Technology-focused climate crisis research and development (R&D) programs are in a time of rapid expansion and reformulation across government, academic research, the private sector, and partnerships that span all three. This R&D feeds into climate transition policies—future-facing plans made by an entity, organization, or government in response to current climate science recommendations. Not all climate transitions are created equal, and it matters a great deal who is leading the research and funding, and what is prioritized in those plans. To contribute to a more just climate transition, funders must support justice-centered approaches to technology and economy that repair historical harms.

For sustainable tech to be possible, funders, including investors, philanthropists, and foundations, must develop a two-pronged approach of intentional investments in those leading justice-centered approaches to technological and economic transitions and informed divestments from extractive and fossil-fuel-dependent systems and enterprises. This work involves navigating an R&D landscape that is shaped by conflicting and confusing stories about the climate crisis that can obfuscate the work and research of those leading the just climate transition.

In the late 20th century, US environmental policies were influenced by a mix of inflamed climate anxiety (surrounding, for example, the 1990s acid rain policies and ozone debates) and powerful, Big Oil-funded climate change denialism that hindered necessary action. Today, we’re experiencing a similar but not-quite-the-same version of climate crisis avoidance. The same entities (including oil companies like ExxonMobil) who funded climate change denialism for decades, and continue to produce deadly amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, are now funding climate crisis research.

Many private-tech interests are also advancing a dangerous paradigm of anxiety-driven R&D that puts forth profit-led solutions (technological fantasies like Elon Musk’s campaign to colonize mars) and environmentally catastrophic market systems, including the electric vehicle (EV) markets incentivized in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) President Biden signed into law earlier this month. These mark a growing tendency toward technological solutionism over environmental repair and social accountability grounded in communities.

In what follows, I discuss major climate crisis R&D areas—net-zero and cap-and-trade systems, environmental data governance, and lithium-dependent EV technologies. For each, I clarify the stories being told about these climate crisis tech solutions to help weed out the promissory distractions and reveal pathways for supporting justice-centered and public interest research.

Read the full article about investments in climate tech by Theodora Dryer at Stanford Social Innovation Review.