Former Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer on his new climate change focus

Mike Schroepfer, chief technology officer of Facebook Inc., listens during the Wall Street Journal Tech Live global technology conference in Laguna Beach, California, U.S., on Monday, October 21, 2019. brings together investors, founders and executives to drive innovation and drive growth in the technology industry.

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When running Facebook for a long time Mike Schroepfer left his job as Meta’s chief technology officer earlier this year, he said he will devote his spare time and new energy to focusing on tackling the climate crisis. That decision made him one of the The number of tech workers is increasing who are turning their attention, time and skills to climate change.

Schroepfer began contributing to climate philanthropy in early 2020 by funding basic science research through his foundation, Additional joint ventures. There’s not a single “aha!” It’s time for tech executives to decide they want to use their resources to contribute to the response to climate change. It was a combination of several factors that collectively pushed him to the point where he decided to act.

“Something happened in 2020. I’m not sure what, I think it might be the age of my kids,” Schroepfer told CNBC in a video interview on Wednesday. (He refuses to be more specific about his children or family for the sake of privacy.) He imagines a hypothetical future where his children might look at him and ask, ” ‘Dad, what are you doing? Why don’t you try to help?'”

In addition, climate change has begun to affect his and his family’s daily lives.

“We live in California, and now we have something called wildfire season and smoke season where we check the AQI every day before we go out,” he said, referring to the quality index. air, a measurement of air pollution and its possibilities. affect human health. “And we now have HEPA filters and respirators. That’s a real health risk to people right away. And wildfires happen – but they’re a lot worse, due to the drought. And that has a direct bearing on climate change.”

So in 2020, Schroepfer started funding climate-related scientific research through Extra Ventures, a charity he founded. He educates himself on climate change, talks to people who know more than he does about it, and hires people to do his research and help him get up to speed.

We want a livable planet for our children and our children. And, you know, that’s not a foregone conclusion. We have agents here. Let’s start making progress.

Mike Schroepfer

CTO is leaving, Facebook

One of the hardest and most important parts of deciding to take action on climate change, for Schroepfer and others he spoke with, was figuring out how their skill set could be useful. most useful.

“The good news, the bad news is, there’s a ton of options. And that’s good news. But then it quickly becomes overwhelming. It’s like the menu is just too big. And so you can’t choose what to do, inside and out. right?” Schroepfer told CNBC. “Because what we’re talking about is changing almost everything in the economy – transportation, food, everything we do, buildings, everywhere we live will change. That’s true. It’s good and exciting, but it’s also a bit overwhelming, but it means, we need everyone.”

Funding for ocean decarbonization research

One area of ​​the carbon-removing landscape that has received a tremendous amount of attention but has yet to come close to commercialization is the idea of ​​storing carbon in the oceans, or “boosting natural pumps,” says Schroepfer. this already exists”.

“Most importantly, there’s almost no funding in this space. And these are profoundly scientific questions,” says Schroepfer. “These are early days. And so it’s kind of like a place where we can really contribute because there’s very little funding here so we can really help catalyze fundamental science questions.” writing about this works? And is it secure? We need to know if we want to explore this as a possibility in the future.”

Along with his philanthropic efforts, Schroepfer also gave money to Carbon plana non-profit climate science data organization and Carbon180a non-profit organization working to promote decarbonization policies and Worka non-profit organization that helps scientists expand their research into a commercial-scale business to tackle climate change.

Innovation, unlimited

In addition to his philanthropic work, Schroepfer invests in companies that are tackling climate change. He declined to name any of his investments, but said they were all start-ups, some still hidden and without websites. But he was impressed with the flair of climate innovators.

“I see a lot of entrepreneurs who are really passionate about starting a variety of climate-focused companies, from capturing carbon in innovative ways to fusion, to mass transit,” Schroepfer told CNBC. decarbonization”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Schroepfer is a believer in the potential of technology to tackle climate change, because he says it opens the door to new ways of doing things rather than asking people to do it. Consumers do less with less.

“Why I’ve been in tech for 25 years,” he said, “is that technology has such a magical ability to remove tough decisions, remove constraints.

Instead of thinking about how people need to cut, limit and limit their consumption, Schroepfer envisions that new technology can drive growth continuously, but in a climate-conscious way. “If we change our economy, we can decarbonize a lot of what we’re doing. It’s good for everyone’s health right now, it’s good for us in the future, and it’s good for us. can really create a lot of prosperity, better products.”

Electric cars are a prime example, he said. “If you’ve ever driven an electric car, it’s just better than a gasoline-powered car. It’s less maintenance, it’s faster, it’s like it’s quieter, it’s literally zero pollution to the environment. your kids and your family. It’s just better than the product,” Schroepfer said.

Why I’ve been working in technology for 25 years is, technology has this magical ability to remove tough decisions, remove constraints.

Mike Schroepfer

Former CTO of Facebook

Mr. Schroepfer predicts that hydraulically-powered ships will become increasingly popular for the same reason: They’re far more efficient than today’s freight trains, and they’re a better, quieter ride. more lovingly, he told CNBC. “Ten years from now, will there be hydraulically powered boats in New York Harbor, on the Hudson River and San Francisco Bay? Oh, that’s right.”

That model can and should be replicated in other categories as well. “And that’s what I’m interested in in the technology and engineering field, is how do we make the pie bigger, make it better for everyone, instead of having to make a trade-off,” he said. difficult”. It is worth noting that Schroepfer also acknowledges that technological innovation alone is not enough to solve the problem of climate change.

Optimism versus strict

Schroepfer is not alone in his interest in investing in climate technology. The field has grown significantly over the past two to two years, even if it’s still not enough to deal with climate change: “There’s 1% of the enthusiasm that we really need to tackle these problems. this topic, so I hope we have more.”

But the growing sector will have its share of failures. It’s a given, he said. When looking at a company to invest in, Schroepfer looks at whether the company can make money, in addition to whether the company can scale its climate impact.

“The way I approach this is like a big dose of optimism, but very rigorous on the other side,” he said. He builds the company’s financial model, and if the company doesn’t have the runway to start selling products profitably, he won’t invest. Overall, at a large scale, people won’t pay more for a product because it’s better for the climate.

“Most people cannot afford to pay the green premiums,” says Schroepfer. So you have to build businesses that say this is as good or better, for the same or less price, and it will have a lot less carbon intensity.

That problem is particularly difficult for carbon-removal technologies, for which in the United States no market exists beyond a handful of companies voluntarily choosing to pay for carbon removal. When pressed about where the need will come from to scale the carbon removal industry beyond the big companies that care and can afford to take the initiative, Schroepfer acknowledges the challenge.

“You’ve put your finger on the hardest problem here, which is why I’ve spent so much time on this,” Schroepfer said. “I agree with you that it won’t be resolved by 2022. But it’s one of those things that I think a lot of people are working to figure out.”

But he says it’s a fundamental fact that people will need to remove carbon from the atmosphere. And so Schroepfer believes there will be a growing market for future carbon removal technologies, fueled by growth from companies that volunteer to buy remove carbon, companies that pay for carbon removal to meet their own ESG goals, increased community pressure, and, ultimately, government regulations on carbon emissions.

None of these changes will come easily or quickly, but Schroepfer said he’s motivated to keep contributing because there are no other options for Earth.

“We want a livable planet for our children and our children. And, you know, that’s not a foregone conclusion. We have agency here. Let’s get started. progress, and we can do it step by step, and it can be slow, and we say Schroepfer.

About that belief: The day after this interview, Schroepfer emailed this reporter to only to the compromise mediation agreement achieved by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., and Senator Joe Manchin, DW.Va. That Mediation agreement includesamong other things, a tax credit, called 45Q, for carbon sequestration.

“Reason for optimism,” the email’s subject line reads.

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