09/20/2005 12:06 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Notes from the Clinton Fest

My colleague, Andrew Shapiro, founder and CEO of GreenOrder, played a role in the just-completed Clinton Global Initiative. Here's his report from New York:

By now, highlights of the Clinton Global Initiative, the former president's Sept. 15-17 wonky yet action-oriented confab in New York, have been well reported, including an array of impressive commitments whose value exceeds $1 billion. As a participant -- my firm GreenOrder is helping to make the Initiative carbon neutral and will work on climate strategy with some participating companies -- I wanted to share some behind-the-scenes observations about the event's focus on climate change (the other three tracks were poverty, religion, and governance) and what it all might mean.

First, when it comes to the opinions of the elite crowd that gathers at meetings like this, including business leaders, we seem to have reached -- or be getting very close to -- a tipping point on climate, a real recognition that action must be taken now. There was a new sense of urgency from elected officials like Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair, but even more so from public figures out of office who apparently now feel they can tell it like it is. Bill Clinton, who as president never seemed exactly passionate about environmental issues, has become as dazzlingly well-versed in the science and politics of climate and clean energy as he is in other issues like race, poverty, and religious conflict that have always been his passions. There's probably no one who can do more to raise the profile of this issue globally. For that alone, the Clinton initiative is a very notable development.

Of course, major credit should also be given to Al Gore, who seems more impassioned -- and less stiff -- as each meter of polar icecap melts. Gore was red-faced and nearly yelling when he told a huge lunch crowd yesterday, "We face a global emergency, a deepening climate crisis that requires us to act." Though the hundreds of diners could have clapped politely, nearly everyone -- from celebs such as Leo DiCaprio to Arab sheiks -- gave him a standing ovation. Also notable was General Wesley Clark's remark on a panel that we should re-frame climate change as a security issue and urge that it be handled more by the Pentagon than by EPA.

Second, the summit showed that many investors and corporate leaders now see climate change, and environmental stewardship generally, as an opportunity, not a cost. Swiss Re, the re-insurance giant, pledged to create a $300 million fund to invest in clean energy in Europe. Entrepreneurial financial firms including the Chicago Climate Exchange and Climate Change Capital out of London explained how they plan to profit from carbon reduction. In the world of big business, DuPont's CEO Chad Holliday spoke about his company's commitments to improved environmental performance (DuPont already met its 2010 goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 65 percent -- and apparently saved money in the process) and to introducing greener products such as a corn-based polymer that can replace petroleum-based plastics. Jeff Immelt, GE's chief executive, spoke about his company's ecomagination initiative (which, full disclosure, my firm helped create) and was unapologetic about seeking to make money for GE shareholders by helping customers prepare for a carbon-constrained economy. Responding to a question about whether GE's wind turbine business would be growing as fast as it is without subsidies, Immelt said that he didn't know any major industry -- from health care to technology to energy -- that hadn't at any early stage benefited from government help. For those who didn't like this, Immelt had three words: "Get over it."

Third, though there was nearly universal frustration about the lack of action on climate out of Washington, D.C., there was a nascent optimism about progress that could be made nonetheless. Yes, there was discussion of Kyoto and what exactly had been achieved at the July G8 meeting in Gleneagles, but the focus at the Clinton fest was on combining the power of technological innovation, effective NGOs, and forward-thinking businesses to find climate-smart solutions. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute counseled a crowd of rapt listeners not to get hung up on government action (or lack thereof), but to focus instead on energy efficiency, which he argues compellingly -- and has for decades -- is a money-saving way to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Even R.K. Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, talked about local energy innovation and micro-enterprise in countries like China and India as key drivers to stem climate change.

The sum of it all? Climate is on the global agenda. Investors and businesses are finding ways to profit from reducing carbon impact. And governments will either be forced to act or will be rendered as old school as the U.N. delegates across town from the Clinton party, many of whom -- including Kofi Annan -- slipped in for a taste of more enlightened thinking and real commitments to action.