"I am much encouraged by the trends in understanding in the business community," said John Holdren, who is this year's president of the AAAS as well as director of the Woods Hole Research Center and a professor of environmental policy at Harvard University, US. "It's quite exceptional when you have businesses calling on government to regulate them."

Holdren was referring to the recent statement by the US Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of 9 corporations and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and the World Resources Institute that called for the US federal government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Steven Chu, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a Nobel prizewinner in physics, agreed. "Once industry realizes there are no loopholes, they're actually quite clever," he said, speaking on potential regulation to cut greenhouse gas emissions and increase efficiency in his plenary speech on the energy problem and what we can do to solve it. Chu went on to quote Winston Churchill that "America can be counted on to do the right thing once all other possibilities have been exhausted".

Another promising sign is the growing investment in renewable energy, both by European companies and the venture capital community. But Holdren believes the world needs to triple or quadruple its investment in renewable energy development. "We are spending a pathetically small amount of money worldwide," he said. In 2006, the US combined public and private investment in energy R&D was $5-6 bn, representing less than 1% of energy revenues. Other high-tech industries, in contrast, typically invest around 10% of their revenues in research.

Although the US Department of Energy's 2008 investment in research on renewable technologies such as hydrogen, biomass and solar energy is likely to be much higher than two years ago, R&D in some other renewables as well as gas and oil technologies looks set to be cut.

While Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute believes that the climate problem can be solved at a profit, because the value of the energy that doesn't need to be bought will be more than the cost of the energy-saving technology, Holdren disagrees - he thinks that a solution will need greater investment.

And despite massive investment in nuclear fusion technology over the years, Holdren believes there is only a 50/50 chance that a commercially viable fusion reactor will be available to provide energy by 2050. "We cannot count on technological miracles to rescue us from current folly," he said. Holdren also reckons that scientists and engineers should tithe 10% of their time to thinking about how they could improve the human condition.

Policy matters
Another factor raised in several AAAS presentations is the importance of countries adopting a consistent policy on energy research and pricing. This enables researchers and industry to maintain their efforts in the knowledge that their funding will not suddenly be slashed or potential income streams drastically altered. As Chu put it, you "need a stable platform of price as an incentive for investment".

With regards to cutting emissions, Chu believes that a cap and trade system for carbon in the US would be more powerful than a carbon tax. He says that a totally free trade system would lead to too much yo-yoing in price and if the price was too low, young innovative ideas could be snuffed out. "At $30 per tonne of carbon lots of technologies are turned on," he said. But equally, following a question, Chu said that an individual carbon allowance "works for me".

Rising seas
But enough of potential future policies - let’s get back to the reality of climate change as it's happening today. Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the summary of its fourth assessment report. Although the panel analysed the results of 23 climate models, it did not include phenomena for which there's currently not enough data to create models, such as melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets and the rapid retreat of glaciers. Bob Bindschadler of NASA revealed at the AAAS meeting that sea level rise will probably be much faster than the IPCC upper estimate. "Dynamic response at the ice-sheet perimeter will dominate sea-level evolution and that's what we know least about," he said. "Our community hasn't been able to give the IPCC the models they need. I hope that can be reversed within five years."

With that sombre news for sea-level, let's hope that the climate for change - both political and technological - has improved even further by next year's AAAS meeting in Boston.