Sean Penn and Google’s Green Chief on the Paris Climate Talks

And eight other top attendees, with their hopes, fears, and agendas.

When it comes to negotiating a global climate agreement, too many people are apparently not enough. Diplomats from 195 countries have spent two decades haggling over a deal that will save the planet from warming. It’s unclear whether the many thousands of observers from business, civil society, and media are helping or hurting.

As 45,000 people gather in Paris for the 21st annual negotiations, the question stands: Why does it take so many people to not do something? We asked 10 climate regulars for insight.

Sean Penn Haitian Relief Organization

Photographer: Jeremy Liebman for Bloomberg Businessweek

Sean Penn

Co-founder, J/P Haitian Relief Organization

What’s on your Paris agenda?

During the general assembly week, President Hollande, the minister of environment in Haiti, myself, and Sean Parker, representing private investment, will advance on our pledge agreement for a pretty robust reforestation project in Haiti.

Say you run into a climate denier at a bar. What do you say to them?

Well, I don’t believe there are climate skeptics. I think there are people who indulge in a culture of what can be reduced to Fox network thinking. That has nothing to do with the politics that apply to the protection of quality of life in any sense. It’s like talking to a member of a cult. I’m not a deprogrammer, so I think what I’d do is turn away and order another vodka tonic.

Recently you said that when it comes to climate, we’ve got to be optimistic because we have no other choice. Where does your optimism come from?

What I count on are two things: the resilience of the earth, even against the science that might tell us in many ways it’s too late. And the other is a cultural shift. I have a 22- and a 24-year-old, so I find myself in the company of them and their friends quite a bit. And when I see them very diligently using the recycle bins or choosing a Prius over a Cadillac—and I see a lot of that starting to happen in our culture and in others, and certainly in Western Europe—you are seeing this shift in young people that [my generation] never occupied.

Kate Brandt Google sustainability

Photographer: Jeremy Liebman for Bloomberg Businessweek

Kate Brandt

Lead for sustainability, Google

Is Google working on any “moonshots,” à la driverless cars, to address climate?

There’s a project that we’ll be bringing with us to Paris called Makani, which is a wind kite that we’ve been working on. The concept behind the wind kite is that it can fly higher than a wind turbine. If it works out the way we hope it will, you’ll be able to get 50 percent more energy than you’re able to get from traditional wind turbines with 90 percent less material.

Michael Levi Council on Foreign Relations

Photographer: Jeremy Liebman for Bloomberg Businessweek

Michael Levi

Senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Why are 45,000 people attending these negotiations?

I go because other people go. In some ways, it is the mother of all professional conferences.

What are you focused on?

I’m always interested in how the oil and gas industry approaches the climate agenda. I think you’re seeing an interesting fissure between European corporate leaders and American ones.

Whom do you most want to meet?

Narendra Modi. India today could be China 15 years ago. The decisions they make now could have massive consequences for the world.

Nitin Pandit World Resources Institute India

Photographer: Philippe Calia for Bloomberg Businessweek

Nitin Pandit

CEO, World Resources Institute, India

So what exactly do think tanks do at these conferences?

WRI is doing some fantastic work in identifying the main elements of what the agreement ought to be, where we need to show progress, in a realistic manner.

Why are 45,000 others coming?

I suspect people have become more aware of the risks of climate change. It is more and more in the vernacular now. Everyone knows what this is about.

What first opened your eyes to climate change?

The downpour here in Mumbai some years ago. Cloudbursts put down some 30-plus inches of rain in a day. It’s crazy. It brings into question all kinds of things.

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

Photographer: Ériver Hijano for Bloomberg Businessweek

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber

Director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

How many of these have you been to?

Fifteen or so. Too many. It is sort of punishment for a scientist. You know, you sit there for two weeks and more or less nothing happens, and you know that time is running out, simply, for the planet. It’s an almost surreal situation.

You helped establish 2C as the safe warming limit. Why 2C?

Since the time Homo sapiens came into being, we had no higher [global average] temperature than maybe 1.5C above what we had in 1800. The basic argument was, let’s stay within the evolutionary space of Homo sapiens and our civilization. If we go beyond 2 degrees, we will leave our evolutionary space, so to speak.

Whom do you most hope to meet?

I very much hope to meet some young people, the people for whom we do it all. I’m 65. Global warming will not get me.

Graciela Chichilnisky Global Thermostat

Photographer: Jeremy Liebman for Bloomberg Businessweek

Graciela Chichilnisky

CEO, Global Thermostat

You’ve been working on this for years. Ever get tired of it?

When you share an opportunity that has to do with the survival of humankind, you have an experience that’s different from any other experience you may ever have. There’s usually a circuslike atmosphere. It requires large spaces, tents. In Copenhagen, they put down sawdust. It even looked like a circus.

Your company has a role, too.

We have a technology that removes CO2 from the air.

Victoria Barrett Alliance for Climate Education

Photographer: Jeremy Liebman for Bloomberg Businessweek

Victoria Barrett

Fellow, Alliance for Climate Education

What’s your climate claim to fame?

Suing the U.S. government for neglecting to prevent climate change due to the use of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions. All the plaintiffs on the case are young people like me, from age 8 to 19.

What’s it like trying to watch these grown-ups basically chase each other around in circles and not solve the problem?

Sometimes it’s like, “Well, at least they’re addressing it.” But then, once you get past that feeling, you realize that I shouldn’t reward them for addressing it, because it should have been addressed, you know? I feel like, in some ways, maybe it should have never been my responsibility to deal with it. I should never have been in this position.

Whom do you most hope to meet?

It would be really cool to meet representatives from the small island nations, like the Maldives.

Rhea Suh Natural Resources Defense Council

Photographer: Jeremy Liebman for Bloomberg Businessweek

Rhea Suh

President, Natural Resources Defense Council

How do you cope with conference hours?

Just because of the time difference itself, it’s going to be a Red Bull-type of experience. But there’s going to be so much activity, so many people to see, that I think the adrenaline, along with any caffeinated substance you can find, will just carry us through. For the first time we’re seeing real action. I can’t imagine not wanting to be there. I think Paris is going to be a watershed moment.

Why does Washington lag on climate?

I wish I had an easy way to explain the dysfunction that seems to get worse every day in Washington. When the Republicans won the House and Senate in this last cycle, their first agenda item was a suite of anti-environmental riders. This is not the party of Teddy Roosevelt. Or even Richard Nixon.

Christiana Figueres UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

Photographer: Francesco Nazardo for Bloomberg Businessweek

Christiana Figueres

Executive secretary, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

Feeling confident?

The Paris agreement is not only possible, it is necessary and urgent. The world needs a new model of growth that is safe, durable, and beneficial to all. We are counting on everyone’s contribution.

Thoriq Ibrahim Maldives

Photographer: Francesco Nazardo for Bloomberg Businessweek

Thoriq Ibrahim

Minister of environment and energy, Maldives

Why is it important for you to be there?

Maldives is 0.0003 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, but we are getting affected first.

After a long day, do conferees exchange climate change jokes?

I’m sorry, I haven’t heard any.

What do you say to climate deniers?

I would invite them to the Maldives and the smaller islands. They have to see. Things that are not normal on the earth are happening. We are having the early signs every day: droughts, high winds, higher oceans. On some of the islands, we live less than 100 feet from the sea—it’s how close we are.