Four Women Who Inspire Action and Conscience in Copenhagen

With the international climate talks drawing representatives from 192 nations and attracting more than 110 world leaders, there are a lot of impressive people gathering in Copenhagen. But this week I have been particularly inspired by four powerful women--women who are pointing the way toward a more sustainable future for all of us.  

The first was Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway and a leading voice on sustainable development for two decades. A physician by training, Brundtland also headed the World Health Organization, and she has sought to balance human health and prosperity with the limits of the planet.

I first met Brundtland two years ago at the climate talks in Bali where she was serving--as she is now--as one of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s special envoys on climate. I have also worked with her on the Aspen Institute Commission on Arctic Climate Change, and in each setting, I am inspired by her. She is a straight shooter, a knowledgeable leader, and an individual clearly committed to the planet and to her people. 

I have also been lucky enough to see Dr. Jane Goodall here in Copenhagen. Renowned primatologist and U.N. Messenger of Peace, Goodall has touched so many through her work as an educator and communicator of the plight of our closest relatives--the chimpanzees.

Clear cutting in the chimps’ habitat and other tropical rainforests is responsible for 15 percent of all global warming emissions. Goodall and I both spoke Wednesday night at a gala at the Royal Danish Theater honoring activists who have worked to preserve those forests from exploitation and destruction.

"I love the forest," said Goodall, who at one point treated the audience of several hundred to her imitation of a primate calling through the trees. Being in the forest and understanding its mystery, she said, "Is to come very close to some great spiritual power." We're in danger of losing access to that, she said. "We're destroying our planet. It seems to me we've lost our wisdom." We need Goodall to remind us of that wisdom.

We also need the energy of the next generation, and Jessy Tolkan embodies that vitality. Tolkan is the executive director of the youth organization Energy Action, and she fully grasps the fact that the future of her generation is at stake, and that if we don’t take climate action, she and her peers will pay the price.

Tolkan brings a much needed urgency to these climate talks. She knows that what we do in the next couple of years will decide the fate of her generation, and she isn’t afraid to speak her mind. I saw her powerful and heartfelt message transform a room full of environmental professionals meeting with Vice President Al Gore on Tuesday. She is calling on our leaders to have what she has: political courage.

Maya Lin is another woman of courage. Lin, an artist and architect--and NRDC trustee-- is fearless in the way she expresses loss and mourning in her work. Her latest memorial is a multi-sited series called “What Is Missing,” and here in Copenhagen, she unveiled a new installment called, “Unchopping a Tree,” a video inspired by a W.S. Merwin poem that poses the question: how would we feel if clear cutting and deforestation came to the city parks we love best.

Lin debuted the piece here at the climate talks, because she wants to emphasize that preventing deforestation prevents global warming. But like all good art, it doesn’t just relay a message--it speaks to the heart and soul. The piece, she explained, is “about scale, abundance, the sound of the common songbird, oxygen, the ocean, the visibility of the stars at night. It reveals things that are disappearing that you might not realize are disappearing."

I am inspired by Lin’s powerful artistic expression, just as I am inspired by all four of these extraordinary women. Whether it is the voice of the leader, activist, scientist or artist, each one speaks with authority and passion, and we are lucky they are raising their voices in the name of the planet and its climate. We need them now more than ever.