Choice of growth or climate apocalypse a 'false dilemma,' says ex-president

by Lisa Abend | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 10 June 2014 16:45 GMT

Snow-covered mountains look over the Isfjord in Svalbard, Norway, on June 1, 2012. The Svalbard archipelago on Europe's northern edge is probably the remotest and wildest place in the Arctic with regularly scheduled flights. REUTERS/Balazs Koranyi

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Former Mexican president says prosperity and climate change mitigation don't have to be in opposition

NY-ALESUND, Norway (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ny-Alesund is a long way to go to make an argument about false choices.

Located in far northern Norway, at the edge of the Arctic Ocean, it is the northernmost permanent human settlement in the world, home primarily to reindeer, sea birds, and small bunches of scientists conducting chilly experiments in atmospheric sciences and glaciology.

But in late May, Felipe Calderón, the former president of Mexico, traveled there to speak about how so much of the discourse surrounding climate change and the economy was wrong.

“How is it possible that we can imagine this apocalyptic prophecy but can’t take action?” he asked. “It’s because we believe that taking action implies huge cost. But prosperity and mitigation aren’t necessarily opposed to each other.”

 That message came up frequently at the Ny-Alesund symposium, an annual gathering organised by the Norwegian government that brings leading policy makers, climate negotiators, businessmen, and scientists to this remote spot on the already remote island of Svalbard.

There it strips them of their shoes (in Ny-Alesund everyone walks around indoors in their stocking feet, so as to avoid dragging the slush outside across the wooden floors), and sets them to talking about climate change.

The hope is that the intimate contact, as well as a chance to see up first-hand the already visible impact of global warming on the Arctic, will spark new initiatives and, perhaps, some kind of breakthrough. Underlining that hope was the theme of this year’s meeting: Breaking the Stalemate.

 For Calderon, it was the perfect opportunity to present the new organisation that he chairs, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. Commissioned by seven countries, including Sweden, Colombia, and the UK, and drawing on the support of leading economists including Nicholas Stern, the Commission intends to analyse the economic impact of mitigation.

Its flagship project, The New Climate Economy, aims to provide independent evidence of actions that can both spur economic growth and mitigate the effects of climate change. Hence the attack on false choices.

“People think that you have to choose one or the other,” said Calderón. “We want to prove that’s a false dilemma.”


 In his talk at the symposium, Calderón presented some examples of this new climate economy, which emphasises, he said, market initiatives rather than development ones. Tesla’s electric car came in for praise, as did Nest’s smart thermostat.

He was especially pleased with a simple campaign and catchy slogan in his home country that convinced Mexicans to turn in their old appliances for new, energy-efficient ones. The measure, he pointed out, not only sold 1.5 million new refrigerators but created jobs rather than destroying them.

“No political leader is going to say, ‘I will sacrifice economic growth, I will sacrifice jobs,’ so we have to show them they don’t have to,” he said.

Even so, his main point was less about individual initiatives than about changing discourse.  “The story we want to tell is not a tragedy. We want to tell a success story. It’s not about climate, it’s about economic opportunity.”

 That was a theme that came up repeatedly at the symposium, where many participants, looking warily ahead to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change COP 21 summit to be held in Paris in 2015, echoed the need to come up with new, compelling ways of talking about climate change in order to mobilise support for action.

“We have lots of narratives, but not any good ones,” said Paul Watkinson, chief climate negotiator for France. “We need one that says, ‘This is how we can sell this.’”

Many of the Ny-Alesund participants agreed that that new narrative must be economic, though the details of that proposed story ranged from using adaptation to create job opportunities to pricing carbon in such a way as to make it profitable for companies to reduce their output of it. There were even calls – roundly criticised by others – to compensate fossil fuel companies for their losses.

“In the end,” said Simon Upton, environment director for the OECD, “it’s not about the environment. It’s about transforming the economy. We won’t get there unless we rewire it – through investment, innovation, market design, and consumers.”


Not everyone agreed. Samantha Smith, leader of the Global Climate and Energy Initiative for WWF Norway, was particularly bothered by what was left out of this new economic narrative. “There might be people who walk out of this meeting thinking we’re in agreement that we just need to tweak the economics,” she said. “But there’s been no discussion of historic responsibility, or equity. What are you going to do for the poor, who really bear the burden of climate change?”

Even the New Climate Economy, she added, fails to address the development issue. And Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, closed the conference noting that it has “to be about both economics and ethics. Thank God it’s about both.”

The commission that Calderón heads, and that is sponsoring the project, admits there will inevitably be tradeoffs. Yet its New Climate Economy research, which it plans to present in a report in September, intends to provide independent evidence about how economic policy and investment decisions can work with mitigation efforts in the future, and how they are affecting those efforts now.

If the conversation at Ny-Alesund was any indication, that’s a story to which climate negotiators – and, more importantly, the public at large – may respond.

Lisa Abend is a Copenhagen-based journalist who writes frequently on European politics and culture. 

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