Looking Beyond the Climate Bill Disaster

Considering it was an outcome that I very much expected, I still found the U.S. Senate’s complete abandonment of carbon cap legislation on July 27 pretty devastating. Beyond the negative effects on the U.S. clean-tech industry and its creation of much-needed jobs, it sends a terrible signal to the rest of the world, particularly China, about America’s willingness to finally lead by example on greenhouse gas reduction. In the wake of the acknowledged failure of the global climate talks in Copenhagen last December, the outlook for a meaningful global climate-change agreement is grim indeed.

Back in May, I predicted this type of outcome in the Senate, hoping that “the world’s greatest deliberative body” would prove me wrong. I won’t rehash my critique of current Senate politics and obstructionism when one Senator recently said it so well himself. Sen. Michael Bennet, the freshman Colorado Democrat elected to fill Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s former seat, told The New Yorker’s George Packer, “Sit and watch us for seven days—just watch the floor. You know what you’ll see happening? Nothing. When I’m in the chair, I sit there thinking, I wonder what they’re doing in China right now?”  At the end of Packer’s dissection of the Senate obfuscation in the Aug. 9 issue of the magazine, he concludes, “And so climate change joined immigration, job creation, food safety, pilot training, veterans’ care, campaign finance, transportation security, labor law, mine safety, wildfire management, and scores of executive and judicial appointments on the list of matters that the world’s greatest deliberative body is incapable of addressing.”

For several years now, when clean-tech executives, investors, and advocates are asked to name one policy action that would have the most significant impact on the industry, the answer is nearly unanimous: put a price on carbon. So when the U.S. Congress refuses to act on the single most important action that would move the clean-tech economy forward, what is left to do?

Well, plenty.

Not all of Washington D.C. is crippled by the powerful forces of inaction. Just one week before the Senate pulled the plug on climate legislation, Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu hosted the top clean-energy officials of 24 countries in the first-ever Clean Energy Ministerial meeting. The attending nations represented 80 percent of world energy use, four billion people, and $50 trillion in GDP. It wasn’t just promises and platitudes; different countries signed on to 11 separate initiatives covering appliance and building efficiency, smart grid development, electric vehicles, solar and wind expansion, off-grid solar, bioenergy, and carbon capture, storage and other areas.

Obviously, multi-lateral agreements and initiatives have a long history of going nowhere. I’ll be anxious to check back in six months and see what has been accomplished, and it’s a good sign that the ministers have already committed to meet again next year in Abu Dhabi and in 2012 in London (which will host the Summer Olympics the same year). And it’s not just government policy wonks; the building efficiency initiative, for example, includes private-sector participation from 3M, Dow Chemical, Grubb & Ellis, Marriott, MIT, Nissan, Target, and Walmart.

Some of the initiatives came with actual dollars committed, but others did not. To me, that brings up this decade’s biggest challenge. Accelerating the global transition to clean energy requires hundreds of billions in new investments. Even among government and corporate leaders who want to make it happen, where will the money come from, as we battle out of recession? As John Holdren said at the Ministerial, “our current (clean energy) investments are not remotely commensurate with the size of the challenge.”

The most hopeful note may have been sounded not by an energy minister, but from a top business official: U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. In a brief speech, Locke said simply, “Clean energy technologies represent the greatest economic opportunity of the 21st century.” It’s not a new thought, but one that bears repeating — loudly and often — as the forces of “we can’t afford this, our economy is too fragile” seem to be gaining new momentum,  on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

Whether you’re an entrepreneur, corporate executive, investor, government leader, engineer, student, or citizen, do not follow the lead of the U.S. Senate. For clean energy, inaction is not an option. 

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