Denmark's Erik Rasmussen, one of the world's leading figures in the public debate over climate change, shares his colleagues' frustrations over the widespread disregard and denial of the global crisis.
But the founder and CEO of Scandinavia's largest think tank, Monday Morning, hasn't given up hope yet -- even if, as he says, "more big disasters" might be what it takes to convince the public to take on the "biggest challenge ever."
"We've failed all along -- the politicians failed, business failed, science failed, media failed," Rasmussen told The Huffington Post, noting the missed chances include the 2009 climate conference in his home country. "But there is still time for setting a new agenda."
His sights are now set on a couple key opportunities: The next United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 17) in Durban, South Africa, at the end of November, and the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) next June in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
To maximize the potential for success, Rasmussen said there needed to be a new kind of leadership that is representative of society -- from members of "the next generation" to "an extended version of business" that goes beyond the usual clean-tech companies to include fashion, art and film.
"People don't trust politicians," said Rasmussen.
And the pressure is on. An international climate agreement that was drawn up in the late 1990s, the Kyoto Protocol, is set to expire next year.
"We are running out of time, and running out of possibilities," Rasmussen added. "But threats provide innovation."
Jacob Zuma, President of the Republic of South Africa, underscored this sense of urgency when he spoke on a panel this Tuesday at the Clinton Global Initiative annual conference in New York City. "We all agree that climate change is a danger to humanity," he said. "We need to come to an agreement that encompasses all of us, even though we're affected somewhat differently."
"For small island nations, it is not a theoretical danger. For them, it's a question of life and death," added President Zuma. "They can’t understand why we’re failing to realize that, and therefore whenever we come out of these conferences, they come out the most dissatisfied."
One of the key issues, according to former U.S. President Bill Clinton, is the great "disconnect between where the money is, where profits are made and where the burdens fall."
The biggest losers tend to be the poorest countries. "I think it's quite possible that the Maldives won't be here in 30 or 40 years," he said, while speaking on the same panel. In addition to sea level rise, President Clinton noted the dangers many other nations face as temperatures rise and patterns of rainfall and drought change.
Mexico is another one of the vulnerable countries already feeling the effects. "Last year we had the worst rains ever in Mexico, and this year we are living with the worst drought ever," said Felipe Calderon, President of the Mexico, also a member of the panel.
While Rasmussen is "sorry to say" that natural disasters can speak volumes, and inspire action, he also emphasized the need for a "new language" that will "get people to understand that this is not something that is happening in the far future, but something related to your life right now."
Through his new Project Green Light, he aims to make this idea "visual" and "visceral."
President Clinton offered a similar message to his conference's attendees: "You have to change the experience of people," he said. He, too, noted the importance of the public's engagement on the issue -- as long as it's in a way that is supported by science.
"If you’re an American, the best thing you can do is to make it politically unacceptable for people to engage in denial," he said during a separate session at CGI. "I mean, it makes us –- we look like a joke, right? You can’t win the nomination of one of the major parties in the country if you admit that the scientists are right."
Jens Stoltenberg, Prime Minister of Norway, also noted during the Tuesday panel that it would be "completely irresponsible to base our policies on an assumption that the majority of scientific advice we get is wrong."
"You have to understand that it is in your hands, it's in your power to change the situation," Rasmussen told HuffPost. "Because right there, next to you, are certain possibilities you can adopt and you can use that can prevent this."
According to President Clinton, these alternatives can also be economic winners, and said the economic return on greater energy efficiency is four times that of traditional energy investments. "We have to get ordinary people to understand that this is not an economic problem, but an economic opportunity," he said.
"People have to feel and experience that," added President Clinton. "We're still a long way from having a critical mass of people who have seen evidence that climate change can be defeated in a way that broadens economic growth and prosperity."
"We have all the tools," said Rasmussen, "just not the mindset yet."
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