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How to be a leader in carbon removal

April 01, 2021

In 2021, the field of carbon removal is taking flight. But to get to gigaton scale carbon removal, we're going to need lots of new leaders.

Here's my thoughts on what it means to be a leader in carbon removal, and how to do it. And here's the video version.

When I think about being a leader in carbon removal, I go back to a quote from computer visionary Alan Kay, who said "The best way to predict the future is to invent it". Leaders in carbon removal have that same opportunity to invent the future...as long as they don't get paralyzed by all the possibilities and unknowns.

First off, what does "invent" mean for carbon removal? Does that mean there's only space for engineers and scientists like Alan Kay and people who are traditionally called "inventors"?

Invention in carbon removal is full of opportunity for all sorts of skillsets. It means painting a picture of the future of carbon removal, writing a song about it, designing a device, studying an existing system and figure out how to bring new awareness or improve it for carbon removal. The leaders who emerge in carbon removal are the ones that don't get stuck too much. They're the ones that go for it, go for the job, go back to school, paint that picture, write that song, prototype the solution.

That's what it means to be a leader in carbon removal. So what's the biggest challenge facing new leaders? Getting caught up in the unknowns, haters, doubters, and debaters.

This ties back to how I originally got to working on the changing climate. It was February 28th 2016, and I was watching the Oscars. Leonardo DiCaprio walked up on stage to accept his award. The first thing he said was "Climate change is real".

I look back on that moment for myself like one of those moments in a movie where suddenly the character gets hit with all these flashbacks, their life flashes before their eyes. For me what was going through my mind as Leonardo spoke were clips of An Inconvenient Truth, CNN shots of icebergs and polar bears, and graphs of carbon dioxide rising.

What hit me in that moment at the Oscars was I had it all wrong. I had interpreted the debate and discussion and documentaries about the changing climate as progress on climate solutions. I had wrongly assumed once the debates finished, the people in them went to work on the solutions. But in fact, not much solutioning was happening, the debate continued.

I look back on the early stages of the climate debate as important, of course. It was essential to establish that the climate was indeed changing. But that was figured out in the 90s and early 2000s. By the time Leo was up on stage in 2016, the debate had gone on too long, it was stale. And in that moment at the Oscars I saw the opportunity to help with solutions for the changing climate.

It was transformational. I get a similar feeling sometimes when I open up Twitter and see things that look like debate...is climate change real, is carbon removal too expensive, will carbon removal scale, or the Elon/XPRIZE announcement where someone replied "Carbon removal? Has anyone told Elon about trees??". That kind of chatter isn't moving things forward in any direction. (On the other hand if you say "hey Elon, I've got this new idea for trees and here's how I'm going to try it out", that's totally great, call me too).

The climate world has a bad history of getting stuck in debates. So when you find yourself stuck take a step back and remind yourself that sometimes the debate can be a trap. Who is benefiting from that debate continuing? Who is benefiting from you being stuck at that fork in the road without making a move? It's important to weigh and consider, make analysis, but don't forget the part where you take action.

We need leaders in carbon removal now more than ever. If you need help being a leader, starting a company, or meeting teammates, I would love to hear from you. Hit reply and say hi.


I write a weekly newsletter highlighting the AirMiners community and carbon removal industry.

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