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Bill Gates and the problem with climate solutionism

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In his  new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates takes a technology-­centered approach to understanding the climate crisis. Gates begins with the 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases that people create every year. He slices this pollution into sectors by the size of their footprints—working his way from electricity, manufacturing, and agriculture to transportation and buildings. Throughout, Gates is adept at cutting through the complexity of the climate challenge, giving the reader handy heuristics to distinguish between the bigger technological problems (cement) and the smaller ones (airplanes). 

At the Paris climate negotiations in 2015, Gates and several dozen other wealthy people launched Breakthrough Energy, an interlinked venture capital fund, lobbying group, and research effort. Gates and his fellow investors argued that both the federal government and the private sector are underinvesting in energy innovation. Breakthrough aims to fill some of this gap, funding everything from next-generation nuclear technology to fake meat that tastes more like beef. The venture fund’s $1 billion first round has had some early successes, like Impossible Foods, a maker of plant-based burgers. The fund announced a second round of equal size in January. 

A parallel effort, an international pact called Mission Innovation, says it has persuaded its members (the executive branch of the European Union along with 24 countries including China, the US, India, and Brazil) to commit an additional $4.6 billion every year since 2015 to clean-energy research and development.

These various endeavors are the through line for Gates’s latest book, written from a techno-­optimist’s perspective. “Everything I’ve learned about climate and technology makes me optimistic … if we act fast enough, [we can] avoid a climate catastrophe,” he writes in the opening pages. 

As many others have pointed out, a lot of the necessary technology already exists; much can be done now. Though Gates doesn’t dispute this, his book focuses on the technological challenges that he believes must still be overcome to achieve greater decarbonization. He spends less time on the political obstacles, writing that he thinks “more like an engineer than a political scientist.” Yet politics, in all its messiness, is the key barrier to progress on climate change. And engineers ought to understand how complex systems can have feedback loops that go awry.

Yes, minister

Kim Stanley Robinson does think like a political scientist. The beginning of his latest novel, The Ministry for the Future, is set just a few years from now, in 2025, when a massive heat wave hits India, killing millions. The book’s protagonist, Mary Murphy, runs a UN agency tasked with representing the interests of future generations and trying to align the world’s governments behind a climate solution. Throughout, the book puts intergenerational equity and various forms of distributive politics at its center. 

If you’ve ever seen the scenarios the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change develops for the future, Robinson’s book will feel familiar. His story asks about the politics necessary to solve the climate crisis, and he has certainly done his homework. Though it is an exercise in imagination, there are moments when the novel feels more like a graduate seminar in the social sciences than a work of escapist fiction. The climate refugees who are central to the story illustrate the way pollution’s consequences hit the global poor the hardest. But wealthy people emit far more carbon.

Reading Gates next to Robinson underlines the inextricable link between inequality and climate change. Gates’s efforts on climate are laudable. But when he tells us that the combined wealth of the people backing his venture fund is $170 billion, we may be puzzled that they have dedicated only $2 billion to climate solutions—less than 2% of their assets. This fact alone is an argument for wealth taxes: the climate crisis demands government action. It cannot be left to the whims of billionaires.

As billionaires go, Gates is arguably one of the good ones. He chronicles how he uses his wealth to help the poor and the planet. The irony of his writing a book on climate change when he flies in a private jet and owns a 66,000-square-foot mansion is not lost on the reader—nor on Gates, who calls himself an “imperfect messenger on climate change.” Still, he is unquestionably an ally to the climate movement.

But by focusing on technological innovation, Gates underplays the material fossil-fuel interests obstructing progress. Climate-change denial is strangely not mentioned in the book. Throwing up his hands at political polarization, Gates never makes the connection to his fellow billionaires Charles and David Koch, who made their fortune in petrochemicals and have played a key role in manufacturing denial.

For example, Gates marvels that for the vast majority of Americans, electric heaters are actually cheaper than continuing to use fossil gas. He presents people’s failure to adopt these cost-saving, climate-friendly options as a puzzle. It isn’t. As journalists Rebecca Leber and Sammy Roth have reported in Mother Jones and the Los Angeles Times, the gas industry is funding front groups and marketing campaigns to oppose electrification and keep people hooked on fossil fuels. 

These forces of opposition are more clearly seen in Robinson’s novel than in Gates’s nonfiction. Gates would have done well to draw on the work that Naomi Oreskes, Eric Conway, and Geoffrey Supran—among others—have done to document the persistent efforts of fossil-fuel companies to sow public doubt on climate science. (I also tackled this subject in my own book, Short Circuiting Policy, which explains how fossil-fuel companies and electric utilities have resisted clean-energy laws in a number of American states.)

One thing Gates and Robinson do have in common, though, is the view that geoengineering—massive interventions to treat the symptoms rather than the causes of climate change—may be inevitable. In The Ministry for the Future, solar geoengineering, or spraying fine particles into the atmosphere to reflect more of the sun’s heat back into space, is used after the deadly heat wave with which the novel opens. And later, some scientists take to the poles and devise elaborate methods for removing melted water from underneath glaciers to prevent it from flowing into the sea. Despite some setbacks, they hold back sea-level rise by several feet. We might imagine Gates showing up in the novel as an early financial backer of these efforts. As he notes in his own book, he has been funding solar geoengineering research for years.

The Thick of It

The title for Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, Under a White Sky, is a reference to this nascent technology, since implementing it on a large scale could turn the sky from blue to white. 

Kolbert notes that the first report on climate change landed on President Lyndon Johnson’s desk way back in 1965. This report did not argue that we should cut carbon emissions by moving away from fossil fuels. It advocated changing the climate through solar geoengineering instead, though that term had not yet been invented. It is disturbing that some would jump immediately to such risky solutions rather than addressing the root causes of climate change.

In reading Under a White Sky, we are reminded of the ways that interventions like this could go wrong. For example, the scientist and writer Rachel Carson advocated importing nonnative species as an alternative to using pesticides. The year after her 1962 book Silent Spring was published,
the US Fish and Wildlife Service brought Asian carp to America for the first time, to control aquatic weeds. The approach solved one problem but created another: the spread of this invasive species threatened local ones and caused environmental damage. 

As Kolbert puts it, her book is about “people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.” Her reporting covers examples including the ill-fated efforts to stop the spread of Asian carp, the pumping stations in New Orleans that accelerate that city’s sinking, and attempts to selectively breed coral so that it can withstand hotter temperatures and ocean acidification. Kolbert has a keen awareness of unintended consequences, and she’s funny. If you like your apocalit with a side of humor, she will have you laughing while Rome burns.

By contrast, though Gates is aware of the potential pitfalls of technological solutions, he still praises plastics and fertilizers as life-giving inventions. Tell that to the sea turtles swallowing plastic garbage, or the fertilizer-driven algal blooms destroying the ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico. 

With dangerous levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, geoengineering might indeed prove necessary, but we shouldn’t be naïve about the risks. Gates’s book has many good ideas and is worth reading. But for a fuller picture of the crises we face, make sure to read Robinson and Kolbert too.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Sequoia Capital India’s Surge invests $2M in sales engagement platform Outplay

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A Zoom screenshot showing members of Outplay's team on a video call

Outplay’s team members on a video call

Sales engagement platforms (SEP) help sales teams automate and track the large number of tasks they need to do each day as they contact leads and hone in on potential deals. Focused on small-to-medium-sized companies, SEP startup Outplay announced today it has raised $2 million from Sequoia Capital India’s Surge program for early-stage startups.

Outplay was founded in January 2020 by brothers Ram and Laxman Papineni and now counts more than 300 clients. Before launching Outplay, the Papineni brothers built AppVirality, a referall marketing tool for app developers.

Laxman told TechCrunch that Outplay’s customers come from sectors like IT, computer software, marketing and advertising and recruiting, and most are based in North America and Europe.

Outplay is designed for teams that use multiple channels to reach potential customers, including phone calls, text messages, email, live chats on websites, and social media platforms like LinkedIn or Twitter. It integrates with customer relationship management platforms like Salesforce and Pipedrive, giving sales people a new interface that includes productivity and automation tools to cut the time they spend on administrative tasks.

Screenshots of Outplay's sales engagement platform for automating sales tasks

Outplay’s platform

For example, Outplay can be used create sequences that send initial messages through different platforms, and then automatically follows up with new messages if there isn’t a reply within a pre-set time frame. Outplay also provides analytics to help sales people track how well sales campaigns are working.

Two of Outplay’s biggest competitors are Outreach and SalesLoft, both of which hit unicorn status in recent funding rounds. Laxman said Outplay is focused on ease of use, with other differentiators including more integrations with CRMs and other software, and a strong customer support team.

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Daily Crunch: Microsoft unveils Mesh for AR/VR meetings

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Microsoft shows off a new AR/VR meeting platform, Uber spins out a robotics startup and Compass files to go public. This is your Daily Crunch for March 2, 2021.

The big story: Microsoft unveils Mesh for AR/VR meetings

Mesh is a platform that allows for shared meetings between Microsoft’s HoloLens (augmented reality) and Windows Mixed Reality (virtual reality). Lucas Matney describes it as “pretty standard faire” for spatial computing, but noted that this will also serve as a platform for developers to build their own applications.

This is just one of a long list of announcements that Microsoft made as part of its virtual Ignite conference this week. It’s also updating Teams with new presentation features; introducing a new open-source, low-code language; launching a new NoSQL database offering called Azure Managed Instance for Apache Cassandra; announcing a hardware and software platform called Azure Precept and more.

The tech giants

Uber spins out delivery robot startup as Serve Robotics — Postmates X, the robotics division of the on-demand delivery startup that Uber acquired last year, has officially spun out as an independent company called Serve Robotics.

Amazon issues rare apology in India over drama series — The series, called “Tandav,” has faced criticism over its depiction of Hindu gods and goddesses.

Apple releases results from hearing health study — Hearing loss is an issue Apple has looked to tackle, due in no small part to its growing involvement in the headphone category.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Compass files S-1, reveals $3.7B in revenue on net loss of $270M — Compass is not profitable, but it did see a massive surge in revenue over the past few years.

Vestiaire Collective raises $216M for its second-hand fashion platform — It’s a complicated industry, since you don’t want to buy a damaged item or a cheap knockoff.

Instacart raises $265M at a $39B valuation — What’s behind the massive increase in the value investors are willing to ascribe to the business? Put simply, the pandemic.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Six tips for SaaS founders who don’t want VC money — JotForm’s Aytekin Tank argues that bootstrapping is a saner, more sustainable way to build and scale a business.

Oscar Health raises IPO price as Coupang releases bullish debut valuation — IPO season is hot and investors are bothered.

Kaltura files to go public on the back of accelerating revenue growth, rising losses — The company’s revenue growth has accelerated yearly since at least 2018, and its final quarter of 2020 placed the company at a new growth rate maximum.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

MIT’s insect-sized drones are built to survive collisions — If you’re going to build something this small, you need to ensure that it doesn’t break down the first time it comes into contact with something.

Volvo to sell only all-electric vehicles by 2030 — This is part of a broader transformation of the automaker that will include shifting sales online.

Attend TechCrunch’s free virtual Miami meetup on March 11 — Even though we can’t be there physically right now, it’ll sure feel like we are.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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Facebook can save itself by becoming a B Corporation

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As Facebook confronts outrage among its employees and the public for mishandling multiple decisions about its role in shaping public discourse, it is becoming clear that it cannot solve its conundrums without a major change in its business model. And a new model is readily available: for-benefit status.

For decades, a misguided ideology has warped companies, economies and societies: that the sole purpose of corporations is to maximize short-term returns to one set of stakeholders — those who have bought shares. Neither law nor history requires this to be true.

But shareholder value-maximization ideology has become cemented in far too much corporate practice at the expense of societal well-being. This is manifested in many ways: a slavish adherence to the judgment of the “market,” even when other social signals are more powerful; executives enriched by stock options; companies fearful of “activist investors” who attack whenever stock prices fail to meet quarterly “expectations” and often-frivolous shareholder lawsuits pushing for stock gains at all costs.

The pandemic, however, has accelerated an already-spreading recognition that shareholder value maximization is often a harmful choice — not by any means a moral imperative or even a fiduciary responsibility.

Major institutions of capitalism are converging on a new vision for it. The 2019 Business Roundtable CEO statement said that corporate strategy should benefit all stakeholders – including shareholders, yes, but equally customers, employees, suppliers, and the communities in which companies operate. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s recent annual letters assert new views of how that investment company, the world’s largest, should invest the trillions it oversees.

Fink’s 2019 letter spelled out a new vision for corporate purpose; the subsequent 2020 and 2021 letters focused on business’ responsibility around climate change, particularly in light of the pandemic. The B Corporation and conscious capitalism movements are growing. The World Economic Forum is championing a “Fourth Sector,” combining purpose with profit. Business schools, facing student rebellions against a purely profit-maximizing curriculum, are rapidly changing what they teach.

And with society under siege, many more businesses, including social media, are scrambling to seem like good corporate citizens. They have no choice.

Facebook, for example, has doubled down on philanthropy and new efforts to combat misinformation, even as usage and share price soar. Platforms like WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) have become essential services to connect people whose physical ties have been abruptly severed during the global pandemic. Shelter-in-place has become, in many ways, shelter-in-Facebook-properties.

But Facebook and its brethren remain fragile. Since the 2016 presidential election in the U.S., Facebook has faced governmental hearings and regulation, public uproar (#deleteFacebook), and huge fines for invading privacy and undermining democracy. These calls were amplified in the weeks following the January 6 Capitol riot. Separately, it faces allegations of bias, largely (though not entirely) from the political right. These have led to calls for the revocation or reform of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which grants it immunity from the actions of its users.

A giant company that is simultaneously essential and pilloried is vulnerable. Just ask the ghosts of John D. Rockefeller and his fellow robber barons, whose huge monopolies industrialized America more than 100 years ago. Journalistic muckrakers and public outrage targeted them for their abusive practices until the government finally broke up their companies via antitrust legislation.

Because Mark Zuckerberg maintains complete majority control of Facebook, he could unilaterally quell public opprobrium and fend off heavy-handed regulation singlehandedly by transforming Facebook into a new kind of business: a for-benefit corporation.

Under the Public Benefit Corporation legal model, firms bind themselves to a public benefit mission statement and carry out required ongoing reporting on both the standard financials and on how the company is living up to its mission. That status protects the company against profit-demanding shareholder lawsuits, and also attracts employees and investors who want to combine profit with purpose.

Data.world is one of the thousands of certified B Corporations that have seen good returns on financial metrics. Allbirds, for example, launched in a few sustainable materials using a pro-sustainability process to manufacture comfortable shoes, quickly reaching revenues of $100 million and valuation of $1.7 billion in an industry fraught with sustainability and human rights concerns. Other household names that are B Corps include The Body ShopCourseraDanone, the Jamie Oliver GroupKing Arthur FlourNumi Tea and Patagonia.

Many companies that have not undergone formal B Certification from B Labs have nonetheless done well while transforming their business practices, such as the carpet and flooring company Interface. Some firms incorporate ESG principles into their management systems – the $24 billion (market cap) Dutch life sciences company DSM has for years had meaningful sustainability targets for its senior management that account for fully 50 percent of their annual bonuses. Both Interface and DSM attribute much of their commercial success to their attention to non-financial considerations.

A for-benefit Facebook could similarly relate to the world differently, avoiding many of the reputational shocks and regulatory responses that have led to huge stock dips and enormous fines. Its operations would align with Zuckerberg’s proclaimed purpose to enable the potential abundance that results from connecting everyone in the world.

Imagine a Facebook town hall as a true public square, not just another way to gather and sell people’s data without their explicit consent. Imagine a Facebook that put its users first and its advertisers second; that revealed where ads came from; that earned your attention in a way that you controlled rather than through machine-driven algorithms maximizing your attention for good or ill. Such a for-benefit Facebook could create true buy-in and transparency with its massive community around the world.

Of course, such steps as Facebook’s new Oversight Board, which may provide some meaningful review, don’t require a legal change. But if shareholders and employees continue to be rewarded primarily by the success of the problematic ad revenue model, a continuing conflict between private gain and public benefit makes it impossible to have confidence about what is happening behind the scenes. A shift to for-benefit incorporation and appropriate certification brings with it different performance metrics and accountability systems with public scores.

In changing Facebook into a for-benefit corporation, Zuckerberg could insulate himself against presidential rage while rehabilitating his reputation — and his company’s. It would likely create vast ripples both in Silicon Valley and beyond — and it might help transform capitalism itself.

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