San Francisco, CA -- The stunning thing about the day-long roundtable discussion we just completed on global warming is that, in a group that included a very wide diversity of perspectives, the closest agreements were between myself and Duke Energy's Paul Anderson. In addition to us, the forum included climatologist Stephen Schneider, Senator Barbara Boxer, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, and former Assistant Secretary of Energy Dan Reicher. We were also joined by former Vice-President Al Gore in the afternoon wrap-up session. We weren't debating whether global warming is a serious problem or whether or not we need to act now -- this panel was in unanimous agreement on both points: It is and we do. The question, rather, was whether or not we could agree on a national agenda for the next several years.
I told the panel that our task was a little like being an Iraq Study Commission for global warming. With only six hours to do our work, it's not surprising that we didn't emerge with a detailed action plan -- but we could have, I think, given enough time. As it was, we all agreed that we needed to find solutions that were scalable, (i.e., that we could roll out across the US and globally). Furthermore, we all felt it critically important that government send a signal to industry that the era of cost-free dumping of carbon dioxide pollution into the air would inevitably come to an end, even if we couldn't actually pass legislation to end it in the next few years.
We also concurred that we had to think carefully about the order in which we carried out our reforms. For example, all the panelists were skeptical about whether carbon sequestration would work on a large scale and felt that more research was required in that area before any commitments were made to that strategy.
We agreed that government had a big role to play in setting long-term policies that would shift investment in the right directions and give business a clear signal that there are huge opportunities in finding ways to decarbonize the economy. We also agreed that there should be a price to pay if businesses lag.
What was most surprising to me was the universal skepticism about sequestration and Anderson's agreement with me that it would be fatal to propose the kinds of "cap and trade" systems in which those who have polluted the most would actually benefit from being given carbon emission permits under some kind of base-line or grandfather scheme. As he put it, "that shifts the debate from who has the best engineers and technology to who has the best lobbyists and lawyers. As long as business thinks that carbon-emitting facilities may turn out to be tradable assets, no one will do anything -- and some people will rush to emit as much carbon as they can before the deadline."