The Unleashing of Urgent Optimism

Article Author: Bruce Vaughn
Featured photo by Florian Ledoux

Arctic AmplificationAs scientists and artists, we highlight the need to pay attention to the Arctic, because what is happening there is profoundly affecting the rest of the Earth.  Climate change continues to shape the high latitudes more than four times faster than the rest of the Earth, which we now call Arctic amplification. 

The Arctic Arts Project uses imagery, videos and stories that document this rapid change to convey passion for this precious landscape and the life it supports.  Every day we are confronted with more facts that heighten our concern and sound the alarm to act.  And yet our brains- which are not wired to respond easily to slow-moving threats of this kind- find ways to put off action.  At the same time there are formidable obstacles and market forces that can thwart changes in our behavior and block progress, for a variety of reasons. For many of us, grappling with the reality of just how slow our species is reacting to this increasing threat can lead us to a feeling of sadness and a sense of loss.  It is not unreasonable to fear that we may be incapable of doing enough in time to make a difference. We may long for the Earth of our youth, when she was more pristine and less worse for the wear.  Shortfalls on global targets for action and a lack of political consensus amongst countries can leave us feeling helpless.  For those who really understand the problem and its urgency, that sense of helplessness can lead to depression, as recent studies have shown.

Optimism and Our Well Being

In the interest of our own wellbeing, we must also realize that there are in fact very positive things happening at this very moment that that can give rise to hope.  And hope is something we need now more than ever.  Without it, we are done. I have recently found inspiration in the many bright minds that are working the problem, breaking it down piece by piece and coming up with solid ideas. How we produce and consume energy is a big factor in our climate future. And global innovations are sprouting in a number of places that help address everything from sustainable building materials to energy production, transmission, and storage.


Take for example, Antora Energy, a Bay area startup with a brilliant bold pitch to use blocks of solid graphite that function as heat-storing batteries, announced last fall that it will be opening its first factory in San Jose, Calif. “Should the technology gain traction it could have a big effect on cutting fossil fuels from some of the world’s most difficult to decarbonize industries”, writes Alejandro de la Garza for Time Magazine. 

Reliable, zero-emissions industrial heat and power

Antora also harnesses a novel approach with thermophotovoltaics – yep, that’s a thing now- panels which generate electricity directly from thermal radiation produced by the super-hot (> 1000°C) blocks of graphite that have been heated using renewable energy sources and resistive heaters. It caught the eye of Bill Gates and other serious investors who are backing this promising and exciting energy solution that will help solve the energy storage problem we face with intermittent renewable power sources like wind and solar. 

Antora Energy


And to transport that energy from far away renewable sources to your point of use requires a reliable power grid, yet conductor technology hasn’t significantly changed in roughly 100 years- until now, and our grid is horribly inadequate.   The innovative folks at  TS Conductor are now making transmission lines with a new generation of conductors that have a 50% reduction in line losses during normal operation and can carry 3 times the capacity during peak generation and demand. The transmission-distribution power grid is, and will continue to be, the backbone of our transition to renewable energy, and innovations like this will be essential.

Advances in sustainable building materials is another area of innovation.  Traditionally, materials used widely in building infrastructure are energy intensive. The cement industry has long been considered one of the most challenging ones to decarbonize, with most emissions coming from its main ingredient, limestone.  But a new company founded by young entrepreneurs, called Brimestone has developed a breakthrough carbon-negative process to produce the same Portland cement with carbon-free calcium silicate rock instead of limestone.  So they have taken a process that has historically been a climate problem, and turned it into a climate solution.

Another company to keep an eye on is HGen that is making clean hydrogen to decarbonize heavy industry. They have swooned young engineers from SpaceX and Tesla to work on using renewable energy to convert electricity and water into hydrogen at low cost. The combination of wind and solar energy used to produce hydrogen offers a source of portable stored energy, paving the way for hydrogen powered vehicles.

These are just a few areas to watch that promise to provide real solutions. And there are more.

Spotlighting Hope Solutions

Two Great places to keep tabs on these emerging solutions are the Earth Prize Student Awards and The EarthShot Awards-

The Earth PrizeThe Earth prize

The Earth Prize is an annual, global $100,000 environmental sustainability competition for students between the ages of 13 and 19, which rewards the team whose projects have the most potential to address environmental issues. Through The Earth Prize competition, students are inspired, educated, mentored and empowered to solve environmental sustainability problems. Learn more about the Earth, hear inspiring stories from young and successful environmental changemakers, and listen to useful tips and tricks on how to become a change-maker yourself!

The Earthshot PrizeThe Earth Shot Prize

The EarthShot Prize exists to discover, spotlight and help grow innovative solutions that are working to repair and regenerate our planet. Together with their global network of official nominators, they search the world for innovative solutions to the greatest environmental challenges. These solutions must have proven prototypes, show signs of success, and have the potential to make a positive impact on the environment.

HOW THE EARTHSHOT PRIZE WORKS The Earthshot Prize exists to discover, spotlight and help grow innovative solutions that are working to repair and regenerate our planet. This is how we do it. It all starts with The Roadmap. This comprehensive plan, written in collaboration with expert contributors and based on the latest scientific understanding, details the precise criteria we believe is needed to achieve our Earthshots. It’s with this laser-focus that the process begins.

New ideas are emerging every day, and there is reason for hope.  In the meantime, taking a moment to realize the power that lies in our ability to embrace challenges, and work hard toward solutions, can help nurture our optimism.  In full disclosure, I confess I don’t have total faith that we can simply engineer our way out of climate change. It is absolutely critical that we make reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions.  The science tells us there is no other logical conclusion. If we have any hope of handing off a world to the next generations that is anywhere close to sustainable, we must act now. As daunting as that challenge may be, I can’t help but to feel a bit more optimistic knowing that there are brilliant minds taking aim at innovative solutions that will help us with our energy needs and guide us with ways to reduce our carbon footprint.  We simply must.  And hope with Urgent Optimism remains.

– Bruce Vaughn