Facebook’s former CTO Mike Schroepfer explains why he’s turning his attention to climate change

Technology

Mike Schroepfer, chief technology officer of Facebook Inc., listens during the Wall Street Journal Tech Live global technology conference in Laguna Beach, California, U.S., on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. The event brings together investors, founders, and executives to foster innovation and drive growth within the tech industry.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

When longtime Facebook executive Mike Schroepfer left his job as Meta’s chief technology officer earlier this year, he said he would spend his new free time and energy focusing on addressing the climate crisis. That decision makes him one of a growing number of tech workers who are turning their attention, time and skills to climate change.

Schroepfer started giving to climate philanthropically in early 2020 by funding basic scientific research through his organization, Additional Ventures. There wasn’t a single “aha!” moment that made the tech executive decide he wanted to try to use his resources to contribute to responding to climate change. It was a combination of several factors that collectively pushed him over the tipping point to decide to act.

“Something flipped in 2020. I am not sure what, I think it might be the age of my kids,” Schroepfer told CNBC in a video interview on Wednesday. (He declined to be any more specific about his children or family for the sake of privacy.) He imagined a hypothetical future where his children might look at him and ask, “‘Dad, what were you doing? Why didn’t you try to help?'”

Also, climate change has started to affect his and his family’s daily life.

“We live in California, and we now have a thing called wildfire season, and smoke season where we check the AQI every day before we go out,” he said, referring to the air quality index, a measurement of air pollution and its potential impact on human health. “And we now have HEPA filters and masks. It’s a real health risk for people immediately. And wildfires happen — but they’re a lot worse, because of drought. And that is directly linked to climate change.”

So in 2020, Schroepfer started making grants for climate-related scientific research through Additional Ventures, a philanthropic organization he set up. He educated himself about climate change, talked to people who knew more than he does about the issue and hired people to do research for him and get him up to speed.

We want a livable planet for our children and our children’s children. And, you know, it’s not a foregone conclusion. We have agency here. Let’s start making progress.
Mike Schroepfer
outgoing CTO, Facebook

One of the hardest and most critical parts of deciding to take action in responding to climate change, for Schroepfer and others he has spoken to, is figuring out how their skillset could be most helpful.

“The good news, bad news is, there’s a lot of options. And so that’s good news. But it then becomes quickly overwhelming. It’s sort of like the menu that’s way too large. And so you just can’t choose what to do, right?” Schroepfer told CNBC. “Because what we’re talking about is changing almost everything in the economy — transport, food, everything we do, buildings, everywhere we live is going to change. And that’s good and exciting, but it’s also sort of overwhelming, but it does mean, we need everyone.”

Funding ocean carbon removal research

Schroepfer is staying on at Meta as a senior fellow, working on recruiting and artificial intelligence, among other things. But a lot of his attention has already turned toward new ventures.

“As an R&D executive, I’ve overseen lots of things from building data centers, to building an AI Lab to, scaling products to billions of people. And part of what you get good at is trying to understand the landscape and where the opportunities are,” Schroepfer said.

For his first climate research, Schroepfer and the Additional Ventures team are focused on studying the potential of storing carbon dioxide in the ocean.

Carbon removal is an area of the climate technology and innovation landscape that Schroepfer sees as desperately necessary and very far behind where it needs to be.

“We need to be taking about 10 gigatons of carbon out of the atmosphere every year. And we’re doing hardly anything,” Schroepfer said. “And it’s very expensive to do it. And so we need more money to do it. And we need to technology and solutions that are scalable, and cheaper.”

Meta was one of a collection of companies, led by Stripe, and also including Google and McKinsey, to join a $925 million commitment to pay for removing carbon as a way of jump-starting the nascent industry and giving innovators in the space some certainty that there will be demand for the technology they’re building. But that, he said, is just a start, and is “1,000 times less than what needs to be sent spent annually,” he said.

One area of the carbon removal landscape that’s gotten a fair amount of interest but is not yet anywhere close to commercialization is the idea of storing carbon in the ocean, or “enhance this natural pump already existing,” as Schroepfer said.

“Most importantly, there was almost no funding in this space. And these are deep scientific questions,” Schroepfer said. “This is early days. And so it felt like a place where we could really contribute because there was so little funding here that we could really help catalyze basic scientific questions of does this work? And is it safe? Which we need to know if we want to explore this as a possibility in the future.”

Also with his philanthropic efforts, Schroepfer has also given money to Carbon Plan, a nonprofit climate science data organization, and Carbon180, a nonprofit working to advance carbon removal policies, and Activate, a nonprofit that helps scientists scale their research into a commercial scale business to address climate change.

Innovation, not limitation

In addition to his philanthropic work, Schroepfer is investing in companies that are addressing climate change. He declined to name any of his investments, but said they’re all early-stage companies, some still in stealth mode without a website yet. But he’s been impressed with the sophistication of the innovators who are working on climate.

“I’m seeing tons of really passionate entrepreneurs starting tons of different companies focused on climate from capturing carbon in creative ways to fusion, to massively decarbonizing shipping,” Schroepfer told CNBC.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Schroepfer is a believer in the potential of technology to address climate change, because he says it opens doors to new ways of doing things as opposed to asking consumers to do less with less.

“Why I’ve been in technology for 25 years is, technology has this magic ability to remove hard decisions, to remove constraints,” he said.

Instead of thinking about how people need to cut back, limit and constrain their consumption, Schroepfer is of the mindset that new technology can power continued growth, but in a climate conscious way. “If we change our economy, we can decarbonize a lot of what we’re doing. It’s good for people’s health right now, it’s good for us in the future, and it actually can build a lot of prosperity, better products.”

Electric vehicles are a prime example, he said. “If you’ve ever driven an electric car, it’s just better than a than a gas car. It requires less maintenance, it’s faster, like it’s quieter, it doesn’t pollute literally where your kids and family are. It’s just a better product,” Schroepfer said.

Why I’ve been in technology for 25 years is, technology has this magic ability to remove hard decisions, to remove constraints.
Mike Schroepfer
former CTO of Facebook

Hydro-foiling ships are going to become increasingly common, Schroepfer predicts, for the same reason: They’re massively more efficient than current cargo ships, and they are a better, smoother ride, he told CNBC. “Ten years from now, are there going to be hydro-foiling boats in the New York Harbor and on the Hudson River and in the San Francisco Bay? Oh, heck yeah.”

That model can and should be replicated in other categories, too. “And that’s just very much what I’m about in technology and engineering is how do we sort of make a bigger pie make it better for everyone, as opposed to make hard trade-offs,” he said. It’s worth noting Schroepfer also recognizes technology innovation alone isn’t enough to solve climate change.

Optimism with rigor

Schroepfer is not alone in his interest in investing in climate tech. The sector has grown significantly in the past couple two two five years, even if it’s still not close to sufficient to respond to climate change: “There is 1% of the enthusiasm we actually need to solve these problems, so I hope we get a whole lot more.”

But the growing sector is going to have its share of failures. That’s a given, he said. When considering a company to invest in, Schroepfer looks at whether the company will be able to make money, in addition to whether the company will be able to scale its climate impact.

“The way I approached this is sort of like a whole, massive dose of optimism, but a whole lot of rigor on the other end,” he said. He builds out a company’s financial models and if the company doesn’t have a runway to start selling a product at a profit, he won’t invest. On the whole, at scale, people are not going to pay more for a product because it is better for the climate.

“Most people can’t afford to pay a green premium. So you have to build businesses saying this is as good or better, for the same or lower price, and it happens to have a lot less carbon intensity,” Schroepfer said.

That problem is particularly challenging for carbon removal technologies, which in the United States do not have an existing market beyond a handful of companies that are voluntarily opting to pay for carbon removal. When pressed on where the demand was going to come from to scale the carbon removal industry beyond large companies that care and can afford to be proactive, Schroepfer acknowledged the challenge.

“You’ve put your finger on the the hardest problem here, which is why I spend a bunch of my time on this,” Schroepfer said. “I agree with you that it’s not solved as of 2022. But it is one of the things that I think a lot of people are working on to figure out.”

But he says it’s a fundamental reality that people will need to remove carbon from the atmosphere. And so Schroepfer believes there will be a growing market for carbon removal technologies in the future, spurred by growth from companies volunteering to purchase carbon removal, companies that have to pay for carbon removal to meet their own ESG goals, mounting public pressure, and, eventually, carbon emissions governmental regulations.

None of these changes will come easily or quickly, but Schroepfer said he’s motivated to keep contributing because there isn’t another option for the Earth.

“We want a livable planet for our children and our children’s children. And, you know, it’s not a foregone conclusion. We have agency here. Let’s start making progress, and we can do it incrementally, and it can be slow, and we can get there. And it can make a better life for people altogether,” Schroepfer said.

About that belief: The day after this interview, Schroepfer emailed this reporter to point to the compromise reconciliation deal reached by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. That reconciliation deal includes, among a cornucopia of other things, a tax credit, called 45Q, for carbon sequestration.

“Reason for optimism,” the email’s subject line read.

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