Understanding climate as tribes, not a social cause

Once upon a time, I thought I wanted to work in climate. I studied environmental science in college and spent my first year out of school working with endowments that were investing in climate opportunities. After moving to San Francisco, though, I stumbled sideways into the tech rabbit hole and never climbed back out.

So that was the end of my interest in climate. But in the last couple years, climate came back for me. I entered the working world in the ashes of the 2000s cleantech bubble; today, climate now accounts for 14 cents of every venture capital dollar. Climate provides meaning to many people in tech, so I decided to try to understand its allure better.

I started with an assumption that working in climate appeals to “doomer types,” but after immersing myself in all things climate for the last two months, I’ve come to appreciate its nuances. (Turns out, most people who work in climate aren’t doomers.) It’s strange to me that the media still portrays climate as a question of beliefs (where “deniers” are the villains), and academia focuses on climate activism and policymaking, because there’s so much more going on under the surface that isn’t being adequately reported on. Hopefully this post provides a different narrative.

In this piece, I dive into: 1) how climate has decomposed from a monolithic social cause to a landscape of tribes, 2) what those different tribes are, and 3) whether climate represents a broader trend of “doomer industry” speciation – AI safety, population decline, and the like.

Excerpt below. Enjoy!

Mapping out the tribes of climate

Climate is a gravity well for talent, but why don’t other, equally impactful topics attract talent in the same way? Why isn’t everyone dropping everything to work on homelessness, or global poverty, or curing cancer? With many peers in tech now working on climate issues, I tried to understand why this topic holds such purchase for so many people – and its incredible staying power over the decades.

Initially, I started with the idea that climate was an attractive industry for “doomer” types, and I painted their motivations monolithically. I was searching for the one weird reason that was causing hordes of people to drop what they were doing and march, hypnotically, towards the same problem space.

What I found instead is that while the media still portrays climate as a simple question of beliefs, the climate field has long moved on to diversified solutions. Whether one believes in climate change is no longer the interesting question; now it’s “What do you think is the right approach?”

Pass through the asteroid belt of climate doomerism, and the universe expands into a rich panoply of different climate tribes. People who work in and around climate don’t all believe the same things. Instead, they inhabit a parallel, mirror world that looks a lot like the non-climate world. Just like in the regular world, there are factions, politics, and competing belief systems.

For example, I did not find that people who are interested in climate fall cleanly along a certain political line of thinking, or even a shared set of values or goals. Climate is frequently coded as a left-leaning issue, but there are also centrist and right-leaning people who operate in different factions.

Nor do climate people all agree on the right solutions to pursue. In some cases, they believe other tribes are actively harmful to their cause. The enemy, in their minds, aren’t climate deniers, as we might have seen a decade or two ago – they’re other people working in climate.

For someone who doesn’t work in climate, trying to figure out which opportunities to pursue – carbon removal, renewables, energy storage and transmission – is a dizzying array of options, with no way to sort or rank their importance. But it seems to me that climate is better understood not as a singular list of technology and policy action items, but as an assortment of climate tribes. Tribes tell us why these opportunities are interesting and help us make better predictions about how they will unfold.

To understand climate better, I slurped up hundreds of thousands of words’ worth of blog posts, podcasts, interviews, articles, and tweets (my notes alone are over 80,000 words) – paying less attention to object-level discussions, and more to the rhetoric being used to describe one’s goals and motivations. I looked for cleavages between values, language and narratives. I then followed up this research with a handful of conversations with those who work in climate, across different tribes, to further refine and “stress test” my characterizations.

Ultimately, I landed upon seven climate tribes, which I’ll expand on in a bit:


Images generated with DALL-E.

Climate is a huge topic, and there are, of course, many more subcultures that are not fully captured above. (I’ll also add a requisite note that this analysis is heavily centered on American climate trends.) But if you’re a stranger in a strange land who’s trying to figure out what’s going on in climate, I found that grokking these seven groups gave me the conversational fluency to understand most of the climate discourse.

If you just want to read about these climate tribes, you can skip ahead to that section. But if you want to suffer through my process with me, I’ll unpack how I got from an outsider’s view of perceiving climate as a doomer topic, to instead understanding it as a pluralistic landscape of tribes that largely mirrors the non-climate universe in its richness and diversity. We’ll start with the outside layers and work our way in. Licking the Tootsie Pop, so to speak. Here we go.