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Summary:

Following the collapse of the first wave of cleantech investing, and an attention on digital technology, Silicon Valley has moved even further away from using tech to fight climate change. And that’s too bad.

During the hour long interview that Tesla CEO Elon Musk gave this week at the D11 conference, my Twitter feed was filled with intense adoration and accolades about how inspiring Musk is and how his companies are disrupting sectors far outside of the internet. He deserves all that attention, and more. But a big part of the reason why he’s now experiencing such rock-star status is that he’s a total anomaly when it comes to focusing on using technology to fight climate change and help the planet on a large scale — few entrepreneurs and investors in Silicon Valley these days are aggressively, and vocally, focused on this topic and these innovations.

Yes, the argument and the lamenting about how the Valley can’t solve “big problems” is one that has been covered ad nauseam in recent months. Our Om Malik had a great blog post about a viral cartoon video of what it would have been like if Nikola Tesla pitched VCs (VCs are short-minded, and hilarity ensues). Jason Pontin had a fascinating cover story in MIT Tech Review about Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems.

Elon Musk standing up in Model X

Elon Musk standing up in Model X

But I’m specifically talking about the topic of using tech to fight the problem of the changing climate. Musk stands out above almost all other entrepreneurs in his willingness to continuously put this issue at the forefront of the discussion, both through his businesses but also through his words. Even at settings like D11, which are filled with digital-focused executives that got rich and famous off of the internet — just like Musk did.

The climate is warming while cleantech is cooling off

There are a couple reasons why climate change as a topic and a focus for innovation has gone out of fashion in the Valley in recent years. The major one is that many of the entrepreneurs and investors that actually tried to start new businesses focused on fighting climate change got completely — and utterly — burned in the cleantech boom between 2006 to 2009 and the recession-led bust over the following years (my slides from a keynote last year).

Both passionate well-known founders and venture capitalists with impressive reputations shifted their careers toward using technology to create climate change solutions, and then found out that it was far more difficult, and took far more money, than they had thought it would. Their shared experiences before they jumped into cleantech were building technologies and business around the internet, software and computing, where the drive to continue Moore’s Law has been delivering rapid progress along a transparent path for decades (making investing less risky and progress more continuous).

JohnDoerrKleinerPerkinsSome of the heavyweights of Silicon Valley are now paying the price for this big picture planetary thinking: venture firm Kleiner Perkins, Shai Agassi (the founder of now bankrupt Better Place) and Alan Salzman of venture firm VantagePoint Venture Partners, to name just a few. Do-gooder, big picture thinking and risk taking is applauded until it’s not successful.

Then there’s a cooling-off effect on others who are both passionate about these issues and hoping to raise money from the pockets of wealth in Silicon Valley. A young entrepreneur asked me a couple weeks ago if I could name any cleantech companies that had gotten series A funding from Silicon Valley in 2013 — I could name very few.

Musk is also an anomaly because he is one of the few entrepreneurs that has been wildly successful at cleantech. He’s one of the only ones I can think of who’ve had multiple cleantech bets that have exited and are still going strong (i.e., not seen their stocks tank), via SolarCity and Tesla. And I’m not even going to go into SpaceX, which seems to be going well, too.

Musk’s companies are part of his overall desire to use technology to disrupt the fossil-fuel burning energy sector and the fossil-fuel burning auto industry. They’re connected by his worry that the practice of burning fossil fuels is unsustainable for the planet. He thought about the problem first, and then designed the solutions he saw that would help solve these problems.

How many entrepreneurs can say they’ve designed companies in such a way around this global problem? Yes, there are some investors and entrepreneurs still focused on this, like Vinod Khosla, Steve Westly (he was also in Tesla), and others; hopefully, they will see similar (and more) successes.

Mark Zuckerberg, FacebookMusk also recently called attention to the problem of the Valley ignoring the issue of fossil fuels and climate change on a political scale. He recently left the political immigration group supported by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Fwd.us, because the group funded ads for senators vocalizing support for the the Keystone oil pipeline, and oil drilling in Alaska. Khosla also brought attention to the group’s support for the fossil fuel industry and tweeted: “Will Fwd.us prostitute climate destruction & other values to get a few engineers hired & get immigration reform?”

But the fact that a Valley-led political group was so tone deaf on climate change and fossil fuels to begin with just points to how these big planet issues have been pushed out of the forefront of the Valley.

Can folks like Musk and Khosla bring them back with a combination of business success, and inspiring public speaking? I truly hope so.

  1. PaloAltoWorldView Friday, May 31, 2013

    Perhaps it’s because the climate isn’t changing, so there is no problem to solve? I’ve been on this Earth over 40 years and I can’t tell anything is noticeably different.

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    1. Yes! I too have seen the change. The change is all around us. The change cannot be denied. We cannot deny the change. Change is happening. Change is real. Praise be to the good scientists who are pure of thought and their wisdom is devine. We must do as they tell us.

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      1. Your sarcasm here would be have been more effective if you spelled divine correctly.

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  2. In 28 years science has NEVER said their catastrophic climate crisis of unstoppable warming WILL happen or is certain or unavoidable or eventual or inevitable or imminent. Not once.

    They DO however all agree climate change is “real and is happening and COULD, might, possibly……cause unstoppable warming.

    So how close to the edge will they take us before they say their crisis WILL happen not just might happen?
    If the planet is at risk then why don’t the scientists just end the debate and state clearly that a crisis of climate is on it’s way for certain and it is unavoidable and we must now do what we can to stop it?

    Science never lied, you goose stepping believers and pandering politicians and lazy news editors lied and said a crisis WILL happen. Science never did.

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    1. James Hancock Friday, May 31, 2013

      The scientists did: They said by 2005 that it would be irreversible. Just this year that was repeated by the head of the IPCC even though the data showed exactly the opposite. The MET released a report just this week that demonstrated that there was no warming in the past 16 years and none of their projections (or anyone else’s) were right, and then the lead scientist on it came out and said that it didn’t say what it said in black and white.

      They routinely hide the reality in graphs that they release. The latest was showing a graph of the last 100 years and leaving off the past 15 and compressing what was left so you couldn’t see it. Because if they’d add it, then everyone would have realized it’s not a big deal.

      etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.

      Money will go where there is a problem to solve. Scientists want money to fund their research so they make problems where there aren’t any.

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  3. rad. love these commenters. keep the intelligent discussion alive folks.

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    1. Stephen Davis Friday, May 31, 2013

      Agreed, Katie. Don’t feed the trolls! :-)

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  4. Stephen Davis Friday, May 31, 2013

    Global warming is a risk management exercise. Let’s start with the right question: “How many planet’s do we have on which to run this experiment?” After we grasp that, deciding how to respond becomes fairly simple when one of the potential outcomes involves a mass extinction on a human timescale.

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  5. Maybe the could focus on changing the direction of the rotation of the earth. I’ll buy that the earth’s climate is changing; I’m not convinced that man is contributing to it.

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  6. Humanity has gotten too much power and no responsibility

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  7. PaloAltoWorldView Friday, May 31, 2013

    I remember in school in 1980 when we were told the new ice age were upon os. Mankind would freeze away, unless we huddled near the equator by 1990. No more oranges growing in Florida or Spain. When that crisis theory didn’t work out, they switched to global warming. Then, when that didn’t work, they switched to climate “change” so that whatever happens — a tornado somewhere in Kansas, an earthquake in the Pacific Ocean, a bird sitting in a tree getting sick from over-eating, whatever — it’s the fault of climate “change.” I’d like to perform a blind-test to see if people can tell anything is changing. Just remember one thing: These “scientists” are all government-funded, and if they aren’t predicting a catastrophe, their funding would lack justification. Therefore, no matter what’s going on in reality, they will always predict disaster: too warm, too cold, too much wind, too little wind, too much rain, too little rain, etc. It will never stop. Fortunately, you can trust your own judgment by opening your window, or walk out the door. And you will see the weather this year and next are likely going to me much like they were 10, 20, 30, 40, whatever, years ago. Yawn.

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  8. James Hancock Friday, May 31, 2013

    There hasn’t been any warming in 16+ years. Hence there is no reason to pay attention to it at all. Even the MET purveyors of hockey sticks admits it.

    And this year is going to be one of the coldest on record unless things change a lot quickly according the numbers, and it just so happens to be one of the least sun activities recorded in 150 years.

    Welcome to the world of overreacting and impoverishing everyone for no reason while simultaniously interfering with innovation that would lower output (i.e. natural gas, new refinneries, cleaner coal, multitudes of different nuclear plants the government won’t let through, etc. etc. etc.)

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  9. James, where do you get your data?

    http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/news/2012-global-temperatures-10th-highest-record

    (Damn, I couldn’t help myself – I took the bait.)

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