02/16/2007 09:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Big Industy Warms Up To The Fight On Global Warming! Really?

There's mixed news on the global warming front. All told, however, the good news overshadows the bad, and is reason to celebrate.

What's good is that after years of foot-dragging, major segments of American industry have conceded that global warming is for real, that greenhouse gases are largely to blame, and that new laws are needed to bottle them up. In mid-January, 10 major companies -- including General Electric, Duke Energy, DuPont, General Motors even Exxon/Mobil (but more about that in another post)-- joined four environmental groups in calling for a federal law to "slow, stop, and reverse the growth" of global-warming emissions "over the shortest period of time reasonably achievable." They even want a mandatory limit, or "cap," on emissions of carbon dioxide.

What's not so good is that, as a cynic might well expect, industry's change of heart is in no way a transcendent experience. The big guys have simply decided that given the public's concern, some sort of curbs are inevitable, and they had better jump aboard the train in time to have a voice in shaping the new rules to their own interests minimizing their impact as best they can.

The immediate trigger that led to forming the U.S. Climate Action Partnership was that the new Democratic Congress is mulling several proposals for new emissions laws, while California and a handful of states in the Northeast have announced plans to impose caps of their own. At a minimum, big industry wants a uniform standard across the country rather than a maze of local rules. But it also wants to fend off draconian laws that would mandate costly new technology to recapture carbon dioxide and store it deep underground. The companies would prefer a "cap and trade" system, like the existing curbs on acid rain (sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions), that lets relatively low polluters sell excess emissions credits to companies that don't want to invest or technologically can't clean up. And of course, each company also wants the new law tailored to its own advantage.

The individual positions they're taking are almost comically predictable. The auto makers, for instance, think Big Oil should be making more ethanol and other low-carbon alternative fuels, while the oil companies are calling for more fuel-efficient cars. Utilities that use a lot of coal want credits for burning it more cleanly, while nuclear and gas-burning utilities want credits for not using coal. Steel makers argue that they have already made big cuts in emissions, and a mandatory cap would just raise their costs and benefit their third-world competitors; far better, they say, to order that any steel imports must meet minimum environmental standards. But DuPont wants an emissions cap, the stricter the better, that would cover everyone -- the better to promote sales of its products used in such devices as solar cells, wind turbines, fuel cells, and lightweight cars.

All this jockeying and backstabbing is unlovely, to say the least. A bit Darwinian, but the best system we know. The important thing is that for whatever reason, big industry is joining the cause. If we do nothing to curb emissions, fossil fuels, which now furnish 80 percent of the world's energy, and on present course predicted to be supplying 81 percent of a lot more energy by 2030. That way lies desertification, drowned coasts, wrecked economies, and an uninhabitable world. But if this new alliance gets its way, Congress will decree that:

• In the first five years, even as the world economy grows, emissions will be held between 100 percent and 105 percent of today's levels.
• In 10 years, emissions will be reduced to 90 percent to 100 percent of today's.
• In 15 years, emissions will be between 70 percent and 90 percent of today's.
• And by 2050, even after huge economic growth, emissions will be cut by fully 60 percent to 80 percent. We could be fouling the air only one-fifth as much as we are now.

As readers of my book know, I believe we can do even better than that, and faster. Energy guru Amory Lovins and his Rocky Mountain Institute say we already have the technology and the economic incentives to phase out oil altogether by 2050, and I predict that the technology we will develop between now and then will open up a whole new world of alternative energy.

Meanwhile, it's a good thing to have the big companies inside the tent instead of outside. Let's welcome them -- but the skepticism quotient should remain high. Continued vigilance to assure this is not all eyewash!