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Perspective: Who Gets to be a Climate Innovator?

I identify with the absurd phrase “being into climate change” - not causing it, or preventing action against it, like ExxonMobil or Shell, but thinking about it almost 24/7 and how much of a multifaceted, all-encompassing problem it is. It is literally all-encompassing, since you and I, and everyone we have ever known or will ever meet lives or has lived in a closed system called Planet Earth. This rocky sphere has harbored all the life and history we have ever been aware of - even as we send robotic explorers to other planets and advanced instrumentation to study the rest of the galaxy, this will always be our ground - our reference point in the circuit that is the universe.

Given this reality, you would think that we would be a little bit more careful with what we’re doing on this planet. I use “we” very carefully because, like climate change, that word is unequal. “We”, all the people of this planet, did not cause climate change. Indigenous leaders have been stewarding land across the globe for centuries in mutually beneficial relationships. Those in the global south have personal carbon footprints many times smaller than their counterparts in the global north (this disparity gets even worse when you consider the ultra-wealthy). Community-based leadership and mutual aid groups show us what local resilience and a rejection of overconsumption can look like.

I use “we” very carefully because, like climate change, that word is unequal. “We”, all the people of this planet, did not cause climate change.

But some people did cause climate change, and now everyone has to bear the effects in some way, shape, or form. While these effects - from superstorms to drought, and everything in between - are already showing up more frequently, there’s still so much we can do to prevent things from getting worse. One first step by the international community is the Paris Agreement, a “legally binding international treaty on climate change” which countries all over the planet have signed, signaling their intent to do something, anything, in response to the all-consuming threat of climate change.

As you may have guessed from the ocean being on fire, an entire Canadian town burning down, a stark new IPCC report, and nations like Kiribati facing the threat of their land being consumed by the sea - we are nowhere near close to meeting even the modest goals set out in this piece of legislation, which at this point would likely require local, national, and international cooperation between all sectors to achieve.

NASA; Alex Ip for The Xylom/The Xylom illustration

What the public and private sectors alike are doing, however, is having innovation competitions. Lots of them. These innovation challenges span all types of scales and timeframes, from international calls for proposals to develop new technologies to local pre-accelerators trying to attract new cohorts. Education, committing focused time, energy, and resources to climate tech, exchanging new ideas, and scaling up existing ones — all components of these innovation challenges — are fundamentally good, extremely important, and necessary in order to be able to envision what a climate-resilient, sustainable world looks like, and even take some steps towards building it. But climate change and environmental issues being a set of one-off problems and solutions that can be individually addressed operate on this assumption of a false problem/solution dichotomy. Climate change is a systemic issue that