The climate is luring engineers away from Big Tech
Happy Tuesday from Protocol Climate. Today, we’re examining the great tech worker reshuffling to focus on climate. We’re also double dipping on Inflation Reduction Act news from a stealth campaign targeting AOC and Ilhan Omar voters and the heated carbon capture and storage discussion. In the words of the immortal Beyoncé, “I gotta fan myself off.”
Climate tech is the new Facebook
Move over, Silicon Valley. Engineers eager for purpose and impact are quitting their jobs to battle the climate crisis.
- Some industry pioneers have been making headlines for redirecting their energies from tech to climate change. Chris Sacca and Bill Gates have both started climate VCs focused on decarbonization. Mike Schroepfer recently stepped down from his role as CTO at Meta to work on climate solutions.
- “These guys aren’t just doing it for charity,” CEO and co-founder of Climate Draft Jonathan Strauss told me. In his opinion, they’re also in it because climate is the most innovative space in tech right now.
- They’re not alone. “There’s a huge migration happening,” with a lot of inbound interest from software engineers, according to Justin Hardin, the CTO and co-founder of Climatebase, a talent directory for climate jobs. Since it launched in 2020, over 500,000 people have used the site to find and apply for climate tech jobs.
“I think every generation has a zeitgeist,” Strauss said. For Gen X, that mission imprint was the internet, but for today’s generation, he believes it’s increasingly the climate.
- Why is that? First, there’s the obvious. Tech workers I spoke to cited everything from seeing the sky turn orange during California wildfires to thinking of the planet they’re leaving behind for their children as reasons for joining the climate charge.
- Beyond the immediate urgency of the climate crisis, many also view the emerging climate tech space as the new breeding ground for innovation, compared to legacy tech companies where it seems “all the problems have already been picked over,” Cassandra Xia, a former Google employee turned climate tech startup engineer, told me.
- For many, the mission is just simply more inspiring. In legacy tech, “You’re fed the idea that you can change the world, and then you end up working on ads,” said Hardin.
- At Evergrow, a climate fintech startup, the company’s mission of aiding in the removal of 1 gigaton of carbon dioxide equivalents by 2030 is imprinted on the footer of every slide deck “just to keep us aware and accountable,” said Xia, who’s now the company’s head of engineering.
These climate startup missions aren’t just inspiring. They’re also usually aligned with the financial incentives of the company.
- The same cannot be said of Big Tech, no matter how well intentioned their climate commitments and net zero goals may be. Malak Abu Sharkh left her position as a senior supply chain manager at Apple to lead supply chain and operations at Charm Industrial, a carbon removal startup.
- In her view, Apple will always have residual carbon emissions, given the fact that the company’s business model is centered on selling consumer electronics. Charm’s business model? Selling carbon removal services.
- “I think Apple is doing the right thing with a lot of the environmental work, but ultimately their scorecard is ‘How many products did you sell?’ Our scorecard is ‘How much carbon dioxide did we remove?’” she said.
— Michelle Ma
Dark money tries to kill the IRA
Historic climate legislation made it through the Senate this weekend. Now, all that stands between it and being signed into law is a House vote. One dark money group is pursuing a, shall we call it, novel approach to tank it.
Over the last few weeks, United for Clean Power has targeted progressive voters on social media, telling them to urge their Democratic representatives to vote against the Inflation Reduction Act. The group appears to be aligned with the GOP, and its strategy is trying to play up all that was lost between the Inflation Reduction and Build Back Better Acts in an effort to stoke divisions.
The blitz started in late July, shortly after Sen. Joe Manchin and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that they had arrived at a deal for the reconciliation bill. The newsletter FWIW first identified the campaign, which has been using techniques including social media advertising and direct text messages to voters, with a focus on those in districts represented by progressive House members.
United for Clean Power is buying up ads on Google and Facebook as well as newsletters and websites. Since July 30, the group has spent nearly $400,000 on the campaign, if not more.
- FWIW, in partnership with Popular Information, found the group had spent $32,700 on Facebook ads and $44,300 on Google ones.
- “Social media has allowed people to target super-specific audiences with messages about energy,” Kert Davies, founder and director of Climate Investigations Center, told Protocol.
- The group also spent at least $20,000 sponsoring the POLITICO New York newsletter, as well as its Nightly newsletter last week. And the group’s ads took over POLITICO’s homepage for several days last week, an ad placement that costs more than $150,000 per day. (POLITICO, which is owned by Axel Springer along with Protocol, did not respond to questions from Protocol about its policy for ad buys.)
The group is incorporated as a “social welfare” organization known as a 501(c)(4) in IRS-speak. But Anna Massoglia, editorial and investigations manager for OpenSecrets, said 501(c)(4) organizations are often used as vehicles for dark money operations.
- Even though they aren’t supposed to have politics as their primary purpose, she said “many of them skirt that rule because this is something that is not very clearly laid out.”
- The general rule of thumb is that a group is “legally required to register and disclose their donors” if more than half of its activities are political in nature, she added.
- This seems to be the case for United for Clean Power. The group’s 2018 and 2019 tax forms, which are the only ones that are available online, show that of United for Clean Power’s $201,772 in expenses in 2018, more than $135,000 went to enlisting the GOP-focused firm Majority Strategies for advertising services.
- The group was originally co-founded in 2015 by Erin Cummings, who currently works at the Department of Homeland Security, to promote bipartisan energy policies; she transferred control of the group to its current director, Greg Finnerty, an Ohio-based lawyer, in 2017 and told Protocol she is baffled by the campaign. “I support the bill,” she said.
The campaign seems likely to fail, given that the bill has already made it through the Senate and the Democrats have a larger margin in the House.
- We aren’t talking about a particularly sophisticated operation here, either.
- The tagline “no reconciliation without comprehensive climate change” seems to forget that climate change is not desirable, in a bill or otherwise. But the campaign is misrepresenting its origins and its intentions, and there’s real money behind it.
- Davies said this and campaigns like it are designed to exploit the ongoing division within the party, political reality notwithstanding.
- “It’s hitting a nerve that is raw, and somebody is aware of that and trying to divide the Democratic camp based on real divides that exist,” he said. “They know that there are divisions on the left that remain from the Green New Deal … It’s really difficult for some people to bite their tongue at this point.”
— Lisa Martine Jenkins
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One big number: 200 million
The Inflation Reduction Act uses a lot of carrots — and not a lot of sticks — when it comes to cutting carbon pollution. Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising incentives are for carbon capture and storage, which has a fairly checkered track record when it comes to actually working.
An analysis from Princeton’s Repeat Project shows that by 2030, the CCS incentives could lead to 200 million tons of carbon being stashed away annually, thanks in part to changes to the 45Q tax credit making it more generous per ton of carbon stored and easier for projects to qualify. That growth is literally an order of magnitude greater than the present. Previous work by the Princeton group modeling a net zero pathway for the U.S. also shows a much slower ramp up. What gives?
Jesse Jenkins, head of the group, tweeted that modeling an industry this young comes with a “heck of a lot of uncertainty in projecting growth.” Indeed, it’s not clear what exactly is about to happen to the industry, assuming the IRA passes the House with the new incentives intact.
“We don't know how people are going to take advantage of these tax credits, we don't know which projects are going to choose which pathways just yet,” Danny Cullenward, the policy director at CarbonPlan, a climate research nonprofit, told me. “We’re going to learn a lot about the technology.”
Concerns that the credits in the bill for captured carbon could help the fossil fuel industry use said carbon to dredge up more oil, a process known as enhanced oil recovery, are real. So, too, are the prospects that the credits could be used to ramp up corn ethanol production. Cullenward said a corn ethanol plant is perhaps “the cheapest place you can do CCS.” Additionally, California offers a “stackable” tax credit through its Low Carbon Fuel Standard. Those credits can pay as much as $200 per ton to makers of lower-carbon-intensity fuels. Add on the 45Q’s $85-per-ton incentive, and you’ve got, in Cullenward’s words, a “gold rush” for CCS and biofuels.
The bill is a lot more than just CCS, of course. But with CCS garnering so much attention, we’ll have to grapple with exactly what shape it takes in the years to come. Given the tech industry’s intense interest in carbon dioxide removal, Cullenward said, “tech leaders should be thinking really carefully, and engaging with the thoughtful view about how to do this right in the long run, and not just how to make money in the short term.”— Brian Kahn
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