Joseph Kelly’s solution to the climate crisis is simple, affordable, and doesn’t require radically changing your life. Take a special blend of fungi that’s packaged in a cute orb, dissolve it in water like a bath bomb, and spray it once on your lawn to boost its ability to suck carbon dioxide from the air.
A single orb “helps you easily capture one ton of CO2” in your lawn every year for at least a decade, Kelly said in a Kickstarter campaign for his company NetZero that launched in January. Lawns, he claimed, could capture 20% of US emissions — bigger than the carbon footprint of the entire agricultural sector.
If this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.
The real Joseph Kelly is no climate hero. He’s a charismatic but vindictive huckster who has spent more than a decade in a vicious cycle of rebranding himself, using shady business tactics, and threatening people who cross him, including by allegedly using fake aliases.
As a climate entrepreneur, Kelly has peddled dubious science, including by claiming fantastic results from a study that showed his product didn’t do much. While he told the Securities and Exchange Commission and investors that he had possible deals in the works with many big companies looking to cut their carbon footprints, several of them told BuzzFeed News they have no record of even talking to him.
Most recently, Kelly spread wild lies about the fungi researcher who first criticized NetZero’s bold claims.
“Some of my favorite organisms and their ecologies are being dubiously exploited by this company’s Kickstarter,” Christian Schwarz, a research associate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote on Instagram in February. While scientists are discovering that fungi have many powers, from inducing psychedelic trips that can help treat depression to helping plants soak up and store carbon dioxide, Schwarz and other experts said that Kelly’s claims about NetZero don’t add up. Schwarz detailed his full criticisms in a blog post titled “NetZero’s Mycological Snake Oil,” which was signed by a group of scientists questioning whether mycelium — the rootlike threads of fungi that extend into the soil — could help plants store as much carbon dioxide as Kelly claimed.
Kelly responded to these criticisms by aggressively attacking Schwarz in multiple emails, on Instagram, and on Kickstarter. Then UC Santa Cruz received an anonymous tip linking to a website claiming to be created by a 19-year-old woman accusing Schwarz of attempted rape. Several indicators strongly suggest Kelly created the website, including that his Gmail avatar is visible in a screenshot prominently displayed on the site.
BuzzFeed News has found evidence of at least nine other allegedly fake identities linked to Kelly and his businesses. In one instance in 2016, his own lawyer accused his client of perjury and said that Kelly was “likely engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise to defraud courts across the United States.” The lawyer alleged Kelly had faked and then sued an online persona in a bid to have dozens of negative posts about him taken down.
BuzzFeed News spoke with about two dozen of Kelly’s current and former collaborators and clients, as well as outside scientists, for this article. Seven people spoke only on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation. We also reviewed hundreds of pages of corporate filings, internal company data and emails, lawsuits, police records, and online posts about Kelly’s businesses.
“I was definitely taken advantage of and used to move forward his scams,” one of Kelly’s former collaborators on his climate businesses said.
When presented with a detailed list of allegations, Kelly, through his lawyer, denied “any such history of fabricating identities and/or retaliating against clients,” denied misleading investors or federal authorities about his climate businesses, and stood by his “cutting edge (although poorly understood) technology.”
“Reasonable people can debate the fine points of climate, mycelium, and soils but a handful of poor communications does not constitute fraud,” Kelly said through his lawyer.
And when asked about the fake rape allegations against Schwarz on a phone call with BuzzFeed News, Kelly denied he created the website and suggested one of his investors made it. “One of my investors said, ‘You know what? This guy is posting about us; I’m going to post about him,’” Kelly said. “I said to him, ‘What are you, 16? Don’t post about him. If you did post anything about him, take it down. We don’t want to stoop to this guy’s level. Who cares about him.’”
Kelly has threatened to sue Schwarz and four others who signed on to his blog post, at least four of NetZero’s former employees or collaborators, and BuzzFeed News, saying we are spreading false information about his companies.
“This guy is not just uninformed — he is ill intentioned.”
“Do you really think that BuzzFeed is going to pay a lawyer $300 an hour to defend you?” Kelly said. “This is defamation and slander. This is not reporting.”
For Schwarz, a scientist who normally spends his days studying and teaching about fungi, what began as an effort to call out junk science has turned into a personal nightmare. “Kelly’s NetZero scheme is scientifically bankrupt and perhaps a pure scam,” Schwarz told BuzzFeed News. “This guy is not just uninformed — he is ill intentioned.”
And for those watching from the sidelines, NetZero, which raised more than $160,000 on Kickstarter, is a shocking example of how well-meaning consumers can be easily duped into thinking they’re helping to fix climate change.
“Efforts like this are dangerous because they give the impression that solving the climate crisis is going to be easy or simple,” Bonnie Waring, an ecologist at Imperial College London not affiliated with Schwarz’s letter, told BuzzFeed News. “And it’s really not.”
Before he upended Schwarz’s life, Kelly was an entrepreneur named Joseph Chinnock.
And he had already gotten into legal trouble. In 2006, he was convicted of a misdemeanor in Colorado for having sexual contact with a family friend who was a minor when he was 37, according to local police reports and a state criminal history report reviewed by BuzzFeed News. Kelly was convicted again in Colorado in 2013 for failing to register as a sex offender. Through his lawyer, he said he “has no comment on his past relationship with a minor” and added that the alleged victim was 16 at the time.
And he’d already been accused of creating fake identities. Using both his real name and the trade name “Joel Cassaway,” which he registered in Colorado in 2009, Kelly started a string of businesses that drew complaints from clients, including a bitcoin news site for which he allegedly created other fake aliases posing as journalists.
One of Kelly’s former clients even sued him, claiming that Kelly wrote an online post posing as a 19-year-old woman accusing the client of rape. The client and the business entity that employed Kelly at the time settled out of court, without him, in 2015. Kelly, through his lawyer, said he “never posted about anyone nor settled a case as such.”
That same year, Kelly hatched a plan to save the planet.
He helped launch the Navajo Bee Project in spring 2015, promising to “heal the land” around abandoned uranium mines on Navajo land in the Southwest by using natural beekeeping and mushrooms.
Part of Kelly’s inspiration stemmed from a famous mycologist named Paul Stamets. In his popular TED Talk, “6 ways mushrooms can save the world,” the scientist explained how fungi can be used to remediate land, fight pest invasions, and counter disease outbreaks. Two key goals of the Navajo Bee Project, per the group’s Facebook page, were to plant mushrooms on land with possible radioactive contamination to dramatically jump-start the soil’s natural detoxification process, as well as introduce bees to help boost the surrounding vegetation.
The company raised $10,000 in its first year, enough to pay for roughly a few dozen families to get bees, hives, and training, according to Kelly.
But tracing the organization’s fundraising tactics raises questions about where the money went. In August 2015, the Navajo Bee Project asked its Facebook followers to PayPal their donations to Patrick McDowell, also the name of one of the reporters involved with Kelly’s bitcoin venture. BuzzFeed News has confirmed that McDowell’s picture on the bitcoin website was a stock photo and that the email no longer exists.
The next year, Jennafer Yellowhorse, an Arizona environmentalist whose ex-husband was Navajo, started connecting Kelly with local families looking for bees. Kelly started an online fundraiser, but Yellowhorse said none of the money made it back to her community. She wrote a complaint about the incident on the website Ripoff Report.
And emails obtained by BuzzFeed News show the Navajo Bee Project in spring 2016 was piggybacking on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid that year, using the email firstname.lastname@example.org to raise funds. “After Donating to Bernie Please Donate to The Navajo Bee Project,” said one email.
Representatives from the Sanders campaign told BuzzFeed News that Kelly did volunteer for them but that the Gmail account was not affiliated with them. The email was also not associated with the Navajo Nation tribal government, according to a spokesperson.
Kelly, through his lawyer, said he “was given 6,000 leads to email for fund-raising purposes” as part of his work for the Sanders campaign and later used the list for his own fundraising, but said that he “does not recall” that email address.
Susan Yu found out about the Navajo Bee Project through posts on a “Bernie for President” Facebook page and donated to a fundraiser. “He seemed legit,” Yu told BuzzFeed News in a Facebook message, referring to Kelly. “I sent maybe $400 or so because I thought it was to go to a family. After some time, he disappeared.” On July 5, 2016, she posted on the group’s Facebook page asking what had happened to the donations. She never got a response.
Roy Kady, a Navajo tribal member, said he connected with Kelly in mid-2016 and agreed to do a Navajo weaving demonstration at a Whole Foods in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in exchange for bees, equipment, and training on how to handle them. He got the bees that summer and received equipment in the mail later, but his follow-up emails to Kelly asking for help on how to handle the bees went unanswered.
“Joseph disappeared,” he told BuzzFeed News. He later added, “I was left with this beehive and I don’t know anything about it.”
Kelly, through his lawyer, said that he eventually handed the project over to the Navajo tribe “so that they could run the program on their own,” adding that “the business was unfortunately not successful after that.”
The Navajo Nation tribal government was not involved with the project, according to a spokesperson.
In August 2016, Kelly successfully sued a woman named Krista Ivanski for posting false and defamatory statements online about the Navajo Bee Project, his bitcoin venture, and his other businesses.
But Google denied Kelly’s request to block the links from turning up in search results, after questioning whether the posts may have been written by someone other than Ivanski. Kelly’s lawyer at the time, Daniel Warner, then said he found evidence suggesting that Ivanski was not a real person and that her legal documents had been signed by two fake notaries.
BuzzFeed News found that the email Kelly provided Warner for Ivanski — email@example.com — was also used by a reporter with a stock photo profile picture on Kelly’s bitcoin news website.
Warner concluded that Kelly had tried to use his legal services “to perpetrate a fraud” in a scheme to have negative posts about him not show up on Google. The lawyer then stopped representing Kelly, and returned his legal fees. “Because I regretted not discovering Chinnock’s conduct sooner, I voluntarily agreed to be admonished by a disciplinary judge in Arizona” and be put on a two-year probation, Warner told BuzzFeed News in an email.
Kelly, through his lawyer, said he “was not part of the probation,” and said the reason for the disciplinary action was “never made public.” The case against Warner is available online, and his firm posted an update about it.
Around this time, Kelly launched a company, HiveMind, which marketed a new use for mycelium to big businesses looking to be more climate-friendly.
His sales pitch was simple: Plants already pull carbon dioxide out of the air and release some of it back into the atmosphere as part of the growing process. Adding mycelium, he said, could supercharge a plant’s ability to not just suck the greenhouse gases from the air but, more importantly, store the carbon dioxide underground for a long time. Kelly could sell mycelium to big companies to use on their land, including on green rooftops, to help cut their carbon footprints.
By 2017, he had successfully pitched the mycelium idea to Cummins, a manufacturer of diesel and natural gas engines that makes billions in revenue. Cummins looped in Andrew Grieve, director of the UK-based company Weatherproofing Advisors, to install a green roof inoculated with Kelly’s mycelium at a Cummins-owned building in England.
Around this time, Kelly filed an official request to change his name from Joseph Chinnock to Joseph Kelly, claiming, “I have been stalked online and spent over $50,000 without remedy so want a new start.”
Grieve had never heard of mycelium before, but he was intrigued. “When someone says, ‘I’ve got a product that could make a significant difference to drawing down carbon out of the atmosphere,’ I don’t think anyone would ignore that,” he told BuzzFeed News. “What an amazing thing for the environment that could be.”
But before collaborating further, Grieve wanted to see rigorous science backing up Kelly’s claims. So, with Kelly’s consent, Grieve said, he helped line up funding for environmental scientist Jens-Arne Subke at the University of Stirling in Scotland to test the mycelium. Grieve also brought the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell on board for a pilot project to test the mycelium blend on a green roof at a London gas station.
The future looked bright for HiveMind, which raised over $100,000 on WeFunder, a crowdfunding platform for investors, in 2019. “Our mission is to be the first billion dollar carbon drawdown company,” Kelly wrote in his SEC filing for HiveMind that year.
In the filing, Kelly repeatedly said HiveMind’s mycelium technology was verified by EEVS, a company that independently reviews energy-saving services. But EEVS disputed that characterization to BuzzFeed News, saying it did a “limited” review of HiveMind on Cummins’ behalf and did not have access to HiveMind’s underlying carbon capture data.
Kelly also told the SEC and his investors that he was in talks with the Spanish oil giant, Repsol, about a “massive project,” as well as AFL Architects and the Welsh government. He also said he was in “advanced talks” with the Crown Estate, which manages land for the UK’s royal family, and that HiveMind hoped to retrofit 125 of Shell’s gas station rooftops after completing the pilot project with Grieve.
A Repsol representative said the company “doesn’t have any relation with HiveMind.” The Crown Estate and AFL Architects told BuzzFeed News they have no record of any communications with Kelly or HiveMind. The Welsh government confirmed that HiveMind pitched them, but the conversations ended after government officials asked for data showing the product worked.
Kelly, through his lawyer, maintained that the organizations were in talks with HiveMind. The SEC did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ questions about Kelly’s business filing.
And the Shell pilot was built, but the retrofits didn’t happen — after Subke, the Scottish scientist who tested whether mycelium could effectively sequester carbon, concluded it didn’t do much.
Using the same soil, plants, and mycelium as on the Shell roof, Subke planted six trays with the mycelium and six trays without. Over the course of four months, he repeatedly measured their “carbon flux,” or the amount of carbon dioxide being sequestered by the soil and plants compared to the amount being released.
Kelly told BuzzFeed News he was skeptical of using Subke’s “carbon flux” analysis from the beginning. So he looped in a soil scientist, Jason Lessl at the University of Georgia, to independently measure the carbon and nitrogen stored in soil samples mailed over by Subke.
By the end of Subke’s experiment, he said he did not measure a statistically significant difference in the amount of carbon dioxide captured in the trays containing mycelium compared to those without.
“Overall, we can state that the ‘green roof’ model in this experiment shows no strong evidence of either gaining or losing carbon,” Subke emailed Kelly and Grieve on Dec. 6, 2019.
In a call with BuzzFeed News, Kelly said Subke “screwed up the study” and later added that the results of Lessl’s analysis proved this. But Lessl told BuzzFeed News that he didn’t get conclusive results and never saw Subke’s study.
At the time, Kelly pushed back against Subke’s conclusions. “I’m confused by the results,” Kelly responded. “Let’s all jump on a call this week and figure this out as those results lead us to a dead end with the client.”
In subsequent emails, Kelly asked Subke and another scientist he had hired, Christine Hawkes of North Carolina State University, about whether it was accurate to extrapolate from the results that mycelium used on 1,470 square meters of land would sequester 1 ton of carbon annually. Both scientists said no, according to the emails.
Hawkes declined to answer questions about the study to BuzzFeed News, saying that she had signed a nondisclosure agreement with HiveMind. She also said Kelly had a “litigious reputation” and she had had “a very negative interaction” with him. Hawkes stopped consulting with Kelly soon after weighing in on the study, she said, and she did not play a role in the Kickstarter campaign.
Grieve, the director of Weatherproofing Advisors, ultimately presented Subke’s results to Shell in early 2020. “When we got the results, it was a bit of a damp squib,” Grieve told BuzzFeed News. Conversations stalled there, which Kelly has blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic. Shell said it does not currently have a relationship with HiveMind.
Nevertheless, on April 28, 2020, Kelly heralded Subke’s experiment as a success to his investors: “The results showed both a significant increase in the intake and sequestration of CO2 as carbon in the plants, mycelium, and soil.”
His characterization of the study, Subke said, was “completely false and can’t be based on information I circulated from trials.”
Kelly, through his lawyer, claimed the update to investors did not exist, though it can be found online here. Hours after learning that Grieve and Subke each spoke with BuzzFeed News, he sent them an email threatening them with a lawsuit. Kelly, through his lawyer, claimed this didn’t happen.
On July 20, 2020, Kelly updated HiveMind investors about the launch of a new company, NetZero, that would take his mycelium straight to climate-conscious consumers.
“Due to the COVID shutdown we have decided to launch a division that uses the same mycelium technology that we sell to Fortune 100 companies to everyday Americans,” he wrote. “NetZero is licensing the technology from HiveMind so HiveMind investors will profit from success.”
In early January, Kelly launched a Kickstarter campaign for NetZero to sell his mycelium, now packaged in orbs that look like bath bombs. For $96, he promised crowdfunders a half-pound orb that would enable an “average-sized American lawn” to sequester 1 ton of carbon dioxide a year.
As part of the Kickstarter, people could pledge money to go towards another company he’d started called the Sacred Rivers Climate Project. It would employ “women in indigenous and disadvantaged communities” to plant trees inoculated with mycelium, which he claimed would sequester tons of carbon per year. Kelly had sold this idea to earlier investors as a way to monetize the new trees as carbon credits, where companies could pay Kelly to claim the climate benefit as their own.
It didn’t take long for NetZero to show up on the radar of mycologist Christian Schwarz at UC Santa Cruz. “I kept seeing the campaign shared,” he told BuzzFeed News.
On a quick glance, the idea seemed to make sense. Almost all plants on Earth have a “mutually beneficial relationship” with fungi, Schwarz said, in which “the fibers of fungal cells wrap themselves around the tips of the roots of the plants” to exchange water and nutrients.
But a deeper understanding of fungi revealed a lot of “red flags” in Kelly’s claims, he said. “I got really angry and just sort of shocked.”
So Schwarz decided to reach out to Kelly with questions.
Kelly’s initial response was dismissive. “Did you see [on Kickstarter] where it says we were verified by Verra as a carbon protocol?” Kelly wrote in a Feb. 17, 2021, email. “So: Google Verra.”
Googling Verra reveals it’s a company that certifies carbon credit projects. Anne Thiel, a spokesperson for Verra, said Kelly has only taken the first step of several for the project to be verified, essentially approving a way he could test his mycelium blend.
Kelly insisted to BuzzFeed News that this is a big deal. Thiel, in an email, said, “Verra has not yet received a request to register a mycelium project and accordingly cannot comment one way or the other on whether such a project could actually sequester as much carbon as is claimed.”
That same week, Schwarz reached out to Mike McCord, an Atlanta-based arborist who traveled to Nepal with Kelly to plant trees as part of the Sacred Rivers Climate Project. Schwarz said McCord couldn’t answer his questions about mycelium but agreed to ask Kelly on his behalf. Shortly afterward, McCord stopped working with the company and his name was taken off NetZero’s Kickstarter page. Kelly told BuzzFeed News that he had sent McCord a cease-and-desist letter threatening to sue him for defamation. McCord told BuzzFeed News he filed a temporary protective order against Kelly and declined to comment further.
Now even more alarmed about NetZero, Schwarz detailed his concerns in a blog post that was signed by seven other fungi and ecology experts.
For example, Kelly said his orbs contain two types of fungi: endomycorrhizal and ectomycorrhizal. The former “can partner with more types of plants, and they are ubiquitous with things like grasses and flowers and lawn plants and yard plants,” Schwarz said. “You’d expect that to be pretty much the only kind of fungus in these bath bomb mycelium orbs because it would make sense biologically.” But the other kind of fungi “partner with a limited range of plants” and run the risk of being invasive in certain areas, according to Schwarz. He also questioned the very large amounts of carbon dioxide Kelly claimed the mycelium could capture and store underground for a long time.
“It’s just nonsense from a scientific perspective.”
“Even in the best of situations, the positive impact stated by the company is not realistic,” Gregory Mueller, chief scientist of the Chicago Botanic Garden and one of the blog post’s signatories, told BuzzFeed News in an email. “[T]he problem is not only that I have grave doubts that the product works, but proposing a ‘silver bullet’ solution may distract from the hard decisions that need to be made and real efforts that can positively mitigate the problem.”
Waring, an ecologist not associated with Schwarz or Kelly, also questioned NetZero’s claims. “It’s a big open question as to where and how carbon capture in plants and subsequently in soil can reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations,” she said. “So to imply that there’s some magical product that can offset a large fraction of anthropogenic emissions through a simple allocation that would work the same in anyone’s yard under any environmental conditions … it’s just nonsense from a scientific perspective.”
Some scientists are optimistic about ongoing studies that suggest fungi may someday be able to boost carbon capture. “The general idea that this could be done is not crazy,” said Colin Averill, a senior scientist at ETH Zürich.
But he took issue with Kelly’s bold claims. “They are not going to work the same on every lawn. We know that,” Averill said about the orbs, later adding: “I feel like the burden of proof is certainly on the people making the claims.”
Stephany Mason, an oceanographer who has done consulting work for NetZero and is listed on its Kickstarter, told BuzzFeed News she stood by the project. She said that while she’s seen data showing Kelly’s mycelium can help sequester carbon, she couldn’t elaborate since she signed a confidentiality agreement. “It confirmed that there was enhanced carbon capture,” Mason said. “Beyond that, I can’t say anymore.”
Schwarz said Kelly’s subsequent interactions quickly became aggressive and threatening.
In a now-deleted Instagram post reviewed by BuzzFeed News, NetZero accused Schwarz of lying about his credentials and harassing Mason. (Mason did not respond to multiple requests to respond to these allegations.) On the Kickstarter page, in a now-deleted comment, the company’s account accused Schwarz of having “very deviant views on women” and being “a crazy person with no sense of reality.”
Kelly then went nuclear, emailing the scientist and his employer, UC Santa Cruz, a screenshot of a Seeking.com dating profile describing Schwarz as looking for a “DDLG” (“daddy dom/little girl”) sexual relationship: “Are you a DDLG LG? I’m your daddy! I can’t wait to dress you and bathe you and feed you.”
Kelly’s email said, “Might want to reconsider having him on campuses around, you know, so many young women.”
Schwarz said the profile is fake. And it certainly looks like Kelly created it: The account was set up the day before the email was sent. The Seeking.com profile screenshot displays the “Edit Profile” button, which BuzzFeed News confirmed can only be accessed by someone who is logged in and looking at their own profile. The screenshot shows Kelly must be logged into the profile because his Gmail avatar is visible on the browser. And Kelly admitted to BuzzFeed News that he took the screenshot himself.
On March 2, Kelly’s lawyer reached out to Schwarz, offering to clear up the “misrepresentation” regarding the dating profile with the university “as part of a settlement” if he stopped questioning NetZero’s claims online. The lawyer said the dating profile was set up by one of the company’s supporters. Schwarz declined the offer.
Then, on March 25, a UC Santa Cruz representative emailed Schwarz saying the school had received an anonymous tip about a website accusing him of attempting to rape a 19-year-old. The website displayed screenshots of the same Seeking.com profile, again with the “Edit Profile” and Kelly’s email avatar visible in the browser.
Kelly denied creating the dating profile and the website. One day after BuzzFeed News questioned him about why the screenshot showed he was logged into the Seeking.com account, the website was taken down.
“We understand this to be a private dispute,” Scott Hernandez-Jason, a spokesperson for the university, told BuzzFeed News by email. “UC Santa Cruz is committed to supporting the well-being of everyone in our campus community and there are processes in place to follow up on any reports that are received.”
As Kelly lashed out at Schwarz, the Kickstarter campaign closed and NetZero went dark. HiveMind’s website went down for “maintenance.” The Sacred Rivers Climate Project website was locked. A separate Indiegogo fundraiser for NetZero was shut down.
NetZero’s website now redirects to a site for a new company, Biological Carbon Capture Labs, which sold mycelium orbs to save the planet before being locked in early April.
Tom Dolezal, who reached out to BuzzFeed News by email saying he was a NetZero investor, said he thought the allegations against Kelly’s orbs “seemed nonsensical.” He described Kelly as “a bit rough around the edges sometimes,” but added that he “truly cares about making a difference in developing countries.” In a follow-up email, Dolezal said Kelly was planning on retiring due to burnout.
For Frank Donovan, who does business development for a Boston-based financial firm, investing in HiveMind and purchasing a few mycelium orbs from NetZero’s Kickstarter campaign was a “pretty low-risk” way to try to fight climate change. But he acknowledged there would be no way to know if the mycelium actually reduced his carbon footprint. “I think the biggest challenge is it’s a leap of faith,” he told BuzzFeed News. “You just don’t know if it’s done anything.”
In late April, Kelly posted an update on Kickstarter announcing the shipment of products was going to be delayed until June and that the company “no longer will be making orbs.”
Campaign backers were confused and angry. One person asked: “Are you fulfilling your commitments to backers or not?” Another wrote: “Guys, are you for real or a fraud?”
The company has not responded to their questions. Kelly did not respond to questions from BuzzFeed News about when they would receive their orbs or whether he was retiring. ●
Jane Lytvynenko and Ruby Cramer contributed reporting to this story.