I was recently recruited to join a group called the Global Restoration Council. This Council is an arm of the World Resource Institute, a worldwide organization that conducts research and works closely with leaders to turn big ideas into action to sustain a healthy environment — the foundation of economic opportunity and human well-being. I was honored to be asked to join the council, whose focus will be to do all we can to help to restore lands in places all over the globe that have been degraded in one way or another. Some of the other members of the council include Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico and former ambassador to the United Nations; Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand; Fernando Cardoso, former president of Brazil; Göran Persson, former prime minister of Sweden; Bianca Jagger, human rights activist, and others. Quite a group — and again, a great honor for me to participate with these dignified and dedicated folks for a cause dear to all of us.
As part of my first meeting with the council, I went to New York to participate in the United Nations Climate Summit. What a great opportunity to engage in one of the true challenges of our time. My wife, Rose Lane, agreed to go with me, even though the four days we would spend there would include her birthday. She accompanied me to several events, including the Equator Prize Awards Ceremony and to the U.N. for the summit. We were encouraged by the mix of world leaders (including President Barack Obama), big companies, indigenous groups, various environmental organizations and others from around the world that came to participate.
We were also impressed and encouraged by the commitments made by these leaders and groups to do what they can to reduce our carbon output, move towards more renewable energy sources and restore degraded lands. There were lots of "pretty words" given in speeches and spoken in hallways ... but actions speak louder than words. Still, it seemed to me that there were sincere pledges made, and we will definitely be monitoring those pledges as time goes on.
There were lots of signatures put onto what is called the New York Declaration on Forests (pdf), a document pledging action that would save between 4.5 billion and 8.8 billion tons of carbon emissions per year by 2030. Kellogg's, Barclays, Cargill, Asia Pulp and Paper, Marks & Spencer, Nestlé and other companies as well as many governments signed the pact. All this is the result of suggestions that certain practices that foster deforestation account for something like 8 percent of the world's carbon emissions. The signatories are committing to a number of actions that are designed to stop forest loss no later than 2020. Again, a bold and admirable move, but one that has to be followed up on with deeds to become reality. So, stay tuned.
President Obama made an impassioned speech at the summit, promising to do all he can for the United States to better our environmental policies, thanking certain nations for their efforts and calling on them to do even more. He specifically challenged China to do more to reduce its carbon footprint. We should all keep a close eye on China's response in hopes that they do indeed move in the right direction more quickly.
All this was interesting and enjoyable for me to absorb, but the real fun came at a reception given by President Obama at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel on the evening of Sept. 23, Rose Lane's birthday.
Rosie and I arrived at the reception after a long day at the U.N. and an exhausting array of security checks before being allowed to enter. (That's us in the middle at right, but at a different event — more on that below.) We finally passed all the "tests" and took the elevator up the 18th floor to the Starlight Room, a beautiful ballroom in the Waldorf. There was a military orchestra playing and folks milling around enjoying themselves. We grabbed a couple of glasses of champagne and worked the room a bit, introducing ourselves to a few folks, as we really didn't know anyone there. We met and spoke with a gentleman named Oren Lyons, a Native American faithkeeper of the Iroquois Nation. We had a nice chat with him and his friends, talking about their concerns and challenges. We saw and recognized Susan Rice, Obama's national security advisor, as well as Al Sharpton and a few other familiar faces, although we didn't know them or get to speak to them.
In a short while, the lights shifted and the announcement came: "Ladies and gentlemen, the president and first lady of the United States of America." They both were smiling as they entered the room and reached the presidential podium. The president greeted everyone and gave a short eloquent speech that mentioned the summit but focused more on the recent trouble created by ISIL. He balanced his remarks with the recognition that all religions and cultures should be respected ... but that the behavior of these extreme terrorist groups could not and would not be tolerated. I could see the concern and the sincerity in his eyes and in his body language. I found it to be a moving message.
The president wound up his words with a final thanks for all of us coming, and then he and the first lady started making their way for the exit, shaking a few hands in the process. I didn't hold out much hope to meet him, but figured I might give it a shot as long as we were there, and as I was fairly close to the exit he would take, I grabbed Rose Lane's hand and slowly squeezed through the crowd in that direction.
Just as he was about to make his last handshakes and wave good-bye, somehow I caught his eye. I stuck my hand out towards him and said "Mr. President ... an honor to meet you ... I play with the Stones." He looked at me quizzically and said "... What was that?" I said, "I'm the piano player with the Rolling Stones." He gave a grin and put his hand out to mine and said, "Wow, I'm a fan ... and you must be, like, the youngest guy in the group."
I wanted so much to tell him that I was really there for the summit and would love to talk to him more about environmental matters, but it was obvious that there wasn't time for that, so I put priorities in order and said, "Thank you, sir, and this is my wife, Rose Lane ... it's her birthday." He smiled broadly and reached for her hand. "Ah, happy birthday!" With that, he disappeared through the door, along with Mrs. Obama and the Secret Service team.
So we didn't get the photo op, didn't get to talk turkey about the environment, but we both got a smile and a handshake — I got a compliment and Rose Lane received birthday wishes from the president of the United States. Pretty cool. Maybe I can return the favor one day with some backstage passes.
As of this writing, Leavell has had encounters with four presidents. He is a friend of former President Jimmy Carter; Bill Clinton has been to a couple of Stones' shows and they also interacted at an environmental conference in California; George W. Bush recognized him during his administration for his work in forestry and environmentalism and invited him to sing the national anthem at the signing of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act.
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Inset photo: Amy Leavell Bransford (from left), Chuck Leavell, Rose Lane Leavell and Ashley Leavell attend Chuck's 60th birthday celebration in New Orleans in 2012. (Photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images)