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Climate change ‘is the most important problem,’ former Reddit CEO says

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Terraformation Founder and Former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss climate change, Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s Twitter bid, and the outlook for rapid reforestation.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Welcome back to Yahoo Finance Live. A growing number of tech firms are putting their money behind climate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions Facebook's Meta and Alphabet among those firms that recently announced a near $1 billion commitment to carbon capture. But there's another name that's making waves. Former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong is aiming to restore 3 billion acres of land through massive reforestation. I spoke to him about his startup Terraformation and asked him why he made the pivot from Silicon Valley to tackle climate change.

YISHAN WONG: A lot of people that I've talked to in climate, they all have a moment. And there's a moment where you have some personal experience. It might be about the weather, or you read a book, or you learn something critical. And you realize climate change is the most important problem. And I need to be working on it, and no matter what your background, because it's a pretty new field.

And so it's not really true that, like, you know, everyone who works in it is going to have some sort of climate background. You just come into it, and you bring whatever skills and experience you have. And then you combine it with the people that you're working with. And you bring all of that together, right? So there's a lot of people working on it and with lots of different backgrounds. And so I'm, like, just one of those people.

AKIKO FUJITA: Let's talk about how you're going about tackling the climate issue. Rapid reforestation is what Terraformation is focused on. For those who aren't familiar, it's basically planting trees on a very mass scale. Why is this the quickest way to reduce CO2 emissions?

YISHAN WONG: Well, trees are simple, reliable, cheap, and well understood. And so if there's one thing I learned in Silicon Valley when you want to solve very, very large problems, most of the complexity is actually in the scaling. And so in order to accomplish that, you want your unit solution to be as simple as possible. Every solution that's been proposed for climate change has to be done at enormous planetary scale.

So if your core solution is a complex, technological thing, and you have to build 100,000 of them, you're going to run into a whole bunch of just little problems with small defects and bugs and unknowns, right? Like, any sort of complex technology always runs into bugs.

And so what you actually want is, you want your core solution to be very, very simple, so that when you're trying to do a billion of them, you don't have to worry about, like, the-- I guess, like, the primary reliability of your core solution. You can focus on the scaling, which involves a whole bunch of logistics, supply chain, infrastructure things that you have to solve, but you don't have to solve when you're just doing a little bit of that.

AKIKO FUJITA: So how is your approach different than some other groups, organizations, who have gone about tackling this through reforestation? I'm looking at your goal here, 3 billion acres of native forest ecosystem. I mean, that's a pretty ambitious goal.

YISHAN WONG: Yeah. In fact, what we're trying to do is work with all of the groups that have, in fact, blazed this trail over the past few decades. Many of these groups have been telling everyone, hey, the solution to climate change is restoring forests, like, restoring biodiverse native forests in the right places. And there have been a lot of successes and failures. And I think collectively, as mankind, we've learned a lot of lessons about how to do it correctly, how to do it incorrectly.

And so what we're trying to do now is, there's a sort of pattern from Silicon Valley, which is, you do this thing at small scale, and you show that it can solve the problem. And then you've got to do a bunch of it. And there's the second step where you're scaling it out. Many, many of these groups have been working on forest restoration for decades now and learned how to do it correctly.

And so the next step is actually adding this scalability factor, right? Like, how do you how do you then do 10 times more every year? And that by itself is a-- that's, like, a unique practice that it's really only known in Silicon Valley maybe in some very large companies. I think there may be people in, like, very large governments who are familiar with it. But applying that practice to be successful solutions and working in partnership with all of the organizations that have been doing this is what we're about.

AKIKO FUJITA: I have to ask you about the big discussion or topic in Silicon Valley while we have you here. You recently posted a very long thread on Twitter that went viral that-- where you essentially said Elon Musk would be in a world of pain if he bought Twitter because he doesn't fully understand the challenges of content moderation on the internet. I'm going to put you in a position of advising the Twitter board. What would you advise them to do? Should they take the offer from Elon Musk?

YISHAN WONG: I actually think they should just go ahead and take the offer. That's fine. It'll be hard for him. But, you know, he read the thread, so he knows what he's getting into. It's very hard, but electric cars and rockets were very hard. My opinion is more that it may not be the best thing for him to spend his time on because there's a lot of people who could run a social media platform and do a reasonable job at it. There's really only one guy who can run, like, the rocket company, so--

AKIKO FUJITA: But you think--

YISHAN WONG: --yeah, you've gotta sort of decide where you want to play your talent.

AKIKO FUJITA: You think he can, quote unquote, "fix the platform"? If it is about finding that balance between moderation and free speech, is Elon Musk the guy that can get it done for Twitter?

YISHAN WONG: Well, here's the thing. It isn't like there's some magical person who's going to do a really awesome job at it. It's an inherently hard job. And so, like, I don't think he's going to do, like, significantly worse than, like, any other very talented, dedicated person.

AKIKO FUJITA: It's an interesting perspective there, Brian, as somebody who was part of the original PayPal mafia. Musk, by the way, did respond to that very lengthy thread on Twitter, saying, my one takeaway is that there should be long form tweets. So, yes, he kind of responded. No, he didn't. But we have seen a number of developments over the last few days on this particular bid, one being that Elon Musk has said he's now secured the funding necessary to go forward with this takeover.

BRIAN CHEUNG: Yeah, and while I was doing my interview out here in San Francisco, I was trying to read up on this, too, because it's really fascinating the way that they're trying to structure the financing for all this. Effectively, it's what we knew, which is that Elon Musk doesn't have the money to pull this off all alone. He's going to have to rely on either loans from banks or Tesla stock that he's going to have to unload.

Now the details of the financing proposed possibly getting some sort of help from the banks in which he would offer up his Tesla shares as collateral. But, you know, it's just really interesting to see how the whole storyline here isn't necessarily in the details of the nuance of the deal itself. As you kind of highlighted in that conversation with Yishan, it's kind of a moot point over whether or not financially this is something that Elon can pull off or if it's even good for Twitter.

At the end of the day, Elon has made it very clear-- and no one can debate this-- from the get-go that this is not about money. This is not about him trying to flip the stock and make a sale. He genuinely just wants to run this company. Now, whether or not you think he's going to be good or bad at that, which Yishan was trying to get to, is a whole separate question and I think one that it's really on Twitter shareholders to try to answer.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, Brian, I'm not so sure he genuinely wants to run the company, or he wants to change the way the company is run and whether this is a way to influence that policy. By the way, the New York Post also yesterday reporting that Musk is in talks with private equity firm, Thoma Bravo, as part of that financing for $46 and 1/2 billion. So that's the bid. To your point, he needs that help because he said in the past, he's not willing to part with his Tesla shares, but something tells me it's not the last time we speak of this.

BRIAN CHEUNG: No, not at all, and other firms also reportedly in the mix at some point as well. Apollo, parent company of Yahoo, apparently, rumored to be part of that conversation as well. But again, a story far from over. We'll leave that there.