Al Gore: Business is ahead of government on climate change

Cisco hosts a videoconference with former Vice President Al Gore to see how online collaboration and videoconferencing can help climate change challenge.

Can Web 2.0-style collaboration halt climate change? Well, not entirely, but it can certainly help.

Former Vice President and Nobel laureate Al Gore and Cisco CEO John Chambers spoke on a virtual panel on Wednesday to discuss the role of business technology in environmental matters, most notably climate change.

The event was organized to showcase Cisco's videoconferencing technology and, overall, it performed very well.

Gore spoke from a location near his home in Nashville, Tenn., while Chambers was in San Jose, Calif., and the moderator of the event--ITN science editor Lawrence McGinty--spoke from outside London. People could watch over the Web and audiences listened and watched from the VoiceCon conference in Orlando, outside London, Warsaw, Dubai, and Paris.

The multi-location format drove home the basic point of the event: the Internet can help more people collaborate, something that is essential to solving the difficult challenge of climate change.

And of course, videoconferencing, telecommuting, and online collaboration can replace face-to-face meetings that require people to fly, which is very polluting.

Gore said that he is exploring whether Cisco's videoconference technology can be used in the international deliberations to establish global carbon regulations to follow the Kyoto Protocol treaty which is set to expire in 2012.

Not surprisingly, Gore characterized climate change as an urgent crisis, a situation where "scientists are practically screaming from the rooftops" to tell governments and citizens to take action.

He said that he is optimistic that a "tipping point" is nearing in government, where rapid changes in policies could take place.

Specifically, he said it is essential that the United States take the lead in instituting worldwide regulations that put a price on carbon emissions.

He noted that all three presidential candidates are committed to carbon regulations and predicted that fast-growing countries such as India and China--which are fast becoming the largest polluters in the world--will participate in the follow-on to the Kyoto Protocol if the U.S. participates.

"For so long, the United States has been dragging our feet and even pulling the world back from progress it so greatly needs. (That) lets China, India, and every other nation off the hook" from reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

He noted that corporations are actually ahead of governments in addressing climate change in concrete ways. Gore last year joined Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which has invested in several clean-technology firms.

"Most business leaders are way ahead of political leaders, and that's good news because once the market shifts, that really starts to make a difference," Gore said.

Chambers agreed, saying that there has been a "market transition" where many business managers and government leaders are trying to reconcile economic growth with environmental stewardship.

"For the first time, the environment is not just hitting (leaders') radar screen; they also know this is doable with economic growth," he said.

The company's chief marketing officer, Susan Bostrom, who spoke on the panel from Orlando, said that Cisco's use of videoconferencing at 185 locations has saved the company about $100 million in travel expenses, eliminating about 15 million cubic tons of carbon emissions.