Energy & Environment

What Will It Take to Solve Climate Change? Investor John Doerr Shares His Plan.

Venture capitalist and philanthropist describes urgent measures outlined in new book, Speed and Scale.

June 03, 2022

| by Kevin Cool
John Doerr on stage at Stanford GSB, talking to an audience about his plan for climate action. Photo by Saul Bromberger

John Doerr, whose recent gift helped establish the new school of sustainability at Stanford, discussed his book Speed and Scale at Stanford GSB. | Saul Bromberger

John Doerr’s ardent advocacy for fighting global climate change began with a dinner conversation 16 years ago. He had just seen Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth and was discussing the movie with his family and friends when his daughter, Mary, spoke up. “She said, ‘I am scared and I am angry. Your generation created this problem, you better fix it.’” Doerr recalled at a recent talk at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Choking up at the memory, Doerr said, “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say.”

It was the inspiring moment for nearly two decades of research and investment in clean technology that resulted in a new book by Doerr and co-author Ryan Panchadsaram, Speed and Scale: An Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now.

Doerr and Panchadsaram discussed the book and their views on what’s necessary to arrest climate change on May 26 at an event sponsored by the Stanford GSB Impact Fund and the Knight-Hennessey Scholars. They were interviewed by mechanical engineering professor Arun Majumdar, the inaugural dean for the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, established earlier this year with a $1.1 billion gift from Doerr and his wife, Ann.

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John Doerr and Ryan Panchadsaram outside on Stanford GSB campus, posing for a group photo with Stanford GSB students. Photo by Saul Bromberger

“I’ll be transparent with you, my goal is to sign you up for this manifesto, this plan, or your version of it, that will solve the climate crisis at speed and at scale,” said Doerr, chair of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins.

Doerr noted that the U.S. Congress quickly, and with minimum debate, authorized more than $100 billion in aid to Ukraine for its fight against Russia. Similar urgency is necessary to address climate change, he said. “We have another existential fight on our hands.”

The window for avoiding the worst outcomes from climate change is rapidly closing, said Panchadsaram, an engineer who serves as Doerr’s technical advisor at Kleiner Perkins. Failing to act earlier means emissions must now be cut in half in the next seven-and-a-half years and completely by 2050. “A lot of us are realigning our thinking about the skills we have and challenging it toward this problem, realizing the problem touches every part of society,” he said.

Speed and Scale lays out a plan with six principal objectives: electrify transportation, fix food systems, decarbonize the power grid, protect nature, cleanup industry, and remove “the stubborn carbon that remains,” Doerr said.

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We have another existential fight on our hands.
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John Doerr

Getting there at the speed necessary means “translating movements into action,” Panchadsaram said. “This is everywhere from the ballot box, getting people elected who care about the climate, but also in the boardroom.”

Doerr emphasized that “a goal is not a plan,” and described 55 key results aimed at providing measurable outcomes. For example, added Panchadsaram, by 2024 “electric vehicles should be cheaper than the internal combustion engine equivalent, whether by cost reductions or through incentives.”

Although the issue is global, and will require sacrifices from all countries, it’s the “alpha emitters,” — the United States, Europe, China, and Japan — who bear most of the responsibility, and must lead by example, Panchadsaram said. “We have to show the world it’s possible.”

The size of the investment to effectively address climate change — estimated by Majumdar to be $400 trillion between now and 2050 — means that governments and the private sector will need to work together, Doerr said. “We will not solve this problem unless we harness markets. If we don’t make the right outcome the profitable outcome, it won’t be the probable outcome.”

Moreover, he said, structural and systemic changes are required. “We need a cookie-cutter-like regime so that every clean energy deployment is not a bespoke negotiation with the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank over whether they’re going to take on first-country risk,” he said.

Not only is there a moral imperative for solving climate change, the economic opportunities are profound, Doerr said. Entrepreneurs in the climate space will make billions, and many existing companies will transform themselves, if they haven’t already, to take advantage of those opportunities.

“We’ve got to invest like our lives depend on it, because they do,” he said.

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