NASA; Alex Ip for The Xylom/The Xylom Illustration

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 affects all of Earth’s systems, and that likely requires systems thinking and systems-level change to guide the individual solutions being developed to individual problems within the system. We also have to balance these approaches with the time-sensitive nature of climate change and understand that one-off actions that achieve impact can also be good.


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.

If this false dichotomy of “problem” and “solution” were transitioned to a more intersectional, systems-thinking based approach (which can and should include thoughtful, targeted open challenges), we might stand a better chance of understanding how to work on biodiversity issues and human rights at the same time as grid decarbonization, for example, achieving at least a triple bottom line in terms of favorable outcomes. In addition to questioning how we frame innovation approaches to climate change issues, it’s also important to be critical about current global definitions of what constitutes innovation.


Is innovation limited to writing a new ROS Wrapper, creating another food delivery service, or smart fridges? Do these truly shift the paradigm of what is possible? Innovation, on climate or anything else, cannot be limited to technology development. See Stacey Abrams’ efforts to fight voter suppression, mutual aid groups teaching people to become resilient within their communities, and traditions from around the world relating to our relationship with land and materials that have focused on sustainability before that was even a concept. Even initiatives like Grist’s climate fiction contest could be considered innovation in how far-reaching and fundamentally novel the ideas presented are.


I would argue that the innovation we need to pursue in climate spaces, whether primarily tech-based or not, is the innovation of culture. Merriam Webster says innovation is “a new method, idea, or device” or “the introduction of something new”. What if this “new” was a new culture of care principle or a new policy program aimed at sustainable urban land use, not a new TV? Technology-centric environmental projects are not inherently more valuable than others, and those with formal technological training are not inherently more intelligent than others. However, tech projects and people are often pushed to the forefront of mainstream discourse even when they present false solutions because those representing them have the wealth, power, or access to self-promote.



Which local and/or traditional methodologies, ideas, and practices are rebranded as new Western innovations, or under-supported because they are not profitable enough? Why does profit matter so much when it’s literally the ability to safely breathe air, drink water, and walk around outside that we are talking about?

This is why asking the question of who gets to be a “climate innovator” is so important. Our current global framework of extractive capitalism may drive false climate innovations, and pursuing projects that don’t challenge or present alternatives to this system may not deliver transformative changes we need, such as manufactured carbon capture initiatives, pushes for geoengineering, and academic projects with no ties to affected communities.


Whose ideas, perspectives, wants, and needs are highlighted in mainstream media, discourse, and the global stage? Which local and/or traditional methodologies, ideas, and practices are rebranded as new Western innovations, or under-supported because they are not profitable enough? Why does profit matter so much when it’s literally the ability to safely breathe air, drink water, and walk around outside that we are talking about? Who gets to ask these questions and provide answers - who gets to be a climate innovator?


Unsplash/The Xylom Illustration

Not every innovation is going to be world-shatteringly incredible - small projects with tangible outcomes are valuable too. Developing tools for local residents and holding entrenched interests accountable in collaboration with them, giving people air quality monitors, and providing training and support to frontline communities are practices that should accompany continued calls for innovation, and should be considered carefully when calls for climate funding and fellowships are announced.


Initiatives like Green Bronx Machine, Generation Conscious, and Slow Factory represent intentional, systems-thinking approaches that operate across multiple disciplines, stakeholders, and generations. While every organization and initiative can always be improved, their work to create robust programs and frameworks that address one or more targeted problems while simultaneously being able to support a constellation of issues provides possible blueprints for how to carefully think about climate and environmental innovation.


By treating these slower, sustained practices - along with engaging in deep, multinational thinking about how to create more resilient and less disastrous global governance and financial systems — with the same reverence and fanfare (and funding!) as we do innovation contests to create new technologies, we might be able to flip the script on climate change — much along the same lines as climate change is a threat multiplier, we develop programs that multiply impact against and in response to climate change.


I once again use “we” very carefully, because this time, I mean everyone.

 

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Sanjana Paul

From Middletown, Del., Sanjana obtained a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Physics. Following a stint as a developer at the NASA Langley Research Center, she is now the Co-founder and Executive Director at Earth Hacks and a Technical Associate at the MIT Senseable City Lab. Sanjana has been glacier snorkeling in Iceland; she is a big fan of science fiction.