Big companies and big philanthropists on the big climate issue

Leaders from big tech and venture capital firms gathered at a climate event by the New York Times to discuss their ideas for solving the climate crisis.

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A New Climate” by The New York Times included speakers from industries like carbon sequestration, electric vehicles, agriculture tech, and more.

“Clap if you think tech companies are part of the solution,” David Gelles said, as he welcomed onstage Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft.

“Now, clap if you think tech companies are part of the problem,” he said. The applause that followed was significantly louder.

The day-long programming at “A New Climate” featured a marathon of industry leaders who spoke about their role in addressing the climate crisis.

The speakers dove into a variety of topics, from how startups would revolutionize transportation through EVs, how to feed ourselves––perhaps through lab-grown meats and regenerative agriculture––to becoming carbon negative through carbon sequestration.

It delved into how big business players approached these issues with Microsoft, the Bezos Earth Fund, and major venture capital firms. In between sessions, the program smartly peppered in live quintet performances and discussions on mental health, art, and youth activism—acknowledging the deeply human aspect of addressing such an overwhelming problem.

There was lots of energy and optimism channeled towards the technological innovations in the pipeline, but it was laced with an undertone of desperation: we were moving fast, but not fast enough.

Moderator David Gelles and Brad Smith during the Wielding Power panel at A New Climate. Credit: The New York Times.

The role of big tech in the climate crisis

The “Wielding Powers: Leaders on Their Role in Addressing the Crisis” specifically focused on Microsoft’s stance in climate advocacy.

Recently, Microsoft has positioned itself as a leader regarding climate response and advocating for greener policy, pledging to be carbon negative by 2030. By 2050, they promised to remove all the carbon they’ve emitted since their founding in 1975.

Despite Microsoft’s recent ambitious gains in climate technology, which includes a plan to retrofit coal plants into clean nuclear generators, Smith believes that we still need government policy to further corporate incentives.

“We are proponents of what I would call an activist policy agenda in those spaces,” he said.

The unique role of philanthropy in climate

The next panel, called “Money and the Problem” focused on big philanthropy.

It featured two panelists: John Doerr, the chairman of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, who also donated $1.1 billion to Stanford University to build the new Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability; and Andrew Steer, the president of the Bezos Earth Fund and former president of the World Resources Institute.

Both spoke with a bright sense of optimism about climate change, given the sharp rise in interest from large corporate interests and billionaires in addressing this problem.

“It’s so exciting, isn’t it? That people with wealth are turning to this important issue. This is the defining challenge of our generation. And it’s a time when real leaders say this is when we want to lead,” said Steer.

The Bezos Earth Fund has allotted $10 billion to address a variety of issues within the climate crisis, from conservation to carbon sequestration. They view their role as a sort of partnership-creator, funding initiatives and rallying the relevant stakeholders together.

Steer used their initiative at Congo Basin as an example, explaining that the goal was to assemble a team of institutions and have them work together.

“Instead of [just identifying] the best institution and financing that, we got the 10 best institutions together. Then we talk to head of state levels, we talk to the big European donors, the American government, and we can actually then start putting together a coalition whereby we might reduce the loss we have,” Steer said.

Moderator David Gelles chats with John Doerr and Andrew Steer during the “Money and the Problem” panel. Credit: The New York Times.

When asked about his choice to donate $1.1 billion to founding a sustainability school at Stanford, Doerr said, “I don’t believe the world will solve the climate crisis unless it marshals the great universities and colleges and community colleges around the world to bring a full force of their power their innovation, their ability to mobilize workers against this awesome challenge.”

Regarding the school’s acceptance of fossil fuel donations, Doerr clarified that it was primarily the faculty who accepted funding from fossil fuel companies. He said that they had the “freedom to get funding from whatever resource they want.”

“They have several institutes whose purpose is to reach out to industry to engage industry in innovation and agendas. Some of that work is funded by fossil fuel companies,” he said. “There are fossil fuel companies committed to driving to net zero by 2050. Not many yet but more and more. And I dare say we need to get them there to solve this problem.”

Not all oil corporations associated with Stanford have made net-zero pledges, according to their list of industry affiliate programs. This includes Matador Resources Company, a Dallas-based oil company that funds a Stanford project that explores deepwater ocean seafloor oil reservoirs.

In response to Doerr, Gelles said, “That obviously raises an enormous set of questions about even if the school or institute or the university doesn’t want to work with these companies, why certain professors may still accept funding for it.”

He added, “A topic for another panel, I am afraid.”

The role of fossil fuel companies

“We’ve got to find a way to end our use of fossil fuels as rapidly as we possibly can,” said John Doerr in an exclusive interview.

“I don’t think that’s going to be an easy transition,” he said. “I think there’s going to be winners and losers as we re-engineer a whole new clean economy.”

Regarding the purpose of the petroleum engineering program and its relationship with the transition to renewable energy, he said, “I’m standing with the students and saying we want to find a way to get that done without funding from fossil fuel resources.”

He acknowledged that the petroleum industry has the scale, scope, and potential to help with the technological advancement necessary in solving the climate crisis. “So I don’t want to write them out of trying to solve the problem,” he said.

“I think we need all the world’s greatest entrepreneurs, companies, financiers, universities, and petrochemical companies working to get us to this critical goal net zero by 2050.”

Technology solutions vs. infrastructural changes

Direct air carbon capture is an incredibly nascent yet quickly growing field and was heavily discussed at the event. Shaun Meehan, co-founder of carbon sequestration startup Charm Industrial, said that by 2050, we need to be pulling five to 10 billion tons of carbon out of the air every year, but as of 2022, we were only removing carbon in the magnitude of ten thousand tons.

Meehan pointed to the main piece of art in the foyer: a sculpture of black carbon blocks stacked on top of one another, representing the amount of carbon an average adult in America produced in a year. He mentioned that he and his co-founder at Charm Industrial enjoyed creating sculptures, and this was one of their pieces.

His intention was to help people visualize the amount of carbon they were producing individually every year, because the phrase “tons of greenhouse gas” is not really easy to grasp in a tangible sense.

But the most shocking thing he said was that even if people made the most eco-friendly decisions––such as becoming vegan, biking everywhere, etc.––the height of the carbon tower would only reduce by about 30%. This is because 60-70% emissions are produced by the infrastructure our society is built on.

Corporations have an Adam Smith-like optimism that market forces will naturally give way to a sustainable future. Fossil fuel companies continue to fund research to find new reservoirs and continue extraction, and yet partner with leading sustainability institutions. But Microsoft acknowledges that policy is key, and Doerr was worried that as a society, we weren’t moving fast enough.

The reality is that our ability to solve the climate crisis depends upon whether we can act as a collective to change policy and big businesses, instead of being a mass of disconnected yet deeply concerned individuals.