For green business, blue skies ahead. For climate policy, who knows?

The renewable energy and clean tech industries let loose a collective sigh of relief today. President Obama’s re-election means they still  have a friend in the White House.

Clean energy was a big winner yesterday,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “American voters not only re-elected a president who made green jobs a cornerstone of his first term and his campaign, they also rejected some of the shrillest champions of Big Oil and Big Coal.”

As Nick Robins, HSBC’s climate research analyst, said today:

Obama’s victory essentially protects key climate policies from repeal, particularly the regulation of carbon dioxide by the EPA, most notably in the power and auto sectors. It also offers the chance of extending the Production Tax Credit for wind energy when it expires at the end of this year.

True enough, but the today’s inefficient, hodge-podge collection of EPA rules, clean-energy subsidies and state mandates — while better than nothing — is no substitute for a rational economy-wide policy to deal with climate change.

Could this election usher in a carbon tax or cap-and-trade regulations to limit global warming pollution? That’s impossible to know,  but there’s no evidence that climate action has climbed to the top of the president’s to-do list.

Obama made a passing reference to climate change in his acceptance speech, saying: “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

But his all-but-absolute silence about global warming during the campaign means that he has no mandate from voters to act on the issue. Worse, he has made close to zero effort to persuade Americans that the issue matters, a failure that will surely cast a shadow over his legacy if it isn’t rectified during a second term.

To see what’s next for climate and green business after the election, I reached out to some smart people in the business world and in Washington to see what opportunities, if any, they see.

The first, and maybe the best, opening will arise when the president and the lame-duck Congress face the so-called fiscal cliff in the next 60 days. The government will need revenue to avoid painful spending cuts and tax increases, and a tax on carbon emissions could become an option. [click to continue...]

Look who’s coming to Brainstorm Green

Next April, FORTUNE will again bring together some of the smartest people we know in sustainability for Brainstorm Green, the magazine’s annual conference on business and the environment.

This is will be our 5th Brainstorm Green–hard for me to believe, since I’ve been involved since the beginning–and we’ve again got a first-rate lineup of leaders from corporate America, the  environmental movement, the investment community and government, as well as a scattering of interesting writers, thinkers and doers about “green.”

Once again, the event will be held at the spectacular Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, CA. Dates are April 16-18, 2012.

Alan Mulally

New faces for 2012 from the corporate world will include Alan Mulally, the president and CEO of Ford; Rob Walton, the chairman of Walmart; Andy Taylor, the chairman and CEO of Enteprise (they buy more cars than anyone in America); C. Larry Pope, the chairman and CEO of Smithfield Foods (they make more hot dogs than anyone in America, as I wrote in Smithfield Foods: Sustainable Pork?); Vance Bell, the chairman and CEO of Shaw Industries (the world’s largest carpet manufacturer, see my blogpost, This carpet has moral fiber); John Faraci, the chairman and CEO of International Paper; Gary Hirshberg, the CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farm; Russ Ford, the executive vice president of Shell; Bea Perez, the chief sustainability officer of Coca-Cola; and Trae Vassallo of Kleiner Perkins. [click to continue...]

Brainstorm Green: The Home Edition

FORTUNE’s third annual Brainstorm Green conference about business and the environment starts today (Monday), and one new twist this year is that you can play along at home.

BstormGreenHorizonta2B4F8FFor the next three days, many of the plenary sessions at the event, which is being held at the Ritz Carlton in Dana Point, Ca., will be shown on the web. People who sign up to attend online will be able to ask questions, I’m told. This is an experiment, an effort to see how a virtual conference will work and, of course, to expand FORTUNE’s business. (Hint: You can tune in for free this year, but that may not be the case in the future.)

As the co-chair and creator of Brainstorm Green, I’m obviously biased but I think we’ve got a great lineup again this year. I’m going to take a break from blogging for a few days to focus on the conference. Here are some  highlights:

Today (Monday) at 3:05 p.m. (all times are listed as Pacific Time, so this is  6:05 in the East), Lee Scott, the former CEO of Wal-Mart who is now chair of the executive committee of the Wal-Mart board, will talk about Wal-Mart’s sustainability efforts with John Huey, the editor in chief of Time Inc. John is a great interviewer who once wrote a book about Sam Walton, so this session should be a treat.

Following that session, at about 3:50 p.m.,  I’ll be asking some of America’s most important environmental leaders: What Do Environmentalists Want? Joining me will be Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, David Yarnold of the Environmental Defense Fund and Mike Brune, the new head of the Sierra Club. We’ll talk about the outlook for climate legislation in Washington, as well as such hot topics as nuclear power and geoengineering.

Later Monday, I’ll talk to Sally Jewell, the CEO of REI, about “sustainability as a team sport.” [click to continue...]

COP15: Hopehagen–or Flopenhagen?

cop15_logo_b_mSo the verdict is in on the UN climate negotiations that just wrapped in Copenhagen and it’s all but unanimous:

Carl Pope, Sierra Club: The world’s nations have concluded a historic–if incomplete–agreement to begin tackling global warming.  Tonight’s announcement is but a first step and much work remains to be done.

Frances Beinecke, Natural Resources Defense Council: We have taken a vital first step toward curbing climate change for the sake of our planet, our country and our children…. There’s still more work to be done.

Fred Krupp, Environmental Defense Fund: A lot of hard work remains, but a lot of hard work is finished. The new positive steps taken here…president the U.S Senate and President Obama with a n historic opportunity.

Jonathan Lash, World Resources Institute: “Much more is needed, but today marks a foundation for a global effort to fight climate change.

Elliot Diringer, Pew Center for Global Climate Change: The Copenhagen Accord is an important step forward in the international climate effort…it lays the foundation for a system to hold countries accountable. …Much remains to be negotiated.

Hmm..  I thought the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio or the 1997 Kyoto Protocol or the 2007 Bali Roadmap were first steps. Shouldn’t we be taking the second, third or fourth steps by now? Or, if you prefer the foundation metaphor, shouldn’t we hurry up and build the house, before sea levels rise and storms intensify?

This isn’t to suggest that the 15,000 or 20,000 people who descended on Copenhagen during the last two weeks wasted their time. What is being called the Copenhagen Accord sets a target of limiting global warming to a maximum 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times. It promises billions of dollars of aid for poor countries. It points the way towards a resolution of the fundamental conflict between U.S. and China over their so-called “common but differentiated” responsibilities to deal with global warming. That’s important–when it comes to climate and the global economy, the G-2 of the U.S. and China tower over the rest of the world. The leaders of Europe, Japan and other countries at the summit were largely left to rubber-stamp the deal, as The Washington Post reported.

The trouble is, none of this is good enough. Nations can now set own emission reduction targets. (Earlier versions of a political agreement being discussed in Copenhagen had called for specific reductions by 2020 and 2050.) It does not set a deadline for signing and binding treaty. (Until fairly recently, that deadline was supposed to be now.) Sure, aid is promised to poor countries, but aside from some token amounts, no one can be sure where the money will come from.

This isn’t a strong deal. It isn’t  a weak deal. It’s not a deal at all.

It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Having said that, I understand the thinking behind the first-step-much-work-needs-to-be-done analysis coming from the inside the Beltway environmental groups. With the climate debate now shifting from Copenhagen to the U.S. Senate, they need to tread carefully. They can’t be overly critical of President Obama or undecided senators; they need to suggest that something real was accomplished in Copenhagen, to help persuade legislators that the U.S. can enact strong climate regulation without giving a competitive edge to China or India. Carl Pope of the Sierra Club made this argument explicitly, saying: “Now that the rest of the world–including countries like China and India–has made clear that it is willing to take action, the Senate must pass domestic legislation…”

But, again, the rest of the world has not committed to anything.

For a reality check on where we stand, let me refer you to the Climate Scoreboard put together by scientists at MIT, the Sustainability Institute and Ventana Partners, with the support of Nike, Citigroup, Fidelity Investments and others, which uses computer simulations to  model the long-term climate impacts of decisions being undertaken today. Please see the Climate Interactive blog for more detail.

Put simply, we’re not going where we need to go.

A big part of the problem here, as Bill McKibben has written eloquently, is that the world’s governments treat climate change as just another political problem–and it’s not.

Think about the health-care agreement reached this weekend. It’s the product of a series of compromises, some of them quite ugly, but it has the support of President Obama and Democrats in Congress because they believe it’s the best they can do, for now. Maybe they’ll come back to “reform” health care again in a few years. It’s a step, even a big step, in the right direction.

This is how politics usually works. It’s incremental. Even on great moral issues like civil rights, governments move piece by piece–first the military was desegregated, then came schools, then  voting rights, finally housing and employment bias were barred, if I remember my history right. This approach gives people time to get used to change. It’s the mindset behind first-step-much-work-needs-to-be-done.

But incrementalism isn’t going to do the job when it comes to climate change. Every day that goes by when we emit more global warming pollutants into the atmosphere than nature can take out, the job gets harder to do. So a small but inadequate step, even one in the right direction, can actually leave us worse off than before.

One metaphor that helped me understand this is a bathtub: The faucet (industry, transportation, deforestation) is pouring more water in to the tub than the drain (nature’s ability to absorb CO2) can take away, and there’s no way to make the drain any bigger. Just turning down the faucet a little doesn’t help; the water level in the tub can keep rising, albeit not as fast as before. The longer the faucet pours in more water than the drain can take away, the more radically we have to turn it down to stop the tub from overflowing.

McKibben explains it this way:

Physics has set an immutable bottom line on life as we know it on this planet. For two years now, we’ve been aware of just what that bottom line is: the NASA team headed by James Hansen gave it to us first. Any value for carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million is not compatible “with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.”  That bottom line won’t change: above 350 and, sooner or later, the ice caps melt, sea levels rise, hydrological cycles are thrown off kilter, and so on.

And here’s the thing: physics doesn’t just impose a bottom line, it imposes a time limit. This is like no other challenge we face because every year we don’t deal with it, it gets much, much worse, and then, at a certain point, it becomes insoluble—because, for instance, thawing permafrost in the Arctic releases so much methane into the atmosphere that we’re never able to get back into the safe zone. Even if, at that point, the U.S. Congress and the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee were to ban all cars and power plants, it would be too late.

Oh, and the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere is already at 390 parts per million, even as the amount of methane in the atmosphere has been spiking in the last two years. In other words, we’re over the edge already.  We’re no longer capable of “preventing” global warming, only (maybe) preventing it on such a large scale that it takes down all our civilizations.

There’s the argument for Flopenhagen.

As for Hopenhagen, well, I saw a lot of things to get excited about during my week in Copenhagen.

Denmark itself, for one: The nation gets 20% of its energy from wind, it’s rolling out a national system for charging all-electric cars and roughly 55% of the people of Copenhagen ride a bike every day, most to go to work. You won’t be surprised to hear that they are thinner as a group than those of us in the U.S.

Speaking of wind, Tulsi Tanti, the founder of Suzlon Energy, told me that China is the world’s biggest and fastest growing market for win energy. His company is manufacturing turbines in China, and he says the government there is committed in a serious way to clean energy — even if it doesn’t want to be held to absolute limits on emissions.

Finally, the kids. There were thousands of them in Copenhagen. They are committed to organizing to stop climate change, they are smart, they are idealistic, they are not pragmatic and they are not fans of the first-step-much-work-needs-to-done approach. For more, check out 350.org or Avaaz or the Youth Climate Movement.

You know how people say we need to save the earth for our kids? I’m starting to think that it’s the other way round, that they are going to have to save it for us.

4178980929_4b7ef2cc47_o

COP15: Not so bella in Copenhagen

Some people had to wait for a very, very long time to register for the UN climate talks at the Bella Center in Copenhagen where the meetings are being held. The Danes are very democratic so VIPs stood in line with the rest of us.  I ran into Frances Beinecke, president of The Natural Resources Defense Council. Temperatures were in the 30s, and tempers were rising.

The UN did not enhance its reputation for efficiency or crowd control today.

photo

Frances and NRDC founder John Adams ended up waited for eight hours, according to her blog, where she wrote:

Little matter. After three decades at the climate change ramparts, I figured, what was another eight hours at the Danish barricades?

An insider told me later that the only thing that made the long wait bearable was that Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense was waiting behind them in line.

Brainstorm Green’s all-star team

William Clay Ford Jr.

William Clay Ford Jr.

Before I head to Copenhagen this week for the global climate extravaganza, I want to bring you the latest news about Brainstorm Green, FORTUNE’s conference about business and the environment. I’m delighted by the caliber of leaders and thinkers who have agreed to speak at the event, which will be held April 12-14 in Laguna Beach, CA.

Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor, who was a huge hit last year, will be back in 2010. Ford (the company) is one of the few bright spots in the U.S. auto industry, as you know, and while it took a long while coming, the firm seems committed to hybrids, electric cars and other environmentally-friendly technologies, including wheat-straw reinforced plastic and other bio-based materials. Hybrid sales are taking off, as the company recently reported:

  • Ford Motor Company’s year-to-date hybrid sales are 73 percent higher than the same period in 2008, fueled by the introduction of hybrid versions of the 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan
  • More than 60 percent of the sales of Fusion Hybrid are by non-Ford owners – with more than 52 percent of those customers coming from import brands.
SBjpg-filtered

Stewart Brand

One of the best books that I’ve read in a long time is Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-Pragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand, so I’m thrilled to announce that Stewart will be featured at Brainstorm Green. In the book, he brings a fresh perspective to nuclear power (he’s for it), geo-engineering (he’s intrigued) and megacities (they are both green and engines of economic growth). You can be sure he will challenge conventional wisdom at the conference.

Three powerhouse leaders of the enviromental movement–Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense and Mark Tercek of the Nature Conservancy–are also planning to attend. Fred and Frances have ben at the event before, and they both plugged into the Washington scene, which will surely be a topic this spring, while Mark, formerly of Goldman Sachs, will be able [click to continue...]

NRDC’s Frances Beinecke: Act now on climate!

FGB Book Portrait Wood (IMG_8241_1)Just last week, Frances Beinecke, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, gave a speech to a Chicago business audience and the first question went something like this: I read the Wall Street Journal, I still don’t believe in climate science and I want to hear the full  story.

Beinecke’s new book, Clean Energy Common Sense: An American Call to Action on Global Climate Change (Rowan & Littlefield, $9.95), is aimed at those who are skeptical–or at least curious–about the climate change debate. It’s a slim (106 pages), straightforward, easy-to-read argument that  that attempts to connect the climate issue to everyday concerns like jobs, the economy and national security.

“When you go out to Gary, Indiana, Cleveland or Chicago, people are still uncertain,” Beinecke said, as she unveiled the book at the National Press Club in Washington.” They’re not clear on what the science is, what the solutions are, what the threats are, what the impacts are.”

And so Beinecke, as you’d expect, makes the case that the problem is dire, the solutions affordable and the benefits tangible–new jobs, less reliance on imported oil and a livable planet.

To her credit, though, she’s willing to go beyond the what’s-in-it-for-you argument and describe the climate crisis as what it is–the overarching moral issue of the moment, and one requiring immediate action:

Global climate change is the single greatest environmental challenge of our time. And yet, it is far more than that. It is a humanitarian challenge. It is an economic challenge. It is a national security challenge. It is the great moral challenge of our time.

If only more political leaders would frame the issue that way, instead of appealing only to the narrow self interest of voters. [click to continue...]