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Sierra Magazine
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Climate Exchange
Cool heads tackle our hottest issue
by Marilyn Berlin Snell
May/June 2007

(page 2 of 5)

On December 14, 2006, the group gathered at the Sierra Club headquarters. Paul Anderson, then chair of Duke Energy (now chair of a Duke spin-off), arrived right on time in a crisp suit and tie, ready to get down to business. Even before they'd finished their morning pastries, he started lobbying the Club's executive director and roundtable moderator, Carl Pope, on what was to become the group's most radical recommendation. Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla announced--lest anyone get the wrong idea given his presence at the Sierra Club--that he is a pro-business, free-market Republican. As the roundtable progressed, however, Khosla relaxed, taking his shoes off under the table and tucking a foot beneath himself as he laid out his plan to fight poverty and global warming in one fell swoop. Bettina Poirier, staff director for Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and chief counsel for the Environment and Public Works Committee, listened intently. Two other senior advisors from Boxer's office sat on the sidelines, furiously taking notes. The man who bridged the public-private worlds was Dan Reicher, who worked at the Department of Energy during the Clinton era and was, at the time of the roundtable, president of a venture capital firm focused on renewable energy. (He now runs Google's climate and energy initiative.) Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider raced to the discussion from down the street, where he'd just given a presentation to hundreds of scientists at the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting. His hair was slightly Einsteinian upon arrival, but his thoughts were anything but disheveled. Having spent more than 25 years explaining why our planet is getting warmer, he was the roundtable's translator and reality check.

In the morning, the group worked behind closed doors. That afternoon, they were joined by Boxer and former vice president Al Gore for a public session to announce the conclusions they'd reached. The defining moment came when Anderson suggested that the federal government should assign a cost to carbon emissions--an idea that has been dismissed as political suicide by several past Congresses. But times have changed. How else could one explain the fact that a leader from the energy industry, a special interest many politicians are trying to protect from carbon regulations, is now calling for those very regulations?

My 12-year-old niece, Sophie, a seventh-grader in Phoenix, traveled alone for the first time to be an observer at the gathering. Her last big class report was on this worrisome topic, and it was important for her to see that adults are constructively grappling with climate change. Her presence helped us all remember that we have an obligation to act on behalf of future generations. Time has an ethical dimension, "the fierce urgency of now," as Martin Luther King Jr. called the struggles of his day.

Time also has an economic dimension: Wall Street is finally moving to address global warming because the issue is showing up in the short time frames that make sense to business.

For love or money, the United States must take a leadership role in the fight against global warming. That was our reason for coming together. And by the end of the conversation excerpted below, we had an abundance of agreed-upon ways to move forward. Schneider, not generally known for his optimism on the subject, was elated: "The fact that you could have a panel with this much diversity, and that our biggest radical is a power company executive, shows real progress."


Carl Pope: The Sierra Club believes that most of the American public is ready to move on global-warming solutions but is confused about where to go and how. We hope to create an action plan for the next few years.

Vinod Khosla: I'd like to put a question on the table right away. How do we get the average person to adopt within five years what we agree on today? This question of scalability--how to adopt these ideas on a large scale--is critical. I spend my time thinking about technologies that can be made attractive to businesses and then scaled up. Then I ask, "What government policies can make all this happen?" I'm a free-market Republican, though I've been working a lot with Democrats recently. I don't want more government money to solve the problem. I want to know what government policies will encourage Wall Street investment.

Stephen Schneider: Vinod is a Republican who works with Democrats. I'm a Democrat who works with Republicans. I've had the most successful interactions on this issue with Senator John McCain and with California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's staff. In fact, I'm proud that in California global warming has not been primarily a partisan issue. It's nice when you face a common threat and you don't make a political show out of it. That's a model I hope will spread to Washington.

Dan Reicher: My framework for a sustainable path is a triangle with three points: policy, technology, and finance. Currently, the policy world doesn't understand the finance world. The technology world is sometimes allergic to the policy world. We have to be able to communicate across those points.

Continued
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