U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are up 40 percent since 1990, but we're stuck in neutral when it comes to finding new ways to reduce them.

Duke Energy CEO James Rogers -- who was one of the forces behind the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (CAP), the corporate coalition that just a couple of years ago pushed urgently for a now-kaput cap-and-trade system -- said there is little to look forward to in terms of improved energy policy at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference today.

In the last session of Congress, Rogers said, “We got very close, but we failed.” Now cap-and-trade “is a piece of history, very hard to resurrect, because even though cap-and-trade was invented by Republicans, it has been demonized by Republicans.”

In the present congressional term, Rogers said, “there is a low probability that anything happens” on climate legislation or even on the Clean Energy Standard (CES) proposed by the Obama Administration, and he added, that “might well be true of the next TWO sessions.”

In a private interview following the session, Rogers said he believes the Obama CES has been derailed by the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. “The incident in Japan is going to require all of us to pause,” Rogers said. Though optimistic that Fukushima will eventually be instructive, in the short run it will make a CES more difficult because a rising anti-nuclear sentiment “makes it difficult to put nuclear in” an energy standard, while at the same time, nuclear advocates will say, “If you’re not putting nuclear in, we’re not going to have a standard.”

Just back from a visit to China, Rogers offered Confucian solace. “Our greatest glory is not in never failing,” he quoted, “but in rising every time we fall.” Speaking enthusiastically about advanced pebble bed nuclear technologies he saw in China, Rogers essentially advocated investment in technology innovation.

“I’m a great believer, in a world of uncertainty, in having a portfolio of options,” Rogers confided following the public session, describing his plan for Duke Energy. “I don’t know how it’s going to play out on nuclear. I can’t predict how it’s going to play out in coal -- or gas,” he said. “So I’m being careful not to be overly dependent on any one” of these scenarios.

“In Washington,” Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund, said, “I don’t think we’re likely to see anything, except I take very seriously what Senator McConnell said the other day, that we are at a defining moment on pollution issues.” What Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) meant, Krupp explained, is that for “the first time in 40 years, there is an attack on the Clean Air Act” and an aggressive effort to “strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to regulate greenhouse gases.”

Krupp said he agrees with Senator McConnell. “It will be a defining moment. It will be an opportunity for members of Congress to vote as to whether they stand with the American people to keep our air clean or to strip EPA of its authority.”

Krupp offered two consolations. One is that progress can be expected at the state level on smart grid and efficiency. The other is that two years is a very long time in politics. Two years ago, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and a list of other conservative Republicans all supported the U.S. CAP cap-and-trade initiative, he said. “Who’s to say where this will all be two years from now?”

Michael Shellenberger, President of The Breakthrough Institute, vigorously asserted that the best policy left is concentrating on innovation. “The Breakthrough Institute has been the biggest advocate of making large and sustainable investments in technology,” he said in a private interview. “And we think we should put a lot of money into R&D.”

In the international arena, Shellenberger told the panel’s audience: “The action is around issues of technology innovation.” The focus, he insisted, “has got to be on innovation to make clean energy much cheaper. Until it is, the technology with the most potential to substitute for a climate change-fighting agenda, he added privately, is nuclear. “If you want to reduce emissions now, deploy nuclear power plants.”

The Honorable Connie Hedegaard, Commissioner for Climate in Action for the European Commission, was the fourth panelist. Despite U.S. recalcitrance, she said, climate policies are expanding around the globe from India to Brazil (and including China), “and as far as we can see the best way to get things done is through a carbon market. Cap-and-trade and Europe’s other climate change-fighting and renewable energy building initiatives, she declared, are considered incipient successes, especially since they proved themselves during the Great Recession. “It’s not either cap-and-trade or technology,” she said, “It’s very much both.”

During the panel presentation, the audience was text-polled on when it expected U.S. climate change policy action. At the end of the session, the results showed two percent expected policy action from Washington in the coming year, sixteen percent expected it within two years and a whopping 82 percent do not expect it in the foreseeable future.

And yet, as Fred Krupp pointed out, “We haven’t solved a pollution problem anywhere in the world without putting a limit on how much can come out.”

Tags: anti-nuclear, brazil, breakthrough institute, cap-and-trade, ceo james rogers, ces, china, clean air act, clean energy standard, climate legislation, coal. fred krupp, commissioner for climate in action, confucian, congress, duke energy