. VCs assume it’s philanthropic, which restricts the capital base. There are many counter-examples of successful startups, like Tesla.

Ramanan Raghavendran, Amasia

  • A lot of climate analysis is rational and scientific, yet what we’ll see is qualitative and behavioral. “A tidal wave of behavioral change is coming.”

  • He’s especially interested in the food ecosystem: alternative meats, food waste, logistics, marketplaces, etc.

  • Outside of capital, climate tech startups need more people involved.

Hannah Davis, Techstars Sustainability

  • She looks at companies whose business models and impact model are intrinsically linked, with an emphasis on teams. “Great companies are built from the inside out.”

  • Given the partnership with The Nature Conservancy, she focuses on natural resources and tools that help us understand ecosystem services: forests, aquaculture, food, soil, land, water, air quality, urban heat.

  • VCs are starting to understand the new climate markets; there’s a natural tension that it takes time to ramp up.

Watch the panel


The root cause of many infectious diseases is that humans have interfered with ecological systems. Three recent pieces explore the issue:

  1. Dr. Foley says the rise of zoonotic disease comes from humans encroaching on and consuming wild animals. Read his new Medium post After the Storm. 🔥

  2. David Wallace-Wells shows evidence that tampering with nature unleashes its overwhelming power. Read his NYMag piece The Coronavirus Is a Preview of Our Climate-Change Future. 🦠

  3. John Vidal says pandemics might become a new normal. Read his piece Destruction of Habitat and Loss of Biodiversity are Creating the Perfect Conditions for Diseases like Covid-19 to Emerge. 🌲

McKinsey says, “Investments in climate-resilient infrastructure and the transition to a lower-carbon future can drive significant near-term job creation while increasing economic and environmental resiliency.” Read the report Addressing Climate Change in a Post-Pandemic World. (h/t my dad Tom Leep) 🌪

My friend Boyd Varty is spending 40 days and 40 nights in the South African wilderness in a quest to deepen his understanding of mystics in nature. He’s an amazing storyteller. Follow the journey on his podcast Track Your Life. 🦁

I got really into a Bain & Co report on Spatial Economics this week. The big idea is that the cost of moving people, goods and information is declining rapidly, which will enable dramatic changes such as living further away from city centers in “New Villages”. I tweeted the main passages here. 🏞

Thanks for reading! Special thanks to Parker and Becky for reading drafts.

Stay breezy,