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Tamminen: High Profile, Big Stakes Poker Game Over Green

I had a dream about watching one of those high stakes poker games that you see on TV these days. There were bit players who you knew, from the few colored chips in front of them, would soon fold—but the two “whales” at the table were Barack Obama and Chinese leader Hu Jintao. They each had so many chips on the table that you could barely see their cowboy shirts, but the purpose in their deadly stares could not be obscured, even by the dark black Ray Bans that shaded their eyes.

Obama wasted no time putting his ante smack in the middle of the green felt for all to see—roll back greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% lower by 2050 (a statement made just 14 days after he was elected). Hu countered with a commitment to reduce energy consumption by 20%.

Cards were dealt and the players tugged on their caps (Hu’s read “Made in China” and Obama’s proclaimed “Copenhagen”, an obscure reference to either the failed Chicago bid for the 2016 Olympics or the upcoming climate talks).

The American Prez made the first bet—adopting California’s greenhouse gas limits dor auto tailpipes as the national standard. The crowd murmured as they realized this meant he was betting on executive power instead of Congress.

The Chinese Prez countered with a commitment to replace 15% of dirty fossil fuels with clean energy, like wind and solar, by 2020. The crowd gasped audibly, realizing that this would double China’s current renewable energy supply.

Mr. Cool and Mr. Harmonious took and tossed cards, each betting bold plans to measure and register greenhouse gas sources; out-compete each other on a carbon market; and save more trees than anyone thought possible—raising the stakes higher and higher, a pile of loot that made it hard for one to even see the other, let alone get a real read of their respective poker faces. Aides tugged at the sleeves of each leader, whispering words of advice or caution, but the shrewd observer knew these competitors needed no guidance—they were playing for keeps.

As often happens in dreams, reality and fantasy merged; the closer I looked at the loot on the table, the more it resembled a blue, spinning globe. Were the presidents playing for wealth, the future of a planet, or both?

I awoke with adrenaline pumping, the final result unknown, wondering if anyone else had distilled the words and deeds of these two world powerhouses into anything resembling my dream, or if most people had failed to see the high-stakes poker game that was going on in world capitals, UN speeches and government announcements day by day.

The media has largely failed to add up what’s already going on in both countries, which allows Hu and Obama to make these pledges, so how would average citizens or investors know?

The Carbon Challenge - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage
The Carbon Challenge - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage

Yes, carbon will soon have more than a penny-ante price, but if we play the game shrewdly at the Copenhagen climate change conference in december and beyond, this may be a game with many winners and a dream for a more sustainable, resilient economy come true.

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Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is a partner at Pegasus Sustainable Century Merchant Bank and the Cullman Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. (Cracking The Carbon Code is a registered trademark of Terry Tamminen).