“Global warming and climate change is a bigger security issue than military war”

The world has the money needed to address climate change; it is the will that is lacking, says the Rafto winner Nnimmo Bassey in this interview with Karina Reigstad. He believes renewable energy in small-scale energy systems will play an important role in Africa – and is strongly opposed to oil exploration in the Arctic.

Nnimmo Bassey was last Sunday awarded the Rafto Prize of 2012 for his longstanding commitment to the environment and human rights in Nigeria. Bassey is also chairman of the organization Friends of the Earth International. I met him for an interview in connection with his visit to Bergen, Norway, to receive the prize at an event at the National Theatre. The winner was also honored with a torchlight parade through the city.


By Karina Reigstad, 12th November, 2012.

Reigstad: First and foremost, congratulations on receiving the Rafto Prize of 2012. I would like to start off by asking you a few questions about your opinion on the international climate negotiations coming up in the next few weeks. What do you think will be the outcome of COP18 in Doha? Will we finally reach concession on an international agreement post Kyoto and 2012?

Bassey: It was after the negotiations reached in Copenhagen it really started going downhill. Ambitious began to disappear and governments took up the hypocritical position of agreeing nothing and pretending to be doing something. We saw it happen in Cancun and then in Durban last year. We ended up having a Durban-platform more about what was not been said than what was being said. I think this pattern is going to continue in Doha. I would be fooling myself if I said anything positive came out of Doha. The energy level is going to be very low and the policymakers in the rich countries are going to have their way again and come away not making empty promises but probably making no promises at all. I would think that with the increasing intensity of weather events in the world today, the rhetoric level would be higher than it was in Durban. But in Durban, the day before the conference took place, many people lost their lives due to human-induced climate change right there in the city without it being referenced to at all.

Reigstad: Who do you think will have the most impact, if any impact, during these negotiations?

Bassey: I think the only level at which there will be debate would be in terms of the historical need for ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’. There will still be debate on this because it is an issue of justice, historical justice for political wrongs. I am of the opinion that rich countries, say China, India and the rest, must have equal responsibilities. That I believe is the faulty basis for negotiations and for reaching agreement. Historical wrongs must always be admitted and accepted. It cannot be swept under the carpet. When it comes to other substantial things, I doubt that there will be any big debate. There may be a debate about who contributes what to the Climate Fund because the climate institutions have become more like a trading floor. Developing countries will try and get what benefits they can get and developed countries will see what little they can give. Hence, people are not really looking at the critical trend that we see in the world today on the climate front, and the real challenge facing both the rich and the poor countries. Some people think they are immune to climate impacts but increasingly we are seeing that this is not true. Global warming and climate impact is something that nobody is really prepared for.

Reigstad: In terms of equity in climate negotiations, what do you believe is the best way to engage all parties in committing to emissions reductions and to reach an agreement?

Bassey: I think the foundation-word was weakened right from Kyoto in 1997. When the ambition was at such a low level it was clear that even if everybody kept to it there would be no resolution, there would be no real impact in tackling global warming. The solution where countries think of their narrow self-interest has not really made room for global action that would tackle this global problem. I think the basic part that would help to do something positive would be for all the countries to reflect on what was agreed by peoples of this world in Cochabamba, Bolivia in April 2010, where they came up with a Peoples agreement that stated a few things that can be done that would tackle global warming, including recognizing that we cannot afford a temperature increase of 2-3 degrees or more. Because that would simply roast places like Africa and put the Small Island States under water completely. The changes in the weather patterns would be catastrophic for everybody. We don’t want the tropics at the North Pole, for example. I think that agreement also gave a very good political background that can be accept the climate debt should be accepted as the real debt that needs to be paid. The major problem is that the governments don’t want to do anything about it. It is not a lack of revenue, not a lack of income, not a lack of money to tackle these problems. It is a lack of incentive.

Reigstad: Do you also believe that the developing countries should contribute?

Bassey: Oh, yes. I think every country has to play some part in tackling global warming. We have to build resilience, in terms of climate mitigation. Unfortunately, we are in the position we are in now. We rely on someone else to take all the responsibility. But the historical responsibilities should not be ignored. That is why ‘the climate debt’ would be a good way to generate revenue for the Green Climate Fund, as well as a slash in the military budget. I mean, rich countries can spend so much money on nucleus war equipment. Why doesn’t a fraction of that being put into fighting global warming, which is at worst an even more serious security. It’s a bigger security issue than war, than military war. Here, we fight for very few resources if you took away a few oil wells.

Reigstad: I agree. This kind of leads to my next question as well. As a Norwegian and actively contributing to the climate debate, in regards to the position Norway is in, being an energy security supplier and with economic ties to the production of fossil fuels, how do you suggest Norway “leave the oil in the soil”? What kind of mitigation policies do you see Norway could take on?

Bassey: I think Norway has the technological know-how, required to make the shift from fossil fuel extraction to other more sustainable and clean energy sources. Norway could very early in the day quickly shift and modify or legalize the technological know-how they had in the shipping sector to now support the political sector. So its very possible, and I think Norway also have this stock of revenue. They have a lot of wealth and recognition to invest more in order to make the shift to renewable energy and show the whole world that this is the direction to go, that this is possible to do. I think that kind of shift is needed, but Norway should not keep on expanding the oil frontier and shouldn’t engage in investment in detrimental energy with other countries. They shouldn’t persist in carbon offsetting track that is nothing but a false solution to global warming, just feeling good absolutely doing nothing. So I think what Norway has to do is to utilize skills, capacity to actually take real action, including, and very importantly, emission reductions at home and not export it elsewhere. And they should show other countries: stop pretending that we are doing something by carry out activities elsewhere, or by hoping that you can keep on polluting and then engage in carbon capture and sequestration, future technologies or geo-engineering or everyone of these assortments people are proposing, which are compound not just to the climate situation but also the political, social situation in the world, especially in vulnerable countries.

Reigstad: I have spent some time the last couple of years looking at Norway’s interest in expanding the oil frontier into the Arctic and High North region. Briefly, what do you think of this development?

Bassey: If anybody should talk about the Arctic, it should be Norway saying “don’t go there, don’t touch it”.

Reigstad: What has to be done to reach a low carbon development in Africa as a whole? Could development of such renewable energy sources as solar power see Africa rise to this challenge? And what would it take for this to spur?

Bassey: Africa is a very challenged continent but it is also a continent of opportunities, at many levels. This is one reason why we campaign on many fronts in Africa. I personally campaign against the expansion of genetic engineering into Africa. In all of Latin America and the United States this type of engineering has destroyed a lot of environments already. So when it comes to energy production also, the fossil fuel industry must be brought to a halt, because clearly this is what is driving global warming, and it is also destroying communities and livelihoods, that bring about huge abuses of human rights and also affecting African political systems because dictators brings oil companies, and the oil companies brings dictators even to this day. People are trying to modify constitutions that still are in power because they are expecting a lot of revenue to come from the petroleum sector. I think renewable energy and discrete energy systems, more small-scale energy systems would build more resilience on the continent of Africa. We don’t need massive national or continental grid lines. Just learning from one storm in New York, sees the city in darkness for one week or so, should be a big lesson that these massive energy systems are not very resilient. We should learn and make more autonomous systems which will build more resilient communities at neighborhood level and eventually at national level.

Reigstad: And finally, what can we as individuals in a global society do to influence the outcome of climate change despite its inevitability?

Bassey: Yes, I think a lot of “ordinary” people worldwide are doing a lot to influence political engineering already. We have seen the change in Tunisia, the change in Egypt. We see how people are involved, and we have seen many political movements in North America. We are seeing resistance in Latin America, and all across the world. People are standing up saying that we need to take our destiny in our hands. And so my word to the people in Norway and in Europe would be, look, we have one planet; we are all in this together. Inaction in one place would bring impact on everybody. We might be more vulnerable in Africa, but nobody can escape from this. It is time to stand together as one, with one voice, and demand our policymakers to stop playing policy on climate change, but to take real actions. Stop pretending that carbon offsetting can do anything, stop pretending that bio-fuels can take the place and become the dominant energy contributor. Stop investing in coal, stop investing in tar sand, invest in clean energy. This is what we need to demand. Make this a demand when people are seeking election. Ask them a direct question about global warming. We must not allow them to pretend this is not an ecological problem or a political problem. It is a political problem! If we are going to preserve the planet for our children, grandchildren, and future generations, we need to direct investments from war and military activities towards tackling global warming.

Reigstad: Thank you so much for your time and inspiring answers. I hope you have a lovely time here in Bergen. Good luck for the award ceremony on Sunday, I am looking forward to see you at the conference tomorrow.


Karina Reigstad is a lecturer and a freelance writer on energy and climate politics

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