Speakers at a climate-focused conference on Feb. 23-25 were generally upbeat about efforts the government, states, non-profits and corporations have been making to address climate change over the past decade.

Carol Browner, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, pointed to the nation's ability to improve air quality through the Clean Air Act, which was enacted in 1970. "It is because of government and the private sector working together that we have made the progress that we have made in terms of cleaner air and cleaner water," she said at the Climate Leadership Conference in Arlington, Va. "We've got to show people that there is a path forward."

That people are moving forward on a variety of fronts was a key theme at the conference. Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a coalition of investors and environmental and public-interest groups focused on sustainability, said concerns about extreme events' potential risks on infrastructure as well as the economy have reached the boardrooms of major corporations across the U.S. "We have taken the issue from the ghetto of environmentalism, where only environmentalists and scientists care. The fact of the matter is, this is an issue that is about capital markets. It's about economic futures and the future of our world," she said. She highlighted Citi's Feb. 18 announcement that it would lend or invest $100 billion in projects to reduce the effects of climate change over the next 10 years.

Alison Taylor, Siemen's vice president of sustainability, said that, as the firms' clients have become more aware of the costs of not addressing climate change, their focus has changed. "This isn't an [environmental] compliance discussion any more," she said, noting that clients are now asking for more efficient energy and water solutions, even if they are more expensive initially.

Jim Chelius, engineering director at American Water, which owns and operates about 400 water systems across the U.S., said approximately 90% of American Water's operating costs are devoted to power. "It is incumbent upon us to get as efficient as possible from a bottom-line perspective," he said. He noted that there is tremendous potential for water utilities to assist states in meeting energy goals. He said that simply replacing low- efficiency pumps with highly efficient pumps could save about 10 million megawatt hours annually. That's roughly equivalent to permanently shutting down seven coal-fired powerplants, he said.

Mike McCallen, director of emergency planning for National Grid, said that, during Hurricane Sandy, natural-gas pipelines were flooded and pulled up from underground. As a result, National Grid is researching how it might be able to revamp the pipelines so they would shut off automatically in extreme weather.

Speakers acknowledged that major challenges remain. "We still have a long way to go," Lubber said. She expressed frustration that firms that "are doing the right thing" can still be "fighting every policy that affects climate change" through membership in groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.