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Friday, May 24, 2024

John Doerr Wants to Stop Climate Change—With OKRs

Hi, everyone. In honor of the holiday season—which we’re already in the middle of!—this is a pumpkin spice edition of Plaintext. Order soon, because we’ve had supply chain issues with the fake pumpkin flavoring.

The Plain View

Here’s what John Doerr hates: climate change. We know this because in a 2007 TED talk, he literally wept when he spoke about the crisis. “I don’t think we’re going to make it,” he began, sharing a promise he made to his teenage daughter that he would do something about it. But he finished his speech with the hope that 20 years hence, he and his generation would be able to say they put us on a path to avert catastrophe. In the following years his VC firm Kleiner Perkins would refocus itself on climate-friendly cleantech investments, many of which suffered miserable returns. Fortune called Kleiner Perkins’ initiative “a disastrous detour into renewable energy.” And the carbon level kept climbing.

Here’s what John Doerr loves: OKRs. An initialism for "objectives and key results," it’s a corporate grading system used to motivate and provide accountability for teams and individuals. Doerr got the idea from one of his mentors, Intel’s Andy Grove, and presented it to the young founders he funded at Google, who built it into that company’s culture. Doerr even wrote a book about it.

This week, Doerr published his second book, titled Speed & Scale. It is about how the thing he loves might help ameliorate the thing he hates. In exacting detail, Doerr has assigned key results to dozens of the objectives we have to reach in order to shift to renewable energy, reduce carbon in the atmosphere, and provide for those all over the globe who have been denied opportunity. He frames the effort as the equivalent of what happened in the United States after Pearl Harbor, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt laid out the overall plan on a napkin, and his cabinet officers and advisers laid and executed the details.

This seems puzzling to me. OKRs work best in a corporate environment. Setting your OKRs is a big deal, because if you consistently fall far short of reaching them, you might lose your bonus or even get canned. But when outsiders write up OKRs for countries, giant institutions, and humanity in general, there’s no way to enforce them.

So I ask Doerr about this. “No, there’s no one single authority, no one campaign, but there are a few decisionmakers and decisive players in this fight," he says. "It's not identical to the United Nations. It's not just like World War II, but I see a path to get it done. If we're relying just on goals, if we don't have a plan, the odds of us succeeding are much lower.”

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Still, Doerr’s climate napkin doesn’t have the authority of FDR’s war plan; a president controls agencies and armies. How will politicians be held responsible for falling short of objectives? Who’s going to fire Putin?

Doerr has a surprising answer. “Greta [Thunberg] and a million youths are going to monitor these OKRs,” he says, calling out the Swede who’s become the face of climate resistance. Indeed, the most interesting part of Doerr’s book is his endorsement of what he calls “movements” as a force to push reluctant leaders into doing the right thing for the climate. Doerr cites the civil rights movement as a predecessor and foresees a well-behaved, strategic form of uprising. His chapter about “Turning Movements Into Action” has sections highlighting the CEO of Walmart and the founder of the Blackrock hedge fund. He even provides OKRs for activists. Still, when I ask to what degree he will back protesters, he doesn’t hesitate to say that the law is no boundary. “Civil disobedience,” he says.

Doerr’s endorsement of movements stands out in Speed & Scale, which otherwise is shaped by the billionaire VC’s bent toward capitalism, startup ambition, and engineering. Reading like a very crisply written textbook, with lots of data and TED-level graphics, the book will not not change the minds or behavior of Joe Manchin or Charles Koch. Not that the author expects it. Instead, he hopes that by providing the objectives and metrics that could forestall disaster, he might lure innovators to shift their efforts to climate solutions. And convince investors to fund such efforts.

In fact, Doerr sees the crisis as a $26 trillion opportunity for investors—himself not excepted. He reports that despite the mockery, Kleiner Perkins’ billion dollars in cleantech bets has now returned $3 billion, fueled by a few big hits like Beyond Meat. The fund would have done much better if Kleiner Perkins hadn’t put its money on the wrong electric vehicle—in 2007, Doerr turned down Elon Musk and Tesla to bet on the ill-fated Fisker car. “Worst investment decision in my life,” he says now.

Doerr skates past the potential criticism that someone living a super-wealthy lifestyle shouldn’t lecture us on climate change. Speed & Scale, he says, focuses on giant steps to reduce carbon—instead of asking us to drive electric vehicles, he wants better and cheaper EVs produced so we’ll buy them. “It’s not about changing the light bulbs or, frankly, any individual actions,” he says.

Since Doerr’s TED talk, climate awareness has risen—but the crisis has gotten worse. Even with a set of cool OKRs, he still thinks we may not make it. “It’s a very tall order,” he says. “We need greater ambition and urgency, and we are fast running out of time. I’m hopeful but probably not optimistic.”

Failure will be unimaginably awful—millions of people displaced, economies collapsing, “movements” disobeying in uncivil fashion. They might even go after the billionaires. Ultimately, the Earth will grade us on our OKRs.

Time Travel

In contrast to Doerr’s book, which discusses a variety of “break the glass” technology remedies to climate change, Bill Gates’ climate book only briefly talks about drastic measures like geoengineering as a way to deal with the environmental crisis. In an interview last March, I asked him about it.

Steven Levy: I want to ask you about geoengineering, which you mention briefly in the book. You say you've been funding some studies about this. You say this approach, which messes with the climate itself, is a break-the-glass measure taken when it’s too late to otherwise stop catastrophic consequences. When would that moment come, and what would we do?

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Bill Gates: Right now the big debate is, should they be allowed to even do tiny little experiments or shouldn't we even go near it. It’s very controversial. I remember when The Inconvenient Truth came out, and I said after the screening, “Gore, hey, what about geoengineering?” He just went like this [Gates makes the sign of a cross that wards off vampires], meaning we shouldn't even talk about it. I didn't want in the book to push it, but I thought if I didn't even mention it, that would also be strange, like I'm trying to hide it like it's some secret plan. It's a little bit tricky because we're not very good at modeling weather, and it'll be a huge political decision. It won't be a decision made by me. If we're responsible and making progress on climate change the way we should, we won't ever be tempted to use it.

Are you sure it won't be a decision made by you?

I'm quite sure it won't be made by me. I'm not going to push this thing. I'm pushing the more rational, Hey, just change the way you make steel. Let's get cheap, green hydrogen. I've done a few million in geoengineering, and overall I've done, like, $2 billion. I lose more money on battery companies times one hundred than I put into geoengineering. I funded the open source green energy model. I funded nuclear fusion. At the Paris climate event, there was only one person there pushing the R&D agenda for the political leaders.

Ask Me One Thing

Albhy writes, “One of the things I remember about the Snow Crash Metaverse was the importance of ‘place.’ Real estate near entrances and exits could be like Times Square with very high value, and other neighborhoods would be less valuable. Do you think Mark Zuckerberg is planning on becoming a virtual real estate mogul?”

In a word, yes. Zuckerberg is not inventing the idea of selling lots in cyberspace—that was a key aspect of Second Life, a virtual world that was apparently ahead of its time. But during the keynote that ended with rebranding Facebook as Meta, he and his minions continually invoked the premise that people would fork out real or cyber currency dollars for virtual goods, and in virtual worlds, location, location, location will bring a premium. Presumably, Meta will take a cut of all that commerce. At least in the metaverse, our homes won’t flood because of climate change.

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You can submit questions to mail@WIRED.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

End Times Chronicle

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