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Davos: Copenhagen, Take 2

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Maybe the World Economic Forum in Davos at the end of the month can provide an opportunity for the negotiations that didn't happen in Copenhagen.

Let's face it; the world is very different from when the original Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed by George H.W. Bush in 1992. Back then the big negotiating players were the United States, Europe and Japan. In Copenhagen the players were the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa. The international power shift is obvious. As new powers arise their concerns have to be accommodated.

But outside the diplomatic world of nation-states, the hierarchy of economic influence looks far more stable. Exxon, Ford, GM, Chevron, Mobile, Texaco all made the top 10 of the Fortune 500 when Bush was negotiating in 1992. And even after the recent economic battering, they appeared in the top 10 again when Barack Obama was negotiating in Copenhagen last month.

Ask any diplomat not from the US and they will tell you Copenhagen was a debacle. Copenhagen was solely a nation-state event, so businesses were not invited. They are, however, key players in any negotiated solution.

No matter what the hardcore environmentalists envision, fossil fuels are not going to be phased out any time soon. The urgent need is to therefore ensure that a sustainable carbon economy is not an oxymoron. Those Fortune Top 10 companies in many cases own the technological capabilities that can make a sustainable carbon economy a reality. And, of course, they have the most to lose if we don't.

Just like the rise of new political powers, the roles of these companies needs to be accepted in climate deal making. That's difficult to swallow for nation-states accustomed to having the sole say on international rules. It will also drive protectionist types out of their mind to let corporations have a say in international governance. And it will sorely test CEOs' commitment to the new zeitgeist of socially responsible corporate behavior.

But the truth is these companies already have this power and concomitant responsibilities. Thanks to the liberalization of trade, communications and financial markets, global corporations are major players in the structure and governance of the global economy.

Policy decisions made in executive boardrooms can have far greater impact on countries' economic development than most international aid programs. That's a reality that climate policy needs to face. And the truth is that without the support of the companies economically dependent on fossil fuels, the climate problem can't be solved fast enough to stave off unwanted disruptions.

You can't have these conversations at UN climate meetings. The role of corporate lobbyists here is backroom arm twisting. But one place where these types of conversations can be publically held is in Davos.

The World Economic Forum has 1,000 corporate members and Davos is a place where they confab with their political counterparts. The conversations will be difficult. Politicians have to respond to their political constituencies (presumably voters) and Chief Executives have to respond to their financial constituencies (presumably shareholders).

But both can gain by a deal. And so can the world.

Gregory Unruh is Director of the Lincoln Center at Thunderbird School of Global Management and author of "Earth, Inc." published by Harvard Business Press.

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