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An Ivory Tower Solution To Climate Change

Josh Stephens on
Jul 31, 2022

"Coals to Newcastle" isn't exactly the right metaphor, but it's close.

The delivery in question is not a boatload of anthracite but rather its opposite: a recent $1.1 billion donation from John Doerr, a partner at the vaunted Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, and his wife Ann, to Stanford University for the establishment of the Doerr School of Sustainability. It is envisioned as an interdisciplinary educational and research institution dedicated to fighting climate change. 

The school will cover disciplines including energy, climate science, and sustainable development and environmental justice, and it will house up to 150 faculty members.

I don’t doubt that an institution like Stanford will produce important work with those funds. And yet, the idea of fighting climate change by cloistering it in an ultra-exclusive institution, in a region that is already well versed in the ravages of climate chance, seems to miss the mark.

To be sure, undoing, mitigating, or at least adapting to the effects of climate change requires study.

But academic research takes time. And the climate effort needs many things that already exist, or, at least, that are coming into existence—especially in California.

Town of Truckee
Combating climate change will require dense development.

Dating back to the days of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the state adopted a raft of laws and regulations designed to promote dense development. They include AB 32 (greenhouse gas reduction), SB 375, (dense development and coordination between land use and transportation), SB 743 (reducing vehicle miles traveled), and others—all of which take aim, in some way or another—at the carbon-intensive landscape that California built in the 20th century and on the types of fuels we use.

For planners, the most important elements of these laws are those that promote dense urban development that enables people to get around without individual cars and that align development with public transit and active transportation. In many cases, these regulations are designed to enable the California Environmental Quality Act—one of the country’s original pro-environment laws--to actually do what it's supposed to do.

These policies are complicated insofar as they are bureaucratic. And they are controversial insofar as many Californians cling to the status quo, especially if it involves a single-unit home. But they are based on pretty simple principles. Regardless of what new model of electric Hummer comes along or how much your wifi-enabled thermostat knows about your bodily habits, the "technologies" and "policies" surrounding dense, car-phobic development are literally millennia old.

In some cases, mitigating climate change doesn't require anything new -- it just requires less obstruction. Look at, for instance, CEQA's antagonism toward infill development or the affordable housing industry's disingenuous affection for parking minimums (which they like only because they allegedly make density bonuses relatively more attractive).

Every planner knows about them, whether they went to Stanford or have just looked out the window. 

That's one reason why, as delighted as I am for a proud California institution to get a windfall, the approach and the geography of this gift perplex me. Granted, Stanford is a global institution, and the school will have global impacts. But location still matters. California is already a leader on the climate front, in terms of policy, public sentiment, and technology. For all of California’s faults, obliviousness to climate change is not one of them.

The hearts and minds that need changing are elsewhere. There's Texas, for instance – where the Doerrs went to college. Rather than plunk $1 billion down just a few miles Tesla’s main factory, why not do it in Houston – the home of ExxonMobil? Or maybe in Iowa, where ethanol corn still gets more respect than windmills. Or Florida, which promises to sink into the Atlantic any day now.

Those would have been difficult choices (because, in part, many scholars and students might be uncomfortable living in some of those political climates). But they would have sent a far stronger message.

Instead, the Doerrs chose to keep their money in their own backyard, comfortably within view of their fellow tech billionaires. And what backyards they are! Say what you will about New York billionaires, they live more sustainability than Woodside billionaires do.

I don’t like to make ad hominem arguments. But, it’s possible that the Doerrs are focusing on academic and technological solutions to climate change because they—and so many others in Silicon Valley—are unschooled in the urbanist solutions.

Despite having a darn good model of dense urbanism at the northern end of the San Francisco Peninsula, the cities of the South Bay exemplify what not to do. They rely on freeways and wide boulevards. They celebrate single-family homes and denigrate density. They price out almost all workers below executive level, forcing them to drive in or take infamous “Google Buses” and the like. For people who deal in futuristic nano-scale technology, the carbon footprint of the typical Silicon Valleyite is more like that of a brontosaurus.

The advances that have come out of Silicon Valley in the past three decades eclipse anything in the previous history of human civilization. Unfortunately, many of them have arisen in the service of wealth creation rather than in the preservation of the human race, civil society, and the biosphere. Oh well.

The Doerrs’ donation feels more like penance than a sincere attempt to marshal the financial and intellectual forces of his industry. $1 billion is a pittance for Silicon Valley. $1 billion is a tiny fraction of the funding that Kleiner Perkins has awarded and a rounding error compared to the value of the companies in which it has invested. Heck, it's only 10% of the Doerrs’ personal net worth.

But, $1 billion is better than nothing, I suppose. I sincerely hope the Doerrs’ donation does some good. (In particular, I hope the institute brings on some psychologists to figure out how to talk sense into climate deniers.) John Doerr has been an effective angel investor in the world’s sexiest industry. In this instance, though, he and many other smart, wealthy, powerful people are going to have to figure out more humble ways to move heaven and earth.

Until then, I guess we'll have to keep the coal shipments coming.

Image courtesy of Ari He, via Flickr



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