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Houston expert: Why climate action needs better PR and how to love the climate apocalypse

Houston climate tech founder weighs in on his observations on what's true, what's exaggerated, and what all humans can agree on about the climate crisis. Photo via Getty Imagees

The last thing anyone wants in 2024 is a reminder of the impending climate apocalypse, but here it is: There is a scientific consensus that the world climate is trending towards uninhabitable for many species, including humans, due in large part to results of human activity.

Psychologists today observe a growing trend of patients with eco-anxiety or climate doom, reflecting some people’s inability to cope with their climate fears. The Edelman Trust Barometer, in its most recent survey respondents in 14 countries, reports that 93 percent “believe that climate change poses a serious and imminent threat to the planet.”

Until recently reviewing this report, I was unaware that 93 percent of any of us could agree on anything. It got me thinking, how much of our problem today is based on misunderstanding both the nature of the problem and the solution?

We’ve been worried for good reason before 

It’s worth keeping in mind that climate change is not the first time smart people thought humans were doomed by our own successes or failures. Robert Malthus theorized at the end of the 18th century that projected human fertility would certainly outpace agricultural production. Just a century and a half later, about half of all Americans expected a nuclear war, and the number jumped to as high as 80 percent expecting the next war to be nuclear. Yes, global hunger and nuclear threats still exist, but our results have outperformed the worst of those dire projections.

We are worried for good reason today 

Today changing climate conditions have grabbed the headlines. The world’s climate is changing at a rate faster than we can model effectively, though our best modeling suggests significant, coordinated, global efforts are necessary to reverse current trends. While there’s still lots to learn, the consensus is that we are approaching a global temperature barrier across which we may not be able to quickly return. These conclusions are worrisome.

How did we get here?

Our reliance on hydrocarbons is at the heart of our climate challenge. If combusting them is so damaging, why do we keep doing it? We know enough about our human cognitive biases to say that humans tend to “live in the moment” when it comes to decision making. Nobel Prize-winning economic research suggests we choose behaviors that reward us today rather than those with longer term payoffs. Also, changing behaviors around hydrocarbons is hard. Crude oil, natural gas and coal have played a central role in the reduction of human suffering over time, helping to lift entire populations out of poverty, providing the power for our modern lives and even supplying instrumental materials for clothes and packaging. It’s hard to stop relying on a resource so plentiful, versatile and reliable.

How do we get out of here?

Technological advances in the future may help us address climate in new and unexpected ways. If we do nothing and hope for the best, what’s the alternative? We can take confidence that we’ve addressed difficult problems before. We can also take confidence that advancements like nuclear, solar, geothermal and wind power are already supplementing our primary reliance on hydrocarbons.

The path forward will be extending the utility of these existing alternatives and identifying new technologies. We need to reduce emissions and to withdraw greenhouse gasses (GHGs) that have already been emitted. The nascent energy transition will continue to be funded by venture capitalists, government spending/incentives and private philanthropy. Larger funding sources will come from private equity and public markets, as successful technologies compete for more traditional sources of capital.

Climate Tech will be a large piece of the climate puzzle

My biases are likely clear: the same global capitalism that brought about our complicated modern world, with its apparent abundance and related climate consequences, has the best chance to save us. Early stage climate tech funding is increasing, even if it’s still too small. It has been observed that climate tech startups receiving funding today fail to track solutions for industries in proportion to their related production of GHGs. For instance, the agriculture and food sector creates about 18 percent of global GHGs, while climate tech companies seeking to address that sector receive about 9 percent of climate tech funding. These misalignments aside, the trendlines are in the right direction.

What can you do?

From a psychological perspective, healthy coping means making small decisions that address your fears, even if you can’t eliminate the root causes. Where does that leave you?

Be a voice for reasonable change. Make changes in your behavior where and when you can. Also, take comfort when you see existing industries adopting meaningful sustainable practices at faster rates. Support the companies you believe are part of the solution.

We are already seeing a burgeoning climate tech industry across the globe and here at home. With concerted efforts like the Ion and Greentown Labs, the Houston climate tech sector is helping to lead the charge. In what was even recently an unthinkable reality, the United States has taken a leadership role. Tellingly, we are not leading necessarily by setting targets, but instead by funding young startups and new infrastructure like the hydrogen hubs. We don’t know when or where the next Thomas Edison will emerge to shine a new light in a dark world. However, I do suspect that that woman or man is alive today, and it’s our job to keep building a world worth that person saving.

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Chris Wood is the co-founder of Houston-based Moonshot Compost.

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A View From HETI

Houston could have ranked higher on a global report of top cities in the world if it had a bit more business diversification. Photo via Getty Images

A new analysis positions the Energy Capital of the World as an economic dynamo, albeit a flawed one.

The recently released Oxford Economics Global Cities Index, which assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the world’s 1,000 largest cities, puts Houston at No. 25.

Houston ranks well for economics (No. 15) and human capital (No. 18), but ranks poorly for governance (No. 184), environment (No. 271), and quality of life (No. 298).

New York City appears at No. 1 on the index, followed by London; San Jose, California; Tokyo; and Paris. Dallas lands at No. 18 and Austin at No. 39.

In its Global Cities Index report, Oxford Economics says Houston’s status as “an international and vertically integrated hub for the oil and gas sector makes it an economic powerhouse. Most aspects of the industry — downstream, midstream, and upstream — are managed from here, including the major fuel refining and petrochemicals sectors.”

“And although the city has notable aerospace and logistics sectors and has diversified into other areas such as biomedical research and tech, its fortunes remain very much tied to oil and gas,” the report adds. “As such, its economic stability and growth lag other leading cities in the index.”

The report points out that Houston ranks highly in the human capital category thanks to the large number of corporate headquarters in the region. The Houston area is home to the headquarters of 26 Fortune 500 companies, including ExxonMobil, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Sysco.

Another contributor to Houston’s human capital ranking, the report says, is the presence of Rice University, the University of Houston and the Texas Medical Center.

“Despite this,” says the report, “it lacks the number of world-leading universities that other cities have, and only performs moderately in terms of the educational attainment of its residents.”

Slower-than-expected population growth and an aging population weaken Houston’s human capital score, the report says.

Meanwhile, Houston’s score for quality is life is hurt by a high level of income inequality, along with a low life expectancy compared with nearly half the 1,000 cities on the list, says the report.

Also in the quality-of-life bucket, the report underscores the region’s variety of arts, cultural, and recreational activities. But that’s offset by urban sprawl, traffic congestion, an underdeveloped public transportation system, decreased air quality, and high carbon emissions.

Furthermore, the report downgrades Houston’s environmental stature due to the risks of hurricanes and flooding.

“Undoubtedly, Houston is a leading business [center] that plays a key role in supporting the U.S. economy,” says the report, “but given its shortcomings in other categories, it will need to follow the path of some of its more well-rounded peers in order to move up in the rankings.”

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

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