They're not waiting for regulations, he added. They're looking to beat them.
A new carbon framework will emerge, Courtright said. And if coal doesn't have a way to beat those constraints, it will be left behind.
"We see a great deal of (regulatory) uncertainty over the next 10 years," Courtright said. "That's why it's vitally important to have this carbon capture technology in place by 2015. If it slips out, you're probably looking at nuclear as your low-carbon, predictable energy source."
In this sense, Copenhagen is irrelevant.
Managers building next-generation battery plants or looking for places to put wind turbine factories aren't worried the talks will end in mid-December with no consensus on carbon limits.
They fear their competitors - or a different industry, or an as-yet unseen technology, or even another country - will emerge victorious in the race to decarbonize various industrial and economic sectors.
China intends to invest $1 million an hour for the next decade - $88 billion in all - in green technologies. The Energy Department expects solar and wind to balloon into a $3.5 trillion market. President Obama last month offered up $3.4 billion in matching grants to hasten development of a "smart grid" in the United States.
"What's truly amazing is the amount of investment flowing into green technology in the absence of any price signal," said Kristen Sheeran, director of the Economics for Equity and the Environment Network. "It's clear we'll continue to see these kinds of investments flowing into green technology, if for no other reason that the Chinese are doing it ... and U.S. producers are realizing this is where the future is going to be made."
But to maximize development - to see revolution across vast sectors of the economy - many economists say government has to step in with some sort of incentive or signal.
In general, economists see two ways to drive new technologies and shift cultural paradigms: Policy makers can push the technology into the market by targeting investing at specific research. Or they can pull it by setting a bar or standard and offering incentives to clear the mark.
Economists disagree wildly on the effectiveness of various strategies. California in the late 1990s and early 2000s tried to pull the automobile market into electric power by requiring that a certain percentage of each automaker's sales in the state be zero-emissions vehicles. President Carter in the 1970s tried to push the development of solar and wind energies, investing some $1.4 billion a year in solar alone by 1981. Neither ultimately worked.
So far federal and state governments have mostly pushed efforts to decarbonize the economy, offering grants and tax incentives for specific projects.
But so long as carbon is free, those efforts push against prevailing economic forces, said Adam Jaffe, dean of College of Arts and Sciences and professor of economics at Brandeis University.
"You can push against economic forces, and you may have some success, but if you get a framework that puts a price on carbon, then the economic forces are on your side," he said.
For climate this is particularly crucial, he said, given the problem is global, the consequences dire, the remedies unknown and almost uncountable.
Jaffe as analogy compares a price on carbon to the economic incentives that have sent generations of miners off to the hills in search of glory and riches: Instead of searching for gold, these new carbon prospectors will be looking for ways to cut emissions.
"We don't know where the deposits are or how deep in the ground they are or which are expensive and which are cheap," he said. "But the clearest thing to do, if you want a whole bunch of people running around prospecting for carbon, is to make it clear that carbon has value."