By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

ASPEN — For four solid days this past week, the historic Hotel Jerome was packed with academics, Forbes list members, Silicon Valley luminaries, government energy leaders and Hollywood activists attending the 7th annual AREDAY conference which brings business, thought leaders and financiers together to wrestle with how the United States can shift to a renewable energy economy.

This brainy jam session at 8,200 feet above sea level takes place far from Washington, and this year, it seemed farther than ever, kicking off just after Congress had split for the summer holiday, with Senate leader Harry Reid announcing that even his scaled down energy bill would not be taken up until after the holiday. This followed the July anti-climatic squelching of the real deal, the once-ambitious Kerry-Lieberman climate/energy bill. So no climate bill, not even a skinny energy bill, and none expected. See ya in September. No, wait, after the election.

Frustration with Washington bubbled like a volcanic mud pot at AREDAY, with several presenters venting about how Congress punted on even a basic, simple Renewable Electricity Standard or RES, which could conceivably be passed on its own (no doubt it would acquire some baggage) without the complicated, controversial big elephant of a carbon tax or carbon trading “mechanism” dragging it down.

A RES would mandate that electric utilities incorporate a certain percentage of clean energy into their portfolios. Many states already have such laws, also called Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). But even though a RES can work wonders (moving states like Maine, Minnesota, California and Texas toward the future),  the U.S. energy markets are connected to a national grid system, with federal regulation, which all begs for a national policy. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) has counted 60 senators of all stripes who would favor a national RES (somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 percent by 2020), but even this bright tidbit has apparently been lost in the beltway fugue.

Naturally, AREDAY (American Renewable Energy Day) brimmed with supporters of both a RES and some sort of climate bill that would begin to reduce the carbon emissions threatening our planet, and our ailing economy. Either or both would help level the playing field between polluting fossil fuel energy sources and renewable energy — bringing jobs, cleaner air and robust new industrial development.

Why would we in the U.S. want to miss this amazing opportunity? I asked everyone I could. The answers: Inertia. Fear of change. Misinformation. Too much  information. Not enough information. Ineffective media. And the number one answer? Oil and coal money has made puppets of our elected leaders.

No one said it better than featured speaker, ardent conservationist Ted Turner, the founder of CNN and the nation’s largest private land owner:

Not everyone agreed, however, that we really need Washington to turn the tide. Several speakers noted that fighting pollution, even carbon pollution, can be highly effective at the local level. Communities, cities and states can do a lot. We can save more than we imagine by making our buildings efficient. We can buy hybrids and soon, electric cars. We can work with state utility commissions to increase clean energy. Billionaire entrepreneur Sam Wyly put himself in this camp of optimists:

It is uplifting to think of those “zillions” of ways Wyly referred to that can all mitigate climate change.

Still, we’d move faster if Congress were playing along with the 80 percent of the public that considers climate change to be “real”  and if the obfuscators who have been trying to confuse the public about climate action quit promulgating the fiction that this change will bring loss and deprivation. (OK, we don’t know that for sure, but envision a world running on wind turbines and solar panels with geothermal power that’s not chewing up mountains or requiring wars — does it seem dangerous and sacrificial? More so than sending our young people to war?) Think. It seems much more likely, in fact a near certainty that we’ll lose more by failing to act. Think: Cold War, should we have ignored it? Think: Race to develop computer chips, was it worth it?

You’ve heard the term banana republic? Our new moniker will be different, but it will have the same meaning. Maybe we’ll still be king in cable TV, and we’ll be the Popcorn Nation, which will become a derisive term, like banana republic, to show us as frivolous. Because we won’t be a serious competitor in the major world markets, in the energy markets, and we’ll have depleted our resources playing catch up.

This is a salient point. It’s logical to conclude that if we dither and fret long enough we will fall irrevocably behind.

It’s a possibility that positively aggravates Avatar director James Cameron, who also spoke at AREDAY (and has really leveraged entertainment to bring eco-awareness to all). You’ll want to hear his passionate personal take:

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