In Episode 74, Quinn & Brian discuss: Making carbon capture suck more (but this time, with carrots).
Our guest is Henry Elkus, the frustratingly young and impossibly optimistic founder of Helena, an organization that assembles “some of the world’s most remarkable people to develop and lead projects that help build a better tomorrow.” They’re a little different from other think-tanks, though, because they focus on one problem at a time, creating projects that aim to operationally address a societal problem.
The first project Helena focused on was a carbon capture solution – one of the most positive and lucrative possible solutions for addressing the excess carbon in our atmosphere, which has to be done if we want to slow down and possibly reverse climate catastrophe. They helped build and scale the world’s first commercial carbon capture company, Climeworks, creators of the first carbon capture plant that is carbon net-negative.
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Important, Not Important is produced by Crate Media
Quinn: Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett.
Brian: And I am Brian Colbert Kennedy. This is the podcast where we dive into a specific topic or question affecting everyone on the planet right now, or in the next 10 years or so. If it can kill us, or turn us into the wormhole from DS9, we're in. Our guests are scientists, doctors, engineers, politicians, astronauts, even a reverend, and we work together towards action steps that our listeners can take with their voice, their vote, and their dollar.
Quinn: This is your friendly reminder that you can send questions, thoughts, really anything, hand-drawn artwork, feedback to us at Twitter @importantnotimp or you can email us at email@example.com.
Quinn: I got a note from a guy the other day who said, in response to the news item that we've built too many airports. We got to stop expanding airports because that means more plane flights, which means more missions. I believe the email said, "You obviously don't own an airplane or need to find a place to park yours. You don't know what you're talking about."
Quinn: It's like, oh, man. I don't think you get it. I feel like we're on a different page here.
Brian: Holy cow.
Brian: Yes, we obviously don't own an airplane. Who the ... That's insane.
Quinn: Yeah. On that note, you can join thousands of other smart people and subscribe to our free, weekly newsletter, comes at you Fridays, at importantnotimportant.com, all the news you missed in about five minutes or less. This week's episode, we are talking about incentivizing those dirty capitalists to fucking solve climate change for us, in the most positive and money-making way possible, by sucking carbon right out of the air.
Brian: Right out.
Quinn: You want to tell them about our guest today, Brian?
Brian: Yeah. His name is Henry Elkus. Pretty great guy. He's super young. He's very optimistic, and he's action oriented, and that is refreshing for a millennial.
Quinn: Yeah. Wait, well, I mean millennials are very-
Brian: Wait, for a really young millennial.
Quinn: ... action oriented and all that stuff. It's just, yeah, the optimism is a bit strange.
Brian: Yeah, and great.
Quinn: We're optimism here. We're not doom and gloom. We are action oriented. Things are in a hard way, but there's also a lot of good shit going on, and that's why we're here talking about every week. If you want to hear us talk about absolutely nothing and change the topic every 10 seconds, you can check out Fun Talk. It drops on Friday's. As our production people said, we go until Brian gets tired. So-
Brian: They said that?
Quinn: Yep, which sounds about right.
Quinn: Anyways, this is a really good one.
Brian: Yeah, super good.
Quinn: I really enjoyed it, and I think it will fill in the blanks a little bit on where we've come with carbon capture and how to expand it, make a difference. Let's go talk to Henry.
Brian: Sounds great. Let's talk to Henry.
Quinn: Okay. Our guest today is Henry Elkus, and together we're going to talk about making carbon capture suck more, but this time with carrots, and we will get to what the fuck that actually means. Henry, welcome.
Henry Elkus: Thank you guys for having me. It's wonderful to be here.
Quinn: We'll see. We'll see.
Brian: Yeah, yeah. You spoke too soon, maybe. N, we're very happy. Thank you for being here. Let's get it going just by, Henry, just let everybody know who you are and what you do.
Henry Elkus: Sure. My name is Henry Elkus. I'm founder and CEO of a unique organization called Helena. We do something very simple, but I guess quite ambitious. We do individual one-by-one projects, and each project is aimed at trying to actually address, operationally, a societal problem. The first project we did was obviously in the field of carbon capture. We helped scale and launch the world's first commercial carbon capture company Climeworks.
Henry Elkus: we've actually worked in a bunch of other sectors as well. I know this podcast talks a lot about things that could end the world. Another project we did, for example, passing a bunch of legislation to protect the electrical grid from going down-
Quinn: Oh, that's helpful.
Henry Elkus: ... whether that's a cyber attack from a foreign adversary, or a solar storm, or extreme weather, so we're doing that. We work in the medical space. What makes us different is that each project is completely custom made to identify and address a societal problem. I think what separates us as well is the way we do the projects. I think that might be interesting. All of the capital, all of the resources we utilize, so the way that we come up with the ideas for these projects, the way that we pay for them, the way that we operationalize them doesn't come from me. It comes from a group of people called Helena members that we've recruited.
Henry Elkus: There's about 100, 150 of them all around the world. We have a full time staff that works with them just to do these projects. The members sign up to use their abilities to do the projects, and they're quite diverse. One of them is a Nobel Peace Prize winner. One of them is a Republican hedge fund manager. We have people on both sides of the political aisle, and they're all united by this idea that they're going to work together to actually address problems in a no bullshit way, and put forth their resources in an operational manner to actually get it one.
Henry Elkus: That massively separates us, I believe, from every other organization that I know we were inspired by, but want to innovate upon.
Quinn: Interesting. I'm into it. I mean we are very much, at this point, with a lot of ... Again, we are not just climate change. That is probably 40%, which is still a pretty good chunk, but with items like that, like you said, people on both sides of the aisle, we are very much of the mind of honestly whatever gets it done at this point. I don't really give a shit what the other nine things are that we're going to battle about as long as we can get this one thing done.
Henry Elkus: Yeah, agreed. The other thing is there's this fascination in society today where people wake up in the morning and they say, “I'm going to go into politics. I'm going to use that as a way to change the world,” or, “I'm going to go into the non-profit sector.” I find that weird. Imagine you wake up in the morning and you say, “I'm going to define my life by working inside of a 501(c)(3) foundation that is different from everything else just because it takes tax deductible money.” I think that we should flip it. We should do the inverse, which is we should say we need to find the most effective and moral way to solve the world's problems and then do that.
Henry Elkus: If that means doing it for-profit business, it means going to the private sector, it means running for office, we should do all of it. We shouldn't segregate what we do based upon the structure. I think it's a weird fascination that we've had that I think is antiquated.
Quinn: Yeah, I mean there are some extremely effective versions of that that do work. There are some that are not. Sadly, there are some big names that I don't think people realize are horribly ineffective, etc., etc., versions of that, but I'm interested in this idea of looking at the problem first. We've talked ... I don't remember, we have this alternate podcast universe that we push out on Fridays which is just Brian and I talking about whatever the fuck we want to talk about.
Quinn: For some reason, some people prefer that to the world changing ones, which drives me a little bit crazy, but we vent about things. One of the things I've always been interested in is this idea of similarly flipping college majors on its head to saying, “Okay, you are majoring in the ocean, or you are majoring in, again, climate change,” and what that means from across disciplinary point of view, because we need to come at it like where political science as a major is effectively, at this point, useless. But political science underneath a climate change major is really compelling-
Henry Elkus: Exactly.
Quinn: ... because you're going to be talking with oceanographers and atmospheric scientists and things like that. That's where you hope that the world meets the dollar a little bit. Anyways-
Henry Elkus: One of the things that ... I mean, just to add a note on this.
Henry Elkus: There are these fascinating examples of people accidentally solving problems without trying to, or without at least trying to as the primary purpose. One of my favorite examples is the movie Blood Diamond. This is Hollywood coming together with a compelling story to do a for-profit movie, but it raised awareness on this critical issue of the West African diamond trade. This was a Leo DiCaprio movie where the goal was to make as much money as possible, and obviously, they had a moral bent to telling the story, but there are these many examples where people stumble in ...
Henry Elkus: You talked about it, I think, on a prior podcast, falling up the stairs or failing forward where there's change that's done in the world that's not intentional. It shows that fields overlap, and fields themselves are a social construction.
Henry Elkus: So I endorse that idea of having college majors that are different. I think there are these horizontal functions that people should focus on rather than the vertical ones.
Quinn: Well, and that's the old Bell Labs model, right, was you get all these people down the hall from each other, they run into each other. I mean it's probably over exaggerated, but I mean, you look at their track record, and the building that Steve Jobs built for Pixar when he was still running it, and how everybody has to go to the bathroom basically in the same direction and how there's one cafeteria and the ideas that come out of that, and you're like, “Yeah, they've done a pretty fucking good job.” So anyway-
Henry Elkus: We were excited. It's shocking. I mean the term university, the Latin root, you know, universal, holistic, you put minds together. What's funny is that universities are now some of the most siloed institutions in the world where you have people say, “Oh, that's not in my field, so I'm not going to work on it.” You signed up to solve a problem in the world. You signed up to contribute to human knowledge, not to reach tenure hopefully. So it's so funny. Even the institutions that were built to solve this problem are now unfortunately, standard bearers of the problem in the first place in some cases. In some cases, they're not, but it's sad.
Quinn: Yep. All right, well, I'm excited to dig into all that.
Brian: Yes, very much. I know we mentioned it, but as a reminder to everyone listening also, what we're doing here, we're going to set up some context. Quinn is going to set up some context for our question or our topic at hand today.
Quinn: It's usually pretty ill informed.
Brian: And really entertaining.
Quinn: It's like a Wikipedia if nobody edited.
Brian: Yeah, right, and then we'll get into some action oriented questions that get to the heart of why you're here and why we're all here, and why we should care about what you're doing. Sound good?
Henry Elkus: Let's do it.
Quinn: Henry, we like to start with one important question to set the tone. I will note, and I mentioned this to my wife this morning, we don't talk to a lot of white dudes anymore just because the 20th century, I think, proved itself out. Like we had our shot and things didn't go well. Also, we're white guys, so the that's enough.
Henry Elkus: I plead guilty to being a white guy.
Quinn: Yeah, exactly. Look man, point of that, but got to expand the voice a little bit. Anyways, so this had better be good, but anyways-
Quinn: ... instead of saying, “Tell us your life story, Henry,” we like to ask, Henry, why are you vital to the survival of the species?
Henry Elkus: Oh man.
Brian: Super normal question.
Henry Elkus: Hopefully I'm not. Hopefully I'm not.
Quinn: Mm-hmm (affirmative), standard beginning question.
Henry Elkus: Well, I'm not vital to the species, otherwise we're not in good shape. I'll take a stab at it. I plead ignorance. Instead of saying that I know the solution, I think that I'm smart enough to know that no individual knows the solution to a given problem. Instead, what I do is I find the people that have spent their lives searching for the solution, and I bring them together. I care about one thing, which is using those assets, bringing people together to actually execute a project and get it done. I just don't care whether it's through government or business or outside of that realm.
Henry Elkus: So hopefully, I'm not the individual that is vital to the species. Hopefully, I'm the gateway drug to the other people that are vital to the species, and that I'm a connecting agent. I'm an operationalizer. I think the world needs more of that. There's this fascination in history of this thing called the great man theory, which is a sexism of itself in the name, but that-
Quinn: Yeah, let's start there.
Henry Elkus: ... there are these individuals, the Churchills and Alexander the Greats that have solved the world's problems, or that were vital. I think there might be some cases where people have been vital, but those are the exceptions to the rule, not the rule. I think that there need to be more Avengers, groups of people that solve problems and people that facilitate that than there need to be the great individuals of history, and I hope I'm one of those people.
Henry Elkus: I hope I'm a facilitative agent. But I hope more importantly than that, that I can champion and spread the idea of it being okay that you enter a scary problem like climate change not knowing the solution, but being committed to identifying the people that are trying their damnedest to do it, and then bring them together.
Henry Elkus: So if I am vital to the species, it's because of that, not because I'm some oracle that knows the answer, or that I have some power that is disproportional or asymmetrical that I get to exert. I like the democracy of what we do to bring people together and utilize their resources collectively. I think that's something beautiful about the 21st century and the interconnectivity of the world that we have. Not to be to floofy and philosophical, but I truly believe that.
Quinn: Yeah, and it can definitely go wrong-
Henry Elkus: Oh yeah.
Quinn: ... the 21st century networking, but yeah, facilitators are helpful because it is so often where you look around and go, boy, I ... At least, that's how I try to look at things as well, is look at it and say, “Boy, wouldn't it be awesome just to see what these two people could do together?” Yeah, that's interesting. Awesome. All right, well, I think that's very good, very humble, but has got some backbone to it.
Henry Elkus: Thank you, sir.
Quinn: We'll take it.
Brian: Yeah, we will, yeah.
Quinn: Passed, check. All right, let's move on to some poorly, hastily thrown together context about this. Sometimes this is super wonky and so for instance, this is how cholera works, or a space engine, and sometimes it's more reality based. Anyways, today, we're going to talk a little bit about carbon capture. We're really looking at it from the business incentive point of view, but we've covered carbon capture a couple times on this show.
Quinn: In episode 11, we talk with the absolute legend, David Hawkins of the NRDC about his efforts later in his reign to get carbon capture to really the three tenets where it's lacking like any new technology is, which is efficient, scalable and affordable. In episode 15, we talked with really one of the best climate and clean energy reporters out there, Akshat Rathi of Quartz, who I can't recommend enough for following and talking to. He's so connected and fantastic. You would love this guy.
Quinn: But this is episode 74. It's been about a year, so it's time to revisit it a little bit. That's for a number of reasons. One is the different angle you're taking with it, but also, there's a quite a few groups going at this now. Two of the more prominent names people probably hear about is you're super nerds and pay attention to news or the show is there's a group called Carbon Engineering and there's a group called Climeworks, who I believe you're familiar with.
Henry Elkus: I hear they're pretty cool.
Quinn: Yeah, pretty cool guys. Again, we try to dial it down to what is the level that people can understand while they're texting and driving at the same time? So without getting too wonky, people can visit those episodes. If you're going to listen to those episodes, people, we were babies. They were very early. Be gentle. Anyways, super simple, two versions of getting carbon out of the air or of carbon capture. One is grabbing the shit we've already put out in the air and snatching carbon as it leaves a dirty facility.
Henry Elkus: Yeah.
Quinn: Then there's the question, again, like anything else, of what the hell do we do with it after we got it? There's bunch of different answers, and the fact that we haven't really settled on one, or a couple that are, again, efficient, safe, renewable, scalable, affordable is part of what's going on here. So do we turn it into fuel? Do we stuff it into the ground? Do we turn it into rocks? Good news is we've proved we can do it, but it's nowhere near scalable for what we need to do, which is to save the world.
Quinn: That doesn't mean we won't get there. I mean it's apples to oranges, but if you look at how much three years ago, everybody said batteries were never going to be affordable for when the sun's not shining or the wind's not blowing and battery costs have come down something like 90% in two years.
Henry Elkus: Yeah, crazy.
Quinn: Again, it's difference, and battery has its own roadblocks certainly, but the potential is there. We just have to come at it from a bunch of different angles, which is the point today. So the question today is current efforts around this, around carbon itself are focused on punishing polluters, right?
Henry Elkus: Yeah.
Quinn: More regulation, discussion of taxing/imposing fees, and then of course, what do we do with that revenue? Carbon credit trading, the things that are working in California, the North East, but if we're really going to involve capitalists, we're going to need some business incentives. That's what I meant by carrots, right?
Henry Elkus: People like money.
Quinn: Right, people like money. They want to make money. If this is really, and I honestly believe it can be, potentially the biggest ... If clean energy and carbon removal and all of this, and retrofitting everything we have, rebuilding everything we have is the biggest market of all time, then we need to actually proactively think about how to set it up for success. People are greedy fucking monsters, but we do have to meet them where they are because they can get shit done. Because like you said, it can be non-profit, it can be for-profit, it can be university, it can be government.
Quinn: I don't give a shit how it gets done, but if this is how people are incentivized, then let's do it. So coming back to our topic of the week, which is making carbon capture suck more but with carrots, Henry, where do you specifically see an opportunity to affect this part of our goal to survive the 21st century? How did you guys, with your project list, how did you come to Climeworks and carbon capture?
Henry Elkus: That's a perfect question. We noticed, and it's important to note, you talked about dumbing this down, and I use that on purpose, to folks that are texting and driving. I was one of those people. When Helena started, I was not an expert in climate change whatsoever. I think that was a benefit in one way, which is when we started looking at this problem with the members who were the experts, this dichotomy hit us.
Henry Elkus: I think I want to talk about that first, which is why are we in this problem in the first place? The reason why, if you dumb it down into it binary, into just two main issues, we're putting too much carbon and methane into the atmosphere as a society too quickly. Everybody knows that, but even if society presses a button and stops excess C02 from going into the air and other gasses, there's so much of it still in the atmosphere that's stuck there that's unless we remove that at a truly significant scale, we're not going to effect change in this problem.
Henry Elkus: We're not going to get close to the goals that we set in the Paris Climate Agreement, or really anything that is intelligent that has been a prediction of what we need to do to reduce the global temperature to a point at which society will not be affected in a truly bad way.
Henry Elkus: when we were looking at both of these, we noticed that there was a promise of the private sector being able to, like you said, produce revenue by sucking carbon out of the air and turning into products. We looked at the set of companies that were thinking of doing that, and that's why we decided to go into that field. We said we're not resourced or smart enough at the size we were at then to go into the first field of preventing carbon from going into the atmosphere. I think that was a job for intergovernmental organizations, for legislative bodies that had total top down control, but entrepreneurship can solve the second problem.
Henry Elkus: Entrepreneurship can create companies that can suck carbon out of the air and sell it. What if we could focus on that? That was actually the impetus, which is looking at it from the veil of ignorance and seeing that there was this entire world to focus on that hadn't been propagated. You talked about this before. Two, three years ago ... I mean carbon capture is now being talked about on the stump by the presidential candidates. Carbon capture and storage is not a household name yet, but nerds are talking about it and people that are policy wonks are talking about it, and I believe in a couple of years, it will be a household name.
Henry Elkus: This was not something that was seen as a potential or massive solution even two or three years ago, so how time flies. This is why we went into it. That's how we started just thinking about this in the first place before we did any work, was just noticing this glaring deficiency in the work balance of society and how entrepreneurship could address this problem.
Quinn: Well, we appreciate you're doing that. It seems like one of those problems, if you were at all creatively incentivized in solving large scale problems, you hear about this one and go, wouldn't it be fucking great if this actually did work? What do I have to do to move that needle because, like the news that came out this week when they finally ... the scientists did that huge map of where we need to plant all the trees and the [treeline 00:20:13] trees and how much of a difference it'll make.
Quinn: Of course, you can go back and forth on the margin of error there, but that's all great. We've got a crackpot down in the Amazon who's cutting them all down for cows, so it's not going to cut it. We have to move faster than that, and a technology like this, again, it's like whatever works. What do we have to do to both incentivize people to participate in this, to invest in this, to lend their time to it? But I look at it as, I remember a cousin of mine got sick with cancer. It was like 15 years ago, 12 years ago now. I couldn't be further from a medical doctor much less an oncologist, but every bone in my body was going, “How do I help? How do I help?”
Quinn: I was like, “Oh I'm a former college athlete, I'll sweat.” So we signed up to raised money for, at the time, it was Team in Training, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I raised 30,000 bucks, and I was like, “Here, somebody else use this money to do the thing you need to do. That's what I can contribute.” I make a ridiculous extension from that to climate change, which is what can we do?
Henry Elkus: Start [crosstalk 00:21:24].
Quinn: How can you run for climate change? Unclear.
Brian: [crosstalk 00:21:26].
Quinn: You definitely can't run from it.
Brian: That's very true.
Brian: I think we mentioned it, but it's been a year since we've discussed carbon capture here on the podcast, so let's get everyone up to speed on the technical side. Henry, from your perspective, can you just go over where we are now, what advances have been made, what obstacles are still to be overcome?
Henry Elkus: I'll start with the basic number. There is this report that came out of a very lauded body called the American Physical Society a couple years ago. It was quite pessimistic about carbon capture. It said that even at economies of scale, which is basically a fancy way of saying everybody in the world trying their hardest to do carbon capture at a huge scale, that we would be hard pressed, not impossible, but hard pressed to remove a single ton of carbon out of the air for a price under $600. A single metric ton for a price under $600.
Henry Elkus: The very first test plants, not the first scaled plant, but the first test plants that Climeworks and other top companies in this space have put out have broken that theoretical limit. So when we talk about the growth curve that this technology is taking even in the last couple of years, it has been massive. The magic number, that was under $100 a metric ton. That's when you start getting to the point where this is competing with industries like the fossil fuel industry, where it simply just makes more sense to invest in this type of technology, even if you're not thinking about impact at all and you just want to make money.
Quinn: That's what happened to wind and solar, right?
Henry Elkus: Exactly.
Quinn: Exactly. These corporations got on board because they're we're incentivized to profit, and this is fucking cheaper.
Henry Elkus: Yes, it's cheaper, and this is what we talk about. There are these institutional structures like capitalism that if you can ride and you can provide a better solution for, they do move quickly. We saw that with solar. 15, 20 years ago, the questions were out there. Is this going to be a solution that the cost goes down on? The answer was yes, and now there are solar billionaires. It sounds crazy today, but I think there will be carbon capture billionaires in the future.
Henry Elkus: So part of our goal, when we're thinking about this as Helena, the organization, is how do we cut short that time? How can, because of our involvement and the people that we work with involvement, make it? Let's just say it'll be 15 or 20 years for that price to go down to under $100 a ton. How can we shorten that? There's a lot of different ways, but that's our chief concern, is how can we push this forward and then get out of the way and let the tide of entrepreneurship work?
Henry Elkus: I think the important thing to state though, which is a dangerous thing, I don't want to be pessimistic, is there is a great criticism of carbon capture that's actually thematic. It's so true. It has nothing to do with the technology, which is people are fearful that what we're talking about will get people to be lazy. That they'll say, “Okay, these genius scientists are just going to figure this out.” We don't how to continue polluting, and that's a problem.
Henry Elkus: So what I don't want to state here on this very lauded podcast is that we're only going to be able to-
Quinn: Easy, it's going to be easy.
Henry Elkus: ... we only need to rely on carbon capture. We don't. The best tag that I heard about this is there is no silver bullet for climate change. There is a silver buck shot, and this is just one of the pellets of the buck shot. So we have to focus on this, but there's so many other things we how to do, and we can't pretend that this is the knockout solution.
Quinn: Yeah. I mean I feel like, sweet Jesus, I hope anyone who's listened to 74 episodes of this podcast understands that it's buckshot not bullet, or otherwise, I'm out. If we haven't proven that point, it's like holy shit, man, Jesus. Yeah-
Henry Elkus: It's hard to get that message into society. I'll give you an example, and this is depressing. As you guys know, there is a 97 plus percent consensus among scientists that humans cause climate change. There are theories of gravity that scientists agree on less than this, yet there's been successful messaging campaigns about what about the 3% of scientists that don't think this? Or there's not even a consensus among scientists.
Henry Elkus: There's a saying that, and my mom used to tell me this, you need to sit with something for multiple years for you too change your mind sometimes. You need to hear something over and over and over again. We have failed as a community of people, proponents of addressing this problem at some of the messaging components of just telling people the basic facts of look, 97% of scientists thinking that this is a problem means it's a problem. The 3% doesn't matter, it means it's a problem.
Henry Elkus: So we have more work to do on just telling the story of climate change let alone the technologies, and I think some people miss that.
Quinn: Yeah, and we've had a few folks from various religious denominations on. Just again, if we disagree on 9 out of 10 things, the fact that in the New Testament, it tells you to take care of the Earth, hey man, if that's what it's going to take, any action steps from that episode, we're like, “Get the fuck out of the way, give us some money so we can go do our job,” the message for these people. I'm like great, whatever the thing is, because as I remember that guest mentioned, a lot of times, it's not even the message, it's the messenger that really makes such a difference.
Quinn: We've got to do ... We can't just shun these people and call them backwards. Find the people that do agree and do understand it and are already messaging that, and empower them as much as you can. Because, like you said, there's been some real institutional failures on that front. Of course, the difference between this and something else, like you said, it's about cutting the time in half, because as much as it's a buck shot, we desperately need this one to work.
Henry Elkus: We need that ammo. This is very important.
Quinn: This is not lik self-driving cars, which would be cool and great. Yes, we can go back and forth on it, and it turns out it's going to take a lot longer. That's okay. This isn't going to cure everything, but in a world where you want to call buckshot, or the kitchen sinks, whatever, from stopping emissions entirely to planting a billion trees, it has to work.
Henry Elkus: Let me give you some hope. Is it okay if I throw you guys some hope on this?
Quinn: Sounds sweet.
Henry Elkus: I think there are some examples of it.
Quinn: Yeah, please, of course.
Brian: [crosstalk 00:27:16] fixing it.
Henry Elkus: I'll shamelessly plug a TEDx talk I did on this-
Quinn: Nice, well done.
Henry Elkus: ... which is about the fact that society is reactive, and it's not proactive. However, we're really, really freaking good, once there's a problem and we know it's a problem, of getting our asses together and solving it. Look at the times in which there was these 'enemies' especially from the American standpoint, the space race, right? A lot of people don't realize this. When Kennedy announced that in 10 years, in a decade, we're going to land on the moon, people were freaking out. There were like, “This is not possible. There are all these technical barriers.” Humanity proved that it was able to come together to address the problem.
Henry Elkus: The difference though, and this is what's scary about climate change, is it's not a personified threat. A lot of people aren't experiencing the dangers of climate change in their everyday lives, but when there's anuclear weapon, when there's an army, when it's the Americans fighting the British for independence, there's a personified threat. There's people you're fighting against, and because climate change is missing that, we're not getting the kick in the ass as a society as much as we did in other cases to address the problem.
Henry Elkus: So if there's a ... On the messaging side, I keep going back to this, storytelling part of this, if people can see the personified threat of climate change and society comes together, it is remarkable how quickly we are able to address problems. It would not be crazy to state that we could halve the cost curve of carbon capture. We could pass carbon tax legislation or carbon dividend proposals in the next couple years. Stuff like the Green New Deal, whether you like it or not, I think could be passed. There's legislation like that that could be passed if society gets around the personified threat of it.
Henry Elkus: There's precedent for us doing it, but we need a messaging solution.
Quinn: True, and I'm going to go down two tangents here on that note. The first is I think you're totally right. That same analogy, metaphor, whatever you want to call it, applies to healthcare, things like that. If you don't know someone with a pre-existing condition, you're like, “I don't know, why is so bad that we get rid of pre-existing conditions?” Well, it's go fuck yourself is the answer.
Quinn: On the second note, it's that I do think it's coming to the forefront because we're seeing now we can quantitatively and qualitatively value that these things are happening every week somewhere. We can see when a typhoon that should not exist hits Mozambique and people are suffering, you couldn't see that 20 years ago. We wouldn't have [crosstalk 00:29:36].
Henry Elkus: Have you guys heard about Kiribati?
Quinn: Oh yeah.
Henry Elkus: Yeah, for the viewers that haven't heard about this is on the cover of Time Magazine, I think was the Cook Islands, but there are these small island nations in the Pacific that have these visionary leaders. One of them is named Anote Tong. He was the former prime minister of Kiribati. These countries are, if current trends persist, going to sink during the next couple decades if not sooner. This will be the first case in which we lose countries because of rising sea levels because of climate change.
Henry Elkus: I hope it doesn't get to the point where people have to sink and countries how to sink and relocate for that to be the personified threat, but hopefully, I mean the best case scenario, even if it does, that that is finally the kicker that we have as a society past all the things, the extreme weather, hurricanes that are occurring due to it that are measurable.
Quinn: Sure, and it is hitting close to home too. It's like we almost lost New Orleans 15 years ago, and this week might be the clincher. The weather that's happening this week is-
Brian: Yeah, it's crazy.
Quinn: ... when you apply that then to New York City and you apply that to the fact that the San Francisco Airport is basically going to be under two feet of water in 25 years, it's going to start to hit close to home real soon. You hope that that does start to kick it into gear for more and more people. So there's one thing that does seem to unite people, which is rage. I see that pointed now more and more often both on the legal front and on the social front and on the investment front, which is with fossil fuel companies.
Quinn: A few of them have actually made relatively small investments in companies like Carbon Engineering and Climeworks. While I think that would actually surprise folks that they're doing that and I appreciate those companies' participation, the amounts are absolutely minuscule compared to their profits, right? They're spending more fighting carbon bills in Washington state and defeating them than on these investments. It's frustrating. It's almost more frustrating than if they did nothing at all.
Quinn: So we are seeing all these corporations that are going renewable, that are doing things like the news the other day, Apple's protecting a 27,000 acre mangrove forest. But how do we 'encourage,' I mean every company, but I guess then we can dial in on fossil fuel companies to do 10x, 100x, 100x to what they're doing because of this, again, how integral a specific technology like this is.
Henry Elkus: Yeah, the first thing is customer selection. We're now seeing maybe these companies, the ones that aren't acting, aren't acting because the customers aren't selecting against their product because it's harming the world. This doesn't have to come from legislation. When there's a product that is a negative society externality that hurts people, this is finally a generation that is actually selecting against those companies. That's the first thing.
Henry Elkus: The second thing, and I give Walmart actually some credit as an example that you guys probably heard of, a program that Walmart did, they changed their supply chain. There were some great Helena members and other people that we worked with that worked on this project. They changed their supply chain slightly in a way that actually made them more money but was more efficient. Just to show you the scale of what this did, the amount of CO2 that Walmart did not put into the air that year that they would have if they had not made this change was more than the entire country of Germany put into the air that year.
Henry Elkus: So we have to work with these companies because they are large. I think there are structural issues we have to talk about, but we do have to work with these companies that they have a legal precedent to address the issues of their shareholders. If we can become the shareholders, we can buy into the company as customers and as investors and demand that they make a change. But also, if we can show them ways that actually are better for their bottom line but also better for the world, that's a basic first step that has massive, massive changes beyond just investing in carbon capture technology.
Henry Elkus: There are things in their business model that we can change. Walmart, I think, took a stand, but there's many other companies in the Fortune 500 that are doing this.
Brian: More than Germany, that's mind blowing.
Quinn: Yeah, and it also just makes you realize how big some of these companies are.
Brian: Yeah, Jesus.
Quinn: You know, their footprints are just incredible.
Henry Elkus: These are countries. I mean if you think about what's happening with Facebook right now, Mark Zuckerberg is the CEO of a company that influences the minds of over two billion people. We are living in a society in which corporations have a footprint that is larger than some societies. We're also living in a society in which there are individual outside of government that have larger platforms than the prime ministers of some countries.
Henry Elkus: You saw this with Taylor Swift. If you guys remember Taylor Swift trying to take down a senator in her state didn't work, but she made a huge impact.
Quinn: Right. I remember was it Vote.org there the next day? It was like holy shit, the number of voters that registered yesterday was out of control.
Henry Elkus: It's true. So part of this is realizing that power itself is changing, and we need to use the new modalities, to use the true academic word, of power to affect change in this field. This is why I don't think it's BS to say that customer selection is truly essential in our time. You see these companies and these CEOs going down because of bad behavior, the #MeToo movement. There's going to be, I hope, a me too movement but for climate in which companies that are truly hurting the world that could make a change, maybe they would make slightly less money, or maybe they would even make the same or more money by making a change, should and I believe hopefully and optimistically will be pressured to do that because of the power of public sentiment.
Quinn: Yeah, I'm a big believer in that. I mean there's this big ... and you can check my Twitter feed anytime you like. It's a super fun place to be. It's not depressing at all.
Brian: Yeah, super positive.
Quinn: Where really action minded climate and energy and just world saving folks have an interesting disagreement. I just fall in the middle of it, which is trying to be in the most pragmatic place, which is, for instance again, when it comes to climate, does personal action matter, or does it have to be on the institutional, government, utility side that we're going to really make a difference? Because that is, of course, objectively the most prominent source of, for instance, emissions.
Quinn: But to me on a personal level, and again this is just me, but I'm trying to be pragmatic, and I'm always thinking about how do we inspire as much action as possible, which is if Brian takes the time to fucking look at his roof and go, “All right, I'll fucking put solar on my roof.” He calls the guy, and he comes and gets a couple estimates because he's trying to do the right thing, and he has to take time off of work and finally put the fucking solar on his roof. Somebody accidentally punches a hole and they got to come back the next week. Then he's got the solar and it's finally working, and he's seeing how low his electrical bill is and all that shit, that that is going to make him a little more personally invested in holding these companies to task.
Quinn: Because it just makes you go, “I did my fucking part, man,” and I realize it's not a big part, but it just gives you a little bit more of a leg to stand on. That's where I really agree on the customer selection front.
Henry Elkus: Well, first of all, you go Brian. Second of all, I think when you talk about does there need to be a choice, I say porque no los dos? You can do both. You can have top down change and you can have bottom up change. Just in the theme of action steps, here's an actual example of that. Just to plug shamelessly, Climeworks, if you go to climeworks.shop, their website, individuals can buy carbon that Climeworks is sucking out of the air per month. This is an actual way in which you can do that. It's truly remarkable that they've been able to pull this off and that other companies are doing the exact same thing.
Henry Elkus: So there are finally becoming ways in which the individual can do the Brian action of putting solar on your roof, yes, but also buying carbon that's been pulled out of the air. At the same time, that trickle up effect will affect change on the top down front with companies seeing here are our customers again, or individuals that we care about. Our constituency cares about this. We're going to have to pass legislation. We're going to have to change our board seats. We're going to have to do top down change across the Fortune 500 level.
Henry Elkus: Both of these things can happen, and both of these things are starting to happen. If you look at the great changes that have occurred throughout history, it has been, in most cases, a trickle up and a trickle down effect at the same time. There are exceptions, but I don't think this is going to be one of them.
Quinn: Yeah, and again, not in every example by any stretch, but those two things eventually do come together very often. Like you've said, we've seen in the #MeToo stuff, which is let's use a local branch of a chain supermarket as an example. Let's say you live in a town where they default to plastic bags, or they charge you for paper bags, or they don't have bags you can buy, and you're one of those people who's aware that that is not the situation everywhere anymore. So it drives you crazy, and write an op-ed to your local paper.
Quinn: I recognize that local news does not exist anymore, and that's a disaster. The point is you post down a blog, or people follow you on your Facebook, right, because that's a local, or you're next door, and that starts to take off. Eventually, someone at this supermarket is going to notice. Someone in corporate is going to notice that they're having this issue in bum fuck, wherever, that a stink is being raised, and you can move the needle.
Henry Elkus: Yes.
Quinn: The institutionalized stuff, it's something like ... Brian, what is it? It's like 71 companies or 100 companies are responsible for whatever, 71% of emissions 100%.
Quinn: It's a nightmare. I mean PG&E with the transformers and the wires, the wildfires, I mean they should just go down, but that also comes from the bottom. You have to participate because it will give you a leg to stand on. It will incentivize you to get other people involved and to drive that.
Henry Elkus: This is one of the first times in history where that's even possible. That's important to note, where you see these companies respond to social media now because it becomes a PR issue. You have some random guy in Topeka, Kansas has a problem with the company, tweets it out and it becomes a massive global problem for the company, and they make a change.
Henry Elkus: There's a good and bad about this. By the way, there's a lot of bad stuff that occurs when any single person goes-
Quinn: On Twitter.
Henry Elkus: ... on Twitter, and it's wise to have a Twitter, but there's also good. The best example that I heard, just to really brighten your morning, there are these cases in Syria where a terrorist will know that there is a person hiding away, because of Twitter, in a house, Then they go and kill the guy, but then the guy actually uses Twitter to get out of the problem because he elicits the support of other folks to fight the terrorist. So there are these kind of [neutralizing 00:40:08] issues and there these incredible discussions that happen with Twitter leadership about what do we incentivize, which speech do we not? But what is undoubtedly true is that individuals can make a change through social media.
Henry Elkus: It is something that is happening. It's not floofy. It's not a throw away tactic. This is a core part of the strategy to effect in the climate space.
Quinn: Sure, and I mean it's the same thing when it comes to voter registration, right? What is the ... that phrase? It feels repeated ad nauseam, but it is technically true, which is bring your most popular friend to vote, or to register to vote, because these things do prove out in the long run.
Henry Elkus: Yeah.
Brian: Henry, let's talk about Helena some more. You dropped out of college to form this. There are so many young people that are opting out of, or rebelling against the standard doctrine for a reliable future, or yelling at their baby boomer parents that the future is now unavailable to them because they blew it so badly. But the Helena Group, as you described, focuses on bringing together talented folks across a multi disciplinary quilt of action oriented questions and projects, and that is so fucking awesome. We love that.
Brian: In the case of Climeworks, for example, how is Helena's network of smart folks involved in this specific project?
Henry Elkus: It's a perfect example because if you think about a company like Climeworks, when we first started working with them, it actually started because we did a prize. We didn't know which company to work with, period. We just knew that we wanted to work in the filed of negative emissions. So what we did is we asked the members. We said hey guys, we're going to do this prize. We're going to ask you a couple favors. When we find somebody or if we find somebody ... We were confident, so we said when, that has a plan to actively suck carbohydrate on out of the air and sell it, we will want you to put your resources forward to support that company.
Henry Elkus: They actually did this before we found the company. So I give credit to some of the members that represented companies like BCG, which put millions of dollars of pro bono consulting. They actually helped write a business plan. Rapid prototyping, so actually physically developing the technology, trying to route funding, geopolitically talking to heads of state, mayors. I'm on a plane all the time. Some of the Helena members are actually the elected officials that we're trying to sell carbon capture plans to.
Henry Elkus: It was throwing the book at every angle. It was basically asking, we do this every time we do a project, what asset do you need to have in order to solve the problem that you're trying to solve that you don't currently have? That changes, right? So Climeworks at the time needed to raise more capital. Now, they're actually ... Obviously Climeworks should always use more capital, and we invite that, but there are different dynamics. We have actually worked on a many different aspects of this as humanly possible, and it changes.
Henry Elkus: Right now, like I said before, we're mostly focused on just selling these plants. One crazy thing, Europe, as you can possibly see if you go online, has embraced this technology while the US really hasn't, so to say it in a sad way. So I'm trying to actually bring this technology to cities in the United States, especially cities that have their own versions of ... For example, Los Angeles has the Los Angeles Green New Deal. These are the cities that sld be purchasing this technology for a variety of reasons.
Henry Elkus: I'm right now, I think the shameless salesman for bringing these plants here, not because ... We don't own any stock in the company. We're not profiting in any way so far. Maybe we will in the future, but not now, on this technology. I just think this is the right thing to do, so I'm the evangelist now. In the future, maybe we'll do something different. Maybe we'll put together an investment fund and invest in more of these technologies. We don't know. It's a case by case basis, and that's dictated by what the members can do.
Henry Elkus: we don't want to just say that we're going to do something because it sounds cool. We want to identify which assets the members represent, which multi-billion dollar fund or company the members can tap into to actually solve this problem, which legislative action, which bill can we actually write and pass? So we look at if from that horizontal lens of what the members can do first, and then we apply those assets.
Quinn: Yeah, I mean it's almost like an advocate's stance, right, which is just like I'm not getting anything out of this. Maybe I will in the future, and that's great, or we will, but in the meantime, we've got to get this out there, and everybody [crosstalk 00:44:22].
Henry Elkus: Exactly. It's like it's our version of the Avengers. I find people that would have never otherwise met, that themselves are the best in the world or close to it at what they do and put them together and unite them around a certain project. By the way, a lot of the members that have worked on this carbon capture project aren't in the carbon capture or the climate space. These are some of the top business people on the planet. These are some of the top elected officials. These are Nobel Peace Prize winners in denuclearization, but they have brains that attach to a problem like this.
Henry Elkus: Sometimes, the intellectual diversity, if you will, of people that aren't in a specific field, when they wrap their mind around something they don't do or they weren't trained in actually have insights that exceed that of the people that are stuck in the space, in the silo.
Henry Elkus: I think that's one of the advantages we have, is that I just don't have in Helena a bunch of people that have spent 30, 40 years in the climate space. A lot of those folks, while incredible and they are the core of the effort, they're in the silo. They're in the echo chamber and they're not positive of which solutions will resonate with people that don't have the same mindset that they do.
Brian: Speaking of not having tools that you need, what are you guys running into, obstacles? What obstacles are you running into? What do you need that you don't have, and are these issues technical, or is it fundraising or networking, or political or all?
Henry Elkus: I think the most important thing that we're trying to do with the carbon capture project is to not rely on legislation for it to work, to get that price down just by the private sector because we don't want to run these projects just lobbying the government. With that said, yes, a huge, huge accelerant would be passing legislation.
Henry Elkus: You guys talked about action steps. I'll give you one, and I'll give you a Republican action step just to add some flavor to this. You guys have probably heard of the carbon dividend proposal. This is a brainchild of someone, a really, really cool guy. He's name is Ted Halstead. He's got, I think, almost every living Republican secretary of state to sign on to this plan. It's actually similar to, to name a democrat, what Andrew Yang is proposing with the freedom dividend. It's a carbon dividend proposal.
Henry Elkus: What you do is you tax the excess negative externalities of companies, in this case, it's carbon, and then put that into a giant pile of capital, a pile, or fund and then bring that back to the people of the United States. Pay individuals of the United States for the excess carbon that is going to the air from these companies. Something like that would provide a hell of a stimulus to carbon capture. It really, really would, but it would also do other stuff that people aren't thinking deeply about.
Henry Elkus: Think about cement. Cement is a $450 billion industry. You talked about the runway of San Francisco Airport sinking soon. Interestingly, and I swear I didn't prepare this as an interesting story, that there is carbon negative cement that is actually paving the San Francisco runway. There is an incredible company that has a cement technology that one of the inputs is carbon that can be removed from the atmosphere. As a test case, the runway of the San Francisco Airport is actually paved with their cement, so there are these massive industries.
Henry Elkus: There's a great book by Paul Hawken called Drawdown that actually ranks them.
Quinn: Oh yeah.
Henry Elkus: AC and refrigeration is a huge industry. So this carbon dividend proposal and these legislative tools can effect change far outside of just carbon capture. It can effect change in these gargantuan industries like cement, refrigeration, AC, transportation that would highly benefit from doing it.
Henry Elkus: Think about a company like Tesla. If you guys remember during the debate, Mitt Romney, I think it was ... I forget which year it was, was crapping all over Tesla and saying why is the government putting subsidy capital during a recession into this business? They're never going to pay it back. They paid it back with a premium, thank you very much. It was that subsidy that got the company relief. It was a significant part.
Henry Elkus: That can happen with other fields. So again, while we're prepared to do this without government help, I do think that government help can greatly accelerate the function.
Quinn: Yeah. I imagine though you're having to be realistic, which is you can lobby all you want, but for the next two years, you're not going to get that government help.
Henry Elkus: You know what's so interesting about this, and maybe I'm being too optimistic, but at the same time in the spirit of impossible and not impossible, I don't think it's impossible to get Republican action on this issue if you can create jobs, blue collar jobs in middle America, in the flyover states, in these spaces like cement and AC and refrigeration. If you can provide these incentives for for-profit businesses that are the constituents of some of the folks that are being lobbied on this issue, I think you can.
Henry Elkus: That's why, when I went to give you this action step, it was a Republican action step. So is it the case that the Democratic Party happens to be more activist and progressive when it comes to incentives for climate work? Yes, but is it also the case that the Republican Party, as far as infrastructure and some of the core emittive technologies, is a huge backer of it? Also yes. If we can provide these companies with the way to make more money or the same in a way that is less emittive, they're going to jump at it.
Henry Elkus: Maybe some people would agree, most of these folks at not bad people at their core, but they are incentivized by a type of constituency that has goals that might differ from others. I think we need to rationalize that and understand that. If you are a coal miner in West Virginia and your family has made X amount of money the last couple generations and your job goes away, you're not going to sit with a 50 page briefing document on the Green New Deal and think about the intricacies of what the bill could do over the next 10 and 20 years. You're thinking about feeding your family. What I'm trying to think of is what solutions can also work for those folks?
Quinn: Yeah, I know, and it is really true. This is where, again, we come to whatever gets it done, whoever gets it done to reach the same goal, because you do have to. This is why already, again, from both the Republican side and some of the Democrats, some of the more centered Democrats, they already yell at the Green New Deal and say, "Why does there have to be jobs in it, or why does there have to be environmental justice?" You're like, "It feels like you're not paying attention."
Brian: Yeah, what-
Henry Elkus: Because that shit matters.
Quinn: Yeah. It's like give me a fucking break man.
Henry Elkus: Why? That's why.
Quinn: Ugh, just stop. So getting towards action here, carbon capture again, like you said, three years ago was a pipe dream for even people who were involved in it. Now, it's making a change, but it does feel, not fantastical, but I could see how for a majority of our listeners, it feels like, on an action front, how that's something that's difficult to participate in, right?
Henry Elkus: Yeah.
Quinn: Besides, like you said, Climeworks has a way you can buy the carbon they're offsetting, but we do have ... A lot of our listeners are senators and congresspeople and those Fortune 500 people who have gone clean, like you're talking about Drawdown. We had Katharine Wilkinson on a couple weeks ago from Drawdown.
Henry Elkus: Oh, cool.
Quinn: We've got these state senators and legislators and scientists and whatever. What's the best way for those people, the people with power, either elected or business wise, that are on some sort of frontline that have the ability to move the needle, to get involved, to concretely further the aims of carbon capture specifically?
Henry Elkus: Sure. Specifically, first, pass the carbon dividend proposal or other bipartisan legislation that obviously ... and do diligence on it. Think through it deeply, but we have and these are common sense solutions. The second thing is if you're involved in these large corporations like Walmart, find the common sense solutions that could make you the same or more amount of money by reducing massive amounts of CO2 from the air. Do those two things at the very beginning. Those are no brainers. They hit your constituency. They're in your incentive alignment, obvious.
Henry Elkus: Second thing though, when you think about carbon capture, split it into two categories. You guys really explained this well at the beginning of the podcast. There's something called in flue carbon capture, which companies like Occidental Petroleum, like you mentioned, Shell are doing, which is basically putting a carbon capture device right next to a coal plant or an emitting plant and capturing it right after it comes out.
Henry Elkus: Then separately, there's the stuff that we're working on, which is called ambient air carbon capture or direct air carbon capture. There's two different ways to do this. In flue carbon capture is an investment that these large corporations ... You were talking about these leaders who listen to the podcast, or senators that are involved in this are being lobbied by these companies. These are the common sense solutions that the companies can take on to reduce their emissions.
Henry Elkus: There's an argument that that perpetuates the problem. I'm here for that argument too, but that's one of them.
Quinn: Right, sure.
Henry Elkus: Then we get into what we're working on, which is direct air carbon capture. What I would say to them is support government investment funds that can make a bunch of money over the long term about this. Be proactive and not reactive. Think about the next 10, 20, 30 years.
Henry Elkus: I'll give you another one on top of this. Think about the geopolitical threat of climate change. One of our members is General McChrystal. He run the Army during Iraq and Afghanistan. If you asked him what is the biggest foreign policy threat to the United States, he would say one of them is climate change. So think about climate refugees. Think about problems outside the United States. Think about how the United States has become the top superpower in the world for 150 years, because inside of the United States are all of the natural resources that we used to become that power. Think about the fact that that is going to go away with climate change unless we act on it.
Henry Elkus: Say what you want about Joe Biden, but one of the things that he is optimistic about is we can be the country that develops the technology that beats climate change, or China can do that. I can tell you China is one of the biggest spenders in technologies like carbon capture and research and development not because they just want to save the world-
Quinn: They fucking have to.
Henry Elkus: ... maybe that's part of it, but because they have to. They're reliant on this, and China has a 10,000 year plan. They've been doing this shit for 10,000 years. They're geniuses. They think very deeply and strategically. We need to start thinking in a longer term way like they are, or else we're going to lose the geopolitical power.
Henry Elkus: So notice that everything I just said is not the Democratic Party plank. It is not necessarily the progressive plank. I could go and talk about that, but there's alignment amongst Democrats. There is alignment amongst progressives. What is dumbfounding to me is that this is not a partisan problem. It's not a partisan problem. It has become one because of, I think, really smart messaging, but it doesn't have to be.
Henry Elkus: I think part of this is just showing that people can come together. People can make money by solving climate change. We're going to create so many different markets from it. Yeah, I can go on and on. You guys can make me shut up about this, but there's so many action steps here.
Quinn: No, but that was the point of today's discussion, was help me help you make money.
Henry Elkus: Right.
Quinn: Also, we're going to survive this and things will stop burning and seas will slow their rising. It's like everybody wins. Everybody [crosstalk 00:54:43] wins.
Henry Elkus: I'll give you one more thing that jumped into my head, which I actually think is something truly that not a lot of people talk about. We talked about these giant companies that make up such a large share of carbon emissions. Why are they doing that though? You ask them why this is the case. Some of them give an honest answer, which I think is worth talking about and putting it into the universe here, which is quarterly earnings.
Henry Elkus: These CEOs get fired and hired based upon how much money they're making every quarter. They're not getting fired and hired based upon their 5 or 10 year plan. Climate change is an example of a solution that can make a company a ton more money in the longer and medium term, and it just so happens, it could affect their bottom line on a quarterly earning report.
Henry Elkus: So thinking about the structure of how companies think about making money, public companies often don't really want to look at their stock price every quarter and try to modulate that. I know this is a wonky thing to say and very specific, but this is another problem that you have here, is that they're incentivized wrong. Same with elections. If your constituency is going to elect you or not reelect you in 2 years or 4 years or 6 years, and you have a perfect solution that is going to take 10 years, and you're going to be a villain for 9 years and then the second the 10th year hits, you're going to solve all the world's problems, you're not going to do that. You're not going to be incentivized to do it because you're not going to be reelected.
Henry Elkus: So there are these incentive structures on a structural democratic and capitalistic level that we need to think about changing. I think there is some rhetoric from both parties about doing this, and I support it.
Brian: That's a really good point. That's awesome. It's not wonky. So we like to start wrapping it up with the same thing, which is what can our listeners, just everyday folks not people that are running anything-
Brian: It's me. I'm talking about me. What action steps, specific action steps can people like me take with their voice, their vote and their dollar? Let's get into that real quick. With their voice, we like to try to shine a light on where we can go as a people, so what are the big, actionable, specific questions that we should be asking of our representatives?
Henry Elkus: Of our representatives. Let's start at local level before we even get to Congress.
Brian: Yeah, please.
Henry Elkus: Individual states, individual cities have giant budgets, right? They can buy carbon capture plants. They can pass legislation that makes a huge difference. We're both living in Los Angeles. California is the sixth largest economy in the world. So this excuse that the entire country needs to get together on a federal level to solve this problem, I don't believe. You think about people like Mayor Bloomberg who have put together these coalitions of mayors.
Henry Elkus: So on an individual level, citizens that are listening to this podcast can lobby and contact their local representative, their state senator. We don't need the government federally to solve all of our problems. We can do this at a state and local level. By the way, a lot of change ... Think about gay marriage, right? This happened because of the accumulation of individual states that got to the federal government, that got to the Supreme Court.
Henry Elkus: We can do this with climate change. So yes, lobby your congresspeople, your senator, your president, your large institutions, but also think at a local level at the same time. I think that's the first thing.
Henry Elkus: The second thing is, I mentioned climeworks.shop, but also websites that allow you to personally buy carbon to offset your travels. This is an individual-
Brian: Oh yeah.
Henry Elkus: [crosstalk 00:57:56] some people would make. The third thing is a lot of entrepreneurs are listening to this. Start companies that can make you extremely wealthy by saving the world, especially by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and making products from it. This is a space that during the next 10, 20 years will make money. Go into this space. Don't create another app. Don't connect people to send photos to one another.
Quinn: [crosstalk 00:58:15].
Henry Elkus: There are enough. There are enough of those companies. There aren't enough people taking on these hard, hard challenges that are starting to be. Start a company. If you're an entrepreneur, if you've got an ego, you want to exercise it, go do that, so that's basic. Then the final thing is use social media, lobby. Use your voice and your power to lobby individual corporations about why they're not doing what they're doing. We've seen so many examples of this working. So I think that those are the basic things that the individual can do. There's so many things past that that those that are in power have the ability to do that are so monumentally top down as far as change as well.
Brian: Love it. What about our vote when it's voting time? What can we do?
Henry Elkus: Vote people that have actual plans to pass legislation that has long term implications. Have the balls to do that. Think about your interests, but also think about people that are thinking in a 10, 20, 30 year, 40 year time span. I know-
Brian: 10,000 again.
Henry Elkus: Or 10,000. That's some [Super Saiyan 00:59:11] stuff right there, but the people that are thinking in longer terms than their term limit, guess what, those are unselfish people that are trying to represent you in actuality. They're not just trying to get your votes to stay in power. Reward that. Incentivize people that are doing things that they won't get credit for. I think this is one of the best quotes I've ever heard, is sometimes the best way to get it done is not to get credit. Give people credit who have that philosophy.
Henry Elkus: That is an incredible thing to do with your vote. I think we don't do that enough. The other thing, understand that silos exist, and try to break out of those silos. Try to understand the issues that are afflicting folks in flyover states that if we're part of the 'coastal elite,' that we don't actually represent. Understand that there are marginalized communities that haven't contributed to climate change, but are going to be screwed by climate change because of us, because of the people that are putting so much CO2 into the atmosphere.
Henry Elkus: If you're not going to do it for yourself, do it for them. Do it for the people that haven't contributed to this problem.
Quinn: I love it.
Brian: What about our dough? What could we do with our money to help?
Henry Elkus: If you're super, super wealthy, invest in these companies. Become stockholders in these businesses that are fighting the norm, become stockholders in these cement companies that are making cement up to 90% less emittive of CO2 while being the same price. If you're an individual, like I said, buy carbon dividends, sorry, buy carbon offsets. These are very cheap. If you're going to take a flight across the country, you can offset that flight individually.
Henry Elkus: The second thing is make political contributions to the congresspeople and the senators and the local representatives that are thinking in the long term. Use the power of the purse. We have a system that unfortunately rewards campaign contributions, and I wish that weren't the case. I think there should be change, but while we're within that system, use the individual donation to candidates that matter.
Quinn: Love it.
Brian: All right, I mean first of all, thank you so much again, man, for being here, Henry. It's been so awesome. We really appreciate it, and we'll-
Henry Elkus: I know. I was going to say I hope I made the one white guy appearance worth it. I hope I stood up for us white guys [crosstalk 01:01:08].
Quinn: You're the last damn white guy, so this better go over well.
Brian: Well, if you have any recommendations that we could talk later about, some people we should get in touch with to maybe get on the show, other world changers like you and Helena who want to take action on climate, or medicine, or tech, or space-
Quinn: No way, man. I mean that's-
Brian: No regrets.
Quinn: We get a lot of incoming calls. We make a lot of outgoing calls, but some of our best recommendations-
Henry Elkus: Their website, it's helena.org/members. Just see whoever you like, give them a shot. I'm sure they'd love to appear.
Brian: Awesome. That's great, hell yeah. All right, and now, it's lightening round time.
Quinn: It's not a lightening round. One day, we'll fix that. Last couple of questions, and then we'll get you out of here. Hey, Henry, when was ... I realize you were born like seven years ago, when was the first time in your life when you realized you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?
Henry Elkus: Huh, it was actually recently. I got a call from a senator that the bill that we had written passed. Up until that point, it was this crazy slog of sitting in a room with my staff which works their ass off, they're incredible, to write this legislation, go through all of the minutiae to get it through. The idea of it passing, that it was actually enacted into law and it will change people's lives was the shock that went over me. It was this bliss, and it made me addicted to that feeling of creating change and actually addressing people's lives.
Henry Elkus: So that was about a year and a half ago. I think that was the first thing. I think the second thing was reading books. I was one of those people that got into books later in my life. I wish I was that eight year old kid that was reading the Iliad and Homer and all that stuff, but once I discovered the power of actually reading books, sitting down alone in your room with a physical book, not a Kindle, for an hour and reading it, that you implant knowledge in your mind and then use it. You don't have to rely on other people to do that. It is so empowering. It is something that everybody can do.
Henry Elkus: I know that's a basic thing, but read. Read your books, and I say this as a college dropout who BS'ed his way through a lot of education, of not doing the reading before. If I could go back in time, the one thing I would change is when I was 8, 9, 10 years old or younger, that I immersed myself in books earlier. I try to find time to be alone today to just sit and read. It is the biggest tool that has made Helena have any success, but also has given me happiness in my life. So if I can be an evangelist for one thing, it's just read your books.
Quinn: I love it, man. Who is someone in your life that has positively impacted your work in the past six months?
Henry Elkus: Interesting.
Quinn: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Henry Elkus: I think it's Beatrice Fihn. She's a Helena member. She's a Nobel Peace Prize winner in denuclearization. Her story, just the more time I've spent with her, is crazy, because if you think about this, she was a Swedish lawyer. She's 35 years old. She worked for five or six years on this issue and then won a Nobel Peace Prize in one of the most technically challenging and fraught fields, which is preventing the use of nuclear weapons. I was just thinking look, if she can do this, we can address these problems.
Henry Elkus: She talked about the messaging side of how she was able to create a social cost for the use of nuclear weapons, and whenever I think about decisions that we're making at Helena, I often think about her playbook, about how she was able to do this. Whenever I start complaining that we don't have enough money, we don't have enough staff, I think about the fact that she had far less resources than Helena does right now, and she won a Nobel Peace Prize addressing one of the most challenging problems in the world. So if we could be like Beatrice Fihn, we can solve a lot of problems.
Brian: Yeah, that's motivational and inspirational as hell.
Quinn: There you go Brian. Brian's going to make a bracelet.
Brian: Henry, what do you do when you feel overwhelmed? What's your Henry time?
Henry Elkus: What's my Henry time? I wish it was skiing. I mean I used to be this skier. I used to ski almost 300 days a year, and I don't get to ski enough. I went skydiving recently. I loved it. It was like experiencing a new color. Do it. I read a ton, like I said. I try to run. I used to hate running. I was this semi fat kid.
Brian: [crosstalk 01:05:06].
Henry Elkus: It is the worst, but I'm starting to understand this running high.
Quinn: Brian texted me last week and said, “Where do I buy a running shoe?” So I think he gets it.
Henry Elkus: You know what I also do, and shout out to Tristan Harris who's a Helena member who's, I think, led this incredible movement to show the ills of social media, is I turn my freaking phone off on purpose. By the way, go to bed with your phone off, outside of your room. Wake up without looking at your phone. It will change your life, so I do that. I go into the outdoors and I talk to people. I try to do things that my generation is not as good at [inaudible 01:05:38], and it really changes your life. It's very basic.
Henry Elkus: There was this quote, and I don't want to waste your guys' time, but this is something [crosstalk 01:05:44] that's very important, which is there's two buckets. Bucket number one is the story that you want to tell to the outside world about who you are and your brand. That's important, but it's fabricated. Then the second bucket is what actually makes you happy? Sometimes the things that actually make you happy are unimpressive to say on a podcast or in front of people that are listening because it doesn't make you sound cool, but those are just as important.
Henry Elkus: For me, that's being alone, reading books, having good conversations with people, putting my phone outside my room, experiencing meditation. These basic things that don't sound super impressive, but do those things. Those things matter. Just because they don't sound cool necessarily, I think they're cool, but just because they don't necessarily sound extremely interesting, do those.
Brian: Yeah, totally [crosstalk 01:06:22].
Quinn: If more people actually profess to doing them, then maybe we can make them cool.
Henry Elkus: I'll be the first. I'll be the white guy that says it.
Quinn: I'm with you, man. I'm an introvert that goes to bed at nine and reads fiction to go to sleep so I can stop thinking about climate change, so I get it.
Brian: This is a great one especially since you're an avid book reader. If you could, Henry, Amazon Prime one book to Donald Trump, what would that book be?
Henry Elkus: Wow.
Quinn: Mm-hmm (affirmative), [crosstalk 01:06:47]-
Henry Elkus: I can give you guys-
Quinn: ... a wide variety of answers.
Henry Elkus: I'm going to give you guys a douchey answer, I'm so sorry. There's a book called On Bullshit, and it's written by the top professor at Princeton, professor emeritus of philosophy. It's very short. Anybody can get through it, and it describes the ... It's a hilarious philosophical deep dive onto bullshit, onto lying, onto fabrication. I'm not trying to make any points here. I'm just saying that understanding the roots of how bullshit has happened and why it is not important for us, I think is great.
Henry Elkus: The second thing, and I'm going to give two books, I'm sorry, is the biography of George Washington. Our president talks about being the greatest president of all time. Reading a biography of the first president, of all of his faults, this was somebody that went against every single ... This is somebody who would have been killed for what he did. He led an army against the most powerful country in the world, and how did he do it? With poise and humility and without talking.
Henry Elkus: He did it in silence. That was George Washington's main quality, is he showed and he didn't tell. When they gave him the presidency, this is an interesting story, they wanted to make him ... Congress wanted to make him king of the United States, and he said, “No, I want to be called the president of the United states.” At the time, the word president meant note taker in that year, the guy at the desk that takes notes during a meeting.
Henry Elkus: George Washington was such a great guy, a powerful person that he made the word president what it is today. So when we think about people trying to become the best president of the United States, understand where that word came from. It came from humility, it came from action and it came from not talking. I think those are the qualities that we need to have as a country today.
Quinn: I dig it.
Brian: I would love it if our president would not talk. That would be fantastic.
Henry Elkus: I think-
Quinn: That would be good if you read the 12 books I gave you. Like Henry said, reading is great.
Henry Elkus: There's good that you [crosstalk 01:08:31].
Brian: Where did that ... What the hell, Quinn, that came out of nowhere.
Henry Elkus: I'll plug this. You guys should go ... I have a hilarious Instagram. It's called the Elk list, E-L-K L-I-S-T. I post every book that anybody recommends me that I actually go and read.
Brian: Oh, nice.
Henry Elkus: So if you guys suggest a book, I have to read it and post it on there.
Brian: We should have the Quinn list, all of Quinn's books that he's recommended I read that I haven't.
Henry Elkus: We'll be Insta buddies.
Quinn: It'll be great.
Brian: Speaking of social media, where else can our listeners follow you everywhere, keep up to date?
Henry Elkus: Yeah, so my Twitter is @henryelkus. I need to tweet more. I think Twitter can be a toxic place. Our website is helena.org. We have the Twitter helenagroup, and follow the Elk list. I don't have a public social media yet. I probably will in the future, but the only thing that's public about me on Instagram is there's this reading list. I actually think it's a great way to discover things that I'm doing because I spend a lot of time reading, and it's a good way into my mind, but it's also a way for, if any of the listeners here have any good book recommendations, I will actually read them and I will post it on there. It's an important part of my life.
Quinn: I'm staring at my bookshelf right now.
Brian: Yeah, you're about to get so fucking many from Quinn.
Quinn: Awesome. Listen, man, we can't thank you enough for your time today and all that you're doing. It is inspiring even for a white gentleman. It's been great, man. It's really been a lot of fun. Hopefully we can connect again in the future when we see what you guys tackle next.
Henry Elkus: Thank you guys for doing this. This is a wonderful use of your time to do a podcast like this that actually digs deep, not into the problems, but also into the solutions. I'm glad that I get to talk about the seemingly wonky stuff like carbon dividend proposals and subsidies and cement. These are actually things that will solve the world's problems, and they're sexy. They're cool, and it's great that you guys are giving me a platform to talk about them, because usually when I do press, it's less about that, and I am thankful for that.
Quinn: For sure, man, absolutely.
Brian: We need it.
Quinn: We will do it again soon.
Brian: Oh yeah.
Quinn: All right, we will talk to you soon, man.
Brian: Thanks so much, brother. Have a good one.
Quinn: Right, thanks so much. Thanks to our incredible guest today, and thanks to all of you for tuning it. We hope this episode has made your commute, or awesome workout, or dish washing, or fucking dog walking late at night that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at importantnotimportant.com. It has all the news most vital to our survival as a species.
Brian: You can follow us all over the internet. You can find us on Twitter @importantnotimp.
Quinn: Just, it's do weird.
Brian: Also on Facebook and Instagram @importantnotimportant. Pinterest and Tumblr, the same thing, so check us out, follow us, share us, like us. You know the deal, and please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to things like this. If you're really fucking awesome, rate us on Apple Podcasts. Keep the lights on, thanks.
Brian: You can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player and at our website, importantnotimportant.com.
Quinn: Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blaine for our jamming music, to all of you for listening, and finally, most importantly, to our moms for making us. Have a great day.
Brian: Thanks guys.
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