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Two Steps Forward

A Night at Hamlet's Castle: Much Ado About ... What?

Will a climate agreement by any other name smell as sweet?

Saturday night brought one of the plum events of Copenhagen, at least for the business crowd assembled in this city: a conference held at Kronborg, also known as Hamlet's Castle, in Elsinore, about 50 kilometers from Copenhagen's city center. The 250 or so well-coiffed business executives who made the trek here did so in large part by the efforts of Danish media magnate Erik Rasmussen, a Michael Bloomberg sort whose business publication, Monday Morning, is the hub of a influential think tank that has placed Rasmussen at the center of the Danish business world.

Rasmussen created the Copenhagen Climate Council, a global collaboration between business and science, the host of tonight's event, cheekily titled, "To be, or not to be? New leadership for a sustainable economy" -- a rather ironic title, perhaps, given that this is a moment calling for bold, unequivocal decisiveness from the business community, not Shakespearean dithering.

It's hard not to be drawn to the Bard's quotes while sitting in this storied building, built in the 1420s and considered one of northern Europe's most important Renaissance castles. Will a climate agreement by any other name smell as sweet? Will a departure from business as usual be such sweet sorrow? Is all that glitters here truly green? Okay, I'll stop now. All's well that — oh, never mind.

Where was I?

Saturday night's nearly four-hour program brought an impressive array of speakers, mostly chief executives of companies from around the world: utilities and energy companies, high-tech giants, finance powerhouses, and the odd multinational (Diet Coke, anyone?). It was well orchestrated -- brief speeches followed by discussions and audience questions (which were mostly underhand softballs), blissfully devoid of droning monologues and PowerPoint slides. Impressive stories: how China Power has closed hundreds of coal-fired power plants and installed 3,000 gigawatts of clean power, about 15 percent of its total capacity; how a Danish dairy is creating carbon-neutral milk; how a U.S. utility is reducing emissions at coal-fired power plants in China.

And then dinner, held in King Frederiks II's Wine Cellar in the basement, where the discussion continued to flow.

All good stuff. But if left me with nagging questions: How much are these business leaders being heard amid the cacophony of voices at the Bella Center back in Copenhagen, where the hard work of crafting a climate deal is being done? How much will these companies' leadership roles factor into the delegates' decision-making process? Will their corporate commitments and well-intentioned statements about the impact of the climate negotiations alter in any way the outcome?

As I sit here in this storied building, rich with history, inspiration for one of humankind's most famous tales, I continue to vacillate between hope and cynicism -- between the inspiring innovation and commitment of a host of the world's biggest companies and their collective vision of a "low-carbon world" -- and the fact that these are not the individuals debating our climate future. Inspired as I am by the stories being told here in Kronborg, I recognize that their collective voice is only one of many being expressed in Copenhagen this week.

And many of the important voices didn't make it past the castle's moat. At Hamlet's castle Saturday night, the presence of youth, the Southern Hemisphere, small business, consumers, social entrepreneurs, and those at the bottom of the pyramid were -- well, not to be. Each of these brings a critical piece to the puzzle, including their own inspirational stories. Are all of these disparate voices being heard amid the raucous negotiations taking place at the Bella Center? And if so, are they truly being heard, or are the voices talking past one another? That will be a dominant question for the coming week, and the answer will influence all that follows.

For the companies assembled here in Kronborg and throughout Copenhagen, two additional and critical questions remain: In what way will business interests shape the climate negotiations, and how will the outcome of the negotiations themselves shape the future of business?

To be or not to be, indeed.

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