04/16/2007 04:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Skiing an Avalanche

Palo Alto, CA -- The politics and economics of global warming are moving so fast it's like skiing an avalanche -- exciting but scary, essential, given how little time remains, but also dangerous, because we need to get it right, and when when you are moving too fast, it's easy to make mistakes. For the first time climate was a major focus of the Global Philanthropy Forum, being held on the Google Campus. The Forum was opened by the Rockefeller Foundation's President, Judith Rodin, who emphasized the need to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience globally, which translated into, "How do we finance the smart energy transition globally, particularly in the Third World?"

As the conference went on, it emerged that the problem is both worse and easier to solve than most of us think, but you have to add the numbers up. Take nuclear power. Mindy Lubber of CERES, greeted me by saying, "The next big wave to hit us is going to be this push for nuclear power." My comment, by now well rehearsed, was, "Until someone wants to build one with his own money, instead of the taxpayers', it's not a future worth thinking about--it's a distraction." Not many nukes will be built unless the technology and the economics change dramatically, but it turns out that's not the only important point. The Global Environmental Facility(GEF) is the biggest mechanism for financing clean energy in the Third World. It's entire budget is $1billion. $200 million a year.

Every one of the six nuclear power plants in the US authorized in 2005 by Congress will get a minimum $200 million in taxpayer subsidies. So, each plant gets as much as GEF's annual budget, and the total subsidy is greater than the funding made available for clean energy for the $2 billion poorest people in the world.

The good news is that $2 billion, well spent, could go a long way. Phil La Rocca, who runs E+Co, a major funder of small-scale clean energy in the developing world, says that with only $100 million in fixed capital, and $400 million in 4% loans, we could provide electricity and energy services to 100 million people at $5 each. Renewable energy on a small scale is that close to competitive with the cost of fossil fuels in much of the Third World. The Shell Foundation, even though it represents an oil company, says more or less the same thing -- small-scale renewable energy in poor countries is ready to take off if modest financing is available. That means that the $1.2 billion in nuclear subsidies Congress voted could help bring 240 million people in the unelectrified world into a modern clean energy economy -- and 80% of the money could be repaid and put into helping the next quarter of a billion. But the money's not there, it's in boondoggle nukes in the US, and the mechanism typically suggested -- the Kyoto "clean development" mechanism is, LaRocca says, way too bureaucratic and cumbersome for the small-scale producers who can do the job cheapest.

So why do we keep lamenting that unless the Third World joins the clean energy revolution, global warming will spiral out of control, while at the same time doing so little about it? (Thomas Friedman offered his answer to this question in his excellent New York Times Magazine piece on Sunday.) Why is the enormous unfairness of flooding Bangladesh to keep our SUV's cheap so hard to get people to address?

Dr. Bill Foege, who heads health programs at the Gates Foundation, provided a thought-provoking framework in answering this question. He says we need to view problems like lack of access to health care and depriving people of their livelihoods through global warming the way William Wilberforce viewed slavery. Before Wilberforce, the forced inequity involved in profiting from slavery was seen as an acceptable way to make a living; after him it was not. Foege says that all forced inequity is a form of slavery, and that, "it is evil to enslave the future for our economic convenience." Whether we understand it or not, Foege says, we are slavemasters because we benefit from an economy based on taking things from people -- villagers in island nations, or children yet to be born in Central Asia -- without their consent.