Healing the World
In an exclusive interview, Norway's former prime minister and UN special envoy on climate change, Gro Harlem Brundtland, tells Erik Jaques why world leaders at Copenhagen may have disappointed, but COP15 was anything but a failure
If anyone can make sense of COP15’s befuddling diplomatic steeplechase it is UN Special Envoy on Climate Change, Gro Harlem Brundtland.
Way back in 1987, the former physician, prime minister of Norway, and directorgeneral of the World Health Organisation (WHO) lit the touch-paper of meaningful transnational collaboration on environmental issues as chair of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development. More commonly known as the Brundtland Commission, the initiative brought together representatives from 21 countries, more than half of which hailed from the developing world, to address accelerating deterioration of “the human environment and natural resources” and the consequences this could have on economic and social development.
A report, Our Common Good, coined the term “sustainable development” and espoused the philosophy of development “without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
The commission’s influence was immense: minds focused, organisations formed, a new green dialectic emerged. On the international scene, a momentum of collective purpose begat the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, which in turn resulted in the Kyoto Protocol and, most recently the meagre, albeit potentially profound, Copenhagen Accord.
Now 70, Brundtland was at Copenhagen in her UN role supporting secretary general Ban-Ki Moon, as well as serving in an awareness-raising capacity for the The Elders, a think tank of former world leaders assembled by Nelson Mandela.
After years of hype, the actual event dashed vertiginous expectations – at least for a legally-binding sequel to Kyoto.
Under the conspicuously amateurish chairmanship of the Danish government, COP15 played out as a hurly-burly political circus, high on drama (“The Danish text”, walk-outs, police brutality), emerging heroes (Tuvalu, Maldives) and outright weirdness (phantom Obama press conferences, self-harming Venezulan martyrs, Robert Mugabe penning a climate change-inspired poem). Ultimately, the outcome was undermined by China playing negotiatory hardball along with its sense of being slighted, and a US delegation hobbled by domestic circumstances.
Reviews of the farrago ranged from “suicide pact” to “a significant step forward”, but almost all agreed something significant had taken place for better or worse.
Brundtland retains a sense of pragmatic optimism. “It was not a failure,” she reflects with a brusque Norwegian accent. “In my mind the process goes on.
“The countries are aware that there is no way around this. All those over the years who have been arguing against the reality, they have no say now.”
Copenhagen split the climate game wide open as the spectre of true, resonate action was put into sharp relief and all players were urged to reveal their hands. “The fight is there for who pays what, and who takes on what, what the historic record is and who is going to be accountable to whom,” Brundtland notes.
“These questions dominated the scene in Copenhagen. But I was disappointed to see how strong this kind of competitive spirit was among the leaders. It was disappointing on behalf of humanity.”
Although some have COP15 pegged as the endgame for the UN’s ability to deal constructively with climate change, Brundtland is having none of it. “Some people seem to believe that if the process had been different or some other institution had been driving it or something of that kind, it would make a major difference, “she argues.
“The thing is, there is a lot of real conflict material between countries.
“That came to the fore in Copenhagen.
It became not ‘who is best in trying to protect our climate and to deal with the issue?’. It was ‘what’s my role in this, what are my key interest points?’ From each country too much of that happened, which is not unusual because it’s a major thing that will affect every country.”
Brundtland warns that global heads of state risk losing the hearts and minds of their voters on the climate change issue, and true progress will be compromised unless some serious leadership is shown in the run up to COP16 in Cancun, Mexico, in November.
“Without leaders explaining the links between their national policies and the global needs, we have a problem,” says Brundtland. “Unless people see both their own more local interests and the broader need, we have a democratic problem in building a world that needs democracy across borders.”
It is precisely this kind of bigger picture thinking that was the hallmark of Brundtland’s own dazzling political career.
In 1981, she became Norway’s first female and youngest ever prime minister. As
leader of the Labour party, she would go on to run the country during two subsequent terms (1986-89 and 1990-96).
Famously, Brundtland ran one of the most female governments the world had ever seen – in 1986, eight out of 18 cabinet members were women. During her tenure as WHO director-general (1998-2003) she overhauled the organisation’s structure and presided over successful campaigns to combat malaria and tobacco addiction. In 2003, she was awarded Policy Leader of the Year by Scientific American for coordinating the worldwide response to SARS. The Financial Times listed her as the fourth most influential European over the past 25 years, behind Pope John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher.
Brundtland was raised by politically minded parents. Her mother, a consultant, and her father, a doctor specialising in rehabilitation medicine who later served as Labour’s defence minister, instilled in her the virtues of intellectual independence, ethical awareness and the notion of gender equality. When Brundtland decided she wanted both a medical career and a family with her husband, there was no question that it couldn’t be done, and she nursed the first of her four children while excelling at the University of Oslo. She went on to gain a Master of Public Health at Harvard before working for the Norwegian national health system, including a stint as a doctor in Oslo’s public school health service.
“I understood from my father’s work and his thinking that to be a doctor is to try to do good for society, for patients and their surroundings, their life – to give everyone equal opportunities and to prevent illness,” she explains. “So to become a doctor was to try to influence society in a positive way. I was not seeing myself as a surgeon or a clinical doctor, I was seeing myself as a societal doctor.”
All the while Brundtland retained her political fervour, catching the eye of the Labour leadership for her outspoken campaigning on pro-choice issues. In 1974, much to her surprise, she was asked to serve as environment minister.
“I felt that this was something I could do, and there was a lot I could accomplish – a very nice challenge for a 35-year-old doctor, I can tell you!” Brundtland recalls. She quickly established herself in the role, intuitively understanding the need to look beyond national borders on issues like acid rain. Her positive reaction to uncontrolled flaring activity on the Bravo oil platform in the North Sea in 1977 was widely acclaimed and signalled the arrival of a dynamic political force. Throughout her five years as environment minister, Brundtland estimates her engagement in international issues was equal to that of Norway’s foreign minister.
“It became a very clear vision in my mind that we are in one globe together and that national borders are not the most relevant,” she says. “We are in one world.”
Brundtland remained true to her environmental roots while prime minister, fearlessly adopting ameliorative policy where necessary, even at the risk of losing votes. In 1990, a general CO2 tax was extended to include all of the Norwegian continental shelf and encompass the country’s entire oil and gas sector. The perceived attempt to sabotage Norway’s lifeblood prompted widespread outcry – yet today, driven by technological advance and innovation, Norway boasts the cost
efficient continental shelf in the world, a cornerstone of its ambitious bid to become carbon neutral by 2050.
“It was a principled and important step to take, an economic incentive that played an important role, and it has had consequences,” she reflects. “Now the emissions from the Norwegian continental shelf are one third of the world average.”
In an uncertain post-COP15 world in need of coherent environmental leadership, policy and thinking of that nature would seem to be exactly what the doctor ordered.
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