Capital, Technology, Policy: The three critical ingredients to prevent climate change

The recent focus on climate change has been the House of Representatives, which is scheduled to vote on the Waxman-Markey bill today (or possibly tomorrow.) But a number of parallel, nonprofit efforts to cut carbon emissions are also ramping up. They include the Clinton Global Initiative, another effort by Richard Branson, and the Gigaton Throwdown, a project of a team of high-powered technology investors and academics that met in Washington Wednesday to share the results of an interesting study. The Gigaton folks want to move much faster and more aggressively to cut global carbon emissions than most people--they want to cut 5 to 7 billion tons (gigatons) of carbon from the atmosphere by 2020, and see the private sector playing a critical role in making this happen. They met to unveil what is essentially a feasibility study for what these ambitious reductions would entail as measured across eight different technologies, including wind, solar, plug-in electric, and--attention Republicans!--nuclear. The broader goal is to provide a "road map for laboratory-to-industry partnerships."

Several of the principals behind Gigaton, including its founder, Sunil Paul, appear in my article in the current Atlantic, which examines the snake-bitten history of earlier attempts to bring about a green economy. Yesterday's proceedings were about how to surmount this record of failure. The Gigaton folks are worth listening to because they offer a unique viewpoint on the climate challenge and the ways to confront it, and their ambitions go well beyond what's generally discussed in Washington. And they're not activists, or at least not the kind native to Washington: they're a bipartisan group of "doers"--investors, CEOs, academics--whose main business isn't lobbying Washington policy types but operating in the arena that government policy creates. They're the intellectual and business infrastructure of the "green economy" Obama so often cites. As one Obama energy official quipped, "There's more talent on climate change in this room than since Al Gore dined alone."

As Paul explained in his opening remarks, "gigaton scale reductions" are feasible and desirable; achieving them by 2020 would let us avoid the worst impacts of climate change. While acknowledging that the costs would be large--$8 trillion was the estimate I heard--he pointed out that current projections of energy demand, if met through old technologies, is even larger: $13 trillion. And to a Washington audience highly attuned to the difficulties of spending further government trillions, he emphasized that most of the money would come from the private sector. But also that the private sector couldn't do the job alone.

"Three things are necessary," Paul said. "Capital, technology, and policy." Investors, he said, are waiting for the appropriate market signals from Washington. The refrain from most Gigaton panelists was the need for bipartisanship and stability. "What we're looking for is predictability," said Martin Lagod, who is the managing director of Firelake Capital Management, as well as a rare breed of climate activist--a Republican. "Uncertainty in the policy environment is lethal as far as making new investments." For a clear idea of why, read my piece: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200907/carter-obama-energy.

The Waxman-Markey bill, perhaps unavoidably, drew a mixed reaction. As anyone knows who has traversed the Silicon Valley-Washington divide on energy, the Valley view tends to be "Why can't the politicians do better?" to which the Washington rejoinder is always, "Do you know how damn hard this is to do?" That was true Wednesday, too. But the proceedings were far from contentious. In fact, the event had the air of a pep rally. The study was, as Paul put it, "a hopeful, promising outlook for what's possible." With the momentum that the climate bill has gained lately, it's especially timely.
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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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