An investor can always make the case that global carbon legislation would never happen—just look at the failure of the Kyoto Protocol, for example. Even experts agree, to an extent.
"This is the challenge of the whole carbon bubble rubric," Lazarus said. "You have to take the threat seriously to start talking about stranded assets, and there are different extents to which different institutions accept these concerns and price them in."
Julie Gorte, senion vice president of sustainable investing at Pax World Management, said, "To make assets stranded, you need to have a carbon price that is high enough, first for coal, second for oil, and last for natural gas. Cap-and-trade or a carbon tax would do it, but it would need to be global, and we're far from that—and Congress can't pass anything."
Experts say, though, that it's a mistake to think of stranded assets as applying only to carbon or as hinging on legislation. For example, Caldecott said, declining costs for renewables will have more impact over time than a global climate change agreement.
Gorte said that looking at how quickly the coal market has deteriorated as a result of the rise of natural gas—a rise no one predicted a decade ago—is an example of how quickly markets can change and assets become stranded.
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The broad issue for investors is to think about all the companies and sectors that could be affected by climate change, and the potential market mispricings range from agriculture to utilities.
There's now a tool to help investors determine how great their exposure to stranded assets may be.
New on the Bloomberg terminal is a stranded assets valuation calculator. It lets investors stress test the cash flows and valuations of companies and portfolios based on carbon constraints, and will help them understand where their portfolio is exposed to and affected by carbon. If emissions have to fall by X percent by 2017, what is the impact on ExxonMobil, and how does it affect cash flow and valuation?
And it's just the beginning, a first step is making stranded asset calculations a core metric in financial analysis, said Caldecott, who worked closely with Bloomberg on the project.
"It won't just be about carbon," he said, but will look at other resource issues, including water.
Even if an investor does not believe that legislative change on a global basis is possible related to carbon, stranded assets must be part of risk management.
Jonas Kron, senior vice president and director of shareholder advocacy at Trillium Asset Management, said its energy analyst recently completed an exam of energy industry and tar sands exposure as a way to pull the stranded assets concept into the firm's investment process.
"I want to be very clear that I haven't come here to vilify fossil fuels," Gurría told the OECD meeting. "We don't need to get to zero tomorrow. Not even in 2050. ... But sometime in the second half of the century we will need to arrive there. Carbon entanglement will not be easily undone."
As an investor, you might want to make sure it doesn't undo you.
—By Eric Rosenbaum, CNBC.com