Heads of state urge peers to turn climate change into 'economic opportunity'

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton joined Mexican president Felipe Calderon, South African president Jacob Zuma and others in an all-star panel discussion on how climate change can be managed at the highest levels.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

NEW YORK CITY -- Nine former and current heads of state took to the stage at the Clinton Global Initiative's annual meeting this morning to urge their peers to agree on specific measures to curtail global greenhouse gas emissions in the face of continued economic headwinds.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton joined Mexican president Felipe Calderón, South African president Jacob Zuma, Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina, Grenadan prime minister Tillman Thomas, Slovenian president Danilo Türk, Malian prime minister Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé and European Commission head José Manuel Barroso in an all-star panel discussion on how climate change can be managed at the highest levels.

"We have got to make ordinary people understand that this is not an economic problem," Clinton said. "It is an economic opportunity."

Mexico's Calderón begun the discussion with a stark reminder that current economic difficulties pale in comparison to the risk of failing to prepare for the far-reaching impacts of climate change.

"I know that the world has a lot of troubles, but we are still facing the most challenging problem for humankind in the future and that is climate change, he said.

Calderón described how his country was reeling from record rainfall last year followed by a record drought this year. Several initiatives were recently put in place to tackle the problem, he said, including carbon emissions reductions targets and several policies to promote energy efficiency, from renewable energy to home appliances.

The country also played host to the COP16 forum in Cancun, which placed a particular focus on reducing deforestation in developing nations and increasing governmental transparency for environmental initiatives. As that forum moves to Durban, South Africa in November, the world's leaders must not only continue Cancun's achievements but prioritize a reestablishment of the Kyoto Protocol, set to expire next year.

"Kyoto was the most important instrument to establish clear rules," he said. "The challenge for Durban is even larger than Cancun's challenge. We need to collect all the political support and leadership in order for President Zuma and his team to get success in South Africa."

Zuma was expectedly diplomatic in his take on the situation. While stating that "this is not an easy task," he conceded that it was a challenge to get world leaders to agree on specific mandates because climate change affects each of their nations differently.

"The emotion, the concern that is usually expressed by the most affected, is very serious -- particularly the island countries and small countries. They are faced with a danger," he said. "To them, it's a question of life and death."

Norway's Stoltenberg was unyielding in his assessment of the problem.

"We have to be honest," he said. "We have moved much slower and seen much less progress than we've hoped for."

Despite successes in Cancun and Copenhagen, Durban will simply not live up to expectation, he said.

"At this stage, the world should have seen a new, comprehensive binding agreement," he said. "That will not happen in Durban. That is very serious."

Touching on climate denial for a moment, Stoltenberg said it was "irresponsible" to negotiate when some nations refused to address public opinion that scientific data supporting climate change is wrong.

"The emissions are not decreasing," he said sternly.

Still, it's not all doom-and-gloom. Despite his sober audit of global progress on climate change, Stoltenberg said leaders and citizens alike should be encouraged by the progress that has occurred, from China to the European Union.

"If you had told me 20, 10 years ago that in the European Union that you should trade emissions and have a price on carbon, I would have told you that it was impossible," he said, adding that a price on carbon reduces emissions and increases revenues. "We should be inspired by the confidence we see."

Resting the microphone against his chin in thought, Clinton acknowledged that the climate change issue is difficult for developing nations to address. "It looks different in different places," he said.

Take the Caribbean, for example. Grenada's Thomas said new global governance was necessary because otherwise, his nation, its neighbors and the region's tourism industry would be underwater -- literally.

"It could be done," he said. "We have to set up a mechanism that would monitor, review and verify what is happening."

Action requires collaboration between developed and developing nations, he said.

"We have the potential for alternative sources of energy," he said, citing one potential bright spot. "But there is no technology. There is a need for a transfer of technology."

He added with insistence: "We know what ought to be done. But there is a reluctance. We have a moral responsibility as leaders to preserve and protect the Earth."

Clinton interjected, explaining that technology transfer "has to work economically" and make sense to the investment community. Still, described the region as a "microcosm of climate change."

"Every Caribbean nation could be completely independent of energy," he said. "But only Trinidad has natural gas. All the rest import oil at a high cost."

With so much sunshine, the Caribbean should be leading the world to its energy future, Clinton said.

"We have to help the Caribbean," He said. "The financing is not there."

More points by the panel:

  • Slovenia's Türk said that regardless of an agreement, leaders should focus on what to do in the meantime. "There is no single global government which can enact a coherent system of measures," he said. "We have to work in a world where international policies are not well-coordinated."
  • Bangladesh's Hasina said she was concerned about rising sea levels that would displace 30 million people in its coastal areas. "Mitigation is the key to a green and secure future," she said.
  • Speaking in French, Mali's Sidibé urged her peers to facilitate less discussion and more action. "It's true that it's very ambitious," she said. "But it's not impossible. It is possible in solidarity."
  • The EC's Barroso said the Durban negotiations can get traction simply by engaging all stakeholders and plugging gaps left by the Cancun negotiations. "Let's work with science and public opinion to get politics and diplomacy right," he said.

Clinton wrapped up the session by highlighting the "disconnect" between his fellow heads of state and their constituents, urging them to respect the intelligence of their citizens in addressing pressing problems.

"We have to make this work, on the ground, for ordinary people," he said. "That's really what Prime Minister Sidibé was saying. It's not just making it work in Mali; it has to work in Timbuktu. I hope that what will come about in Durban is a ringing reaffirmation that this can be good economics."

He turned toward his peers.

"We have failed to do that in rich and poor countries alike. We have not done what we have to do. We've got to somehow involve the imagination of ordinary people. They have to understand that it is not a burden, it is an opportunity. If anybody can do it, you can."

Photos: Adam Schultz/CGI/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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