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Global issues dominate Aspen forums

Billionaires, politicians, leaders of industry debate energy policy, climate change, mass migration



ASPEN, Colo. - With their sparkling skies, verdant landscapes, and dressed-down atmosphere, mountain resorts of the West have no trouble getting people with big credentials to stop by to share thoughts about how to save the planet.

Aspen does this especially well. Among its 300 speakers, the Ideas Festival in June drew the likes of Bill Gates, David Brooks and Judith Bader Ginsberg. An environmental forum in July was smaller but just as robust in its own way, with the backing of the National Geographic Society.

But the Aspen Renewable Energy (ARE) Days conference held in August surely had the most concentrated list of household names. The podium had billionaire titans of industry and commerce, one of Hollywood's brightest stars, governors and more. The unwritten premise of the session was that we must more swiftly transition away from fossil fuels - action now stalled in Congress.

Repeatedly, these bright lights were asked to share insights about how to move the United States past its impasse about energy policy. Their answers were rich, but not revelatory. The take-home for me was that even the really smart people haven't figured this out.

Ted Turner and T. Boone Pickens were the billionaires. They shared the stage twice, sharing jokes and sometimes viewpoints. A measure of their wealth is that in one story they told, the two were together in a hotel room somewhere, and for some reason they were talking about business acquisitions. The corporations mentioned were household names, big corporations. Yet they talked like most of us talk about buying shirts and pants.

Out at the Pitkin County Airport, Turner's jet was easily identified: it has a bison's head on its rudder. Turner has 55,000 bison, some of which end up on platters at his restaurant chain, Ted's Montana Grill. He's also the nation's largest landowner, with 2 million acres, including large ranches in both Montana and New Mexico. On his land in New Mexico, Turner is partnering to create a one-mile-square solar farm, equivalent in output to a tiny coal-fired plant.

His great wealth - and interests - are also revealed in his philanthropy. He founded and endowed the UN Foundation with $1 billion, with a portion of its mission being to reduce greenhouse gases through energy transitions. While in the audience, he sat in the front row, attentively listening to presentations about wind energy and the idea of nuclear energy as a "renewable energy of the West."

On stage, Turner was blunt, both funny and grim. Asked at one point by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, how he had come to embrace the challenge of global warming, Turner talked about his early investigations of power plants. "You have to be a not-very-smart person not to get it," he said.