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Silicon Valley is now paying even less attention to climate change and that sucks

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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,, 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 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.

31 Responses to “Silicon Valley is now paying even less attention to climate change and that sucks”

  1. Some of the server farms these companies operate – as well as their armada of private jets, big houses, and flash cars – how much were they really paying attention to this issue in the first place?

    I’m not knocking their wealth or how they acquired it – but let’s please end this notion that Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs have some altruistic motivation – whether that is addressing the environment, political corruption, or social injustice. To them, much like the bricks and mortar operations they worked so hard to supplant with such ideas as and, they are all about bucks. The rest is just…..bull.

  2. Li Jiang

    So why aren’t more wealthy former Internet entrepreneurs spending some money and effort in cleantech. They have capital and may even be physics or chemistry nerds.

    I think one of the issue is that young people in Silicon Valley have relatively very few true problems. We live in this sunny paradise. We don’t feel the effects of climate change or water shortage.

    The fact that some people have commented here saying they haven’t noticed the effects of global warming is very near-sighted. Just because you are okay in your backyard doesn’t mean it hasn’t already impacted millions across the world who have lost their homes or lives to rising sea levels or catastrophic weather events.

    Maybe what is needed is some artistic demonstration projects around the Bay Area so that young entrepreneurs can see the impact of climate change and start to empathize with the problem as a first step to inspire the desire to want to tackle it.

    (yes, some real cleantech wins would help too).

  3. charles-e.c

    Anyone with a 3rd grade education shoul understand cause and effect. Yet adults who probably have or will have families one day, don’t believe that rising sea levels, droughts, wild fires, super hurricanes and F5 tornados are a result of unusual weather patterns that increase in frequency and strength when the planets warms. They also don’t believe that increased levels of CO2 from burning fossil fuels is a major contributor to Global Warming. This is an indictment of the American Education System and proves that common sense is not so common.

    Clean tech investors have ignored real innovators like Allen Hydro Energy Corporation (AHEC) to jump on the ban wagon of conventional renewables. Our patented innovation address the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, a really big problem, but in a way that does not limit any nation’s ability to grow and develop.

    Innovators like Elon Musk are my heroes, because they refuse to accept the limitation of others. Kleiner Perkins and Vinod Khosla maybe be too damaged from bad investments to ban wagon ideas to recognize real clean tech innovations.

    Whether you accept the facts of global warming that’s leading to climate change or not, those of us who do, have a responsibility to create solutions, just in case.

    Charles E. Campbell, Founder & CEO
    Allen Hydro Energy Corporation (AHEC)
    [email protected]
    US Patent # 8,400,007 B2
    Issued Mar. 19, 2013

  4. Probably this comment will be lost in the pile of intelligent discussions here…but am feeling trigger happy, so here goes.

    The valley has been contributing to increased power consumption especially, over the last decade. The internet has been consuming monstrous amount of power – what with the coming of Youtube and FB and Netflix and now smart phones. All these services and devices didn’t exist a decade or so ago – but (some of us, oldies) did, and guess what, we still had fun.

    No, am not asking us to get back to caves. The good news is that some people in the valley and elsewhere are looking at power and green. Codecs that can do a better job, networks that can devour less, devices that can survive on peanuts, austere server farms – there are a host of technologies focusing on “less power” simply because it makes economic / business sense. They could (and probably do) advertise their green-ness once in a while. But may be more of it wouldn’t hurt.

  5. Felix Kramer

    Thank you, Katie, for a thoughtful piece, and to the posters who discuss the subject and ignore the trolls. Anyone who understands the science and appreciates the urgency of getting off fossil fuels as soon as possible can encourage those who are working in cleantech.

    At the moment, broadly speaking, we’re experiencing by far the greatest market failure in history: because fossil fuels are plentiful and their price doesn’t include their external costs, it can be difficult to make a business case for protecting what we need to live — especially air and water.

    Thanks to all who keep talking about it — my favorites include Environmental Entrepreneurs (, and, the Beyond Coal & Beyond Oil campaigns at

    If you’re not convinced of the seriousness and urgency of this, check out:
    Bill McKibben: ”Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” (2012) and
    ”Fossil Fuel Resistance” (2013), both at
    • David Roberts: ”Climate Hawk“ blogger at
    • Joe Romm at with links to news and reports from the International Energy Agency, the World Bank, and Price Waterhouse Cooper

  6. Anyone who thinks they know how the Earth is going to react in 10, 20, 50, 100 or 1 000 years is blowing hot air out of their (insert polite word for rectum here).
    Nobody, even an educated scientist who thinks he’s an expert on this subject cannot begin to extrapolate on how this rock we live on will react to a one or two degree shift in temperature.
    It’s been happening for thousands of years and will go on for many more thousands of years.
    LIVE WITH IT FOLKS, you’re only around for 70-80 years so nothing you can do will change anything.

  7. Marc Ferguson


    The answer to your question can be found in the success of the peddlers of doubt of climate change reflected in the ignorance of the responses above.


  8. MUkeles

    Here’s a simple suggestion for the folks who don’t believe in climate change, global warming etc: 1. Stand on a street corner in Beijing (or Mumbai, Taipei, etc.) 2. Take a deep breath. 3. Hold it in. 4. As you’re choking and wiping the tears from your eyes, ask yourself this- does it really matter if the climate change thing is nonsense, when the price of modern existence is causing you to double over coughing? If you believe climate change is real, great- we need to do something about to. If you don’t, but can get behind the notion that it’s good to breathe, drink clean water, eat clean food- then we all need to do something about that too…

  9. Whatever

    Been to Europe this year? Coldest in two generations. Freezing in May. They are saying it may be a year without spring or summer. But, hey, let’s ignore anything that gets in the way of your pet theory.

  10. JV DeLong

    Everyone would profit from reading a recent interview with leading “client skeptic” Roy Spencer in Catholic Online :

    COL: Why is there such a dramatic consensus in the scientific community that AGW is real? Is this “consensus” a myth?

    SPENCER: The consensus is only that humans are contributing to warming…even I would probably agree with such an innocuous statement. But even if a majority of scientists think manmade global warming is a serious problem, only a very small number of those scientists know enough about such a detailed subject to have an informed opinion on the subject. Only a few of us actively working on questions “how sensitive is the climate system?” know the dirty details of this business and how much uncertainty there is. Most climate researchers simply assume recent warming is manmade, but human causation is only one possible explanation out of several.

    COL: What should we do given the current state of affairs? Should we continue to study this issue or are we wasting resources?

    SPENCER: I tell people that it is theoretically possible that Al Gore is correct. Unfortunately, the subject has become so politicized — specifically, driven by desired policy outcomes that have huge financial winners and losers — that the science has been almost hopelessly corrupted. I and a few others have told congress we need a “red team” approach, where some small fraction of government funding of climate research be put into natural causes of climate change. Believe it or not, there is very little research into that subject.

  11. dyota

    Silicon Valley has already delivered the goods! Solar is now cheap, Tesla’s success will now be emulated a thousand times. Just like Internet 1.0 crashed and burned in 2000, recovered even stronger than anyone imagined 10 years later, so too will greentech. If there is money to be made, and even if there isn’t but it just seems cool, trust me Silicon valleys got it done. A year ago Tesla was a “looser”, now it’s the up there with the Galaxy S4. Benz and BMW now look like myspace.

  12. All of this climate change stuff has never been about science. Its always been about money. (Remember Al Gore?). 25 years ago it was global cooling and when the money didn’t respond, they went 180 degrees and started on global warming. Its always been about money and never about the science. The science doesn’t support any of this stuff.

  13. What depresses me, as an entrepreneur in the Cleantech space (Photovoltaics – gasp!), is that what I have learnt this past year is that there is almost NO PLACE for someone like me anymore in the Silicon Valley! The valley is still stuck in “App/Mobile/Social” mode.
    VCs and Angels don’t want to hear about “Solar” anymore because as Katie mentioned, they’ve been nastily burnt. However, if you look into many of those technologies, they deserved it, betting on some fairly silly ideas (from a multitude of reasons).
    Let’s say you DO want to start a (eg) Solar company today – you are pretty much limited into going to China, where there is still an insatiable demand for Cleantech ideas. And if you know anything about China, you know how that ends up for non-Chinese inventors.

    So where does that leave us? Even if you have a brilliant idea in Cleantech, you have to leave the US to get funding. So sad.

    • dyota

      People get burned in Silicon Valley everyday, they just suck it up and move on, with as much money as we are throwing away on Oil wars and coal, .. $Trillions Silicon valley is one innovation away from taking that money. In any case the hard lifting is already done, with current technology, the goose is already coked and waiting to be served

  14. It is a well known fact that many of the best and brightest university graduates have not been attracted to Silicon Valley for some time. It is perceived to be vapid, not interested in big social issues like climate change, too expensive and the home of high tech sweat shops …Zuckerberg and have missed this point completely, and it is bearing down on them like a freight train. If they keeps it up, no one will want to work for these companies, then they will wither and die.

    The Valley needs to get a global social consciousness if it wants to hire the best and brightest and save itself.

  15. Mcbeese

    Wow, I’m astounded by some of the comments. This must be the same mindset that argues:

    – America’s obsession with guns isn’t a problem;

    – America’s health care delivery system is just fine;

    – America’s education delivery isn’t declining;

    – America’s military spending isn’t excessive;

    – America’s middle class standard of living isn’t declining;

    – John McCain knows what he’s doing in Syria;

    – … and so on.

  16. James Hancock

    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.)

  17. PaloAltoWorldView

    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.

  18. seat21d

    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.

  19. Stephen Davis

    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.

  20. 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.

    • James Hancock

      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.

  21. PaloAltoWorldView

    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.