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Copenhagen, Meet Columbus

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Like so many people, I was holding out hope for a binding policy agreement on climate change to emerge from Copenhagen. Despite a disappointing pronouncement from world leaders last month that nothing will be finalized, the event is on, President Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will be appearing to lend their considerable star power to the event, and representatives from business, government, and non-profits are finalizing travel plans - and as the leader of a green business strategy firm, so am I. What fuels our desire to convene, if we already know that the meeting's primary goal will not be met?

It is a recognition that policy is just one component of a solution we must achieve. It's a realization that, at its heart, the Copenhagen gathering is an aspirational moment. Global leaders could re-frame the climate challenge as an opportunity to drive innovation and economic revitalization worldwide. To accomplish this, we need more than just a regulatory framework. We need a cross-sector game plan that connects policymakers with business leaders, innovators and investors to accelerate the development of breakthrough solutions. Copenhagen means getting diverse stakeholders to work together and create an integrated framework for a more sustainable and prosperous society.

To skeptics, this may sound like a lot of global utopianism - and the challenge of climate change is the kind of transnational problem that the United Nations was created to address. However, as Tip O'Neill might have said, all climate politics is local. Global policymakers can look to local examples where an integrated approach to climate change mitigation is already at work. Advanced energy innovation and job creation happening in Iowa and Ohio is just as important as what will happen overseas in Denmark - and it's happening right now.

Newton, Iowa, formerly the headquarters of Maytag, faced a bleak future when its factories closed in 2007. But building washing machines didn't look that different from building wind turbine towers and blades. A part of the former Maytag factory was reclaimed by two renewable energy manufacturing companies in just two short years. Local and state officials are now encouraging local investment by many small clean energy manufacturers, not one big manufacturer.

Toledo, Ohio, was once the glass-making capital of the country - the town where architectural and automotive glass was first mass-produced domestically. Now, former car windshield manufacturers have retooled and are producing state-of-the-art solar panels in factories that employ some 6,000 people. In Columbus, universities have just announced a knowledge-sharing partnership to help speed up the growth of next generation energy technologies. The state alone has invested over $100 million in advanced energy research as part of a 10-year program.

The Midwest has a rich history of pioneering innovation and transforming regulatory frameworks to incentivize investment, development and job creation. Midwestern innovations include the airplane, the assembly line and supercomputing. These big ideas were born of necessity, spurred by the deployment of public and private capital, and fueled growth in the region for generations. Now we need to bring that spirit to the next big ideas that will spur U.S. prosperity and energy independence: the invention and production of advanced batteries, wind and solar power, smart grid infrastructure, carbon capture and storage, and biofuels.

If business leaders, lawmakers, financiers and citizens can work together, this transformation will pave the way for renewed and sustained American economic and environmental leadership. If that incentive is not enough, how about this - if our country doesn't capture this opportunity, other countries will. In fact, China already manufactures more solar panels than any other nation, with nearly half of the world's production. Chinese solar manufacturers see opportunities to manufacture in the U.S., too. Suntech, a Chinese-based company, recently announced plans to build a large solar manufacturing plant in Arizona. They are betting on 20 percent U.S. market share by 2020. And they are already at 12 or 13 percent now.

To gain competitive advantage, we need to foster a culture of innovation that both inspires environmental responsibility and propels long-term economic growth.

Businesses must work in concert with government to think systemically across boundaries and develop the new technologies, investment, entrepreneurship, behavioral changes and, yes, policy changes, that encourage creative and fresh thinking. Copenhagen is just the start. Indeed, only national policies that create clear market signals will drive the rapid changes in power, transportation, building and agriculture necessary to compete in a low-carbon economy. Put another way: large-scale innovation requires markets to support it, and markets need enabling policies.

With this in mind, we must expand the scope of our efforts and remember that the future of our climate will not be determined solely in Copenhagen or even in Congress. Rather, it will be determined by how we integrate environmental innovation into our business practices and behaviors in every community in America and around the world.

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