Western nations, including the U.S. and the Obama administration, failed to win an agreement on a comprehensive regulatory regime at the international global warming gabfest in Copenhagen last December.

With the election of Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy, it’s almost certain that the U.S. will not get anything approaching climate legislation from Congress this year. The Obama administration has acknowledged that it isn’t really pursuing large-scale energy legislation anymore, despite the president’s call for energy legislation in his Jan. 27 State of the Union address.

President Obama called for “passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.” That’s hand waving, an entirely vacuous and anodyne call to action that the administration and its opposing Republicans know will not happen.

Energy legislation is dead for 2010, except for possible subsidies for nuclear power, clean coal, and offshore drilling, designed to appeal to Republicans. But that reach across the partisan divide likely will enrage Obama’s base among liberals and environmentalists. The predictable outcome: more gridlock and name-calling. No action.

These are salutary developments for the U.S. and the world. As Ronald Reagan was wont to say, “Stand there, don’t just do something.” This is particularly true as some of the alleged science behind the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 report turns out to be bogus. Claims of glacial retreat in India and the Andes are based on entirely unreliable sources. The same is true about hand-wringing on devastation of Amazon rainforests and the social impact of sea level rises, particularly in Bangladesh.

The latest scientific developments—and it is good that the mainstream media is actually beginning to examine the IPPC’s claims with some skepticism—don’t mean that global warming is not real. They mean that the IPCC’s assessments are unreliable. The science may unravel further as it gets greater scrutiny. We don’t know what to believe.

Attempts at global international collaboration, as in Kyoto and Copenhagen, were doomed to depravation by roving bands of governmental pirates, seeking economic rents. The operative word was “extortion.”

Copenhagen reminded me of the International Law of the Sea Treaty negotiations over seabed mining, which I covered in the mid-1970s. The impetus for the negotiations was to provide a way to regulate deep seabed minerals mining. The talks deteriorated into attempts by poor countries to extort money from rich countries in the name of “fairness.” After decades of diplomacy and negotiations, the U.S. ultimately refused to become a party to the treaty. Ironically, seabed minerals mining (Hoovering up manganese nodules from the ocean floor) has never come to pass.

The same sort of political game pitting rich nations against poor occurred in Copenhagen. The result: nothing of substance from the negotiations in a frigid Denmark.

The U.S. government wasn’t alone in getting stalled in the Copenhagen gridlock. The Europeans, particularly Germany, banked on an economic agreement fostering a carbon trading market benefiting German bankers. Given the complex global politics, that wasn’t likely; the German agenda was kaputt gegangen even before the international meeting began.

The U.S., Germany, and the other European nations knew when they landed their luxury jets in Copenhagen that no real deal was in the works. So they floated the fake notion of a “political” agreement, an agreement to agree in the future. That fell apart. Instead, there was no agreement except on civil disagreement.

Advocates of aggressive international governmental regulatory approaches to climate change are wringing their hands and whining about failed opportunities. The Euros knew that what they were attempting—a draconian global climate control regime that favored them—was unlikely. The U.S. knew nothing would come of Copenhagen.

Now the spin brigades are marching. In a commentary in The Energy Daily, Anne Lauvergeon of Areva and Jim Rogers of Duke Energy argued: “The fact that representatives from so many countries and organizations were willing to meet in Copenhagen is clear proof of their willingness and desire to work together.” That argument, of course, is baloney. The nations and organizations were willing to party together. Work together? Forget it.

Rich nations that gave at least lip service in Copenhagen to what they argue is the potential catastrophic impact of climate warming—that includes the Obama administration—are trying to cobble together new multinational approaches to global warming. That approach is doomed. It rests on the notion that nations will yield their own interests on behalf of a distant, and not-well-understood, global goal.

What to do? The answer to global warming, if it is real, isn’t global. It’s local. Given the long time frame of potential global warming effects, local adaptation appears to be the least-cost and most efficient approach. A lot of the modes of adaptation, such as using energy and water better, make sense regardless of the state of the climate.

Analysts Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, writing in Foreign Policy magazine in January (“The End of Magical Climate Thinking”) observed that the Obama administration’s approach to global warming adopted a fundamentally regulatory paradigm. “Obama was following two decades of magical thinking among both greens and liberal Democrats about energy technology,” they wrote. “In this view, energy efficiency pays for itself, solar and wind power are already nearly cost competitive with fossil fuels, and both can quickly and cheaply reduce emissions. This Pollyanna view of fossil fuel alternatives and efficiency, which makes going green seem cheap and easy—little more than the cost of ‘a postage stamp a day’—has provided the justification for green-policy advocacy that has overwhelmingly focused on pollution regulations and carbon pricing while ignoring serious investment in energy research and development.”

Given the long time frame of potential global warming effects, local adaptation, including honest, industry-driven R&D (as distinguished from the junk science that recent revelations have disclosed when it comes to warming science and much Department of Energy R&D), appears to be a preferable, practical approach to global climate issues. Research the issues. Adapt at home. Watch the global issues take care of themselves. There is no case for precipitous action, despite the overwrought claims of many environmentalists.

I don’t want to mislead anybody here about my views. I don’t regard global warming, if it is occurring, as necessarily a bad thing. While warming evangelists have been screeching about the calamities that will flow from a warmer world, they have dramatically overhyped the threat.

There will be winners and losers from a warmer world, if that is in the climate cards. It’s a difficult, probably impossible, math to balance the climate account. Will the net be positive or negative for the world we live in? Nobody knows, or can know. My suspicion is that a warmer world is desirable, and the costs of trying to forestall that far exceed the potential benefits. Admittedly, that’s pure speculation.

But we know that the climate changes, and has changed significantly for as far back as we can measure. There was a “Medieval Warm Period” and a modern “Ice Age.” Beyond that, we just don’t know the order or the direction of the changes.

So it makes sense to move cautiously, hedge bets, employ rigorous science, and adapt where possible.

What does this mean for managers in the power business? I suspect there will be less urgency in coming years to develop carbon dioxide emissions control strategies that can’t meet real-world economic criteria. If warming is real, and if there can be no global approach to combating it, then it makes sense (and it always did) to look at low-cost local options. That’s adaptation.

To me, that suggests more gas generation, along with longer-term development of coal gasification as an economic alternative to conventional pulverized coal technology. New nukes, and improved existing nuclear plants, are very useful adaptive strategies, but not silver bullets.

New nukes are way too expensive today. The Obama administration’s proposal to double or triple loan guarantee subsidies for nukes could move the industry forward and overcome Wall Street reluctance to finance new plants. But that’s far from certain. Nor is it certain that Congress will go along with the big bump for nuclear loan guarantees. Obama is courting Republicans with this proposal but risks losing a substantial portion of his Democratic base of support.

Renewables are useful, but they don’t even approach a complete answer. Wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass are niche technologies. There’s nothing wrong with that, but they can’t make a major contribution to future electric generation.

Adaptation to an uncertain climate—over a long period of time—militates against fads, particularly those driven by panic-stricken governments, evangelical environmentalists, and businesses seeking competitive advantages or subsidies. Plug-in hybrid cars, hydrogen fuel cells, smart grids, carbon sequestration, and wind-and-solar über alles are the contemporary fads I’m talking about.

Much of the adaptation to climate change will come from agriculture, not from electric generating technologies and automotive trends. It will be slow, incremental, and at very low cost. We probably won’t even notice it. Drought-resistant crops, improved irrigation, better tillage practices, and the like, will lead the world’s response to whatever warming is coming.

At Copenhagen, the world correctly ducked a panic-stricken approach to climate change, requiring coercive but feckless international controls. So we’re back to sensible, specific, low-cost ways to adapt to the possibility of climate change. If it turns out that global warming is a problem (I’ll take warm over cool every time), approaches exist that don’t involve unknown and unproven technologies.
The best advice on climate change: Think locally and act locally, based on easily understood costs and benefits. Take care of the little stuff and the big picture will take care of itself. In most areas of life, it’s the plodders, the grinders, the folks who eschew fads and work hard at what they know, who ultimately make the greatest contributions.

—Kennedy Maize is the executive editor of MANAGING POWER magazine.