I took part of last week off to attend an annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists that was held in Portland, Ore., this year. It was the last place I expected to get a deep insight into the future of Silicon Valley.
Fran Pavley, a former California state legislator, was the speaker at the standing-room-only talk where I had my high-tech epiphany. Pavley, now a senior adviser for the National Resources Defense Council, shared her experiences fighting for two of California's landmark bills on global warming.
Pavley had sponsored Assembly Bill 32, passed last fall, which mandates reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. She had also sponsored AB 1493, which called for reducing car emissions by 30 percent using existing technologies. "As a former junior high school teacher, I had no idea I was taking on major oil and car companies," she said.
AB 1493 also ultimately passed, and its standards are being adopted by as many as 13 other states. But major car makers are challenging the legislation in courts in three states today, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is delaying giving California a key waiver to set standards higher than those of the federal government.
Pavley made a strong case why a large state such as California needs to push the envelope on global-warming countermeasures. California is the 12th-largest source of greenhouse gases in the world, and 42 percent of those emissions come from cars and light trucks, Pavley said.
Creating broad coalitions was one key to getting the global-warming bills passed, Pavley said. That's where the business community comes in.
Some business leaders, particularly in the tech sector, have become vocal backers of global-warming legislation. They're betting that the laws will help make California a leading source and market for clean technologies that can be exported around the world.
"If we don't champion these technologies here, Europe or Asia may come to dominate," Pavley said. "We in California are calling it the greening of the bottom line."
Indeed, California could drive a new tech movement, just as it earlier fostered the spread of semiconductors and computers.
In the past year, I attended another clean-technology conference. But not until I listened to Pavley address a group of Unitarians did I really get the message.
Global warming is heating up a whole new direction for Silicon Valley--one in which responsible engineering may just lead to years of healthy profits.