Climate, Technology and Trepidation: Energy Innovators

Article excerpt

On the controversial subject of global climate change, there is both good news and bad news. On the negative side is the fact that the 2,500 scientists on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have concluded that "the balance of the evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on the global climate." They attribute the perceptible warming of the atmosphere that has occurred to the burning of coal, oil and gas and the resulting release into the air of large quantities of carbon dioxide and other types of greenhouse gas. As a result there is increasing interest in the December meeting in Kyoto, Japan, of representatives of the 160 nations to consider what new rules and regulations may be necessary to prevent further global warming and violent climate change.

Although the United States has only 5 percent of the world population, we emit 23 percent of the world's carbon dioxide and 80 percent of air pollution in the United States comes from burning fossil fuels. Fifty-six percent of U.S. electricity currently comes from coal with its heavy emissions of carbon dioxide. Facts and figures such as these have persuaded President Clinton to become an active convert to the need for improving energy efficiency and cleanliness and he has taken over the management of this issue from Vice President Al Gore.

A bit of good news is the fact that by no means all of the energy companies in the United States or those abroad are committed to preserving their dependence on coal and oil. Although many continue to cling to old ways and fear any change, there is a refreshing number of courageous innovators who are prepared to experiment with the newest scientific innovations and discoveries.

A classic example of the new type of innovative leader is John Browne, Chief Executive Officer of British Petroleum. His speech on May 19 at Stanford University broke new ground and showed that coal and oil barons are going to be challenged. He specifically committed his company to a partnership, including the U.S. Energy Department, to design the right technology strategy to deal with climate change. He is committed to the development of solar power and BP already has a 10 percent share of the world market. He supports specific programs of reforestation and forest conservation in Turkey and Bolivia.

Another activist on the issue of climate change is Franklin Nutter, who heads the American Re-insurance Association. Responding to the fact that insurance industry payouts for weather-related damages have reached $57 billion for the 1990s compared with only $27 billion for the 1980s, Mr. …