Political Habitat

Of all the daunting things that would have to happen for the world to take a serious stab at countering climate change, none matter more than coming to terms with coal. In developing giants like China and India, that means weaning both power plants and rural homes off their coal addiction. The U.S. may have been eclipsed by China as the world’s biggest greenhouse emitter, but it is still making a disastrous carbon contribution. This nation, trying to re-shape its image after years as the industrialized world’s negative role model on climate, needs some help from the inside to deal with coal. Soon.

Jim Rogers has taken some tentative steps to be that guy. Maybe. He’s CEO of Duke Energy, the biggest power provider in the Carolinas and, by virtue of a merger with Cinergy three years ago, a chunk of the Midwest focused on Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.

Recently, Rogers threw down the gauntlet and challenged a pillar of the denial community. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) has consistently opposed any and all concrete action on climate. Duke Energy is pulling out of NAM, in large part due to its intransigence on climate.

Duke Energy is still a member, and Jim Rogers a board member, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber is being challenged by some of its members, like Nike and Johnson & Johnson, to put a sock in it on its longstanding climate denial. An informal poll by the Natural Resources Defense Council suggests that most Chamber members would still strongly prefer to act like nothing’s wrong on climate, but the tide may be turning.

In the last years of the Bush administration, some of America’s biggest captains of industry came together to make a request of the White House: Regulate us. That’s right, U.S. climate policy was so far gone a few years ago that Duke Energy, General Electric, DuPont, Ford, Alcoa, General Motors and others had to ask to be regulated. I doubt many trees were hugged in the process, but Rogers and other industry leaders at least acknowledged that the world is facing a problem, with their businesses smack in the middle of it.

Rogers also appeared last month in a remarkable 60 Minutes interview. Reporter Scott Pelley likened the electric boss to a “reformed tobacco executive” who realizes that his product is lethal. In the piece, Rogers acknowledged coal’s role in climate change, and that it’s a gravely serious problem that needs immediate attention. Then he said that Duke will clean up by 2050 -- a date that many climate scientists insist is on the other side of the point of no return. Meanwhile, Duke is still building coal plants, and its CEO says a quicker transition from coal “won’t happen.” That suggests that the guy who is arguably the fossil fuel community’s most visionary leader can’t see his way out of the biggest environmental challenge of our lifetimes. Not good.

Especially when many others in the field, and in the political arena, aren’t anywhere near Rogers’ level of enlightenment. Get a load of this analysis of the 60 Minutes piece from the conservative media vigilantes at NewsBusters, under the spectacularly obvious blame-the-messenger headline “CBS’s Pelley Blames Coal for Global Warming.”The piece didn’t get around to mentioning that Pelley’s guest, the guy who burns all that coal, agrees. If you want to get a sense of how deeply the denial thread runs on the ideological right, read the comments in response to the piece. Astounding.

A little good news in all this is that Obama’s proposed budget offers more of a hint that coal isn’t quite the king it used to be: $320 million for research and development for solar, and only $180 million for pursuing carbon capture and storage -- the elusive, and possibly mythical, promise of “clean coal.”

I’m torn whether to admire Rogers for having more courage and responsibility for most in his industry, or to get angry that he won’t take sufficient action on a problem he knows is for real. A cautionary tale exists in Lord John Browne, the former CEO of BP Amoco. Twelve years ago, his Lordship rocked the oil world by announcing his concerns about the oil industry and global warming. He set the company on an ambitious plan to reduce its carbon emissions by 2010 and pulled BP’s membership in the Global Climate Coalition, the 1990s-era Deniers’ Club. Despite an atrocious safety record at BP facilities in Alaska, Texas, and elsewhere, Browne had his oil company basking in a bright green glow. BP joined the industry coalition begging the Bush administration for regulation. Almost ten years to the day after his environmental epiphany, Lord Browne was tossed under the corporate bus amid both corporate and personal scandals.

So Jim Rogers may need to watch his step. Particularly if he’s got one foot on the train, and one foot on the platform.

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Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.) 

(MNN homepage image created with use of photo by Ryan Somma/Flickr)

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