Will Tatas Take Manhattan? And Will They Save the World?

“I would buy a Tata,’” said Upper East Side resident and retiree Genny Gold, laughing. “General Motors should have a Tata. Then maybe they could survive.”

Ms. Gold and 900 others attended a roundtable discussion about climate change that included Al Gore, Charlie Rose, S. C. Johnson CEO H. Fisk Johnson, Cornell Professor Stuart L. Hart, and—last but not least—Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata.

The discussion was the last hurrah of a two-day forum at the 92nd Street Y. The star of the evening? A grayer but still lively—and seemingly slimmer—Al Gore. The former Next President of the United States intoned his usual dire warnings about the need for global cooperation—“We’ve reached a fork in the road of the future of humankind”—but the main theme of the forum was faster action on the environment, not necessarily more.

One way to solve global warming quicker, according to the panel, is the Tata Nano.

When Mr. Rose pressed Mr. Tata to discuss the car, the Indian business leader joked, “Let me try not to eat up the whole show.” Then he described how he originally conceived of the Nano as an affordable, safer alternative for Indian families who typically travel together on scooters at night—at first as a larger car without doors.

The catch? The final version looks sleek, will cost only $2,500, seats up to five people, and just so happens to run at 65 miles per gallon.

Although the Nano will be going on sale only in India next month, when Mr. Rose asked if it might go on sale in America, Mr. Tata coyly replied, “In the next two years”—once the Nano meets all the U.S. government’s emission and craft standards.

Mr. Tata added later that he is planning to release the car’s electric counterpart in September—in India.

“I think for many years, the world has looked to America for leadership of technology and of example,” Mr. Tata said.

“Did they find it?” Rose asked.

Mr. Tata paused. “They not exactly have. The audience laughed.

THE NEED FOR—AND concrete possibility of—swift, massive change was the unifying theme of Wednesday night’s discussion. Mr. Gore lamented the “tyranny of short-term horizons,” which he said applies to politics as much as to publicly traded companies. He said that public companies are governed by “the tyranny of the quarterly earnings report,” citing a study concluding that 80 percent of corporate executives would not make an investment that makes their company more sustainable and profitable in the long run, if they must slightly miss their quarterly earnings’ projection.

Politics hung in the air as much as the private sector. Charlie Rose asked more in the tone of a statement, “A tax on gas is politically not feasible.”

Mr. Gore, laughing: “I can confirm that.”

Mr. Rose: “I thought you could.”

Coming together as a global community will be difficult, the panelists agreed, but it is also essential.

The former vice president explained that if every developed country cut its greenhouse emissions to zero, but development continued at the same rate that it has been in developing countries, then “the crisis would still overtake global civilization in this century.”

It’s essential, then, Mr. Gore added, for the world to coordinate its response to the climate crisis; and it is a “demonstrable fact” that the United States is “the only country that can effectively lead the world [beyond] the longstanding division between rich countries and poor countries…” Will Tatas Take Manhattan? And Will They Save the World?