#103 Rick Parnell, CEO at the Foundation for Climate Restoration

Executive, advocate, team builder, and optimist, Rick Parnell has leveraged his unique skillset to help the Foundation for Climate Restoration (F4CR) pursue concrete and scalable climate restoration solutions. Rick came to F4CR after 16 years with the United Nations Foundation, where he designed the Foundation’s partnership model and put together a team of over 300 committed individuals from across the U.S. and around the world. Under his leadership, the Foundation raised more than $2.2 billion to help the UN solve a range of global challenges, including the deterioration of our climate.

“Climate Restoration is a critical component of any comprehensive strategy for ensuring a sustainable environment.” 

Bigger Than Us Episode 103

This transcription has been lightly edited for readability.

Host Raj Daniels  02:13

If you were asked to share something interesting about yourself, what would it be? 

Rick Parnell  02:18

We were chatting earlier about our dogs. I have two Cavalier dogs that I just love dearly. About myself, I would say what people tend to be surprised about is that I am one of the early diagnosed dyslexics way back in the early 1970s. I don’t know that it’s interesting. But, people tend to be surprised when they hear that. 

Host Raj Daniels  02:47

Well, that is interesting, because you’ve had a great career. How has it served you? 

Rick Parnell  02:55

I think that it has served me because I have had the opportunity to work with amazing people in my life through the UN, the UN Foundation, and the university before that. And what they have really been understanding about is that I have to have conversations, as opposed to sending me a briefing note. And so I think that what it has served me is that it’s allowed for deeper conversations about issues. From the smallest issues to the largest issues, the teams that I’ve worked with have always known that they need to come in, and let’s have both visual and an oral conversation, as opposed to sending me a note. 

Host Raj Daniels  03:31

You know, I think it’s very interesting because I have a good friend of mine, who runs quite a large digital marketing company. We were having dinner a few weeks ago, and he was kind of walking through how all his emails are now read to him through the computer. And he said, you know, he’s in his 40s now, but looking back when he was younger, how much he struggled with reading and going through emails, and some of the technologies enabled him to lead his company, staying on this topic for a moment. Can you share perhaps if you have had any experiences like that?

Rick Parnell  04:01

I guess, yes. A little bit on technology, especially in the last few years, especially now with COVID. Because you know, you walk around with your phone as your lifeline. So, yeah, a little bit of that. But I think more not necessarily technology as much as people like to talk about the work they’re doing whether they work for you, with you, a partner. And so what I’ve found is that it’s allowed people to step out of sort of the traditional comfort zone of I’ll send a briefing note and he’ll read until ask me some questions too much more people having a dialogue about something that they are passionate about, or an issue that we need to work on. So I guess not as much technology but more personal interaction. 

Host Raj Daniels  04:46

And I’m right there with you in a sense that I would much rather pick up a phone and have a conversation than text or email back and forth. I just feel like we can get so much more done and it’s so much more clear than a two-dimensional message sitting on a screen. 

Rick Parnell  05:01

You know, and I will say maybe this is a little bit about technology. I hate even when, people would say blessings or silver linings because I don’t think there are necessarily, but one of the outcomes of COVID is that I find that the webinars and Zoom and you know, whichever platform you’re using, are rather intimate. And I find that people in these past months, prefer that you click on the screen so that you have the face to face interaction, where before people would have picked up the phone and called me and I find now more and more and more people are no, no, let’s do it through Zoom so that I can see your face and we can actually have a dialogue. So I guess that piece of technology and that little bit of COVID outcome. 

Host Raj Daniels  05:53

Absolutely. So I’m going to switch gears here and ask you to give us a brief overview of Foundation for Climate Restoration. But I’m going to hopefully use the short term and it’s F4CR. 

Rick Parnell  06:05

And let me just say F4CR.org. You can learn a lot there and take the pledge. The Foundation for Climate Restoration, we are just about a year old. We had some incarnations throughout ’18 and ’19, before me, when the founders were getting organized. We launched the foundation last September 2019 at the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters.

Over the last year, we have really been building out the network, the infrastructure, and we’d like to call it the ecosystem for climate restoration. At the end of the day, what is the Foundation of Climate Restoration? We are working across multiple partnerships to secure the third pillar of climate action. And that is climate restoration. Simply put that it is not enough to do mitigation and adaptation, we must return the Earth’s climate to pre-industrial levels and remove the carbon of the last two centuries.

One little known factoid, when I first started talking with the founder of the Foundation of Climate Restoration, about the legacy card, it had never clicked for me, that was an aha moment for me that 95% of the carbon that’s in the atmosphere will still be here in 2050, even when we reach net zero. So for anyone who’s listening, what that means is the fires, the storms, the sea level rise, it’ll all be here. So if we don’t have this third pillar, again, mitigation adaptation, critically important. But if we don’t do this third pillar of simultaneously not waiting until we get to net zero, but simultaneously, removing the excess carbon, and stabilizing and getting the atmosphere back to under 300 parts per million. Humanity has survived and thrived at 270, 300 for thousands of years. It’s only been in the last two centuries that we have had all of this excess carbon. We’d like to say this geoengineering that we’ve been doing for the last two centuries pumping all of this carbon into the atmosphere, we have to get it out. And we cannot wait until 2050. 

Host Raj Daniels  08:24

So can you share some of the ways that the foundation is working to remove some of the carbon from the air? 

Rick Parnell  08:30

Absolutely. I would say that the best way to think about the foundation is that we are we’re the head cheerleader, where the spokespeople we’re the movement builders, were the coalition builders. We have no interest in being a permanent organization, we want to get this job done in the next 10 years. Our job over the next 10 years is to try and get every single organization engaged.

And what that means is that there several different sectors, one, the private sector. If you look at some of the different concrete companies that have come online in the last couple of years and are scaling pretty rapidly, that has the ability to turn carbon from the atmosphere into synthetic limestone. The building industry is here to stay, obviously, and we can build in a carbon negative, not just neutral carbon-negative way over the next decade or two and remove tonnes and tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere. There are 600 to 650 different carbon removal companies, businesses, ideas that are currently operating, some at nascent, some at large scale like Carbon Engineering and Climeworks, Blue Planet Concrete, and others. So there’s the business sector.

But I think as important is that having things like the business sector, one of our great partners is Dave Cortese. He is the county supervisor for Santa Clara County, Silicon Valley up in California. And he joined us last September and announced that Santa Clara was the first local government in the world to be a climate restoration government, not just net neutral, but a climate restoration. And what that means is that now they’re planning their procurement, their budgeting process can look for carbon negative solutions, and they can scale them at the local level. So when he announced that and challenged local governments around the world, now we’re talking to cities in Europe, Africa, Kenya has really stepped forward as the lead country, on taking climate restoration to scale in the local communities. But in order for the local governments to have these kinds of solutions, the private sector has to actually have the solutions and the investment community, another group that we’re working with, needs to invest in these solutions. And so what our job is, is to make sure that everyone’s talking to each other, and then everyone is engaging together.

Again, I have so many different parts of the different sectors, private investment, local government, movement makers that have that aha moment of “Wait, we actually can restore the climate? Why are we focusing on to that?” Our role here is to try and get everybody focused on this. 

Host Raj Daniels  11:28

So I’ve had the good fortune of interviewing Steve Holden, from Direct Air Capture, and most recently Carbon Engineering, I believe. And most recently, I interviewed Rob Niven. from CarbonCure, are you familiar with this company? 

Rick Parnell  11:44

I’m a little bit familiar with CarbonCure. Carbon Engineering is a partner of ours, they just spoke at our second annual forum. They’re good friends of ours. 

Host Raj Daniels  11:54

So both great companies, can you speak about some of the other technologies you’ve seen on the horizon that are helping removing carbon from the air? 

Rick Parnell  12:01

Yeah, I would say there are a few again, there are three, four, or five different concrete companies that are coming online and scaling. That’s one. Two, we are seeing increasing ocean solutions you’ve heard a lot of people have talk about kelp and some of the ideas there. But that’s also somewhat market-driven in that it has the ability to be human food, it can be feedstock, it can be in beauty products. I love it because it’s a natural and technological or business solution. 

Host Raj Daniels  12:44

So as part of your ecosystem, or as part of what you do, education is a big piece, can you share what the organization is doing around education? 

Rick Parnell  12:51

We work with several different partners. One of our closest partners that were one of the earliest to take on climate restoration was the Earth Day network. They joined us for their 50th anniversary this past year, in April of this year, but over the last 12 months, they have increasingly called on their network globally, to restore our earth. Kathleen Rogers, the president of Earth Day, during our forum this past two weeks ago, during the UNGA, she announced that the next two years, their theme is climate restoration and restore the earth. What they do is they’re able to train local communities because they have networks and countries across the world. That’s one.

Two is that we have a new partner, the Girl Up campaign. This is a really amazing campaign. It was one that I helped develop when I was at the UN Foundation. We started about 10 years ago, and it’s grown to more than 100 countries globally, teaching and empowering young girls. This is the first climate issue that they have taken on. They joined us as a full partner. This past September at the forum, they are taking on climate restoration as their climate issue. What this will do is teach and empower girls around the world on the issue of climate restoration. We’re doing the same thing with building our own local chapters. Again, we’d like to do everything in partnership. But for us, it’s also about having multi sectors.

So another great partner that we brought on this past summer was Broadway Green. So as you can imagine, Broadway is absolutely hurting right now. But they’re using the time to further build their networks of environmentalists. When you think about Broadway green, it’s not only Broadway itself, which of course is the actors, the producers to everybody who works the lighting techs. But it’s also little known is that they have networks across college campuses. They have the local theater in towns across the US.

We’re working with the faith community. You may have seen that Pope Francis on September 1, in I think it’s his annual letter. But he called on, quote, climate restoration as a critical component to Our Common Home, as he says. The faith community has been a great partner. So our education and our messages that whether you’re in the pews, you’re in school, you’re at work, you’re a parent, you’re a child, wherever you are, you should be calling on climate restoration from your leadership. 

Host Raj Daniels  13:47

I did see that letter and amazed by that, and appreciate the fact that he mentioned that. You mentioned the Girl Up campaign earlier. I’m asking for selfish reasons. I have three daughters. Did you say you’re looking to start local chapters? 

Rick Parnell  16:02

No, they have local chapters. So let me just speak somewhat for them. They have chapters, and they’ve grown organically. They have chapters in more than 100 countries and they are looking to continue to grow. Climate restoration is a new issue for them. They are looking to grow that part of their chapter network. So I would absolutely happy to make that connection. 

Host Raj Daniels  16:37

So I will connect with you offline regarding that. I appreciate you sharing that. Can you speak to what the foundation is doing around advocacy? 

Rick Parnell  16:46

Yes, again, working through all the different partners that I’ve mentioned. We’re also doing a series of webinars. We have been working on all sides of the aisle. In the US, we introduced a congressional resolution last fall calling for climate restoration. Admittedly, it did not go particularly far. But those were early days. So we will be at this again, post-election. We are working with Earth Day Network and several other partners on a campaign called Vote Earth Vote Early. And the idea there is voting now not waiting, and whether you vote left, right or center, vote for the climate and vote for climate restoration. And you’ll see more and more that.

We launched the road to Glasgow, as we’re calling it last week as part of Climate Week NYC. And the idea behind that is working from partners that as I’ve mentioned Girl Up and Earth Day, but also Ted Countdown, I think you’ve interviewed Trammell Crowe, another partner, EarthX and EarthX TV. We have a couple of dozen partners and growing that will be working across over the next year to bring climate restoration as the full third pillar of action at COP26 in Glasgow next year. So you’ll see a lot of different advocacy work there.

Another piece that we’re working is internal advocacy. What I mean by that is the carbon removal task force that we launched at Davos works across all the different sectors. Movement builders, corporations, investors, countries, to bring carbon removal and climate restoration fully into with a goal towards COP26. Advocacy over the next year will be all about making sure that we come out of Glasgow next November with climate restoration, being fully engaged as the third pillar of climate action. 

Host Raj Daniels  18:55

I love the idea of engaged. I feel like what you’re doing is a very active approach rather than a passive approach. You mentioned Santa Clara earlier, we are actually sponsoring a webinar in mid-October, where we’re speaking to the city of Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, regarding their Climate Action Plans that they’ve all committed to. Dallas and Houston came out with him earlier this year back in April. The question is, what can we do to engage or encourage the cities to take a more active approach to removing carbon from the air? 

Rick Parnell  19:27

I think that they should, they should learn more, and we should educate them more. But I think that understanding more about the solutions that are out there. At the local municipal level, the ideas like Dave Cortese, he said to me, last fall when we were beginning to have these conversations, we’re going to build these buildings and these roads and the sidewalks anyway. Why wouldn’t we want to build them in a carbon-negative way? The cost differential is something around one and two percent. For essentially the same cost, why not go for carbon negative, not just carbon neutral? It’s a pretty light lift, so why not call for it?

One of our partners is the mayor’s office in Los Angeles car city’s office, they are part of the Global Carbon Removal task force that we co-founded with Thunderbird University, Arizona State, and the president of Kenya’s team. They are talking about climate restoration. They haven’t fully come on board yet. But I think that strength in numbers. This is something that any local government can do, but it’s also something that any constituent can do. I can’t tell you how many people coming in, in the last couple of weeks have said, should I be contacting my local government and saying, why aren’t you talking about climate restoration? Obviously, the answer is yes. Yes, of course, you should. It’s a simple way to get engaged. 

Host Raj Daniels  21:09

And I believe, if I’m not mistaken, Mayor Garcetti also leads the Mayors for Climate Change Organization too.

Rick Parnell  21:18

Yes, he does. He does, indeed. 

Host Raj Daniels  21:19

Interesting. So I’m going to switch gears here and get to the crux of our conversation, the why behind what you do. If my research is correct, 17 years with the UN Foundation, I believe you retired, and then took this position, is that correct? 

Rick Parnell  21:36

I did. When I left the UN Foundation, it was a really, really hard decision. But at some point, you want to be able to focus on your passions. And so I took about a year and was really thinking though because I’m also quite active in LGBT issues, and some others. But when I was approached, I thought a lot about what I could do and climate. And frankly, I’ll be really honest, I was really getting frustrated with the lack of movement, and the lack of inspiration and, you know, positive messaging around what we could possibly do and climate. And then I was approached by Peter Fiekowsky, the founder of the Foundation for Climate Restoration. This is at a Ford Summit, he started talking to me about climate restoration. And I had the same reaction that a lot of people do at first. Wait, we can’t restore the climate. And then as we talked, and we looked at the different solutions, and the numbers and the science. And it was wait, we actually can. That’s when I got so deeply engaged. And then they asked me to come in and take the role of CEO for the foundation.

I would say that there is no more important issue. All issues are important. But there’s no more important issue to the entire future of humanity than climate and restoring the climate. And for me, it’s that both the solution-oriented, the can-do—my own belief is that when you tell human beings that they’re doomed, we’ve got over the cliff, there’s nothing more you can do, then they’re paralyzed. I think Jane Fonda calls it the attitude of let’s have a party because it’s over anyway. No, we can actually get this done. And so that was what really attracted me to climate restoration.

What I’ve found over the last year, as we’ve continued to really build this out, is that people, and I think COVID has actually played this out a little bit. But when they really understand, I think that people want to get engaged, they know they can do behavior change. I think we’ve seen that not perfectly, but we’ve seen a lot of behavior change in the last six to nine months. But I think that for me, it’s the most positive message on climate, which I think, again, is probably the biggest issue out there. So that’s, that’s why I’m really enjoying it. 

Host Raj Daniels  24:11

So when you encounter people, when you explain to them about climate restoration, what’s that composition look like? How do you walk them through? I understand Peter walked you through, but how do you walk someone just unaware of it through that conversation? 

Rick Parnell  24:23

Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s that it ranges it pretty much universal first blushes, whether we can’t restore. And then, of course, some people will say, “Well, wait, you’re not gonna bring back the species that are extinct it?” No, of course, we’re not. But once people understand that, what we’re talking about is getting the carbon to pre-industrial levels, and then it’s possible and it can be done in a market-based solutions-driven approach, both natural and technological.

The next thing that happens is they have that aha. Wait, maybe this is possible. And then the third is that people get really, really engaged, and then get positive.

I had a young woman, Ashley Miki, she came to our first annual forum last September at the UN. She was a 17-year-old senior in Chicago. And she came to the forum. The day after the forum, we had a small group discussion about where do we go from here? And she said, “I came into the forum thinking that I had no future.” And she said, “I’ve had a 180 experience, and I’m leaving the forum realizing, I have a future and it’s in my hands, and we can restore the climate, we can make this change, we just have to choose to do it.” Fast-forward a year later, she is now on our board. She’s 18 years old, and she is a freshman in college at Vanderbilt. Unbelievable. She will absolutely rule the world someday. But for me, that’s the most perfect example of what happens when people listen.

They begin with wait, can we? And then as they understand the science, the solution, the investments. And then when you come out the other side, why won’t I call for this? Why won’t I work hard on this? Sure, of course, this is going to be hard. But it’s so incredibly rewarding. 

All issues are important. But there’s no more important issue to the entire future of humanity than climate and restoring the climate.

Host Raj Daniels  26:33

Must be a lovely feeling to see people’s eyes open up and move from perhaps despair to hope. 

Rick Parnell  26:38

Absolutely. And you can see, so many times over the last year, I’ve just watched people’s faces and body languages, they’ve just light up of like, wait, it’s not too late. No, it’s not. It’s not too late. 

Host Raj Daniels  26:53

It’s not too late. You’re right. So you’ve been with the organization just over a year. What’s some of the most valuable lessons that you would say you’ve learned about yourself and the journey?

Rick Parnell  27:04

I would say patience. It takes time. Much like Bill Gates, I’m a terribly impatient optimist. I think that understanding that people are really set in wait, nope, mitigation adaptation, we have a plan. Let’s not veer off the plan. Well, actually, we can do all three at the same time. I think that’s been one of the biggest, both frustrations and learnings for me, is that having people get to that point of wait, okay, so you’re not saying don’t do emissions reductions and all that? No, we’re saying do this third piece. So I think the lesson there is making sure that you help people through that journey. And for some people, that journey can be a 60-minute conversation. For some people, it may take a couple of days or a couple of conversations.

But I think having that patience is important. And I’m a firm believer, I always believed this in management as well, but that you meet people where they are. So again, as I think I said early in the conversation, whether it’s at work, at school, in the pews, wherever you are, meeting people there so that climate restoration is packaged in a way that is understandable and meets people’s needs for understanding and how they can get activated. 

Host Raj Daniels  28:40

I agree with meeting people where they are because I feel like sometimes people try to convince people too quickly. And people tend to shy away from that. 

Rick Parnell  28:48

Yeah, people tend to shy away and you know. I’m a firm believer that if you have a conversation and the facts are there, that people will join. They want to join something that’s positive, they want to be able to help secure their own future and their children’s and grandchildren’s future. You don’t have to browbeat. People will get there on their own.

Host Raj Daniels

So, let’s call it 2025. What does the future look like for F4CR?

Rick Parnell

I hope that what the future looks like is that we are reading the IPCC Special Report on Climate Restoration. I hope that we will be attending the next UN General Assembly where climate restoration will be a full third pillar of action. I hope that there will be all kinds of research, which is an incredibly big part here. We’re just at the very beginning stages of climate restoration. There are so many solutions out there that need to be tested. They need research dollars. Things Like an IPCC Special Report will drive that.

Our good friend Sir David King at Cambridge University, he is building centers for climate repair globally with a university network. I hope that in 2025, they are global, and universities across the world. I hope that it is not a head-scratcher for people when we say climate restoration, because they will have heard so much about it. I hope that that leadership across the world will be talking about how they are working at the government level, local, national levels for restoring the climate. And I hope that when I say there’s 600, 650 different climate companies and solutions out there, I hope it’s tenfold. I have our colleagues, Christine Harada, she was President Obama’s chief Sustainability Officer, she’s a great friend, and she’s spoken at a few of our webinars over the last month. She likes to say, ten, 15 years ago, wind and solar industry were pretty shaky. And it was a leap of investment. Look where they are now, I hope that we will be seeing, carbon-negative concrete, and all other kinds of solutions will be fully mainstreamed by then.

I’m a firm believer that if you have a conversation and the facts are there, that people will join. They want to join something that’s positive, they want to be able to help secure their own future and their children’s and grandchildren’s future.

Host Raj Daniels  31:25

You painted a beautiful picture, and I look forward to seeing it come to fruition. 

Rick Parnell  31:28

Thank you, so do I.

Host Raj Daniels  31:36

If you could share some advice or words of wisdom with the audience, what would it be? And I’m going to add to that. If somebody wanted to take some specific individual action regarding carbon restoration, what could they do? 

Rick Parnell  31:46

Well, let me start with that. First, get engaged in your local community. Again, wherever you’re listening doesn’t matter where you are in the world. What is your local community? If it’s your local government, if it’s your if your house of faith if it’s your school. We’ve had youth working with us saying our schools not doing anything. Well, you can make them do it, you can call for it. Wherever you are, whichever walks of life and in your community, look to leadership and ask them why they’re not doing climate restoration and demand it, so that’s one. Use your voice and get engaged. Piece of advice. I think that the often frustrating, but clearly important, I think it’s a little bit about how we were talking about meet people where they are. You have to understand people’s stories. Everybody has a story in their own head. And it’s the story of where they come from. And it’s also the story of where they live. And some people will get declined restoration and really quickly run the numbers and say that makes sense.

And others, you’re looking at an entire dogma of how people believe and you have to meet them where they are and understanding what their life experience has been. I think that if you are open to that, and empathetic to that, that you will have so many more people that will join you on whatever mission it is that you’re doing. But I think that it’s truly about trying to understand where people are coming from.

Host Raj Daniels  33:25

That part about story and understand where people are coming from, I think it goes back to earlier in our conversation when we were speaking about actually talking to each other, rather than texting or emailing, having more open candid conversations. So I think it ties in very nicely.

Rick Parnell  33:46

I used to, I used to tell the story, when we had a pretty large staff at the UN Foundation. Some of the staff would ask me questions. And I would say to them, this really kind of sounds kind of silly, but I would say to them, “Look, we’re always the 12-year-olds sitting behind daddy’s big desk or whatever.” You’re always going to have some of that in your head. In some ways, we’re always having that ever-changing life experience, no matter how old you are. And so I think to understand that none of us have all the answers. I think that having the understanding, compassion, and empathy of where people are open, and what their life experience has been, will go really, really far as you’re trying to get them to understand what it is that you’re trying to do for climate restoration or any other issue that you’re working on. 

Host Raj Daniels  34:38

Agree and I think it’s a great place to leave off. Rick, I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you. Is there anything I should have asked you or should have explored that we haven’t?

Rick Parnell  34:47

I think the most important thing is that every single person on this planet has a role to play. The future of humanity can be incredibly bright. We just have to choose to make the pivot and restore the climate.    

I think that having the understanding, compassion, and empathy of where people are open, and what their life experience has been, will go really, really far as you’re trying to get them to understand what it is that you’re trying to do for climate restoration or any other issue that you’re working on. 


Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.

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Raj Daniels

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