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Has the U.S. lost its passion for green?

With the economy faltering, environmental concerns may have to play second fiddle for now.

By Brian Dumaine, assistant managing editor
Last Updated: January 29, 2009: 4:44 PM ET

DAVOS, Switzerland (Fortune) -- Although topic A at Davos is the financial meltdown, a few brave souls took it upon themselves to grapple with the still existing - and for the last few months largely ignored - problem of global warming.

At a private luncheon, the consultancy McKinsey & Company played host to an excellent discussion. The headliner was Sir Nicholas Stern, professor of economics and government at the London School of Economics, and one of the most influential European voices on climate change.

Much of the conversation focused on the upcoming meeting in Copenhagen this December where world leaders will meet to hash out a climate change agreement to replace the Kyoto accord. Stern argued that the key would be for the United States and China to agree on a framework to dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions.

The Chinese have been reluctant to reduce their emissions because, as they argue (rightly), the rich nations emit most of the world's greenhouse gas, and why should China cut back on its economic growth by buying expensive pollution technology?

The key, Stern said, was for the United States to commit to clear goals for reducing greenhouse gas and if the Chinese saw that the Americans were serious, they would eventually sign on, convinced that that's the way the world was moving.

What was most striking, as Stern pointed out, was the size of the challenge. The professor walked through the math. On average each American emits about 20 tons of carbon every year from driving, air conditioning homes and running flat-screen TVs. If we are to avoid the worst consequences of climate change - rising sea levels, flooding, droughts and famines - the world average by 2050 will have to drop to 2 tons per person. That means Americans must reduce their emissions by 90%.

Stern was hopeful the United States, led by an environmentally savvy Obama administration, would help make the Copenhagen talks a success. And he may be right. But Frances Beinecke, the head of New York City-based environmental group the National Resources Defense Council, threw some cold water on Stern's optimism, pointing out the economic crisis in America has made any sort of climate change agreement in the U.S. - at least for the time being - politically untenable. "Americans don't want to hear about climate change," says Beinecke, "they want to hear about jobs."

The American coal industry, one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, has been lobbying hard on Capital Hill for more coal mining and coal plants as a way to create jobs. Beinecke says that the coal industry has the ear of a powerful group of senators from coal producing states, and without their support, the passage of any climate treaty coming out of Copenhagen seems nearly impossible - at least until the economy turns around. To top of page

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