World leaders should note that time is fast running out

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NM_nm kumi0 � Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Green Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace International.

The world Economic Forum started a couple of days ago and I have to say that, so far, I am not impressed. Every January over the past 12 years, I put on a courageous face and go where I must – not where I like – where the world’s most powerful people are, to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum. The week of the WEF feels like the most challenging week of my working life because of the “WEF spirit” conveyed by people at the forum walking around as if they owned the world, and the frustrating reality is that they actually do own most of it.

To be brutally honest, I’d rather be risking arrest, marching in solidarity for environmental, social and economic justice or attempting to build strong civil society alliances together with like-minded people. Yet, here I am again seeking to appeal to the most powerful that they have to move beyond an obsession with preserving a system that drives economic inequality, environmental destruction and violence. What is needed is not system maintenance or system recovery, but a substantial system redesign. Indeed, a small but growing number of progressive business leaders are beginning to really understand this; however, the majority of chief executives must release themselves from a business-as-usual mentality since the levels of popular disaffection we are seeing from the Arab world to the Occupy movement, will look like a Sunday morning picnic in years to come if world leaders do not recognise that time is fast running out.

At each forum, I deal with the contradiction that many of the people whose views I respect and many of the people whose aspirations I seek to promote are the excluded, while others seek only to promote their own self-interest. But, if we are going to change things around, the unelected, unrepresentative, super powerful people walking the corridors of Davos, civil society will need to be inside presenting an alternative narrative. Leaders will need to go beyond “resilient dynamism”, protecting themselves from future shocks, and invest their power and money in long-term solutions. Whether we like it or not, we have to win over at least some of the powerful in Davos if we are to avert climate catastrophe, create decent work, and ensure decent public services, if we are going to have a chance to avoid unnecessary conflict and disaster; that’s a reality of the balance of power we find ourselves in.

Voices for transformational change are mounting: earlier this month, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said that the financial costs linked to climate change represented the biggest threat to global economy – and let’s not forget, Africa remains one of the most vulnerable continents.

While on a panel at the forum, President Jacob Zuma took issue with the theme of the session, entitled “De-risking Africa”. He rhetorically asked if Africa is indeed more risky than other regions, and someone from the audience said “yes”. Indeed, the conversation was focused on economic growth and had nothing to do with climate change, but I would argue that this should have been part of the equation. Zuma was hinting at negative perceptions of Africa – but whether we like it or not, climate change will affect vulnerable nations of Africa more than others; and sadly neither Zuma nor any other African political and business leaders speak about the link between climate change and economy.

If business and politics took the view of enlightened self-interest, they would act against climate change because it’s in their interest. A transition towards an energy sector based on renewables will generate new opportunities, new industries, new forms of business, not to mention stability and prosperity. And this would benefit business, politicians and society generally.

I take heart in recent speeches from two of the most powerful people on the planet – two indications that the truth is percolating through to power. Enlightened self-interest and philanthropy were evident in US President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech, a speech which renewed my faith in the fierce audacity of hope: “We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgement of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.

“The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

The UN secretary-general, addressing a conference in California earlier this month, joined some of the dots: “The world spends more on the military in one month than it does on development all year… four hours of military spending is equal to the total budgets of all international disarmament and non-proliferation organisations combined. The world is over-armed. Peace is under-funded. Bloated military budgets promote proliferation, derail arms control, doom disarmament and detract from social and economic development.”

The reality is that this year, as in the past, the forum suffers from two major deficiencies. Firstly, it is rooted in a culture of presenting minuscule incremental change as significant and, secondly, it suffers from a disease of cognitive dissonance (the facts are clear, suggesting urgent action, but leaders remain in denial).

Yet, whether you come from business, government or civil society it is now clear that climate change fundamentally threatens our children’s and grandchildren’s future, and one can only hope for and fight for an approach that shows urgency and takes into account that from Africa to Asia, from the US to Australia, we are fast running out of time.

l Durban-born Naidoo is the head of Greenpeace International.


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