Decarb bros believe it’s all going to be OK.
They believe that I.P.A.s go best with party chat about smart-grid management and electric vehicle infrastructure. They believe in trading memes on Twitter and in messaging groups, formed around their zeal for technology as the answer to a lower-emissions future.
And the bros, a loose affiliation of mostly young researchers, climate tech workers, policymakers and people following along online, believe in making fun of themselves, at least a little. See: “Decarb bros,” a term they have embraced regardless of gender identity or weight-lifting ability.
What they do not believe in is wallowing.
“We are against doomerism,” said Billy Casagrande, who works at Scale Microgrids, a climate tech start-up. He was referring to a pessimistic view that humanity has passed the point of being able to do anything about climate change.
The consensus among young people seems to be “that we are screwed as it relates to climate,” the self-described decarb bro, who is 25, continued. Mr. Casagrande, one of dozens at a monthly meet-up in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood for clean energy enthusiasts, believes there is another way.
“The solutions are here. We just need to deploy them.”
“Deploy” has become a rallying cry for decarb bros. They argue that deploying climate technology solutions — solar panels, wind turbines, heat pumps, electric cars, meat alternatives (the list goes on) — will decarbonize the economy while generating eye-popping financial returns.
“The environmental movement has been traditionally seen as altruistic,” said Kyri Baker, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Colorado and a self-described decarb bro. “It was about giving away stuff and making sacrifices.”
The decarb bro flips those associations on their heads, rejecting pure doom and putting faith in business innovation and government spending to fight climate change.
The bro label has historically been associated with negative connotations of toxic masculinity and exclusivity, Dr. Baker said. But she thinks the term is undergoing a shift and taking on a gender-inclusive status. The decarb bro is “someone who’s working toward something that we all care about” without adopting the sacrificial tone of traditional environmentalism, she said.
Dr. Baker sees aspects of the decarb bro culture as an antidote to the wonkiness and self-seriousness of parts of the environmental movement. In particular, she cited the Twitter account Bros for Decarbonization, which shares memes that connect bro-approved activities — namely drinking, lifting weights and making money — with decarbonizing the economy.
A competitive powerlifter, Dr. Baker loved the account’s frequent gym references. “It’s a bro-ey thing to put away your weights; it’s a bro-ey thing to put away your carbon emissions,” she said.
Like Dr. Baker, James McGinniss, the founder of David Energy, a climate tech start-up with over $20 million in funding, felt “environmentalism was just not functioning as a narrative.”
For decades, saving the planet was seen as requiring sacrifice. Environmentalists were primarily concerned with “scarcity, reducing consumption and population growth,” said Paul Sabin, an environmental historian at Yale.
Green technological development was also at a different stage, said Bill McKibben, the environmentalist and author. Solar panels were not yet commercially viable; the mainstreaming of electric vehicles was still decades away.
“In the olden times, we viewed clean energy as ‘alternative energy’ — the Whole Foods of energy,” Mr. McKibben said. Now that “pointing a sheet of glass at the sun is the cheapest way to make power on planet Earth,” he continued, green-powered products can be “the Safeway.”
The change in technology has also shifted, for many, what it means to work on climate. Through the first decade of this century, working on limiting emissions usually meant working for a government or an NGO. Today, it can be working for a start-up, consultancy or financial institution.
“Business has caught up,” Mr. Sabin said.
Still, Mr. Sabin cautioned against a total reliance on technology to fight climate change. “An abundance strategy is very optimistic that we are going to be able to have it all through technological innovation,” he said. “But we haven’t actually produced that solution yet.”
The decarb bro is undaunted.
The way Mr. Casagrande sees it, the only way to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 is through abundance — that is, building things that reduce emissions and that people want to buy.
Using a business mind-set to widely scale decarbonized technology means tantalizing consumers with products that are appealing not just because of their lower carbon footprint. They must be faster (think high-torque electric vehicles), cheaper (think near-free electricity from solar panels) or cooler (that one’s a bit subjective).
The decarb bro philosophy — “the carrot, instead of the stick” — has at least one fan in Washington. Jigar Shah is the director of the Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office, which provides debt funding for energy projects. He frequently engages with the Bros for Decarbonization Twitter account, replying to its tweets and emphasizing its pro-tech, pro-growth philosophy.
“The modern environmental movement is to accelerate climate solutions through technology,” Mr. Shah said in an interview. “Bros for Decarb shows that persistence,” and “being focused on the positive” matters in advancing that goal.
Even talking about cars and other (guilt-free) goods to buy is a real change in what environmentalism looks like, Dr. Baker said. Practicing environmentalism used to entail downsizing your car or buying less stuff. That’s no longer the case.
“The Nissan Leaf — that is not a cool car,” she said. “But you get in a Tesla — now that thing is indescribable.”
And decarb bros might find people are hiring.
Last year, more than $64 billion in new funding for firms that invest in climate start-ups was announced, according to the newsletter Climate Tech VC. Excitement about climate tech has persisted despite fears of a recession.
The techno-optimist, anti-doom-and-gloom ethos of the decarb bro runs through the climate tech ecosystem, said Mr. McGinniss, the start-up founder. According to him, climate tech embraces optimism: “There are amazing solutions out there.”
Climate tech is “bright, it’s shiny, it’s new, it screams opportunity,” Naya Shim, an associate at a climate tech fellowship program. “It’s a gold mine.”
According to Ms. Shim, there is also a social urgency to highlighting the economic benefits of the climate movement. While she does not consider herself a decarb bro, she has noticed the impact of the decarb bro philosophy, and its message of economic opportunity, on her peers.
People used to want to work in crypto or take high-salaried jobs at software companies selling ads. Now Ms. Shim is heartened to see more of her friends — even her “finance bro” friends — wanting to work in climate.
“The next big thing is the planet,” she said. “Without it, there will be no NFTs.”
Aligning profit incentives with doing good for the world is part of what separates the decarb bro from other bros, said Sara Hastings-Simon, a scientist, decarb bro enthusiast and craft beer lover. The decarb bro is “an enlightened bro for climate,” she said.
Isaias Hernandez, an environmental educator and the founder of the Instagram account queerbrownvegan, isn’t so sure. “We can’t frame the ecological crisis as a way to profit,” he said. That incentive structure, he fears, opens up the gates to greenwashing and inequality.
“When you talk to climate tech bros, they’re very obsessed with one solution as the end-all be-all,” he said.
Instead, Mr. Hernandez wants his audience to think about approaching climate change through grass-roots organizing. “When we rely on large technocratic solutions to save our communities, they often don’t really involve the communities,” he said.
Mr. Hernandez is not alone in critically examining the role of business in fighting climate change. The degrowth movement, a segment of the environmentalism movement, holds that economic growth is no longer benefiting humanity and that fighting climate change requires untethering from a focus on gross domestic product.
Still, in the eyes of the decarb bro, money is a powerful motivator for solving the planetary crisis. “There are significant economic opportunities,” Mr. Casagrande said. “I don’t think people should feel guilty about that.”
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