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The secret life of a climate CEO

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By Christopher Caldwell

· 5 min read

Being a climate tech CEO is a glamorous lifestyle. 

But amidst all the red carpets and parties, the test-driving of yachts and naming of buildings – that public face of climate mitigation we all recognise from the magazines – I know some of you may want a peek behind the velvet curtain. What is it really like, starting your own clean energy company? Where is the story we don’t get to see?

Today is your lucky day. Here is the secret life of the climate CEO, summed up in five simple maxims:

  1. It’s really easy

  2. I’m often bored

  3. The challenges have all been solved

  4. The work feels pretty meaningless

  5. I have far too much time on my hands

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m due at a yoga class with Harry Styles. 

Why bother?

OK, that might not be entirely true. But the fantasy popped into my head in response to a very ordinary question I was asked the other day, about my podcast Conversations on Climate:

“Why do you do it?”

Why spend so much in the way of time, energy and resources on hosting, writing, and climate communication? What’s it all for?

To which my first thought was: that is an excellent question! Joking aside, I have more than a lifetime’s worth of work running United Renewables. Every clean energy project we bring into reality brings the world one step closer to a carbon-free future. It is vital, challenging, and engrossing work, that would soak up as much time as I can give it. 

So why host a climate podcast too? Why write this weekly column? Why put my diary through the shredder as I have done this autumn, appearing on stage everywhere from the IMF to Yale to London Business School, Trinity College Dublin, and beyond?

Follow the money

As an answer, I want to highlight one of the most fascinating (and under-reported) pieces of climate research of recent years: ‘The Misallocation of Climate Research Funding,’ written by Indra Overland and Benjamin K Sovacool in 2020. 

The central finding is that, since 1980, the natural and physical sciences received $40 billion dollars in funding for climate research, whilst the social sciences – everything from economics to politics to psychology – received just $4.6 billion. To get even more specific, social science research into climate mitigation – a.k.a. how to prevent the end of the world – received just 1 in every 1000 research dollars. 

What is going on? In the words of Ken Caldeira, one of Bill Gate’s top climate scientists:

“Back in the 80s, we believed in the information deficit model of social change, and that if we could only get the information to policy-makers they would do the right thing…Now we see that it’s not really about an information deficit, it’s about power relations, people wanting to keep economic and political power. Just telling people some more climate science isn’t going to help anything.”

Solving for the social

This is the reality of climate change today. We do not have an information problem. The reason we are still careening off the cliff – total emissions and emissions growth both hit new records this year – is because we don’t know how to translate the scientific consensus into systemic action. The failure is at the level of economics, of politics, of psychology. It’s a social sciences problem.

The fact that climate change still ranks just 17th out of 21 issues amongst US voters in 2023 sums up this failure. Even on the seemingly obvious details, public perceptions can be startlingly wrong. Fewer than 20% of Americans think that renewables have become cheaper over the last decade, when not have prices come down, but they’ve fallen over 99% since 1975

This is why I give so much of my time to working as a climate communicator. As much as I could fill my days working on the nuts and bolts of clean energy, I know it is equally important to invest in hearts and minds. 

Five reasons to speak up

Here is a much more useful list of five maxims in favour of climate communication:

  1. It inspires action

  2. It illuminates the borders of the possible (bigger than most think, yet more fragile than most believe)

  3. It builds community

  4. It diffuses innovation and spreads ideas

  5. It personalises an otherwise abstract problem

Let’s consider that final point in more depth. Part of the reason climate is such a ‘wicked problem’ is that it is complex, systemic, and often counter-intuitive. It can also seem very, very distant from our ordinary lives. And yet the power of podcasting in particular is its ability to reach people in a very intimate way. That has profound ripple effects. Every pair of eyes and ears for a given episode will go on to sit down around a dinner table, pull up a chair in the boardroom, or stop for a conversation on the street. 

Whilst everyone’s journey through the climate issue will be unique, all will turn on at least one relationship of trust: a loved one or a friend; a favourite writer; a documentary maker or influencer. And you never know who you might influence in turn. And in a world addicted to digital highs (the lowest-common-denominator cycle of social video in particular) we need deeper engagement more than ever. That is what a good podcast, a thoughtful article, or a powerful presentation can offer. 

Solving climate means translating expert understanding into social action. In that regard, the podcast, the writing, and the speaking all work. They are a part of that solution.

So that’s the truth: behind the curtain, the secret life of this CEO is that I’m also a passionate climate communicator. True impact means going beyond my business, and it’s worth every minute.

(But if you’re reading this Harry, I’m still available for that yoga…) 


illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Christopher Caldwell is the CEO of United Renewables, where he employs his past experiences as a corporate lawyer, investment banker, and team leader to lead all aspects of the business. Chris holds a degree in business from Trinity College Dublin, an MBA from London Business School, and is currently reading part-time at the Yale Center for Business & the Environment. 

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