The Opening Plenary began in earnest as Clinton introduced his panelists. They included not only the announced guests (Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, President of the Philippines; H. Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart; Archbishop Desmond Tutu; Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank), but two surprises, Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan, and Al Gore.
What happened next is always hard to describe to people who are not in the room. With humor, with passion, and with his inhuman command of facts and stats (at one point he turned to President Arroyo and said, "I believe you generate 24% of your own energy through geo-thermal power," as casually as if he was observing that it was nearly lunchtime), Clinton led a wide-ranging and moving conversation between people who think much harder about the future than most of us. The conversation went probingly into the world's problems, but also had a refreshing upbeat quality, searching for solutions rather than complaints. The panelists bantered back and forth, exchanging arresting observations. Clinton mentioned a conversation with Ethiopia prime minister, Meles Zenawi, in which they wondered if Africa might someday become the first continent on earth to develop transportation systems that do not use oil-based fuel. Lee Scott talked about the extraordinary savings in efficiency and economy that can come from the simplest improvements (for example, packing Hamburger Helper noodles in better lines inside their boxes). A new plan to market energy-efficient light bulbs at Wal-Mart has the potential to take 700,000 cars off the road. 700,000!
Al Gore then spoke about the environment, and combined his eloquence and passion with a terrifying array of new statistics. The equinox (four days ago) is the time when scientists can measure the heat of the northern hemisphere over the past six months. Gore informed us that the new results showed that we are 22% worse than the previous record. The polar ice caps have receded another million square miles, and at this rate, there will be no more ice in 23 years. He implored the audience, persuasively, that this was about more than the environment - that the size of this crisis gives the world's rich and poor nations the best chance to work together that they've ever had.
The Plenary concluded with plenty more left to say, always a good way to end a meeting. A huge part of CGI's rationale is that the world's citizens simply need the right kinds of information to make smart decisions (MyCommitment.org). As Clinton said in the middle of the free-for-all, in an off-handed remark that hit the mark, "people can't seize options they're not aware of."
Ted Widmer is a former speechwriter for President Clinton, and is now the Director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.