Climate Change
December 11, 2019

The Permafrost and Us: An Analysis (and Plea) by Mike Brown

The posts today are like the weather: gloomy, but it’s the environment we live in.

The Washington Post just featured this report: The Arctic may have crossed key threshold, emitting billions of tons of carbon into the air, in a long-dreaded climate feedback.

Mike Brown, who was a member of Vancouver’s Clouds of Change Task force 30 years ago (the first report by a municipality on climate change), has been doing analysis and raising questions with respect to Canada’s permafrost (and our responsibility) with urgency and trepidation.

Here is his update:

An article from the Washington Post is making its rounds today. Permafrost thaw has made the mainstream!

It refers to two reports* about the state of affairs.  Each says that there’s evidence that the annual net emissions (thaw in winter months minus growth in summer months) from the permafrost are now about .6 Pg of Carbon.  Here is a quote from the NOAA Arctic Report:

“ . . .  suggests that carbon release in the cold season offsets net carbon uptake during the growing season (derived from models) such that the region as a whole could already be a source of 0.6 Pg C per year to the atmosphere.”

Here is what the reports don’t mention.

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“A lot of people thought we were wildly pessimistic as to the speed with which we were facing this crisis. Turned out we were wildly optimistic.

This is happening faster than those of us who started getting interested in it 30 years ago could possibly have conceived.”

In recognition of the 30 year anniversary of Clouds of Change, the 1989 report from the City of Vancouver’s Task Force on Atmospheric Change, Gord speaks with a key influencers for his originating motion to strike the task force, Mike Brown.

You may know Brown’s name as one of the co-founders of Ventures West (R.I.P.) in 1968, the prototype for institutional venture capital in Canada. Or perhaps for his role in helping Ballard Power land a $1.35 million investment in 1987, on the road to becoming the planet’s first major fuel cell player.

Or perhaps you don’t know his name at all. But you should. That’s because he represents one of the most important, and least appreciated (or perhaps least well understood) factors in the race to deal with the climate emergency — capital. Moolah. Money.

He’s a capitalist, but as we learn in this conversation, from a person who’s been thinking about and working on climate change at last as long as many of this podcast’s listeners have been alive, there may not be any other choice for dealing with this emergency than using the levers of capitalism to make things happen, and fast. The marketplace? All the money needed to power the requisite innovations — billions of dollars, all attracted to speculation about the future — is there.

So people like Brown work at advancing solutions, through places like the Institute for Breakthrough Energy Technology, his incubator focused on helping companies shorten the hardware commercialization timeframe, despite the fact that he’s made his money, and “the real issues are going to turn up after I’m dead.”

He doesn’t have to do all this. Giving colour and shape to his pessimism, and using it to make his rich friends feel a little discomfort. But he also knows that when he drives around his electric car, he ain’t burning sunshine. And so he wants those rich friends to part with some of their hard-won capital, and put it towards something that will make a real difference. As he has always done.

“When I started thinking about this problem, I conceived that it was going to be something that would face my great-grandchildren. By the time we got to the mid-90s, it was about my grandchildren. By the time we got to 2005, it was about my children. Now it’s about me.”

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