Over the last 18 months, I have had endless conversations with Silicon Valley political operatives, mega-donors, and fundraisers who have thrown themselves full-time into climate advocacy. The time for this being merely a hobby, they tell me, is over. Some are motivated by classic tech industry optimism, others by a sense of impending cataclysm. Some watch the rise of companies like Tesla or Rivian and see money to be made. Others simply watch the weather.
John Doerr, the longtime chairman of Kleiner Perkins, sits somewhere between these camps—and in the center of the action. Doerr, after all, has an intimate understanding of the power of new technologies to terraform industries and generate massive returns. He came up at Intel under the mentorship of management guru Andy Grove before joining Kleiner, where, incredibly, he placed early bets on both Amazon (market valuation: $1.8 trillion) and Google (valued at $2 trillion, and where he remains a member of the board). Today, he is an elder statesman of Silicon Valley, alongside generational peers like Mike Moritz and Vinod Khosla.
Doerr is also one of the few Silicon Valley titans to engage seriously, and visibly, in politics. Like Eric Schmidt, Doerr served as an early, unofficial ringleader for the generation of tech executives who eventually reached the apex of their Washington influence during the Obama years. In the late 1990’s, he launched the political lobbying operation TechNet, an early industry advocacy effort that helped to boost Al Gore’s presidential campaign. The group’s “Goretech” dinners inspired Silicon Valley insiders to joke about “Gore and Doerr 2004.”
A ticket it was not, but the Gore-Doerr friendship did turn out to be quite meaningful. After his excruciating election loss, Gore turned his attention to climate advocacy, producing and starring in the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. The movie crystallized the stakes for Doerr, who has pledged to give away the bulk of his $15 billion fortune. In Doerr’s new book, Speed and Scale, his anger at the world for not doing more in the intervening 15 years leaps off the page.
Unlike the typically insufferable change-the-world, thought leadership tome, Doerr’s book offers a real policy roadmap. He suggests a sweeping plan to decarbonize the economy—from electrifying transportation to sucking pollutants out of the atmosphere—with the ambition to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Doerr also leverages his Rolodex to interview the likes of Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Laurene Powell Jobs about what the world’s highest-profile capitalists are doing to innovate away the climate apocalypse. Reading through the acknowledgments page of the book recalls scrolling through the Forbes 400 list. (Doerr is #51, by the way.)
Doerr is not as active on the political fundraising circuit as he once was, I hear, and he always preferred to give to campaigns and party committees rather than the outside groups that have turned today’s big donors into bona fide powerbrokers. But he remains a major player in D.C.—he still works with political maestro Alix Burns, of TechNet back in the day—and appears determined in his efforts to leverage his contacts, fortune and personal reputation to turn that agenda into a force.
Doerr and I spoke this week about whether he regrets his check to Joe Manchin, his defense of Bezos’s record on climate, and what critics get wrong about billionaire activism. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You talk in the book about your personal political transformation, from “a Silicon Valley libertarian to a big government reformer.” You used to be a registered Republican. Tell me about your political adventure over the last 25 years.
I grew up in the Midwest. I’m a Missouri-born electrical engineer. I always admired what the government did to create the infrastructure for the electronics industry, for the software industry, for the Internet. You know this story well. This did not get invented in garages in Silicon Valley, no matter what myths we want to believe.
When I came to Silicon Valley, I had no job. I had no place to live. My girlfriend had dumped me. And I was dazzled by DARPA, by ARPA-E, by all these federal investments in science which I think we want to be mindful of today. The notion that we take a sledgehammer to the Big Tech companies because they’re big doesn’t make any sense to me when we need to compete in a global world.
Eric Schmidt told me a few weeks ago that he felt his relationship with the Obama administration was different than it has been with the Biden administration. You said back in 2013 that you thought, overall, that Silicon Valley did a “good job at politics.” A lot has changed since then. Do you still think that’s true?
I think we’re not doing a good enough job. I would be self-critical in a constructive way. We need more engagement.
I think young people are more engaged, and climate is the amplifier of their interest. It is their future. It may not be my generation’s future. When I talk with Patrick Collison, for example, about climate, he’s knowledgeable, he’s passionate, he’s engaged. He’s using personal resources and corporate resources to build markets for carbon removal.
Look, I may not be optimistic, but these accelerators give me great hope. And failure is not an option.
There’s a sense among some climate activists and donors in Silicon Valley I talk to that they have given up on the government. That the only way to tackle this will be through a tech solution, be it through the private or nonprofit sectors. You sound more optimistic.
I am. I think we need both to get it done. I think the government is lagging behind the body politic. It’s lagging behind the investing trend. But that’s all the more reason why we’ve got to double down on it. And Silicon Valley leaders appreciate this, and have known that for quite some time.
I think our government is contributing right now with the infrastructure bill, and I think we will get the Build Back Better budget passed, just barely. But we really need government working alongside the private sector.
To that end, what do you make of the argument from critics that we’re underfunding many of your proposed policy solutions as a direct result of billionaires paying too little in taxes?
I actually haven’t heard that argument. I’d have to think about that. What I have thought about and what I’m prepared to say is: I’m willing to pay more. I’ll speak for myself.
And I look at some of the philanthropic investments that the wealthiest are making: When Bezos declared $10 billion in less than a decade for climate, that makes him the largest climate philanthropist. Gates stood up and said he was going to make this a priority, alongside health; he’s the biggest climate investor now. Even Elon Musk set aside $100 million to work on an XPRIZE for carbon removal, which is a very hard problem. What I think is incredibly important is that we have equity, which is where your question is centered, built into the Build Back Better act.
I think a place where I have standing is to declare emphatically that this is the best opportunity of our lifetimes. It’s also, if we fail at it, going to be an unmitigated disaster.
Speaking of Bezos, who you interviewed for your book: Some climate activists and philanthropists I talk to are skeptical of the Bezos Earth Fund, viewing his legacy on climate as a net-negative. Do you believe that Bezos’s philanthropy is enough to overcome Amazon’s own record on climate?
I’m going to defend them for a moment. I think they’re complementary and spectacular. He’s committed the organization to net-zero by 2040, 10 years ahead of the Paris [climate goal.] And then he rallied more than 100 other organizations to make similar pledges. You look at Amazon buying 100,000 Rivian delivery vehicles to stimulate the market and innovation. You then go from that to his declaration that he was going to deploy $10 billion, which is a lot of money.
Look, people don’t like billionaires. But I think he’ll do even more than he’s doing right now. And what he’s doing now is more than anyone I know.
You’re critical at one point in the book about the Koch Brothers and their impact on climate. They’ve made some serious inroads over the last few years in Silicon Valley. Is the tech industry making a mistake by celebrating them?
I haven’t met those Silicon Valley executives.
Charles Koch came to Sequoia’s Base Camp, for instance—Mike Moritz likes Charles a lot. Patrick Collison does too. Their philanthropy has formed alliances with places like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. There are people who respect the Kochs out here.
I haven’t seen that. And of course I can’t really speak for them.
You write about how the coal industry has captured Washington and led policymakers to be weak on climate. So I was curious about your recent max-out check to Joe Manchin when he last ran for reelection. Do you regret that contribution?
I think Manchin is representing the people of West Virginia as he best sees his work. I’m not really involved in West Virginia politics, so I’m not the person to comment on that.
I don’t agree with his views on protecting coal. I think coal is done. I think we want to protect the workers in the coal industry. It seems to me that he’s in an extraordinary position right now to get great benefits for the people of West Virginia. And I just want to see this Build Back Better reconciliation bill passed, and that will be historic.