Al Gore no longer needs to make claims about creating the Internet, because the former Vice President deserves much of the credit for creating an entire new industry--the global warming business.
And like the energy barons of an earlier age, Mr. Gore has the chance to achieve enormous wealth after being named last week as a new partner at the famously successful venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. No fewer than three of his new colleagues sit on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans. If Mr. Gore can develop market-based solutions to environmental challenges, we will cheer the well-deserved riches flowing his way. On the other hand, if he monetizes his Nobel Peace Prize by securing permanent government subsidies for nonmarket science projects, he'll have earned a different judgment.
There's no shortage of new capital pouring into alternative energy projects these days. According to the National Venture Capital Association, "clean tech" start-ups attracted more than $800 million in venture capital last quarter, a new record. What's not clear is whether these are fundamentally energy ventures or political ventures. The Manhattan Institute's Peter Huber, a former engineering professor at MIT, exaggerates only slightly when he says that "Basically, 'alternative' means stuff that nobody actually uses." If that turns out to be true, then alternative energy companies could struggle for market share without government assistance.
Mr. Gore seems to grasp the scale of the challenge, and the need for government help, telling Fortune magazine, "What we are going to have to put in place is a combination of the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Project and the Marshall Plan, and scale it globally." That's the kind of "green" vision that will require a lot of greenbacks.
We'll be as happy as the Sierra Club if one or more of these new technologies turns out to solve the secrets of cheap, efficient energy. But we recall the same technological promises being made in the 1970s, the last time the feds poured subsidies into alternative fuels.
Which leads us to suspect that maybe Mr. Gore has been hired by Kleiner Perkins for more than his technological knowhow, investment acumen, or global vision. His new partners may have hired him for the more prosaic task of getting 60 Senate votes to keep those taxpayer greenbacks coming.
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