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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.
GABEL SZILAGUI: If I consider all the damage, I would say it was an ecological catastrophe. Populations of nine fish species were damaged seriously.
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. The aftermath of a Central European environmental disaster, next, on Common Ground.
GABEL SZILAGUI: It is dangerous for the species and the wildlife, and it’s dangerous also for man-fishing and angling in the rivers.
PORTER: Last year a series of ecological disasters in Central Europe seriously damaged some of the finest natural areas left on the continent and tested the ability of newly emerged democracies to cope with emergencies. First, the dam of a gold mine’s slurry lagoon burst, in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. Thousands of gallons of cyanide-polluted water were discharged into the nearby river system. The cyanide worked its way down the Tisza? River, across Hungary, and into the Danube in northern Serbia. By then thousands of tons of fish had been killed, along with birds and other animals that feed off them.
MCHUGH: Six weeks later another dam burst at the Baia Borsa Mine, releasing 20,000 tons of sediment full of poisonous heavy metals into the same river system. From the Common Ground archive, Correspondent Max Easterman reports on Romania and Hungary’s ability to cope with major environmental emergencies.
[sound of birds chirping]
MAX EASTERMAN: This is the bird hospital in the Hortobágy National Park. The Hortobágy is the jewel in Hungary’s ecological crown, a vast area of natural grassland, reed beds, lagoons, and wetlands. Home to some of the richest and rarest wildlife in Central Europe. It’s a World Heritage site. It was declared a World Heritage site just a couple of months before the cyanide rolled down the river Tisza, through the park, and destroyed a lot of the natural life here. I’ve come to meet Dr. Janos Deri, the bird doctor who’s treating a rare white-tailed eagle, one of the victims of the cyanide. It’s here, inside the cage.
[sound of cage being opened and the eagle flapping its wings]
EASTERMAN: Now what condition was this bird in when you found it?
DR. JANOS DERI: [via a translator] We have found this bird on the banks of the Tisza after the cyanide poisoning. It was in a very bad condition. It wasn’t able to move. It was poisoned with cyanide, but also it was poisoned with heavy metals; that was his main problem.
[The eagle flaps his wings; sound of running stream or river; river sounds continue to play in background]
EASTERMAN: Although the Hortobágy authorities were able to shut many of the lakes and small rivers off from the cyanide pollution, at least three other eagles and many other birds died from eating poisoned fish here in the Tisza. But the greatest damage was to the water life itself. Dead fish were hauled out by the hundreds of tons. And no one yet knows just how the insect life that everything else depends on has been affected, especially by the heavy metal pollution that came after the cyanide. The Hortobágy Park begins just a few hundred yards downstream from here, and I’m on the way to see its Deputy Director, Gabel Szilagui.
GABEL SZILAGUI: If I consider all the damage, I would say it was an ecological catastrophe. Populations of 9 fish species were damaged seriously. We don’t have data of the invertebrate populations-dragon flies, May flies, caddis flies. We still don’t know whether they can reproduce successfully. These heavy metals can damage the reproductive system and the respiratory organs of these animals. It is dangerous for the species and the wildlife, and it’s dangerous also for man-fishing and angling in the rivers.
[sound of an outboard motor]
EASTERMAN: This is one of the many lagoons along the River Tisza, at Tiszafured. Tiszafured is a small village and it lives off fishing and river tourism. Six months after the pollution, some of the fish are coming back, but the tourists and the sports fisherman are not. The word “cyanide” has frightened people off and that’s bad news for people like Gabor Hegedus, who runs the fishing company I’ve hired this boat from.
Gabor Hegedûs: [via a translator] It’s been a catastrophe for my business. My income is down 80% this year. Our main job is fishing, which produces over half my income. In this part of the river, half the fish died from the cyanide. We practically live from tourism here. And 65% of tourism comes from the fishing. Fishing is worth more than $1.5 million every year.
EASTERMAN: Hungarians love their fish. Halászlé, Hungarian fish soup, is more popular than goulash in many parts of the country. It’s truly only a great disaster that would keep an Hungarian fisherman away from his lines and nets. Above all, from his beloved Tisza. Several thousand jobs depend directly on the Tisza. Gabor Hegedus, says time, and especially money, are running out for them all.
Gabor Hegedûs: [via a translator] I feel helpless. I don’t know what to do. My mortgage interest is 20% and I don’t know how to pay it. Other people have the same problem. So some of us will surely go bankrupt.
EASTERMAN: The economic pressure to get tourists back to the Tisza has led some people to make overoptimistic, perhaps risky, statements. When the floods came in April, they also did a lot of damage. But some local mayors and national politicians, even environmental experts, thought they saw a silver lining. The flood waters, they said, would dilute and wash away the heavy metal sludges. Gabel Szilagui, the Deputy Director, of the Hortobágy National Park, says that, in his opinion, that’s nonsense.
GABEL SZILAGUI: I don’t believe that it was washed out in this way. I believe it was only covered by the new sediment layer and in this way the sludge is conserved in the sediment and this can be very dangerous for wildlife. Because they live in the sediment. Through their skin they take up these heavy metals into their body, and this can cause an ecological problem, with the accumulation in the food chain. I believe that this sludge layer, this heavy metal layer, is a very dangerous thing on the long term.
EASTERMAN: The arguments about this have raged back and forth over the past few months, but Gabor Szilagui view is supported by a growing body of international evidence. The complex chemicals created in modern industrial processes like gold mining can behave quite unpredictably when they’re released into the environment. They may appear inert, but they may not be, and human health can be at risk. Josef Feiler, a Friend of the Earth in Budapest, claims it’s not possible to say exactly what a chemical will do or when it will do it.
JOSEF FEILER: Some specialty scientists dealing with similar spirits arising from mining operations say that there are cyanide and heavy metal composites which are hard to detect and they are acting like time bombs. When their chemical environment changing, then they can release the toxic material. So there is no clear answer on the health impact.
EASTERMAN: So this could happen any time?
josef Feiler: Yes, so it is hard to predict, even the possible consequences, but there are some signs that there can be similar cases in Khirgistan and in other countries indicate that health impacts are present.
EASTERMAN: How long could those heavy metal cyanide stay there?
JOSEF FEILER: For a decade; for more decades. It depends on the circumstances.
EASTERMAN: There has been much criticism of the way the Hungarian government reacted, or failed to react, in the first hours and days after the cyanide spill. The critics include some senior government employees, one of whom told me that Hungary would now need to have another cyanide spill in order to get any really useful data on what to do about the last one. There was a conspicuous lack of cooperation between some ministers. The head of the International Department at the Environment Ministry, Nándor Zoltai, now admits there were clashes when a special session of the Cross-Borders River Committee was proposed by his ministry.
NÁNDOR ZOLTAI: This is a case where you are completely right in the criticism concerning the cooperation between the two ministries. At the very beginning we wanted to initiate a special session of a joint committee between Hungary and Romania. And although the subcommittee’s chairman is working for this ministry, the chairman of the higher committee is working in another ministry. And that leader was not in favor of the special session. And we lost the one week, almost.
EASTERMAN: Which is a terrible failure, really, isn’t it?
NÁNDOR ZOLTAI: Yes, an unfortunate failure.
EASTERMAN: It wasn’t the only one. Last year Hungary passed a new law on disaster management. It could have used it to deal with both the cyanide and heavy metal crises. It didn’t do so, apparently for technical reasons. But when I asked Nándor Zoltai why, the real reason soon became clear.
NANDO ZOLTAI: The law is addressing disasters like flood and earthquake. This was not the case for that. This was an ecological catastrophe.
EASTERMAN: But it was as a result of a flood. It was a flood in Romania, wasn’t it?
ZOLTAI: Yes. Yes, but under this law you cannot declare the area given as a disaster area. It is simply a legal impossibility.
EASTERMAN: But could parliament not have very rapidly changed it and made it possible? Or could the minister not have…
ZOLTAI: Of course could, it could. And in fact my minister, Mr. Pepo, was initiating to declare this area a disaster area. But he was not successful in that.
EASTERMAN: Why not?
ZOLTAI: I don’t know.
EASTERMAN: Critics say it’s because they didn’t want to spend the money. They knew it would cost an awful lot.
ZOLTAI: Yes. Yes, and the money is all the time coming in, of course, but reference was made by other members of the government to the legal nature of this law.
EASTERMAN: But money played a role?
ZOLTAI: I think yes. I think yes.
EASTERMAN: Since then, the government has appointed a commissioner for the Tisza, János Gönczy. He described his job to me essentially banging ministerial heads together to make things work. But virtually the only thing which everybody agrees on is that the polluters must pay for what they’ve done. The mine that spewed out the cyanide belonged jointly to a Romanian company, Aural, and to an Australian one, Esmeralda. When the dam burst, Esmeralda denied that the cyanide that flowed out was responsible for the ecological disaster that followed. It blamed cold weather, though it was one of the warmest Februarys for many years. Since then the company has gone into voluntary liquidation to avoid any claims against it. The Romanian government, meanwhile, says it does want to clean up its appalling environmental record but needs a lot of foreign aid money to do it. Tisza Commissioner Gönczy told me that these excuses aren’t going to cut much ice with this government
JÁNOS GÖNCZY: [via a translator] We will sue Esmeralda. I don’t know if we will succeed, but we have to do it for Hungarians everywhere. We have to teach Esmeralda a lesson, and not just Esmeralda, but everyone who pollutes our rivers.
EASTERMAN: Does that include the Romanian government?
GÖNCZY: [via a translator] They authorized the investment at Baya Morsa. They supervised Esmeralda, so they are responsible and they have to pay. We hope they will, but if they don’t we will sue them, too.
EASTERMAN: The Australian company, Esmeralda, has refused to answer any of the questions we’ve put to it about the Aural Mine, compensation, or its own behavior since the pollution disaster. The important question though for Hungary is to make sure such a disaster can never happen again. And here, there are problems ahead. Because neither the Romanians nor the Ukrainians nor the Slovaks, all of whom have dangerously polluting factories along the Tisza catchment, none of them know the exact state these factories are in. When I asked the Environment Ministry spokesman in Budapest, Nándor Zoltai, if he was confident that at least the two Romanian mines involved, in the cyanide and heavy metal incidents, would not offend again, I got a worrying reply.
ZOLTAI: Concerning cyanide I am optimistic. As far as heavy metals are concerned, coming from Baia Borsa, I am not confident at all. It may occur anytime.
EASTERMAN: Why could it?
ZOLTAI: Because the so-called dam of that reservoir was made of mining sludge. That is not a whole. That is not a dam.
EASTERMAN: So Baia Borsa is a time bomb?
ZOLTAI: It can be said. Yes, yes.
EASTERMAN: And that is not much consolation to Josef Feiler, at the Budapest branch of Friends of the Earth.
FEILER: It was an 8,000 years for the ecosystem and it will take another 8,000 years to build up a similar ecosystem. You cannot speed it up. I mean, you cannot make a 30-years-old fish, as there were 30-years-old fishes in the river. You just can put small fish and you have to wait for 30 years, for them to grow up. So this is how it is.
[sound of a running stream or river.]
EASTERMAN: The people here in Tiszafured know deep down that it will take a long time. But what worries them is that they don’t think the Romanians can be relied on to clean up their act. As one villager put it, ‘You’d be better negotiating with the paddle in my boat. At least it can’t tell lies.’ The Tisza has not only lost its fish and its birds and its animals, it’s also lost its confidence. And that will take a long time to return. For Common Ground, this is Max Easterman, in Tiszafured, Hungary.
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