The climate bystander effect is real. But these leaders are out on a ledge trying to fight it
According to scientists, climate change is possibly the most urgent threat to our world today—it’s a glaring common enemy, with every living being on Earth a loser if we cannot beat it back. Yet surprisingly few of the world’s powerful institutions are fighting it.
Two companies leading the charge are BlocPower, a business that guts buildings of their energy-guzzling infrastructure and replaces them with electric technology like heat pumps and solar panels (thus transforming them into the “equivalent of Teslas”), and Stripe, a digital payments provider that is funding a push to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. But as BlocPower’s founder Donnel Baird and Stripe’s head of climate Nan Ransohoff tell Fast Company, they’re often finding themselves in sparse company.
“The bystander effect for climate is really strong,” Ransohoff said at the Most Innovative Companies summit Tuesday. “With climate, you sort of assume because it’s such a global problem and everyone knows it’s happening, someone else is working on it. But in so many cases, that’s just not true.”
Baird, who came up in politics and served as a 2008 campaign staffer for Barack Obama, said this moment of clarity struck him at a Clinton Foundation event back in his university days, when he was sent into a meeting filled with big-shot world leaders and policy thinkers.
“It was like, General Wesley Clark, Teddy Roosevelt the fourth, the head of Barclays, the head of Duke Energy, all these luminaries in the room—and the topic was climate,” he says. “After about 30 minutes of conversation, I was like, holy sh*t! These people have no plan! There’s no Wizard of Oz behind the curtain here.”
Since then, companies like BlocPower and Stripe have been trying to fill that role—and to forge the frontier of the climate industry.
For Baird, climate pollution is personal. He grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn where his family used their gas oven for heat in winter, and his father, a mechanical engineer, had to instruct him—a six-year-old at the time—how to open windows to disperse toxic carbon monoxide fumes. Then in college, as Baird learned more about the damage carbon emissions inflict on the environment, it seemed only natural that the health of the climate would go hand-in-hand with the health of the people living in it.
For example, he cites a recent Stanford study that showed gas stoves leak methane even when they’re switched off—and when they’re on, they leak nitrogen dioxide, which is among the primary causes of childhood asthma. Replacing gas stoves with electric versions is one part of BlocPower’s mission. In November, the company was green lit on a project to make Ithaca, New York, the first city to decarbonize its buildings on a large scale.
Thinking long term
Meanwhile, Stripe aims to attack carbon emissions after they’re already released, by diverting millions of dollars—including those of its corporate clients—into companies that convert carbon dioxide into less potent compounds. A few examples of these include Climeworks, which sucks CO2 out of the air with giant fans, combines it with H2O, and pumps it underground into basalt rock, where it then mineralizes; and Running Tide, which grows long ropes of kelp called “microforests” that float in the ocean capturing CO2 for six to nine months, before sinking to the deep sea floor where they’re either buried or consumed by marine life.
But a major challenge for Stripe is that it’s nearly singlehandedly attempting to pioneer the market for carbon removal—which has historically lacked customers to supply revenue, and investors to fund its efforts. As Ransohoff says, that’s partly because “the end benefits of solving climate change are going to be sort of invisible in some ways, and a long way off, especially since we’re trying to prevent a number of bad things from happening.”
Similarly, Stripe won’t be able to measure its effect on the climate for years, so right now it’s focused on the immediate result of cultivating more innovation in the space: “The idea is to send a really loud demand signal to entrepreneurs, researchers, investors, and academics, that if companies can build permanent carbon removal solutions, there is going to be a buyer for them,” she says.
But like the rest of the industry, Stripe and BlocPower are figuring it out as they go. “What we’re is doing is the cutting edge . . . it’s scary, and very real, and it creates a massive opportunity for our generation to step up and lead,” says Baird.