The psychology of fixing climate change by Paul Gambill

One of my fundamental beliefs is that activism alone won’t solve the climate change problem. Asking people to do something (drive less, compost more, use less energy, etc.) is ineffective because people don't tend to think about how their tiny impacts can collectively create really big impacts. And asking them to do so can make them feel they are being shamed for their current behaviors, especially because many people don't have the option to just stop driving or use less energy.

Part of the problem is that climate change is a really big and scary concept. And humans don't cope well with scary things. Psychologist Dr. Laura Brown spoke with the local NPR affiliate in Seattle today about this:

We really tend to avoid things that are frightening...But when there is something you can do, avoidance can actually be quite counter-productive, and maybe even dangerous.

How do people change and move past the fear? Dr. Brown describes 3 stages that people go through:

  1. Pre-contemplation: "There's not a problem, and it has nothing to do with me."
  2. Contemplation: "There's a problem, but there's nothing I can do about it."
  3. Action: "There's a problem, and I can do something about it."

Activism can also make people feel ashamed for their energy consumption habits, which in turn discourages them from moving out of the pre-contemplation stage (#1). If one activist says to another, "I walk everywhere now, and I've reduced my home energy usage in half" it makes the other feel guilty that they haven't accomplished as much.

Activism also involves petitioning governments, corporations, and other large organizations to make changes to their behavior. It's no wonder that people can get caught in the contemplation stage (#2), when it seems like the only way to fix the problem is to convince these large organizations to do something. The tediousness of bureaucracy often has the psychological effect of inhibiting people from changing their own private habits in response to activism.

Dr. Brown suggests we should take a more validating approach in order to encourage people to change their habits:

What's the one small thing that you could do everyday, that if a million of us did this small thing, it would make an enormous difference? That's the kind of message we need to give the general public.

This is exactly what I aim to do with a business to undo climate change. What if we could make products that people already want and need that just so happen to scrub CO2 from the air? Take the superheated buckyballs from my previous post and imagine those were used to make a small filter that could fit inside a smartphone case. Now you have a product that:

  1. Protects the user's smartphone (personal utility)
  2. Removes a tiny fraction of CO2 from the atmosphere (global utility)

Validating people's lives and experiences while simultaneously making a dent in the problem is going to be the real key to reversing climate change.

Superheated buckyballs as a carbon sink? by Paul Gambill

When I first started researching what was already out there for carbon removal, I came across this paper published out of Rice University just last summer:

Heat buckyballs to help environment

The lab of Rice chemist Andrew Barron found last year that carbon-60 molecules (aka buckyballs, discovered at Rice in the 1980s) gain the ability to sequester carbon dioxide when combined with a polymer known as polyethyleneimine (PEI).

Basically, they take carbon-60 molecules (buckyballs, a type of fullerene), superheat them in an environment absent of oxygen, and then cool them back down to room temperature. After that, they were able to get the buckyballs to passively absorb 12% of their mass in carbon dioxide.

The key part of this is that it's passive absorption at 25 degrees Celsius, or, room temperature. There's a huge energy output required to do the superheating, but no more energy is required after the pyrolyzing is completed. 

Energy is at the heart of any efforts to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. For obvious reasons, any process or product that removes CO2 will have to do so in a way that doesn't require more carbon emissions than it removes.

This technology isn't ready for commercial use yet, not by a long shot. But it's research into ideas like this that will lead to future innovations to remove CO2. Imagine if some ubiquitous product like a smartphone case had a built-in filter with these buckyballs that were passively filtering CO2 out of the air. Or if you could paint buildings with a paint that included this material. It might be difficult to see the path from hyper-specific scientific research papers to fully developed commercial product, but it is these sorts of discoveries that are going to be at the root of any technological solutions.