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Steve Howard, Climate Crusader

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"The low carbon world will be built," declares Steve Howard of The Climate Group. "The question is, will we get it built fast enough?"

Yes, that is the question facing business, political leaders and environmentalists in 2009: Will this be the year that governments get their act together and enact a global treaty to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, setting the world on a path towards a low-carbon economy? Not just Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada, which signed onto the Kyoto treaty, but the U.S., China and India, which did not. That's a tall order, and it's becoming the focus of The Climate Group.

If you don't follow environmental issues closely, you may not know about The Climate Group. A global nonprofit, the organization was launched in 2004 in London, with startup money from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. It's been growing rapidly ever since, thanks in part to the dynamism and energy of Howard, 42, a charismatic leader who previously worked as a consultant and an executive with the World Wildlife Fund. Recently. my friend Kate Krebs, who did an outstanding job as executive director of the National Recycling Coalition during the Bush years, joined The Climate Group as its director of sustainable resources, based here in Washington.

When I met Steve at the UN climate meetings in Poznan, Poland, back in December, I asked him why the world needed yet another environmental organization. He replied that The Climate Group, unlike, say, WWF or Greenpeace, focuses solely on climate and works with top businesses and government leaders.

"This is the biggest public-private partnership of all time, fighting climate change," Howard said. ""We've been absolutely relentless and ambitious, ambitious for the impact we can make."

"There wasn't an organization working holistically on leadership," he added.

Howard has demonstrated a knack for attracting big-name allies to the cause. Political and business leaders who work with The Climate Group include Tony Blair, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Bloomberg, James Murdoch, Jeff Swartz of Timberland and winemaker Paul Dolan.

Their U.S. corporate partners include Dell, Duke Power, Dow Chemical, Google, Starbucks, JP Morgan Chase, Nike, News Corp, Starbucks, and Target.

Pretty impressive for such a young organization.

But what, exactly, does The Climate Group do? Quite a lot, judging from my talk with Howard and a tour of its website. The group has a partnership with HSBC in five big cities--New York, London, Hong Kong, Mumbai and Shanghai--to "encourage low carbon consumption and help to facilitate major emissions reduction actions." With partners like Tesco and Target, the group has a campaign called Together that seeks to persuade consumers to reduce their own emissions. The group is teaming up with state and regional governments including California, Bavaria, Scotland and South Australia to help them develop low-carbon strategies and exchange best practices. Finally, and probably most important, the group is working with Tony Blair on a project called Breaking the Climate Deadlock that is aimed at mustering political and business support in key countries for a post-2012 global climate change agreement.

All of this is work worth doing of course, but I wonder whether this far-reaching agenda is a product of ambition or a lack of focus or both.

Kate Krebs, who has worked in the environmental movement for nearly 30 years, told me that all these efforts are complementary: "Climate is the environmental issue of the moment. And we have one goal which is to make sure there is a framework for a climate treaty that includes the United States, China and India."

Howard says one of the group's top priority in the U.S. is to work with business and government to scale up renewable energy and promote carbon capture and storage projects--because coal, he argues, is going to have to be part of any energy and climate-change solution. "CCS is really important transition technology," he says. "This will be the solar century, but really, it may be the end of the century before solar is ubiquitous."

Next month, The Climate Group hopes to make a big splash in Washington. The group is working alongside the World Resources Institute to sponsor a March 3 event featuring Tony Blair and Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern report on the potential impacts of global warming. Senators McCain, Bingaman, Snowe and Stabenow will host the briefing for fellow legislators and staff, Kate Krebs tells me.

A bit more about Steve: He grew up in industrial Manchester, England (where I have family and roots). He's got a degree in ecology and a PhD in Environmental Physics. He has worked in more than 30 countries. And he's got a wife, a young son and a competitive streak that has led him to participate in triathlons, one of which recently included a swim near Brownsea Island, in the south of England. "I did four miles in the worst conditions they've had in years," he told me. "I didn't drown and I didn't finish last, which were my two objectives."

I'm pleased that Steve has agreed to speak at Brainstorm Green, FORTUNE's conference on business and the environment, in April. He'll be part of a great lineup of speakers and panels for an event which will bring together some of America's top business and environmental leaders to address the question: How can business profitably help solve the world's big environmental problems?

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