The Wall Street Journal last week wrapped up its ECO:nomics conference which brought together players in a burgeoning green collar sector at the swanky Bacara Resort in Goleta. The title of the event plays on the shared Greek etymology of “ecology” and “economy,” (which means “dwelling” or “house”), and if there was one overarching threat to our collective household that the event’s participants had in mind, it was global warming.
Speakers as diverse as Nathan Myhrvold, the CEO of Intellectual Ventures; Mary D. Nichols, Chairman of the California Air Resources Board; and Haley Barbour, the Governor of Mississippi all addressed the challenge of alleviating climate change.
Myhrvold, whose company invests in inventors and monetizes their inventions by acquiring patents and nurturing business entities (as opposed to traditional venture capital firms which invest in already-established business plans), made the case that current efforts at conservation and producing alternative energy are “nowhere near enough” to stave off global warming.
He attributes the impossibility of avoiding warming to human nature which, he said, is bad at taking precautions to prevent a consequence which is “diffuse” and not immediate. It’s hard to predict exactly what global warming will look like, he said, but “by the time it gets noticeably bad you’re screwed.” He added that 20 percent of the carbon dioxide that we breathe now will be in the atmosphere 10,000 years from now.
Therefore, Myhrvold suggested, we ought to focus some of our energy on geoengineering, that is meeting the changes wrought by greenhouse gas emissions with technology or, more simply put, attempting to engineer the Earth’s climate. He suggested, for instance that we figure out how to efficiently launch sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere in order to reflect the sun’s light.
Environmentalists, he said, have met such suggestions with scorn and Carl Pope, audience member and executive director of the Sierra Club, expressed his concern on cue. Geoengineering, he said, “is a little bit like saying I won’t pay for a fire department but will pay an architect for a new house.”
This morning Mary Nichols, chairman of the California Air Resources Board, sounded a more hopeful note. She waved off concerns that AB32, a bill stipulating that California reduce its carbon emissions to 1990 levels, will depress the economy. She did say that specific sectors such as mining will sustain job losses, but they will be offset by gains in growth areas.
Nichols is also optimistic that California will move forward on the Western Climate Initiative, a collaboration between western states to institute a cap-and-trade system. Arizona and New Mexico have recently pulled out, but Nichols says California will begin a program by January 2012with at least one other partner. She also expects the California legislature to increase the Renewables Portfolio Standard from 20 to 33 percent, meaning that utilities will be required to produce 33% of their electricity via renewable sources by 2020.
Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi who closed out the conference, rejected the concept of such legislation in his state. He said he believes that we should be talking about clean energy as opposed to renewable energy, the critical difference being that “clean” energy includes nuclear which provides 20 percent of Mississippi’s electricity.
The title of Barbour’s segment was “A GOP Approach to Environmental Activism,” a topic he never actually addressed. What he did address was the diversifying of Mississippi’s energy portfolio. He argued that the state attracts the business by not offering subsidies. If a green energy business can’t survive with federal subsidies, he said, it probably isn’t a viable business. He said the state does invest in infrastructure, however.
He elicited more than a little laughter from the audience when he said, “You gotta put on your big boy britches,” when negotiating with would-be employers who want to set up shop in his state.
Barbour, whose name is often thrown into the ring of potential Republican presidential candidates, told his interviewer, Wall Street Journal columnist Kim Strassel, that he would not be announcing a run at the Eco:nomics forum. He showed why he is taken seriously by political observers, though, when coupling his folksy demeanor with an encyclopedic knowledge of Mississippi’s energy industry past and present. He made sure to mention that California-based Twin Creeks Technologies recently opened a manufacturing facility in Mississippi to produce solar modules. “The technology is cool,” he said and people are lining up to apply for jobs.
Even so, unlike his California counterpart, the governor of a gulf state whose economy benefits greatly from oil drilling, is much friendlier to fossil fuel producers. Said Barbour, “Mississippi energy policy is more American energy.”