03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Walls Come Tumbling Down: Is Stonewalling Finally Over on Energy?

Stonewalling on climate change is rapidly going out of fashion among the American business community.

As a climate bill moves forward in Congress, the energy business is choosing sides between the high-carbon companies (coal, oil), the less-carbon option (natural gas) and the low-carbon alternatives (nuclear, wind and solar ). That's not a surprise; there are going to be winners and losers in this fight, and the companies involved generally know who they are. When it comes to public utilities, that's starting to split the industry down the middle between the companies that rely on nuclear and hydropower versus the coal generators.

That's part of what's been driving the exodus at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Apple and three major utilities (Exelon, Pacific Gas and Electric and PNM Resources of New Mexico) resigned from the group rather than put up with another round in the "he said, she said" war over whether carbon emissions cause global warming. "Apple supports regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and it is frustrating to find the Chamber at odds with this effort" is how an Apple spokesperson wrapped up her company's position.

More and more on the issue of climate change and carbon emissions, it seems like American business just wants to get on with it. Companies like Apple and Nike (which resigned from the Chamber board) that need to appeal to younger, more affluent consumers want to be seen as green. Utility companies are generally diversified now; they generate energy from carbon-based sources like coal and natural gas and renewables like wind and solar as well. Lots of utility executives quietly wish the government would make up its mind one way or another on pricing carbon, if for no other reason than they would then know what to expect. (There's a reason why projections show half of future power plants in America will use cleaner natural gas, even as coal plants remain online; the industry is hedging its bets).

Old-line oil companies are singing a different tune, too. ExxonMobil, which once sponsored research aimed at questioning global warming now calls for efforts to curb carbon emissions in its public service ad campaigns. USCAP, a group of leading businesses and environmental groups, is promoting much of the thinking behind the cap-and-trade legislation now wending its way through Congress. Even the Chamber now asserts that it does support reducing emissions, it just doesn't support some of the ideas on the table .

Only about 17 percent of Americans are committed climate change skeptics based on research conducted by our organization, Public Agenda, while another 19 percent don't seem to care one way or another. But we can get a quorum even if the skeptics never come aboard and if the disengaged never come back from lunch. Ironically, one of the more promising avenues for getting that quorum -- for building a stable consensus to change the way the country gets and uses energy -- may be to call a truce in the climate change war. Maybe it's time to put less emphasis on getting Americans to look at little diagrams showing how global warming works and more emphasis on the other very serious problems the United States faces on energy.

We've been spending a lot of time lately explaining the country's energy problems to the broader public -- people who aren't energy experts and don't follow environmental issues on a day-by-day basis. One point that seems to resonate, and one that gets surprisingly little play in the cap-and-trade legislation debate, is that United States needs to start moving away from its heavy reliance on fossil fuels for a whole host of reasons -- not just climate change. Even Americans who aren't 100 percent sure about global warming need to consider the risks to our economy posed by the fact that more and more people worldwide want oil, and that it's almost bound to get more costly.

Then there's the risk that the United States will find itself behind the curve when it comes to creating and selling the renewable energy technologies that so much of the world wants. Are we going to let all of those juicy economic opportunities slip away from us the way we let the consumer electronics business slip away from us? And what about the risk posed by the fact we rely so much on imported oil, and the countries with the biggest reserves aren't exactly our best friends?

The way the United States uses energy now poses three risks to our future: potential damage to the Earth, possible harm to the U.S. economy, and having to depend on other countries -- good, bad, and otherwise -- for vital energy supplies. These are powerful reasons to start getting this country off the fossil fuels (at least the way we use them now) and onto a more diversified, more planet-friendly energy mix. Maybe a lot of Americans don't care about all three of these risks to our future, but Meatloaf was onto something with his "two out of three ain't bad." Frankly, just one is enough of a reason to act decisively.

So many of the ideas designed to reduce carbon emissions -- energy efficiency, more renewables, cleaner burning fossil fuels, a new look at nuclear -- work just as well in addressing all three dangers. Smart people have different views about the best way to proceed, and there are legitimate debates over what energy sources are most promising, but sticking with the status quo is just about the worse decision we could possibly make. It's way past time to get a move on.