WWF president: I think the US is doing a lot on climate change

Yolanda Kakabadse
WWF president Yolanda Kakabadse on how the media is only interested in ‘doom-mongering’ on climate change, why the US isn't a block on negotiations and how governments are trying to reduce the influence of NGOs

Kara Moses: How has the environmental movement changed since you were involved in the 1992 Rio Summit – have we made progress or are we running headlong into ecological disaster?

Yolanda Kakabadse: I think that today the positive side is that climate change has become a really important issue for development and obviously that has influenced not only the development agenda but also the environmental agenda.

The negative part is that in many parts of the world you see governments trying to reduce the influence of civil society groups or NGOs; that is happening everywhere, in every continent, not only in Latin America which I’m more familiar with. That may be because of the influence they have had in the past - some governments feel that influence needs to be reduced.

KM: Have environmental groups like WWF been guilty of negative campaigning on climate change?

YK: Definitely not. The success has been clear. If you look at Copenhagen for example, the ability of NGOs to support governments from all over the world - governments that need information to be able to take decisions in these intergovernmental negotiations - has been absolutely key to many.

KM: But the public remains sceptical about climate change. Do you think you should be focusing more on the positive messages of climate change and sustainability in order to appeal to people to change their lifestyles?

YK: I think we need two things. One, to be able to translate, to interpret the scientific information that is available on climate change and other topics. It’s still too difficult for the normal person to understand. It has become jargon and terribly difficult to interpret.

Written, television, radio - media people need to invest much more than they have done up till now in communicating information in simple terms and educating people. Of course, it also has to go into the university sector and schooling.

I think media up to now is using climate change information only when there are big stories to tell. Climate change is not only a big story to tell; it is an everyday life relationship of the human being with resources.

When I have spoken to media people their response is, ‘that is what sells’. It sells in the newspapers, sells in television, on the radio – the big stories, the gloomy future for the planet. Unfortunately that either scares people or makes people categorise this sort of information as untrue and therefore they don’t pay attention to it.

KM: What about the upcoming climate negotiations in Mexico – what’s the point if the US doesn’t pass a bill for legally-binding emission cuts?

YK: It shouldn’t be an issue. I think the US is acting within its abilities. And its abilities are to keep moving within the executive until the moment is ripe for negotiation with congress. But the US is moving at the executive level in taking decisions of putting larger and more funds into supporting other countries’ initiatives of protecting forests and water use and resources. I don’t think the US is just waiting until congress is ready for a decision - it’s doing a lot. Again the ‘big news’ is that congress doesn’t want to legislate on climate change

KM: The idea of industrialised countries paying less-industrialised countries to protect their forests is considered to be one of the best ways of mitigating biodiversity loss and climate change. Is this the new paradigm?

No. I think it’s only one instrument that can be used, but it’s not going to be the only one - and it should not be the only one. It has some risks also, and the risk of course is that the payment for those environmental services today will not be satisfactory tomorrow. So those people that are receiving those funds in a few years time will want it to double and triple - maybe we are not thinking of that yet.

KM: So what do you think of REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation)?

REDD needs time to evolve. It's too early to say how successful it will be in stopping or reducing deforestation. I believe that it will work in the short or medium term, but in a few years time, if local capacity has not been built, forest communities might not be satisfied with this modality. Therefore, REDD must ensure that local communities start to build alternative forms of economic development, without threatening native forests - payment for environmental services will not be enough.

KM: As the former Ecuadorian minister of the environment, what's your view on the recent agreement to pay the country not to extract oil from beneath Yasuni National Park? If oil prices rise, won’t donors be forced to keep upping the stakes to maintain this as a viable option for Ecuador?

YK: What we have today with Yasuni is a fixed total amount of what Ecuador would get if we would exploit the oil, and that is $7 billion. It won’t go higher than that. If it goes higher than that it would be good for the whole world because that means that countries with sophisticated levels of research will invest more in alternative energy, so that’s a win-win for everybody.

KM: But as we head towards peak oil and oil prices increase, surely the value of that oil will increase as well?

YK: It probably will, but it won’t be that radical a change. I don’t think, or anybody I think, believes that oil prices will triple in the next few years. So that’s a scenario that we should keep there but it’s not a predictable one at this moment. If the prices rise then the amount of money will also rise if we get into the carbon market.

KM: Is this kind of deal an alternative to carbon credits?

YK: It’s a different way of approaching it yes. The idea is that we will look for contributions of different governments for Ecuador, with a reference of the price of the carbon market. But it won’t be sold as part of that market because the Kyoto protocol doesn’t yet allow that sort of negotiation. But what we are doing is creating a new model that maybe in four, five, six years might become recognised by the world and hopefully developed into a new protocol.

KM: Will carbon credits eventually be introduced into the Ecuador agreement?

YK: Maybe. This is a very open response because what we hope is that when Ecuador succeeds with this, which we hope will be in about three, four years, we will go for other countries that have a similar problem to Ecuador. The problem is the competition between the very high value of biodiversity and coal or oil and that can happen in about 15 countries. Once several countries are part of this new creature a new protocol has to be created. That will be something that is complimentary to today’s carbon market and not a competition to it.

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