The Secret Origin of Carbon Wrangler
Sometimes is just hits you over the head. Sometimes, there’s an epiphany.
I came home from the 22nd Conference of the Parties in Marrakesh, where the Paris Accord was ratified. I kissed my wife and declared “I know what I do. I’m a Carbon Wrangler.”
She responded, “What?”
— — -
The enormity of Work — the tasks and investments to be done to reverse and restore climate change — is bound up in the carbon budget (my first blogtalks a lot about this). To avoid the worst of climate change, we must dramatically and consistently drop emissions to zero very quickly. We must also undo our carbon legacy and burden — the two trillion tons of CO2 mankind has dumped into the air and oceans.
It’s a goliath work load, but no way to dodge it. The math is the math. The Work remains.
In this, I’ve had the good fortune to work with excellent people throughout my career, including graduate school, my first job (at ExxonMobil’s R&D Center in Houston)., and the University of Maryland. My colleagues were outstanding, I learned a ton, and I felt I served the institutions and my confrères well. I travelled the world, stunned by the geological and geophysical world I traversed.
This good fortune continued into the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and into high levels of public service at the US Dept. of Energy. These were the acmes of my career. I felt well configured to take on the tasks at hand and was surrounded by the best leaders, staff and colleagues one could wish for — extraordinary colleagues with a sense of mission and purpose.
Despite this huge opportunity and fabulous support, something was off. I didn’t fit in.
While I enjoyed my work in each organization and accomplished a lot, something chaffed. Every five years or so I would seek to reinvented myself, treading some intangible pathway to greater impact and a better self. I know my employers were sometimes baffled and frustrated by my difficult fit.
This came to a head in Marrakesh, the 22nd Conference of the Parties and a big waste of time. Convened right after President Trump’s election, the 30,000 people there flapped around like wet hens. There were endless “park and bark” presentations — broadcasting a message without discourse. There was showboating and grandstanding, empty promises and sad displays. And, of course, there were the diplomats; isolated, striving to forge a difficult consensus in a difficult context.
Concurrent with COP22, I was invited to attend a parallel event called the DoFest. Launched by Laurene Powell Jobs, the founder of Emerson Collective, and Andy Karsner, the new director of Emerson Elemental, the DoFest sought a completely different path. While it recognized the importance and value of government actions, individually or collectively, it announced brazenly that we weren’t waiting. Instead, it would convene and empower Doers to create a Roadmap for action — a manifesto to engage.
Doers come from industry, academia, and civil society. Doers are entrepreneurs, scientists, or artists. They would start today to build the world we needed, because that’s what Doers do.
I was completely engrossed. I met musicians and explorers, actors and financiers. I saw people starting companies, and others saving their indigenous tribes. I met conservationists, Presidents of countries, artists and architects. Each day began with indigenous Moroccan music and a native prayer. To this day, one of the most beautiful things I ever witnessed was the third morning’s invocation, a hula danced by Dr. Elizabeth Lindsey, a National Geographic fellow and ocean wayfarer.
Each day challenged the participants to harness the left and the right side of their brains to invent the future. I saw aspects of the world refracted through different philosophies and experiences, all with the goal of restoring fundamental balance between humans and nature. The questions were enormous — How can we restore depleted ocean stocks? How can we cheaply and ubiquitously monitor pollution? How can we save the drowning island nations, under resourced as they are? Above all, how can this be activated in the absence of national governments — how can individuals, companies and civic institutions auto-actuate their desired future?
And in the last minutes of the event, it suddenly hit me. I knew what I did and do:
· I keep CO2 from the air and oceans
· I create a circular carbon economy, which recycled carbon into economic value
· I remove CO2 from the air & oceans and return it to the geosphere.
It all made sense. I take CO2 that’s in the wrong place and put it in the right place. I am a Carbon Wrangler.
Since then, I’ve spent most my professional days seeking to help people launch enterprises that harvest and manage carbon emissions. Some are policy makers, seeking ideas or technical insight. Some are companies, seeking expertise and a policy/international perspective on CCS or carbon-to-value. Some are entrepreneurs, seeking to better understand markets and existing policy options. Some are project developers and financiers, seeking to pull together a new fund or capital investment. Some are students, seeking to know more about carbon management options and what might be done. In all cases, I feel fortunate to spend my days this way and grateful for the chance.
Towards that end, I’m excited to work now at the Center for Global Energy Policy (CGEP). Led by Jason Bordoff at Columbia University, CGEP provides answers to vexing questions across the energy space, from sanctions to markets to climate. Towards that end, the Center launched a new initiative on carbon management. I started this past September as a senior research scholar and once again have excellent colleagues — the faculty and staff of CGEP and Columbia University — in the greatest city in the world.
I expect to be busy. The Work remains.
— — -
In addition to Andy Karsner and Emerson Collective, I wish to thank the Principals of Energy Futures Initiative (Sect. Ernest Moniz, Joe Hezir, and Melanie Kenderdine), Lawrence Livermore National Lab, and the Hewlett Foundation. I am forever grateful for your inspiration, forbearance, and generosity of spirit.