Our energy problems need the wisdom of the Pope, but Washington politics gives us Trump Fortune

By Stacey Higginbotham
Fortune
September 28, 2015

Washington is a mess, but here’s what we can do, according to industry experts at Fortune’s Brainstorm E conference in Austin, Texas.

Federal policy and politics looms large in the minds of entrepreneurs, CEOs, and investors as they evaluate new technologies and investments in existing clean-energy infrastructure (such as solar and wind). But with Washington, D.C. as dysfunctional as it is at the moment, Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey and co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, recommends that interested parties turn to the states for any leadership around environmental efforts.

“Washington is in the Potomac, and that’s the best we can hope for,” she said speaking onstage at the Fortune Brainstorm E event in Austin, Texas on Monday. She went on to say that the United States is a country in desperate need of energy policy but between now and the presidential election the country will have to rely on the states.

Her fellow panelist Andy Karsner, executive chairman of Manifest Energy, went a step further. Washington lawmakers will not just not get anything done between now and the election, he argued, but it will likely not get anything done period. If and when states manage to succeed in achieving progress on environmental policy, or technological breakthroughs help achieve climate goals, then Washington will gladly come in and take credit. And on many of the biggest issues—nuclear power, self-driving cars—we can only wait for “policy by placebo,” as he called it.

All of the panelists agreed that the U.S. has put itself in a predicament because its political process rewards candidates who position themselves to the right and left of the center of their parties. In the current crop we have a candidate who is a “self-avowed socialist” up against a “bigoted, neo-fascist lout,” Karsner complained. There need to be ways to get more voices into the electoral process.

Whitman said that many people are lobbying the Federal Elections Commission, the agency responsible for changing the way political candidates participate in the process, to bring in credible candidates to the debates. She clarified: Not a third-party candidate, mind you, but a third way to attract a candidate for the dominant two parties.

The panelists all agreed that such a move might bring a bit of sanity to today’s federal government. In the meantime, they didn’t seem overly optimistic about the chance for big policy change. They didn’t even seem optimistic that Pope Francis’s message about climate change would even make much of an impact. “Maybe for a nanosecond,” allowed Whitman.