Will Coal Power Plants be the Berlin Wall of the Future?

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

I attended the Copenhagen climate conference as the Hopenhagen Ambassador, tasked with the responsibility of "spreading hope." Unfortunately, the mood in Copenhagen was more frustration than optimism, and most people claimed some level of disappointment when the talks ended. Trying to reclaim optimism, I looked to history.

When speaking about climate change, we often talk about the next fifty or hundred years--but what have the last fifty or a hundred years been like?

I had a few free days after the Copenhagen conference and before returning to the States, so I decided to visit Berlin, the epicenter of the worst wars of the past 100 years. After the six-hour (comfortable and quiet) train ride from Copenhagen, and after finding a place to stay with a friend, I proceeded to tour the city by bike and on foot.

What surprised me the most is that landmarks from past conflicts are now just tourist attractions. During a walking tour of the city, a guide spoke about the Nazi Air Force building as if it were nothing more than a museum (it's a tax office now). We walked over Hitler's bunker, and as if to prove that Hitler failed, on the nearest street corner stood a gay bar and a Chinese restaurant. At the Brandenburg gate, which once sat in "no-man's land" between East and West Berlin, I can now take a picture with a man posing like a Soviet soldier.

Deeply puzzled over how a city could have such a horrible past century, I bought a German history book, which I read on the return train ride. Reading over the past 1000 years of history, I was reminded how Europe seemed to always be at war. Wars that I had never heard of claimed large percentages of the population, and times of peace were short. Looking more carefully at just the past century, I learned that the past decade has had by far the fewest deaths from war of any decade.

Yes, we still have horrible conflicts, but even Iraq and Afghanistan are less bloody than past wars. The political environment has improved as well. A few decades ago East Germany was a repressed country and many people feared nuclear war between the United States and Russia. Under such global politics, the leaders of the world would never have sat down and debated an environmental treaty like they did last week.

But just the past week over 160 heads of state sat in the same room to discuss our environmental future. The very fact that their concern was climate change and not global nuclear war gives me hope that we are making progress as a species.

If we make the needed investment--about one percent of the world's economic output--twenty years from now we may look back and talk about how we have met the challenge of global warming. Maybe abandoned coal power plants will be nothing more than museums, much like the artifacts of the Cold War.

At the Copenhagen conference, our leaders did not meet this challenge, and did not make pledges that would result in the needed investment. But steps were taken that got us closer to reaching such goals, and for the first time, the world's largest polluters, China and the United States, agreed to cut emissions. If we keep up public pressure, maybe in the next few years we will set ourselves on the right course.

Before catching a train back to Copenhagen, I biked along where the old Berlin Wall used to run. A few remnants of the wall stand along some streets. On other roads, a line of cobblestones marks where the wall was. At some points there is no sign of a wall, and only my map told me where the barrier once divided the city.

Below is video taken from my bike. Just over twenty years ago, men in towers armed with machine guns would have shot me for riding where I am in this video. Today my only threat is inclement weather and Volkswagens.