Climate Change:

U.N. environment official says evidence of global warming is already apparent

As scientists debate whether global warming could cause stronger hurricanes, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme points to climate change as the likely culprit behind recent extreme weather events in Europe and other parts of the world. UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer describes the need to help developing nations prepare for a changing climate. Plus, he weighs in on a new climate agreement between the United States, China, India and other countries, and what he says is an absence of U.S. involvement on international environmental agreements.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining me today is Klaus Toepfer, executive director of United Nations Environment Program. Mr. Toepfer thanks a lot for being here.

Klaus Toepfer: Oh it's a pleasure.

Brian Stempeck: I want to ask you about a quote you recently told to the Financial Times in an interview. What you said is that climate change is already happening and what you're talking about was basically a lot of the flooding and wildfires and major events that have occurred in Europe this summer. How much climate change and weather events affected by global warming do you think are happening right now?

Klaus Toepfer: I don't believe that you can make this in a percentage figure, but all the indicators, scientists make as a prognosis for climate change are now on the table. As the change will be in the Arctic if you see the melting of the ice there. It is a clear link to a change of climate. We made this study for the glaciers in the Alps, you see it. It's happening. And scientists give us information that we have an increase of extreme weather situations and a higher amplitude of those events. And this is likely happening as well all around the world. So you cannot make one correlation between this event is dynamically linked exclusively with the climate change. But that there is an increase in the amplitude, this is underlined again and again by scientists.

Brian Stempeck: One of the major events, of course right now as we tape this interview, is a major hurricane has just hit New Orleans. Do you think this is the type of event that we're going to see more of in the future, these types of strong hurricanes?

Klaus Toepfer: Again, we have to be very careful. It's not helpful to make after all those terrible events with lots of so terrible consequences for people, that we make now a direct link to the change of the climate. But again, yes, it is expected that we have more of those events. And if you go a little bit around world right now, if you see the situation in Europe where there are big floodings as well in Switzerland, in Germany, in Austria, where we have the terrible other events. And we are headquartered in Nairobi and Kenya in Africa and you see the changes there as well. This gives us a clear basis that climate change is happening without any doubt. Therefore, unluckily, we have not only to discuss the medication of this. We have to decrease the carbon intensity of our energy structure without any doubt. But we also requested, especially from developing countries, what is possible to do adaptation, because we cannot stop it fully. We can hopefully decrease the increase rate, but there is climate change already now, with all the negative consequences. And people come back and say please give us backing. How to handle it if you go from the small island states up to the situation in Africa and other countries where the investment and the knowledge is not available to fight against this.

Brian Stempeck: I want to ask you about something that happened earlier this summer. The United States had just come up with the new agreement with Australia with China and India, a few of the developing countries that are considered the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide. What was your take in that agreement? It's basically there's no hard targets like there are in the Kyoto Protocol. What's your reaction to what the United States did in July?

Klaus Toepfer: First and foremost is to underline each and every activity, to stimulate technology, to change the structure of our energy supply. But especially also the energy demand so that we are fighting the negative consequence of the use of fossil fuel for the climate. And that we need more technology. That we have to invest in those technologies goes without saying. And we have not to exclude whatever, we have to concentrate on renewables. We have to concentrate on hydropower. We have to try to single out what is the hydrogen possibility, knowing that to produce hydrogen you need energy. We have to concentrate to those topics like carbon sequestration and end. It is not a case where you're only to go in this direction. This has got -- especially also on the demand side, we have to increase the energy efficiency around the world, but especially, particularly also there where the efficiency right now is very low. And we have to do it especially also with regard to our mobility.

Brian Stempeck: The United States was already working on a lot of these agreements already. They had individual partnerships with China, with India, and they've been working on the technology question for quite some time, investing a lot of money in that. Do you see this as anything new or is this just a continuation of what the White House has already been doing?

Klaus Toepfer: Now first let me add also to your question before, all of what is happening there cannot of course substitute and should not substitute their obligation to Kyoto Protocol. We actually need to convince the decision of all other industrialized countries, and numbers of developing countries, to ratify Kyoto with their obligation, is a cornerstone to fight climate change. Also in changing technologies, but this has to ask also what is happening beyond Kyoto? What is happening in 2010, 2012? And it is necessary to make those arrangements with the intensively growing economies around the world, especially China and India. So this is clear. There is a lot of those activities going, luckily, and of course you can say why then to do it once more? I believe it is a good signal to say we want to do even more. We come together to do more, but please don't make it something like a substitute for the legally binding arrangement in United Nation framework conventional climate change and the Kyoto Protocol directly linked with this convention.

Brian Stempeck: I was going to say, some of the people who have criticized this agreement say that this could be a way to undermine the Kyoto Protocol. You have the United States, Australia, China and India, countries that don't have any binding targets under the Kyoto Protocol or have not signed onto that. Is this just an alternative for them? Is this the way to say, kind of get cover? Say this is something that we're doing and actually not have to actually reduce emissions?

Klaus Toepfer: To underline once more, of course, much of people around the world would be extremely, extremely happy and convinced that this is a great step forward. If also other countries are joining the obligation of Kyoto, especially of course the United States of America. I have to underline that as the industrialized countries ratified Kyoto, except the United States and Australia. So that is a great -- and that is also necessary for the overall accountability of the global family and fighting climate change. India and China, in the Kyoto Protocol, don't have an obligation for concrete targets and there will be, of course, a need to use all our brains how can we develop the energy supply for those countries with a less carbon consequence? And I believe that is not only an environment topic, it is a huge economic topic. If you have an increase of 9 percent of the [Gross National Product] in China and we have the target of the Chinese government and the parties there to quadruple the GNP of China until the year of 2020. It's a GNP of 1.3 billion people and they need it to fight poverty. Then you must know there are huge consequences for energy. For a long time there was always a direct interrelation yearly of one -- there's an increase of GNP and the increase of energy demand. So if we are not changing the demand side with higher energy efficiency and the supply side with less dependence on fossil fuels, you cannot do it without destabilizing a lot of those developments and the stability in the developed countries as well. Therefore it is a must also from the economic point of view, to invest in modern technology to change this intensive dependence on fossil fuel in the world, after the security question. All this, I went to underline, is now very clear on the table. It's absolutely clear, not only does the environment request a change in energy policy, but the economic situation as well.

Brian Stempeck: I wanted to ask also, this thing that you mentioned before, you're talking about adaptation and helping some of the countries that are going to be most affected by climate change. That's one of the topics we see every year at the conference of the parties and which will be coming up in November in Montreal. What do you see as the top priorities coming up during that conference? And what do you see as the efforts moving forward, as countries start to look at 2012 and beyond?

Klaus Toepfer: Well you see what I mentioned, we have to prove in the developed countries that they're honest in implementing their targets in mitigation. It is absolutely the precondition. As long as this is not clear for the developing countries they will always come back and say then we have to consider mainly to adaptation. This is a little bit very closely linked.

Brian Stempeck: Right.

Klaus Toepfer: And therefore it is so immensely important not to come to a more resignative position and say we cannot win the fight against climate change, so we have to invest to adaptation only. That would be, I believe, a very wrong consequence. Therefore, we should link very closely these two options, these two ways, mitigation and adaptation. It's good that in Kyoto Protocol we have an adaptation regulation that there can be made funds available for those countries. If you go for example in Africa and you know that is stimulating the any how running decertification process, what can we do to fight against this? The link also, biodiversity in plantations and others. There is a lot of those possibilities. Not only is it a question of what can you do at the end of the day against sea level rise? And the smaller island states, or those parts of the world which are already now under the sea level, if you saw it in New Orleans or if you go to Bangladesh or you go to Europe to the Netherlands. And you have then a rise of the sea level. There it is of course very difficult to understand how we can adapt. Again, nature is doing a lot. We must of course, especially on these coastlines make a very clear policy for those topics like marshlands. Those topics like mangroves and coral reefs because they are protecting again against those disasters. There is a lot to do with regard to adaptation without any doubt. It costs money. It costs also technology and therefore it's a very, very good place to incorporate into developing again the -- in this one world.

Brian Stempeck: I want to turn to another major pollution problem that we're looking at from a global perspective, which of course is mercury. You said in the past that it could be a -- you know, there's talks right now about potentially coming up with a treaty to go after mercury emissions worldwide. Most countries realize that this is a major problem. Where do you see those talks right now and what do you see as the future for a potential treaty in the future on mercury?

Klaus Toepfer: First and foremost the organization I'm responsible for is the United Nation Environmental Program, did a wonderful assessment of the situation on mercury. Highly praised by all the governments around the world. In our governing concept was a long discussion on this already in February of this year. So it's not a long time ago. The discussion I'll be starting immediately to negotiate a convention on heavy metals, especially mercury, but cadmium and lead. Or I'll be going first and foremost in concrete action and the governing concepts -- they opted for the second possibility. So now we have a common commitment to act, not to start already negotiation, but to make concrete projects available. If you know the situation of mercury linked with this assessment I mentioned, with regard to the coal power station, with regard to gold mining, with regard to the chemical industry, all this is very, very well known. And we can now go and concentrate our activity and this is truly a global problem because mercury is not linked with the border of specific regions or nations. It's going around the world and here we see is a mercury problem in the Arctic, where never, ever mercury was used or was more or less a consequence of activities there. Then you see this global challenge for handling the mercury problem. It is absolutely necessary to do concrete work as soon as possible and then we will see what is necessary also to come to more binding agreements in this field.

Brian Stempeck: The United States has said that it's interested in some kind of mercury treaty like this, but it could take as long as eight years to get towards a treaty. They've also been very -- the United States has also been very slow to adopt other treaties, the chemicals treaty, the POP treaty, they haven't signed Kyoto. Do you see a trend here in how the United States is reacting to some of these international environmental treaties and how damaging is it?

Klaus Toepfer: I think there's an overall trend of a specific fatigue concerning conventions and protocols. That is for sure. Therefore, once more, it was not the resignation we couldn't start the negotiation for a treaty on or a convention on mercury, but we have to act immediately because the threats are now. And then we are not excluding other possibilities. I believe that's a right way to go and we do this, for example, in the pollution of the sea from land-based sources. Where we also saw such an action program, not legally binding, but with a clear program agreed by the member states, where we have sufficient agreement. This is a very, very solid development. I have to, simply to resist other facts, yes, yes, the United States is not a member of the conventional biological diversity. And the others, the chemical arena you mentioned, that is a matter of fact and so we have nevertheless to act. We have those conventions and those protocols entered into force and we have a legally binding instrument now for those who accepted it. And it just gives the lot of push and a lot of expectation to others as well.

Brian Stempeck: One last question for you because we're running out of time. What message would you deliver to members of Congress, to people at the White House, and say that you're not involved on these various international treaties? How do you try and get them back at the table?

Klaus Toepfer: I believe the most important argumentation is always to prove that those problems cannot be solved without global cooperation. The mercury problem you cannot solve only in the United States itself. So there's a lot to do without any doubt, but there is a global interrelation. The climate change you cannot solve only from one country, as important as it is, especially for the United States of America. Its importance in energy consumption. There are lots of those examples. The POPs, the persistent organic pollutants and chemicals are another example. Kofi Annan once mentioned that these are the travellers without passports. They're going around the world and they are harmful for human beings and for environment wherever they are. So it is in the self interest of all countries around the world, whether they are the smallest or the biggest, to cooperate and to solve those global topics. You know we are in the time of globalization, of globalization of markets, of information, of interrelations. So we must be aware that the environment component was the first and is until now the most important consequence of globalization as well. And therefore let's cooperate. Let's come to concrete, harmonized and reliable activities. It is in the best benefit for all the people in the world, including specifically also the citizens of this wonderful outstanding nation.

Brian Stempeck: All right, we're out of time. We're going to have to stop there. I'd like to thank our guest today. That was Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program. I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]