Author Talks: The human side of climate change

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Simon Mundy, Moral Money editor at the Financial Times. In the book Race for Tomorrow: Survival, Innovation and Profit on the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis (William Collins, January 2022), Mundy writes about his journeys through 26 countries to meet the people on the front lines of the climate crisis. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What gap does your book fill on the climate crisis?

There are some fantastic books already on the market on climate change, but I also think that most people haven’t read any of them. Why? For many people, the subject can seem intimidating. It can seem abstract. It’s full of complicated science and statistics. There’s been a lot of rhetoric around it on many sides. I felt there could be use for a book that, instead of getting into polemic, instead of focusing on the depressing sides of the story, showed that something huge is on the way, which is this amazing human response.

All over the world, people from every walk of life—some of the richest people in the world and some of the poorest people in the world—are engaged in trying to respond to the challenge of climate change and the energy transition that it is forcing us to undertake. There are some incredible human stories within that.

I wanted to make the most of that by sharing the stories of these people who are doing these extraordinary things, in many cases, or who are dealing with extraordinary situations. It is simply the biggest, most dramatic, most compelling, most inspiring, most terrifying story in the world today, and it will be for the rest of my lifetime. This is the biggest story of the century.

The big issues might start to seem less abstract. The next time you hear about direct air capture, after having read my book, I would hope that it’s no longer just an abstract concept and that you’ll think, “Oh, yeah, that’s Edda and Christoph. That’s what they’re working on—this extraordinary project in Iceland to suck CO2 from the air and turn it into underground stone.” You start to associate the concepts with the actual people and the extraordinary stories behind them. That can be useful for people.

What was the most dismaying climate-change story you came across?

There’s one thing that people need to think about, which is migration. People are already on the move all over the world in response to the various impacts of climate change. This is going to get more and more severe. In Bangladesh, I saw this in a profound and disturbing way.

People often talk about the danger of parts of Bangladesh ending up underwater, and that is going to happen. What’s happening right now is the intrusion of salty water linked to rising sea levels and storm surges across much of southwestern Bangladesh—areas that were historically rice-farming areas. Rice farming is labor intensive and provides work for a lot of people. The groundwater is getting too salty in many places to support rice. You’re seeing rice-farming areas turning into shrimp-farming areas.

Shrimp farming has many good things about it. It can bring in a lot of export revenue. But it’s less labor intensive. It can exacerbate the increasing salinity of the soil. You end up with people who used to be rice farmers, and they had been in rice-farming communities for hundreds of years, now finding themselves landless and homeless. They’re moving in enormous numbers to cities, predominantly Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

I saw the situation on the ground in the southwest. I saw the reasons why people were moving. I saw communities being hit by rapidly rising levels of infant mortality and miscarriage. Salty water is a massive health problem, and these people are dealing with it. The drinking water there is becoming seawater. It’s horrific. But they have no choice, in many cases, so people leave. When they get to Dhaka, they’re staying in overcrowded slum areas that are incredibly unsanitary. The flow of people is getting stronger and stronger.

This is obviously a huge crisis, and it’s going be a crisis within developing countries. A lot of it will also be that people from developing countries, in their desperation, are looking to move to other countries, trying to get to developed countries. Now what does that mean for politics in Europe or in the US, when you have huge and growing numbers of people driven by extreme weather events and climate disasters looking to head there? What impact does that have on politics? Do you end up with politicians gaining influence by promising to keep out the “climate migrants”? That’s already started happening, hasn’t it? Does that get more extreme?

These are things we need to think about. Things that happen in developing countries might seem far away to some people, but if they get severe, they will have knock-on effects for people in the developed world too. It was important for me to try to understand that side of things in the book and to explain it.

Morjina and her friend Nazma, in the room where she lives with her husband and two children in the Dhaka slum of Bauniabadh. She arrived here last year from the rural southwest, which is being hit increasingly severely by climate change impacts.

What was the most inspiring story you came across?

There were many, and this is something I want to emphasize. This is a book that looks at the problems, but it also looks at people who are trying to come up with solutions. Some of them were inspiring.

There’s one area I want to focus on: the direct-air-capture business. It’s controversial, by the way. There are various people who say the focus on things like direct air capture could be unhelpful because it could lead to a sense of complacency. Potentially, people could start saying, “We don’t need to worry too much about emissions, because we can just suck them all out of the air.” I would agree that would be a stupid position to take.

But we are going to have residual emissions from things like agriculture and aviation, in all probability, for some time. We already have too much CO2 in the atmosphere. We used to have 280 parts per million; now we have well over 400. Ideally, even if there were no further emissions into the atmosphere, it would be good to try to find ways to reduce it. That is what’s happening here in this project. It’s two start-ups that started separately and have now joined forces.

One of them is called Climeworks. It is two young German engineers who started working together in Switzerland. They set up a company to suck CO2 from the air using a membrane, a fan, and a box. It wasn’t clear to them how they would dispose of the CO2. Separately, Carbfix Iceland— a subsidiary of Reykjavík Energy, one of the area’s big electricity companies—was figuring out a way to pump CO2, dissolved in water, into the Icelandic basalt bedrock, where it would turn into limestone.

What we’ve been doing for several centuries now is take coal—a solid, carbon-rich substance from underground—burn it, and turn it into a gas, and up it goes into the atmosphere. What these people are now looking to do is to take that carbon gas from the atmosphere and turn it into stone underground. It’s almost a reversal of the problematic carbon process.

The Climeworks technology is the box that sucks the CO2 from the air, and it’s combined with the Carbfix Iceland technology that pumps the carbon underground, where it’s turned into limestone. Each of these individual boxes is about the same size and dimension as a passenger car. It can suck 50 tons of CO2 a year from the atmosphere.

Now, the total global emissions of all greenhouse gases is 50 billion tons of CO2 equivalent. Effectively, to neutralize that, you need a billion of these machines, which sounds impossible. That’s what I said to Christoph Gebald, who’s one of the cofounders of Climeworks. He said, “Yes, it sounds impossible. But then consider that we make 90 million to 100 million cars a year and that these things are easier to make than a car. If humanity really wanted to make 100 million of these boxes a year, it probably could.”

At this geothermal power plant in southern Iceland, Edda Sif Pind Aradóttir, CEO of Carbfix, is leading a groundbreaking project to put fossil fuel pollution into reverse by capturing carbon dioxide and turning it into stone underground.

That was an interesting point he made. It just reminded me that we can think on a massive scale when it comes to tackling the climate crisis. This is not me arguing we should make 100 million of these boxes, but we could if we wanted to.

Sometimes during my research, I would meet people who would talk on such an incredibly ambitious scale that they almost sounded delusional. Then I thought, “Hold on a minute. The climate crisis itself is on a massive, planetary, unprecedented scale. The level of sophistication that humanity has now achieved, in terms of various technological advances that we’ve made, is also amazing.”

One thing that I took away from my research was that we can be a hell of a lot more ambitious than we’ve been so far when it comes to tackling this crisis. The questions: What are we going to focus on, and how quickly are we going to ramp up the action in those areas?

One thing that I took away from my research was that we can be a hell of a lot more ambitious than we’ve been so far when it comes to tackling [the climate-change] crisis. The questions: What are we going to focus on, and how quickly are we going to ramp up the action in those areas?

What did you discover about India and its water woes?

India’s an interesting case. I was living there when I started this project. I was the Mumbai correspondent for the Financial Times, and I made a trip a couple of weeks after I arrived in the country to look at a drought in Maharashtra, which is a region in the west of India that contains Mumbai.

What I saw was shocking; I’d never seen anything like it in my life before. Reservoirs were just completely empty, with cracked bottoms—the earth at the bottom of the reservoir was like a desert. Not a drop of water to be seen. The suicide rate of farmers in Maharashtra has become a national scandal, with thousands of them killing themselves every year. It’s a terrible, terrible crisis.

Then you look at the trends that are driving that. Every decade, the average rainfall in the area has been going down. As rainfall patterns shift, driven by various changes happening to the global climate, the amount of rainfall in Maharashtra, in this area called Marathwada, has been going down. I looked at that in the India chapter of my book, and I also looked at the debate around how to deal with it.

In Maharashtra, there is a company called Mahyco. It’s run now by Usha Zehr, the daughter of the late founder, B. R. Barwale. The founder was one of the people who drove the Green Revolution in India. What Zehr is talking about is this new stage in the use of technology for food in India. Before, it was using hybrid seeds. Now she wants to use genetic-engineering technology, whether it is what’s normally thought of as genetic modification, which involves taking a gene from one species and adding it to another species, or gene editing, where you’re not inserting a foreign gene but are simply changing genes one at a time. That is incredibly high-tech stuff that has been developed recently. She is saying, “Look, this can save lives. This can give crops new properties that will make them more resistant to droughts and other climate impacts.”

But then in New Delhi, I met Vandana Shiva. She is one of the most prominent environmentalists in the world. In her opinion, a small number of big, multinational companies are exploiting farmers, locking them into the use of certain seeds over which they have no rights. She says the use of genetic engineering is going to make that problem even worse. She’s strongly against it. She also raises concerns over the safety of genetic engineering.

WHO has not found any grounds for such concerns. Yet the things that Vandana Shiva has been saying have driven opposition to genetic-modification technology, not only in India, but far beyond. In Europe and North America, she’s become influential. This is helping drive resistance, including among some politicians, to the widespread use of genetic-modification technology. It’s a fierce debate.

Personally, I’m conscious of the opinion of bodies like WHO, which say that with genetic-modification technology, there’s no reason to worry about it more than any other form of plant breeding. But the fact is that it’s a live debate, and I thought it was an important debate to delve into. As we try to respond to the very powerful effects of climate change, we do need to be thinking carefully about what forms of technology are going to be the most effective in helping us deal with that challenge.

Will you discuss US technology start-ups working on the climate crisis?

In the US, I focused on technology start-ups. It was an extremely interesting part of the journey. I was traveling all over the US, and I visited a company called Quidnet Energy that’s supported by Bill Gates, among others. It is so interesting because it’s using technology that was originally developed for the fracking industry, for the oil and gas industry. It’s using this for renewable-energy storage.

So how does it work? A solar farm, for example, develops or produces excess electricity during the day that you want to store for the nighttime, when the sun’s not shining. While you have the excess power, you use it to power a pump that pumps water underground into a crack in the ground, much like the fracking process. It’s stored in there at high pressure, and then you close the tap. You’ve got this water at high pressure just sort of stored up underground. Later, you say, “Now it’s nighttime. We need to access that energy.” You open the tap. The water flows up at high speed, drives a turbine, and generates electricity.

It is a new company, and it’s just starting to roll out that technology. Incredibly interesting to see, especially because the people who were working on that project used to work in the fracking industry. When speaking to them, one thing that was interesting to me was that they were proud to be part of the solution. Increasingly, some people in the oil and gas industry are feeling uncomfortable with this sense that you’re just part of the problem. Suddenly, you switch over by using much of the same skills in the renewable-energy sector. Now you feel like you’re being part of the solution.

There’s a lot happening in the US. What’s interesting to me is that companies in the US, more than in other countries I visited, are pushing the envelope in terms of new technology. That was one of the most exciting parts of my research.

Scientist and and start-up founder Howard Schmidt in Texas. Schmidt's start-up Quidnet uses shale drilling techniques not for oil and gas extraction, but for an energy storage concept that could speed the transition to renewable power.

What gave you hope during your travels in China?

I went to China in January 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic started. I visited several of the leading companies in the Chinese cleantech space—BYD, for example, in Shenzhen. What was impressive about the US companies that I mentioned was the cutting-edge technology. There’s a lot of exciting technology also in China, but it was the scale of BYD that blew me away.

Just in that one campus in Shenzhen, they have 40,000 people, living on site in huge dormitory buildings, in most cases; huge car factories; and huge battery factories. They’re making solar panels and electric monorail systems. The scale was impressive. Speaking of the COVID-19 pandemic, when that started, BYD became one of the world’s largest producers of surgical face masks almost overnight.

The speed and the scale with which a company like BYD can act is interesting. Of course, we talk about it as a Chinese company, but Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is one of the big investors in there. These are internationally connected companies.

There’s a lot happening in China, as there is in the US. If we look at the broader, long-term, strategic contest between China and the US, as well as other countries in the world, the race to be a superpower in the clean-energy era is going to be a bigger part of that story.

China’s web tycoon turned electric car maker He Xiaopeng was catapulted into China’s billionaire club by his creation of UCWeb, the country’s most popular mobile browser, which was acquired by ecommerce giant Alibaba. Xiaopeng then took the helm at his eponymous electric car company Xpeng Motors.

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