Former President Bill Clinton kicked off yesterday’s global energy forum at the Kimmel Center in characteristically Clintonesque fashion: by dropping a literary allusion.

“The great French writer Victor Hugo once said, ‘There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come,'” he told the nearly 900 business leaders and NYU students assembled at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. “When it comes to energy, I think the slogan should be, ‘There is nothing more destructive than an idea whose time has come and gone, and nobody will face up to it.'”

Moving beyond fossil fuels and spreading the use of environmentally efficient energy sources was the major theme of yesterday’s day-long forum, which was hosted by the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation. Clinton was joined by three panels of intellectuals, politicians and representatives of the energy industry, who gave their takes on the state of global energy production.

After his introductory remarks at 9:30 a.m., Clinton took a seat in the front row next to NYU President John Sexton. He remained in the Skirball Center throughout the forum.

Panelists largely avoided detailing the damaging effects of global warming. Instead, the panels focused on the politics of selling conservation to a skeptical public.

In his opening remarks, Clinton addressed the difficulties of effecting change on a global level when a large part of the world, including the United States under President Bush, is seemingly stuck on using what Clinton characterized as outdated technologies.

“The old energy economy which emits greenhouse gases and relies on imported oil in America is very well-organized, very well-financed and very well-connected politically,” he said. “The new energy economy is diffuse, entrepreneurial, underfinanced and by and large woefully unconnected politically.”

Throughout the day, panelists referred to a bill pending in Congress, the Climate Stewardship Act, which seeks to diminish U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The act is sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.

Lieberman, who took part in the day’s final panel, used the dialogue to discuss his bill, saying the more the public understands the reality of global warming the more likely legislation will break through “the influence of interest groups that resist change.”

The act was defeated in the Senate last year, garnering only 44 votes. Though Lieberman said the “unfortunate events of Nov. 2 will diminish our number to 42,” the former vice presidential nominee said he and McCain are working toward building a coalition of interest groups they hope will bring the majority of senators to the fold.

Criticizing the Bush administration’s stance on energy was a popular activity among panelists.

“I would defy anyone to define for me what the object of the Bush-Cheney energy policy is, other than to just help out a couple of friends,” said Roger Sant, chairman of the energy corporation AES.

Fellow panelist Stephen Byers, a member of the British Parliament, said his country was in the unique position of having some hard-earned political clout with the president. In late 2005, he explained, the United Kingdom will host the G-8 summit, where Prime Minister Tony Blair plans to make energy efficiency a major issue.

“Tony Blair has taken huge political blows in the U.K. for his support of President Bush [and the war in Iraq], and I think it’s time now for [Bush] to support Tony Blair … to recognize that, alongside the fight against international terrorism, the other global issue is global warming.”

Clinton, who re-entered the auditorium after lunch with wife Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., wrapped up the day’s events with a keynote address at 5 p.m. He used his time to urge influential audience members to take action on the global warming front.

He again mentioned an author, Malcolm Gladwell, and his book “The Tipping Point,” challenging the audience to improve the environment though small changes, like using energy-efficient light bulbs.

“Don’t leave here today just thinking this is all interesting and possible,” he said. “Leave here today looking for a project in your hometown, or in your business, or in your house, or in the country in which you vacation to promote clean energy, energy conservation and a world free of the worst consequences of climate change. You can do something, and in the aggregate as we do these things, we will reach a tipping point that all public policy will follow.” •

Conference sound bytes

“Getting electricity to our population is our critical priority in our development at the moment … because when we have 18-to 20-hour blackouts, then they create political problems like riots.”
Leonel Fernandez, president of the Dominican Republic

“We ought to double or triple the money we’re spending on international cooperation on energy technology innovation. We ought to sharply increase the United States’ efforts and United States’ support for international efforts for adaptation on climate change.”
John Holdren, professor of environmental science and public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University

“You’ve got to do something to reduce your independence on oil, because one fine day this country will get paralyzed.”
Edmund Daukoru, special advisor to the president for petroleum and energy, Federal Republic of Nigeria

“Since 1990, we have cut our emissions by 14 percent, and we have seen our economy grow by 34 percent. So the two are not incompatible.”
Stephen Byers, member of British Parliament for North Tyneside

— compiled by Anne Klingeberger