Our Climate Journey
How Jason Jacobs is proving that you don't need to sacrifice profits to have impact.
Welcome to the over 500 new subscribers since the last Flywheel! If you’re reading this but haven’t subscribed, click below to join 3,768 of your smartest friends and peers who receive The Flywheel every..so often.
With my startup Swapstack demanding more and more of my time, I’ve had less and less time for The Flywheel. I’m incredibly thankful to you all for your support, and for being enthusiastic readers when I do manage to find time to publish, like today!
For the last several years, I’ve felt a steady, dull drumbeat of dread about climate change. It’s always there, but most of the time it’s in the background. Then—every so often—something batshit crazy happens, like the temperature reaching 107 in Seattle or the ocean lighting on fire or you learning about the parts of the US that will become uninhabitable during our lifetime (all examples from the past week or two), and it comes rushing forward.
The panic quickly makes room for guilt and anger. Guilt about the areas of my life where I am personally responsible; guilt for spending my time working on nonsense when I could have been doing something more productive.
The anger is typically directed at the many, many parts of society that have obstructed, denied, and generally acted in self interested, short-term focused ways when what’s needed is cooperation, acceptance, love, and a collective attitude.
I begin to approach acceptance and resignation. After all, if simply masking up during COVID was too much of a hit to personal freedom, why should we expect people to accept far greater sacrifices in the near future?
But before I get there, I take a sharp left turn towards optimism.
Why? The topic of today’s post has a lot to do with it.
Jason Jacobs of My Climate Journey has been learning in public about the climate situation for over two years now. He’s published over 200 episodes of the My Climate Journey podcast, where he interviews experts on various domains of the climate world, runs a community of over 1,500 passionate, dedicated folks from all domains looking to maximize their impact, and has recently started investing in climate tech startups out of his new fund.
As I was preparing to leave Amazon (the first time) I was eager to have an impact on the effort to curb climate change. That’s when I first encountered Jason’s podcast. What struck me most was that he wasn’t that different from me: he was also a tech guy (albeit seemingly far more successful up to that point in his career) with no real background in climate. The main difference was that he walked the walk.
I had the honor of chatting with Jason for this piece—you can check out our conversation on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you download podcasts!
Many people like me get stuck—not just in climate work but in any new endeavor—during the planning phase. Thinking, plotting, optimizing. Our instinct is to take the absolute perfect step in the precisely correct direction. This is of course mostly impossible when you know close to nothing about a field. It’s far better, if more difficult, to take an approach like Jason’s.
In lieu of deciding where to take specific action, he simply set out to learn, and trusted that eventually he’ll have an impact. Luckily, he found that people were eager to teach!
What started as an exploration of various climate related topics organically turned into an emerging organization that can’t be easily categorized and has a unique and powerful flywheel that is propelling the company to new heights every day.
Before we get into My Climate Journey’s past, present, and future, let’s set some context on the current climate situation.
Major caveat here: I am extremely not an expert on this topic. I’m just presenting some very high level, basic information that—to my knowledge—is considered indisputable. If you want much more thoroughly researched information on climate (with a specific bent on the business and economic impacts), some of my favorite reads are Climate and Money by my friend Owen Woolcock, and Climate Tech VC.
Climate Change 101
Climate science is pretty complex. There are countless factors and systems and models in play. But the central idea of climate change can also be summarized with some relatively simple language: the amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted and enter the atmosphere (inputs) directly impacts the degree of warming (outputs), leading to a variety of impacts. Let’s look at each of these three:
The primary input to climate change is emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG). Carbon is typically used as a shorthand for this because over 70% of global GHG emissions are carbon dioxide (and over 80% in the US).
When too much carbon is burned and enters the atmosphere, it can have a heating effect on the planet. The carbon creates a greenhouse effect (hence the term ‘greenhouse gases’), which means it prevents heat from escaping the earth’s surface as it might normally.
As of 2019, the main contributors to carbon emissions in the US were the combustion of fossil fuels for purposes of transportation (35%), electricity generation (31%), and ‘industry’ (16%), which is a catch-all term for emissions that take place at factories that produce the various things we consume every day (source).
Another important input to climate change is the degradation of natural resources, like forests, that serve to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
So more carbon burned + less carbon removed = a lot more carbon in the atmosphere. How much more? This much more:
Atmospheric carbon is measured in a parts per million (ppm) metric. As far back as the models are able to go (dating back at least 800,000 years), atmospheric carbon oscillated between 180 ppm and 300 ppm. Atmospheric carbon has been on a steady uphill climb ever since industrialization, and in the 1950s, the carbon level shot through that historic ceiling. In 2016, we passed 400 ppm for the first time, and we’ve shown no real signs of slowing down yet (source).
Zooming in on just the past 60 years or so, we can more clearly see the upwards trend (source). Reportedly, carbon emissions are on such a tear that Tiger tried to give it a term sheet.
There is some good news: according to the Global Carbon Project, we are indeed starting to slow down our rate of new emissions added to the atmosphere (even adjusting away the impact of the COVID slowdown). It’s a step in the right direction, but even emitting a bit less than the prior year still means we’re emitting a ton of stuff into the atmosphere.
The direct result of this historic rise in atmospheric carbon is increasing surface temperatures. If you’ve paid any attention in recent years, you’ve surely noticed the increase in ‘hottest month/day recorded’ alerts popping up on your Twitter feeds.
“According to the 2020 Global Climate Report from NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, every month of 2020 except December was in the top four warmest on record for that month”, says climate.gov’s recent report on global temperatures.
In another crazy stat, NASA states that 19 of the warmest years ever (or at least since record keeping began in 1880) have occurred since 2000.
NOAA publishes a monthly climate change report, and in its most recently published one (May 2021), it shows monthly temperature variations above the 20th century average:
Despite some noise and random variation, the trend is clear: things are getting hotter pretty fast.
The only question remaining is what trajectory we’re on. This fantastic 2017 report by the Yale School for the Environment talks about various possible scenarios for the future. Regardless of what happens in the future, a certain amount of warming is already locked in because carbon stays in the atmosphere for a very long time. But beyond what we’ve already emitted, the rest is up to us.
The chart below visualizes various scenarios based on emissions levels, and what that translates to in terms of degrees of warming. The scary red line at the top represents what might happen if emissions grow in an unchecked manner; the blue line at the bottom shows a “best case scenario” of sorts, if we are able to achieve close to zero net emissions by later this century.
This illustrates that although the problem is already here, the future is still in our hands.
Climate Change (capitalized to allude to the big hairy issue of climate change as discussed by policy and otherwise serious people, as opposed to the general scientific and factual concept) is typically discussed in Celsius degrees of expected warming relative to a historic benchmark.
One thing that always struck me as odd is that the variations seemed really small: 1.5°C has been discussed as management, 2.0°C as crisis, and 2.5°C as completely catastrophic. I never totally understood how a half a degree (or even one degree) could make such a huge difference.
Then I learned that these temperatures are global temperatures across an entire year. Below is a great graph that illustrates how even a small increase in average temperatures wildly increases the maximum temperatures we expect to see (source):
With more hot and extreme hot weather, a lot of bad stuff happens. Aside from an increase in deadly heat waves, sea levels will rise, hurricanes will become more intense, and our ability to reliably grow crops will change (among many others). As this happens, more places on earth will become uninhabitable, leading to mass migration challenges (something we’re not particularly good at as a global community).
So while the eventually outcome of this story is still in our hands, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
I share this context not to scare anyone; rather, I think writing this does a few important things: (1) it helps me set a baseline of understanding for myself and readers; (2) writing this helps me process something with which I often struggle to come to terms, and most importantly, (3) it sets the stage for how My Climate Journey fits in to all of this.
How to Fight Climate Change
Here’s how to fight climate change in 3 easy steps.
This is not an issue where 1 or 2 things need to go right in order for us to solve it. Rather, there are dozens or hundreds of changes that need to be made in order for us to properly tackle the problem.
One of the best resources I’ve discovered as I started to explore this topic is Project Drawdown, which published a super thorough and detailed book in 2017 exploring a framework for tackling climate change. At the time I first read it, I didn’t completely understand most of anything I read in there. To be honest, if I read it now I still wouldn’t grok much of it.
What I took away instead is how multi-faceted a problem this is. In this table of solutions, you can find the very specific potential each of over 100 potential solutions has to reduce emissions.
What this tells me is that:
It’s going to take a massive, global, collective effort across dozens of industries.
We’re going to need governments, the private sector, and us as individuals all to do our part. Nobody gets a pass here.
Doing something is a lot better than doing nothing; that said,
Doing small somethings needs to lead to bigger somethings. I was at Costco recently—the land of waste—and noticed they served their soft drinks with compostable straws. This is a good example of something being better than nothing but also not nearly sufficient.
It seems to me that there are two broad ways to “do something” about climate change: (1) you can choose one of the topics on the solutions table and find a job, start a company, or change your lifestyle in a way that’s aligned to what’s needed there; or (2) you can help unlock #1 for other people.
My Climate Journey is the ultimate unlock for people looking to find their swimlane.
My Climate Journey
The first thing you’ll notice when you meet Jason Jacobs is his high energy and infectious optimism. When I think about climate change, my mind immediately goes towards pessimism; I hear optimistic people, and I wonder whether optimism is warranted. Not Jason.
When we talked, I asked him whether climate optimism is warranted, and he effectively dismissed the question (as respectfully as possible) as something only people who aren’t working on the problem worry about. His attitude is that if you are busy doing something about it and leaving it all out on the field, you don’t have as much room for anxiety about the problem.
And when it comes to people “doing something” about the problem, few are more inspiring than Jason.
Jason’s previous experience was as an entrepreneur: he started RunKeeper, one of the first run-tracking apps, and sold it to ASICS in 2016. As he was exploring his next move, the seminal Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C came out, basically saying that we’ve officially run out of time. This freaked tons of people out, including Jason Jacobs, and he decided to make climate change the focus of his next chapter.
At first, he went into exploration mode. He started reading papers and articles to wrap his head around the issues. When he had a question or wanted to double click on something, he would email the author of a paper; to his surprise, people not only responded but they were enthusiastically excited to chat with a beginner.
Eventually he started publishing notes from these conversations in an email newsletter. Over time, people started asking if they could listen to the conversations he was having. Thus the My Climate Journey podcast was born. In each episode, Jason interviews one climate expert in a specific domain, and basically asks questions as a beginner does.
After a while, the podcast attracted a community of listeners who organized events and crowdsourced ideas for the podcast. The community grew into a paid Slack community over 1,800 people deep. I personally joined in summer 2020 after quitting Amazon the 2nd time, this time much more determined to make progress on meaningful problems.
Despite my massive imposter syndrome, I managed to chat with some incredible people working on the fight against climate change through the MCJ community, including investors, founders, and scientists. Beyond just my own experience, hundreds of people have successfully been hired, found cofounders, sourced investments, and otherwise paired with like minded collaborators via the community.
One happy accident of the bustling community was the front row view Jason and his growing team had for the best, emerging climate-related startups. This resulted in the MCJ Collective, which launched in October 2020 and is now onto its 3rd fund.
In a first for The Flywheel, there is no hand drawn flywheel for this post. That’s because when I first connected with Jason earlier this year, he sent me the above graphic depicting the MCJ flywheel. He insists that the structure of MCJ was not premeditated but rather a series of organic steps that he simply paid attention to. Either way, this flywheel describes where MCJ is now and how it may continue to grow in the future:
Content -> Community
The podcast (and potentially other content channels in the future) is the top of the funnel for MCJ. I, like probably most other community members, heard about the community from the podcast itself. MCJ is one of the top climate podcasts out there and as interest in the issue continues to grow, so will MCJ’s listenership.
Community -> Capital
The community is an organic, untamed beast full of energy. As founders, investors, and industry experts come together in the MCJ community, the result is dealflow, new company formation, and investor sourcing.
Capital/Community -> Content
Both capital and community flow back to make the content better:
As MCJ started investing in startups, a new podcast series was born: the Climate Tech Startup Series, where Jason deep dives one company to highlight their story and amplify their reach.
Before every episode, Jason crowdsources questions from the community. Furthermore, Jason sources interview subjects from the community as well. As the community grows, Jason’s ability to deliver high quality content more easily will continue to improve.
Your guess is as good as mine about the future of climate change. But I find people like Jason Jacobs and organizations like MCJ to be extremely inspiring, because it proves that you don’t need to be a deep climate expert to make a big dent in the problem.
MCJ is going to continue to expand and grow in unpredictable ways, but they have a fair shot at becoming:
The best evergreen resource for learning how one can get involved in the climate battle;
The best community for people actively exploring or working on the issue; and,
A leading VC firm focused on climate tech startups
They are deploying $10 million per year into Climate Tech startups with a portfolio of nearly 30 companies already, and it would not surprise me to see both of those numbers 10x in the next few years.
No one person is going to solve climate change; it’s going to take a collective. It’s going to take a community. And my money is on MCJ to be one of the best, most influential communities as we look ahead to the future.
If this piece has gotten you fired up to get involved, I recommend the following resources:
This article gave an overview, and I highly recommend going deeper. The podcast is a fantastic resource to start learning, and if you are motivated to go deeper, I highly suggest joining the community.
Another great way to have impact is to invest in companies so they can have impact. If that sounds interesting to you, check out MCJ Collective, the rolling fund described above.
If/when you decide to take the full plunge into climate work, the On Deck Climate Tech fellowship is a fantastic way to jump with both feet into the pond. The program is equally good for climate experts and business/tech folks, with a general philosophy that each side needs the other for the best ideas to come to fruition.
The 2nd cohort just kicked off this week (and I’m in it!), while applications for subsequent cohorts are already open on a rolling basis. Candice and her team are building a world class experience for people who are serious about committing their time to this battle.
That’s it for today’s edition of The Flywheel. Thanks a ton to the Foster community for helping out with this one. Let me know what you thought of this piece by clicking one of the links below👇🏼.
If you liked this article, smash that like button and share with a friend! Let me know your take on Twitter here.