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Can Technology Transform the Climate Change Debate?

Eileen Claussen

What kinds of technologies do we need to make a real difference in our ability to address the challenge of climate change?

Well, all of you know as well as I do that we need new and better technologies across the board. But I like to think about the world's technology needs in terms of key sectors. And, with respect to climate change, there are three: the power sector, transportation, and buildings. We have seen a certain amount of progress in all of these areas, but it's been largely hit-or-miss.

So simply waiting around for these technologies to make their way from the laboratory into mainstream use is not an option. We don't have the luxury to sit and watch this process evolve ever-so-slowly, like we're watching American Idol week after week to see who the ultimate winner is. We need to speed the process along. Without picking winners ourselves, we need to enact policies that provide the incentives and that create the climate in which new technologies can succeed.

The climate change problem is simply too urgent, too consequential and too big to do this any other way. All of you know the facts by now: 11 of the 12 warmest years on record have occurred since 1995. Ice sheets are melting. We've seen a fourfold increase in major wildfires. And this is just the start of it.

All of the scientific evidence sends a clear message, and it is this: If left unabated, climate change will have tremendous negative consequences for our country and the world.

Last year, super-investor Warren Buffett said that climate change-and I quote-could "materially change" the probability of catastrophes, increasing both the frequency and the intensity of storms. Citing the risks to Berkshire Hathaway's catastrophe reinsurance operations, he said the firm would be charging more for coverage. Because of global climate change, he said "it would be crazy" to keep the firm's rates at the same level as before.

So business leaders-and investors too-understand that this train is rolling down the tracks. And, rather than trying to throw something in front of it, many leading businesses have made the strategic decision that they want to get on board and help shape the policies that are going to affect how they do business for years to come. Because not being ready is a serious risk.

Clearly, a growing number of businesses and a growing number of investors see a growing number of opportunities in developing the energy technologies that are going to help us finally get a handle on the climate problem. But still, the current level of investment and the current level of activity is not enough. Emissions continue to grow by leaps and bounds-even as scientists are telling us with almost unanimous certainty that our current course will take us to a very dangerous place.

We need mandatory policies that will light a fire under what's happening now to address this issue, policies that will take us to another level of action and commitment. We need policies that will slow, stop and reverse our emissions, policies that send a clear signal that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be rewarded in the marketplace. And we need policies that will speed up the process by which new low-carbon technologies are developed and deployed.

There is political pressure for solutions due to the 2008 Presidential contest. On the Democratic side, you have a number of candidates who have pledged to make climate change an important part of their platforms. Among the Republicans, there is U.S. Senator John McCain, who co-wrote the first cap-and-trade bill in the U.S. Congress way back in 2003.

Given the changing politics on this issue, it is plausible that the United States could have a mandatory climate policy in place by 2008, and it's likely we will have such a policy by 2010.

I want to close today by asking my opening question again: Can technology transform the climate debate? I believe that it already has.

A few years back, one of our nation's top leaders, when he was asked about U.S. action on climate change, said this: Those who think they are vying for a seat at the table are mistaken-because there is no table. He was saying there was no place to discuss what we needed to do about this issue because, in his view, nothing needed to be discussed.

Well, there is certainly a table now. And not only does this table exist, but today we are bringing in many more chairs and making the table even bigger as more and more business leaders gather round. And I encourage all of you to pull up a chair as the debate continues. This is a table where there is always room for more. 

For the Record is an excerpt of remarks by Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, to the ExxonMobil Longer Range Research Meeting in May 2007.

January/February 2008