The world’s most powerful multinational executives converged on the outer edges of Goleta last week to discuss a most pressing issue for industry and the world at large: how to implement eco-friendly technologies and still make lots of green while doing so. Although the three days of talks didn’t reveal any earth-shattering surprises, it did feature frank conversation about the necessity of shifting to eco-friendly practices now, a common refrain that a diversity of energy sources-including nuclear-will be the key to humanity’s future, and a general agreement that the Bush administration has done nothing to foster green growth in the past eight years.
The first annual ECO:nomics: Creating Environmental Capital conference-held at the Bacara and sponsored by the Wall Street Journal-was attended by the heads of General Motors, General Electric, Dow Chemical, Wal-Mart, Daimler, Duke Energy, and Edison International, to name but a tiny fraction of participating corporations. Also attending were representatives for presidential candidates John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama; prominent venture capitalists who put millions into eco-innovation; leading experts on oil and energy; Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; and Shi Zhengrong, the solar power mogul worth nearly $3 billion and known to be the richest man in China. All told, it was probably the wealthiest, most powerful assembly ever held on Santa Barbara County soil.
It began on Wednesday night with Journal publisher Robert Thomson explaining, “There is hardly a government anywhere in the world that’s not acting, or agonizing” about environmental issues. That led into an onstage chat with GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, considered to be an eco-visionary for the corporate elite. Lest anyone think he’s dyed green in the wool, Immelt prefaced his remarks with, “I’m an investor, I’m a capitalist, and I’m a businessman.” He then ripped into many tirades about the slow pace of American industry to adopt eco-friendly practices and greener technologies. “We live today in a certain kind of hell where nothing’s happening,” said Immelt, who noted GE’s lack of technological progress. “We’re still selling the same light bulb Thomas Edison invented over 100 years ago,” he said. Immelt extolled the lucrative prospects of green energy, calling it “one of the best export stories this country has today.” Bold, honest, unafraid of ruffling feathers, and open to exploring all ideas, Immelt set the tone for the rest of the conference.
Thursday’s talk began with Wal-Mart chief H. Lee Scott admitting “we are not green.” The excitement level peaked around noon, when the Rainforest Action Network managed to sneak into the main ballroom and confront Patricia Woertz, the CEO of agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, about her company’s alleged deforesting of tropical regions to make way for palm oil plantations. During the Q&A between the audience and Woertz, BP’s Robert Lukefahr, and the Journal‘s Alan Murray, Rainforest Action Network’s Brihannala Morgan introduced herself-which took some of the breath out of the room-and accused Archer Daniels Midland of pushing for an alternative fuel that was actually more harmful to the environment. Morgan unsuccessfully tried to present Woertz with 600 signatures from American schoolchildren opposing the deforestation, and attempted to have Woertz sign a pledge not to support biofuels producers who destroy forest. Woertz took the disruption in stride. After the moderator Murray asked Morgan to be quiet, Woertz said that to meet the energy demands of 2015, palm oil must be considered. BP’s Lukefahr also jumped in to defend Woertz, explaining, “We as an industry are trying to balance the needs of human beings around the world to get economic benefits and a sustainable lifestyle.”
Following a talk with green-leaning venture capitalist John Doerr, the evening closed with representatives from the McCain, Clinton, and Obama camps discussing their candidates’ energy and environmental policies. McCain’s rep Douglas Holtz-Eakin supports the market-based philosophy of “pick the policy. Believe in the market. Let it go.” Although the Clinton and Obama strategies are supposedly similar, Clinton’s rep Gene Sperling kept repeating the populist point, explaining that Clinton wants to set up “structures that empower the typical person so they can make choices that move toward a greater low-carbon future.” When asked if Clinton was considering nuclear, Sperling said flatly, “No.” Obama’s rep Jason Grumet was more open to the idea of nuclear power, explaining that while there are problems with that technology, Obama “also believes there are equally significant problems with massive-scale renewable.” Grumet also spoke more openly about the idea of a carbon tax and more regulations, telling the largely laissez-faire crowd, “You can have Lord of the Flies or you can have a government that tries to do things for the collective good.”
As the night came to a close, the audience was asked to cast their votes on handheld devices for who should be the next president. In round one, Obama won with 42 percent, followed by McCain at 41 percent, and Clinton at 17 percent. After Sperling pled for a recount, the voting went again, this time with McCain getting 42 percent, Obama 41, and Clinton, again, 17.
Friday’s talks covered the importance of ethanol, the progress of solar and wind power, the role of philanthropy, and the future of oil. But nuclear had become a buzz topic for the conference, which focused attendees on the conversation Going Nuclear: Panacea or Pipe Dream? Featuring Edison International’s chairman John Bryson and Areva’s Tom Christopher, the talk explored how much public perception needs to be changed to get America back on track with nuclear power. “Public acceptance is absolutely essential,” said Bryson, who remains “cautiously optimistic” and predicts more public acceptance in three to five years and new nuclear projects coming online by 2020. At the end of the talk, the audience was asked whether it saw nuclear as a key to solving climate change. Via handheld devices, 85 percent said yes.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger closed the conference with a discussion of his attempts to, as he sees it, make California as green as it can be. Listing such successes as the hydrogen highway, the solar roof initiative, and suing the federal government to get stricter tailpipe emission standards, Schwarzenegger said, “I think good things are happening all over the world. And I think the important thing for us now is that Washington recognizes that this is important, because Washington has really failed terribly in really creating guidelines and a vision for this country and a vision for the future, for the world, where everyone ought to work together in fighting global warming.”
The governator reiterated what had been said throughout the conference: While some regions and industries are moving ahead with self-greening, the federal government is standing in the way. That dozens of capitalists-including some who disputed openly the causes of global warming-agreed with this sentiment was probably the most informative aspect to ECO:nomics. When it revs up for a second installment next year-no official word on whether it will be back at the Bacara-there’s sure to be much more green progress from the new administration.
For the full reports posted last week on this website, see independent.com/eco-nomics.