03/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hope From a Flawed Conference

Most world leaders agree that we need to keep the earth's eventual warming under two degrees Celsius. Above this level of warming (or maybe even over 1.5 degrees), we will dramatically change global patterns of storms and droughts, and sea levels will rise substantially.

Yet last month in Copenhagen, world leaders agreed to an accord which, if followed, would likely warm the earth by more than three degrees.

I attended the talks as the Hopenhagen Ambassador, charged with the task of collecting and sharing people's messages of hope. While hope was in short supply, and while the final accord was flawed, I did see three major rays of hope in Copenhagen, and I believe that we can forge a better agreement in the future. Nonetheless, we face huge challenges, especially in how we communicate this issue.

The first ray of hope was the record-setting youth attendance at Copenhagen. At past climate conferences, the youth delegation was small. In Denmark, thousands of attendees were in their twenties, and youth organizations that didn't exist a few years ago now claim tens of thousands of members. The organization, an NGO with impressive global reach, was run almost entirely by young people. I fed on this energy, and I wasn't alone. When I asked the Archbishop Desmond Tutu what gave him hope, his eyes lit up and he said, "The number of people, especially young people, is fantastic".

A second ray of hope came from city and regional governments around the world. The lack of a global agreement often masks the progress being made from the bottom up. For instance, even though the United States doesn't have a federal climate policy yet, over half of the states have some type of climate policy. I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger speak passionately about California's goal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent by 2020. Other regional leaders made dramatic pledges. A favorite moment of mine came when the premier of Scotland offered a special bottle of 42 proof Scotch to any leader that agreed to join him in reducing carbon emission by 42 percent by 2020. "If you have watered down targets," he said, "you will get watered down Scotch."

The third ray of hope was that so many world leaders attended and spoke fluently about climate science and policy. When 140 heads of state arrived at the end of the final week of the conference, many details had still to be sorted out. While this fact spoke poorly of the negotiating process, it also forced world leaders to discuss details of climate science and policy. And based on reports from the negotiations, most heads of state understood the likely difference in sea level rise between 1.5 degrees and 2.0 degrees of warming, as well as the difference between 350, 450, and 550 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

If the leaders of the world understand what needs to be done, the world's youth are mobilizing, and a number of regional and city governments are adopting the right policies, why did the Copenhagen Accord still fall short of what was needed? True, it is a huge success that the United States and China, who together combine to account for over 40 percent of global emissions, have finally agreed to reduce pollution. But their pledges to reduce pollution, like the rest of the world's, are not sufficient. (You can see what countries adopted the accord and see their pledges here.)

I believe that it is not just world leaders who are at fault, but all of us. While many people of the world want action on climate change, they rate the issue as a low priority. In the United States, nearly half of voters don't support restricting greenhouse gas pollution.

Perhaps one reason public opinion lags is that we are stuck in a "suffer or sacrifice" mindset. Most people think we have two options: we can endure catastrophic global warming, or we can make painful sacrifices to change the way we live. It's easier to ignore the problem or not believe in it if neither option is palatable.

But these options are false. We must do away with the idea of "sacrifice" and replace it with "investment." A good climate policy will cost us money, but that money is not lost--it is an investment in a prosperous and sustainable future.

Perhaps we need to paint a picture of this future. Perhaps we need to speak of a future where cars make no noise and produce no pollution because they run on batteries or hydrogen fuel cells, and where electricity from solar power is so cheap and abundant that even the poorest in the world can afford it. Imagine buying energy from our neighbors instead of purchasing oil from distant lands. Imagine tropical forests and coral reefs expanding and growing instead of dying. Who wouldn't want to invest in that future?

Only with major investment in research, development, and deployment of clean energy will we create such a world. The International Energy Association estimates that we need to invest $500 billion a year more than we already are in clean energy to keep the earth's eventual warming under 2.0 degrees Celsius.

As I argued in a previous post, the most important people were not in Copenhagen. The most important people are your neighbors and the people who will listen to you about this issue. Tell them that there are rays of hope, but that we need their help. We need their support for a massive investment in clean energy.