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KLAUS TÖPFER: We are already now in a situation of climate change. That is not a prognosis for the future. It is already happening now. And it is especially this part of the world, where the poorest of poor is living now, which are suffering most. And they don’t have the capacity to fight against this development.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, the globe’s dangerous and unhealthy environment.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.
PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. This month the world’s top industrialized nations renewed a pledge to tackle global warming. The pledge comes on the heels of a series of reports from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
MCHUGH: The reports detail global warming’s potential effects on the people, nature, and the world’s economy. And the prognosis isn’t good. Scientific experts predict global warming will result in more droughts, floods, and storms, and significant changes in agricultural land over the coming decades. Klaus Töpfer is the executive director of the United Nations Environmental Programme. I recently spoke with him about the new reports and the implications for future generations.
KLAUS TÖPFER: My predecessor decided to work together with the World Meteorological Organization, WMO, in integrating all the scientists around the world concerning the expectation of climate change. And this finally was the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change-IPCC-headquartered in Geneva with a very small secretariat, where WMO and UNEP have a 50 percent share. We are integrating literally thousands of scientists from around the world. All the governments are integrated as well; therefore, it is an intergovernmental panel. So it is really the wisdom we have available on this planet concerning this very serious situation of the climate change.
MCHUGH: The media is characterizing these reports as alarming. Do you find them alarming? Or do they all contain information that you already knew would exist?
TÖPFER: It is really alarming. You may know that this is the third assessment report. We had five years before the second. This was already a clear signal that we have a change in climate, that the world is warmer and warmer. And these findings after five years, using the latest and newest information integrated in the climate models, using all the different inferential factors, so making this even more in line with all the knowledge, gives us a clear signal that the warming process is increasing. We have to be aware that the climate is changing to 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius in addition. So that it’s an average 2 degrees more than it was only, already predicted in 1995. And that may, for the one or the other listening to us, not a very outstanding change, 2 degrees more-what is that? But that is really very, very severe consequences for the whole planet. We are already now in a situation of climate change. That is not a prognosis for the future. It is already happening now. And it is especially this part of the world, where the poorest of poor is living now, which are suffering most. And they don’t have the capacity to fight against this development.
MCHUGH: What are some of the severe impacts that we face?
TÖPFER: So we have impact on all parts. Let me highlight only some of those. We have the change of rainfall. And we have a desertification process going on in Africa. But not only there; it goes to the southern part of Europe, that goes through these parts of Asia and also of Latin America and the Caribbean region. We have clearly signal that for examples, ice cover in the Arctic is dramatically changing. We just have investigation vessel in the Antarctic and they can go in parts where previous decades it was totally covered with ice. We have totally other situation also in the ecosystems. There is a development in the northern region as well. So there are lots and lots of those situations. And we have also, as everybody knows, a change in the numbers and in the magnitude of expected weather conditions with more rainfall, with more drought, with more hurricanes and others. So there are lots of those clearly, scientifically based findings already know.
MCHUGH: You obviously find these results alarming. But do UN member states agree with you?
TÖPFER: As I mentioned, that is not a report of UNEP. That is not a report of one or two signs. It is an intergovernmental process. And there were more than 100 of governments represented in the final discussion of those outcomes. And therefore, I believe that is an overall conviction. I can quote our good friend and colleague, the Minister for the Environment of Canada, giving a clear signal that there is a change, for example, in permafrost; for example in the ice coverage, with the consequences to the polar bears, with the consequences for the food basis for the Inuits, for the indigenous people living there. So that is going around the world. It is, I believe, not questioned that we have an increase in temperature. There is some discussion still going on, what is the share of human beings for this change and what is integrated in what you can mention as a natural fluctuation of climate. We have, of course, already once a hotter period on this globe and a colder period. And some people are convinced that this is only a natural change and not an influence of mankind. The findings of all those scientists is giving a clear signal that a high, high share of this change now is linked with human behavior, is linked with the simple fact that we are emitting climate gasses, greenhouse gasses, CO2, methane, and others, in a huge, huge, dimension. And this is the, really the stimulating factor for this. Therefore, I believe that it is accepted around the world that there is climate change and there is influence by mankind himself.
MCHUGH: Where I come from, which is the US Midwest, every winter, especially when it’s really cold outside-15 degrees below zero-people say they don’t believe in global warming. But isn’t global warming the reason why we’re seeing such tremendous temperature changes and shifts?
TÖPFER: That is exactly, a little bit the problem, also to make it clear that this is happening. Of course, there are always extreme cold situations. I was told that here in New York where we are sitting now and discussing, it was quite a cold winter. And everybody says, “If this is global warming, then where’s the problem?” But this is exactly, that we have extreme weather situations, much more in the both extent. And if you ask those scientists working on this, they can easily explain it to you, that the distribution of extreme weather situations must change if you have also the change of the overall temperature. And therefore, it is even a proof that this is happening, that we have also those events. But in the average, we have this increase. The ‘90s were the warmest decade since the early 1800s. It was no doubt that 1998 was the warmest year ever. So there are also those clear signals. I don’t overestimate those figures. Because all these are the clear, proven facts that we are on this development. And that we must react on both, in mitigation and in adaptation.
MCHUGH: Is the global warming trend reversible? Or is it hopeless?
TÖPFER: We never can say that this is hopeless. Otherwise we are resignating and sitting back and saying, “Let the time to come. And there will be money enough to change the land use, and there might be also some advantages.” I don’t believe that we are allowed to do, to act like this. We have to do whatever is possible to change the structure of our energy production. That is not going back to the medieval. That is to use our brains, that is to use stimulating capacity of mankind to single out better environmental, more friendly technologies, to higher the energy efficiency, to make it also less depending on carbon-intensive sources of energy. But I also have to add, you cannot turn to the time before. Nature has a very long-lasting memory. And you cannot change it like you are switching off or switching on the lights in a room. So we must be aware that next to mitigation we need also this adaptation. We have to back and to help developing countries, least-developed countries, to handle this. Otherwise this globalization process will bring a lot of pressure in this world. All this is linked with a peaceful world. And I always underline that how to handle our natural resources will be the peace policy in the future. This is the coming tensions, with regard to water, with regard to arable land. And if climate change is changing these situations, then it is also changing the precondition on this wonderful blue planet Earth.
MCHUGH: You and I, individually, are just two people on a planet of six billion. What can you and I do as two individuals to make a difference?
TÖPFER: That’s a wonderful and necessary question. Quite a lot of people are believing “That’s not my job.” That, “We have governments, that we have big companies, they have to do the job. And I have to wait the time to come.” I believe each and everybody can and must help to fight this development. We have not again, to go back in the medievals. But we can think about what is the technology for a car we have to buy. Is it possible to have some cars with lower consumption? If it’s possible, also, to make our houses better prepared to use less energy. There’s a lot of possibilities to do this. We have all the chances to think twice before we are simply throwing away the products we use before. Can we recycle it? Can we integrate it in a life cycle approach? And by this, avoiding the overuse of resources. Also of the emission of greenhouse gasses. And there are lots and lots of those simple, easy possibilities to change, also behavior, and to stimulate other technologies.
You came by a plane, I hope?
MCHUGH: Yes, I did.
TÖPFER: And, so, I did as well.
TÖPFER: And if you see all this, then you can see that our life, of course, is linked with a huge mobility necessity. Maybe that in the future we can do quite a lot of simply being on video conferences, being linked in the one or the other, and substitutes one or the other mobility by this modern technology, that we can again contribute to less emissions. Again, that is not to question development and modern life. It is using the chances of modern life. My parents were never in the chance to have a video conference. My children, I believe, they will be quite, quite, clear in doing this, knowing that at the end of the day it’s wonderful to sit together on the table and to have this eye-to-eye discussion. And I insist that especially the United States, there’s a capacity with lots of young people in the universities dedicated to new solutions, that they are not only a part of the problem-because they are now emitting a lot of greenhouse gasses-but they will be also a part of the solution. They will produce those technologies you urgently need on the global level. And in the very moment we have also the chance for economic development. These are the products for the future.
MCHUGH: That is Klaus Töpfer, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environmental Programme. Human rights heroes, next, on Common Ground.
KERRY KENNEDY CUOMO: You always have to operate on the faith that what you’re doing might make a difference and therefore is worth doing.
PORTER: Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Vaclav Havel, and the Dalai Lama, are just a few of the world’s well-known human rights activists.
MCHUGH: But there are countless more across the globe who campaign for human rights each and every day, anonymously and with little fanfare. High profile or not, author Kerry Kennedy Cuomo believes all are heroes. Kennedy Cuomo, a human rights champion in her own right, profiles several of these heroes in her book, Speak Truth To Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World. I recently spoke with Kerry Kennedy Cuomo about her book, her motivations, and her human rights heroes.
KERRY KENNEDY CUOMO: In 1981, as a sophomore in college I took an internship at Amnesty International in Washington, DC, and my assignment was to look at abuses committed by US immigration officials against refugees from El Salvador. And I was absolutely horrified to find what our government was doing. We were treating the most destitute people with tremendous disdain. I found abuses including denial of right to counsel, coercion to sign voluntary departure forms, which means taking people who only speak Spanish and who are illiterate and basically forcing them into signing legal papers saying “I know my rights and I’m voluntarily returning to my country of origin.” We were putting people in prison, we were separating women from their children. There was physical abuse, there was sexual abuse, there was terrible, terrible conditions in the prison. And I was horrified by it.
At the same time, I realized that I was lucky and blessed to be born in a country which is born of revolution, where our institutions are capable of change because of citizen activism. And I started working with people around the world who, like me, were trying to change their governments. But unlike me, they were being imprisoned or tortured or threatened with death for their work. They were anti-apartheid leaders in South Africa, and refuseniks in Russia, and Solidarity members in Poland, and the mothers of the disappeared in El Salvador. And I was so moved by their courage and by their extraordinary patriotism, their determination to make their countries better, and their capacity to actually create change under impossible circumstances, that it changed my life. And I decided to devote myself to protecting human rights, and that’s what I’ve done for the last 20 years.
MCHUGH: And you recently penned a book.
KENNEDY CUOMO: I wrote Speak Truth To Power, and that is really a tribute to the people around the world who work on human rights. It’s a book about the quality of courage. And I interviewed people, some well known-Vaclav Havel, Elie Wiesel, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Tutu. But most of the people in the book are grassroots human rights defenders, not well known beyond the boundaries of their countries.
I asked them things like “What’s your first memory of injustice?” and “How did you react to it?” “How do you confront evil?” “How do you confront a person when you know that the chance of success is so remote and the personal consequences are so grave that you’ll probably be imprisoned, that you’ll probably be tortured in prison, that they may seek revenge on your family?” “How do you deal with that?” And, “What’s your dream for the future?”
And the answers were extraordinary, you know. It’s Elie Wiesel saying “My dream for the future is that your children don’t have my past.” Or Archbishop Tutu saying “We don’t have a God who says ‘Gotcha!’ We have a God who lifts us up and dusts us off and tells us to try it again.” Or this guy called the Abubacar Sultan from Mozambique, who works with child soldiers and he tries to emancipate them from their lives on the front lines. And he spent years and years doing this and he missed seeing his own children grow up. And I asked him about that, about the pain of leaving his kids and not having those experiences. And he said, “You know, it was so difficult, but I looked around me and I saw that the people in my part of the country were so privileged compared to those.” And he said, “You know, when you see that you have to react. You’ve got to take a stand and you’ve got to be involved.” He said, “It’s kind of like a gift that you have inside yourself.” And I think all these people have found that gift inside themselves and share it and they find a great deal of sustenance from that. And I think that people who read the book or log on to speaktotruth.org Web site or see the videotape will also be able to find that gift inside themselves.
MCHUGH: In all you profiled 51 people. And as you mentioned some are famous, others are not. I’m really intrigued by Anonymous.
KENNEDY CUOMO: Anonymous graces the cover of the book. This is a person who is in a black garb with-and you can’t tell they’re, who they are or what their sex is or anything about them-and they’re standing in the Sahara Desert and they have a noose around their neck, but they’re standing straight and strong. And that in a way is symbolic of all the human rights defenders who struggle anonymously around the world, who are unable to, who we never know their names or their, or where they’re working or what they’re trying to do. And yet they’ve always got this kind of symbolic noose-or a real noose around their neck. And still they stand strong. This person is a real person. There’s somebody-I say “they” ‘cause I can’t identify them-live in Sudan and work on human rights. And it is so dangerous to work on human rights in Sudan that their life would be threatened in a very direct way if their identity were known. And so we took this photograph and I did an interview with them in which they speak very openly about their life with-I hope, without identifying themselves so much that the government could find them.
MCHUGH: Is there a common theme that all of these people have?
KENNEDY CUOMO: There are a few, I think. One is the sense of the gift inside themselves, which I was speaking about. Another is a sense of fulfillment. You know, Marian Wright Edelman [sic] put this very well. She said-she is the first African-American woman to pass the bar in Mississippi, which she did in the 1960s, and she went there to represent civil rights leaders-and she said “I was blessed at a very young age to find something that was a cause that was so important I was willing to die for it. And therefore I’ve found something so important to me I’m willing to give my life to it. And that’s given me direction and a sense of fulfillment and depth.” And I think all of the people in the book have found a cause they’re willing to give their life for and therefore something they’re willing to devote their lives to, and that’s given them then, that fulfillment.
There is a common sense of spirituality, of great depth, of a sense of personal contentment. But they are constantly challenging the status quo, so when you’re with them you sense, you have this sense of peace about them. But they never let you off the hook. They’re always trying to push you further. What can you do? How can you help? You know, they’re getting you off that chair and making you move. So it’s a very interesting feeling, a really wonderful feeling about the possibility of making change.
I think there’s also, in common they believe in the capacity of one person to make a difference. They know it because they are doing it, and they’ve seen it work under extraordinary circumstances, impossible odds.
There is also a common-interestingly-sense of humor. And I found myself in listening to the tapes that I made in my interviews, laughing the whole time. And you would think-human rights, they’re talking about murder, they’re talking about torture, they’re talking about the most awful things. But they just are so funny as a whole. And I actually asked Vaclav Havel about that, who as you know is a tremendous absurdist playwright. And he talked about how his sense of humor helped him keep his sanity. And Wei Jingsheng also spoke about how it kept his sanity when he was imprisoned in China for so many years.
MCHUGH: Of all the people that you’ve profiled, which one touched you the most, personally?
KENNEDY CUOMO: Oh, I can’t answer that! I have to say that after every single interview in that book I walked away feeling a tremendous sense of hope for the world and that I had heard some wisdom, some piece of wisdom that I didn’t have before. And I think that’s reflected on every single page of this book. They all made a tremendous difference to me. I think one of the people who was really extraordinary-all of them are extraordinary-but one person is Juliana Dogbadzi, who was a sexual slave in Ghana. Her parents put her in slavery at the age of seven, and she was in a harem basically with about a hundred other women and she was the only one to escape. And she escaped at the age of 23 and went to the capital of Ghana-Accra. And she learned a trade, she learned how to sew. And she also then went to all the legislators in Ghana, in Accra. And she told her story again and again and again. Again and again reentering that torture chamber, telling her story, and saying “Please, we have to stop. We need a ban on this practice.” And within 12 months of her release she had gotten a ban on the practice of sexual slavery of women for the first time in the history of Ghana. That was in 1998.
But I think that her story is so important because we so often think of all the excuses about why we can’t make a difference. “I haven’t had the education.” Well, here’s somebody who had never walked into a schoolroom. “I don’t have the money.” She didn’t have a penny. “I don’t know how the system works.” “They’re smarter than me.” “I vote for them to take care of those problems.” “I’m too busy with my family” or “with my job,” or whatever it is. And I think what she says is, number one, one person can make a difference. And number two, we’ve got to stop thinking about why we can’t and we have to start thinking about the people who need us to advocate on their behalf. And that for me in some ways is a lot of the point of this book.
MCHUGH: I think a lot of people feel that one person alone can’t make a difference. So what advice would you give to people who may want to make a difference but aren’t quite sure how?
KENNEDY CUOMO: Well, first I would say go to the speaktruthtopower.org Web site, because on the Web site we not only profile each of the people from the book, but we also have very specific action items that people can take. And they work. One was, I talked about Freedom Neruda. And he said, “These are the five things I need in order to do my work better.” And one of the things he said he needed was a laptop computer, and somebody read it and sent him a laptop. And that totally transformed his life. Another person, Wangari Maathai, was imprisoned. The announcement of her imprisonment went over the Amnesty International network and went on the speaktruthtopower.org Web site and we announced it on CNN and on National Geographic. But she was released 24 hours later. And that’s an extraordinary record. Did the Kenyan government release her because of this work? We don’t know. But you’re never gonna know that in human rights. You always have to operate on the faith that what you’re doing might make a difference and therefore is worth doing.
MCHUGH: Kerry Kennedy Cuomo is the author of Speak Truth To Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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