01/27/2014 12:11 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2014

Lighting a Candle

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was the truth-teller at this year's CERES Clean Energy Investor's Summit. Trumka eloquently indicted climate crisis denials by recalling the traditional coal industry claims that mines laden with methane would not explode, inadequate timbers would not collapse, and coal dust would not clog miner's lungs. Just so, he eloquently warned, the pretense that overloading the atmosphere with carbon pollution would not disrupt the climate would be overridden by the laws of physics.

But he warned climate advocates that merely decrying the evils of fossil pollution was inadequate -- the world needed a massive investment in clean energy substitutes and sustainable infrastructure so that ordinary citizens could both meet their energy needs and feed their families with energy options and jobs that healed, rather than damaged, the climate.

This argument is, like the laws of physics, unassailable. We will not solve the climate crisis without climate solutions -- solutions big enough to replace the coal and oil and natural gas that are clogging the atmosphere. And the price of pretending otherwise is high. At the Summit Jeremy Leggett of Carbon Tracker pointed out that the world today is investing $670 billion a year to find and develop new oil reserves, many of which are at a price that consumers cannot afford and most of which will never find a market if the world gets serious about climate change.

And our record on this front is uninspiring at the moment. Michael Liebrich of Bloomberg New Energy reported a second successive annual slump in investment in clean energy technologies, down by 11 percent to $254 billion -- even though solar and wind are more cheaper and more competitive than they were a year ago. Washington is abuzz with the idea that the solution to what ails us is for the U.S. to aspire to become a new Saudi America by exporting not solar panels or wind turbines but oil and gas. President Obama continues to defend his "all of the above" energy policy against pressure from environmentalists, even while the carbon lobby in Congress seeks desperately to eviscerate his main current climate initiative, EPA's proposed carbon pollution limits on coal fired power plants. The Administration is seemingly willing to weaken the environmental standards that have been part of U.S. trade policy for years, including simple requirements that nations live up to the treaties they have signed. And Europe, while increasing its carbon pollution reduction goals to 40 percent by 2030, backed off on many of the specific solution mechanisms that Trumka emphasized so strongly like its investments in renewable power.

There are some positive signs. At the Investor Summit Christina Figueres, who leads the UN's climate process, called on the investors assembled to recognize the inevitably of a low carbon future and shift their investments out of fossil fuels; like Trumka, she argued that physics will prevail. China broke the world record for solar installations in 2013, installing 10 GW, more than in all its previous history. The final legal challenge by the oil industry to California's pioneering low-carbon fuel standard was rejected by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In some ways, Trumka was addressing the wrong audience with his appeal -- years ago climate activists fell into the trap of focusing their energy on the problem -- climate disruption -- and the source -- fossil fuel monopolies -- rather than the solution, a race to a clean energy future. Environmental funders find it easier to finance campaigns against atrocities than to back breakthroughs. Grassroots activists find it difficult to "think globally" when a new power project is coming to their community, and too little activist energy goes into the global transformation required, say, to electrify the world's transportation sector.

The horse and buggy did not vanish because of animal rights protests -- it took the internal combustion engine to sweep the deck. Climate needs to be thought of that way -- and too often we fall back into our old habits.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber --of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."