Fortune editor-at-large David Whitford reports this week from Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference:
PASADENA, Calif — Climate-change legislation is coming, that’s the first point to emerge Monday from two panels at Fortune’s Brainstorm: Green conference — one that looked at politics and policy, the other at the costs, risks and opportunities that await us all in a carbon-constrained America. But new regulations may not be coming as fast as we think, that was one surprise. And by itself, legislation won’t be enough.
None of the experts who spoke could imagine a bill of any kind being signed into law within the next year at the earliest. Most stretched the timetable to as far as 2011. There are lots of reasons for that, but here’s what it comes down to, says California Attorney General (and former governor) Jerry Brown: “The threat [of global warming] is more obscure to the average person, and the costs [of legislation] are very real.” That clash, he says, “will make significant climate change legislation rather difficult.”
A lot revolves around coal. It doesn’t matter how some House Democrats may feel about the need for prompt action to stave off global warming. As long as they represent coal districts (as 27 of them do), they’ll have a hard time passing a law that hurts their constituents’ pocketbooks. The challenge lies in devising legislation that’s tough enough to do the job, says Fortune’s Marc Gunther, but not so tough that it has no chance of ever being approved.
Fred Krupp, who leads the Environmental Defense Fund, was hopeful nonetheless. He sees an “enormous upwelling of pressure” within the business community that will make a cap-and-trade system for reducing carbon emissions a reality in the next 18-24 months. “America has to get on with this,” he said, and not just in the policy arena.
Want to be the next Bill Gates or Warren Buffett? Krupp asked. Enormous rewards await those who can devise ways to suck carbon out of smokestacks, or even out of the air. “If we use the profit motive,” Krupp said, “and only if we use the profit motive, we will solve this.”