THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Most Important People Were Not in Copenhagen

The most powerful individuals on the planet have convened here to reach a deal. But based on the quality of the deal that emerged, I believe that the important people in the world are elsewhere.

Over the past week I've had the opportunity to meet or stand near more famous and/or powerful people than in the rest of my life combined. I shook hands with the crown prince of Denmark (and nervously talked about bicycling). I sat in on talks by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al Gore, and at an event of The Climate Group I saw the governors of Wisconsin and Washington, the premiers of Ontario, Quebec, South Australia, the First Minister of Scotland, and the Prince of Monaco. I attended a number of these events with Bradley Whitford, a U.S. actor (on the West Wing) who is Hopenhagen's celebrity promoter. Bradley and I chatted with the governor of Wisconsin as if he just happened to be some guy in the row ahead of us.

 

At Hub Culture, a social club, governors of two states of Brazil wandered by, and I just missed meeting the President of the Congo. Last night I had to wait an extra five minutes to enter my hotel because the Prime Minister of New Zealand was checking in. Later that night at dinner I sat next to an Obama adviser.

Now 160 heads of state are here, concentrating the world's leaders in this small city.

But I feel unimpressed. The most powerful of them, Barack Obama, just gave a speech that made my heart sink. I watched it from the press office of Global Observatory in downtown Copenhagen.

Obama pressured the world to accept a treaty that falls far short of what we need. If we follow the proposed agreement, the earth will likely warm by more than three degrees Celsius, eventually melting the ice caps and raising sea levels by tens of meters. The emissions targets of the United States are also embarrassingly low.

Part of me sadly applauds Obama's pragmatism, as he's trying to get a deal that is politically feasible in the United States, and once we have a deal, we can always improve it in the future. Congress is highly unlikely to accept a target larger than Obama is proposing, and Obama would be irresponsible to negotiate a deal that the Senate would not ratify. (In Kyoto twelve years ago, Gore signed a treaty that the Senate would never ratify.)

I'm not surprised that the U.S. Senate is holding us up. Public opinion is not sufficiently mobilized around this issue. How can we expect our leader to come to a meaningful agreement when half of Americans don't support restricting greenhouse gas pollution?

Many experts believe if we make the modest investments, perhaps as little as one percent of the world's economy, we will solve this challenge. I actually believe it will cost less, simply because I believe in the power of humans to innovate. But we need to make the investment.

If the challenge is public opinion, as I believe it is, the important people are not in Copenhagen. The important people are your friends and your friends' friends. They are the people who have yet to embrace the idea that if we invest heavily in clean technology and disinvest from fossil fuels, we will all benefit. They are the people who you can influence.

At Hopenhagen we believe we can build public support if we speak to people's dreams and not their fears. We need to paint a picture of a future that people can embrace. We must 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 world?

Despite disappointment in the deal, I have seen much that inspires me in Copenhagen--Desmond Tutu expressing hope, the energy of the youth, and even the fact that so many world leaders are convening to address climate change. Apparently the agreement reached to combat deforestation is quite good. And for the very first time, the United States is making a pledge to reduce pollution, however small that reduction may be.

But whatever the outcome of this agreement, remember that the most important people are those you can talk to. If you can inspire them, then we will truly solve this challenge.