Meet Erik Solheim – Environmental Champion, Politician, Climate And Peace Negotiator
Photo: Trond Viken, Utenriksdepartementet.
Currently the Global Head, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Erik Solheim is one of the world’s most visionary politicians, having served for 12 years as a Member of Parliament in Norway. He also served as Minister of International Development between 2005 and 2007 and held the combined portfolio of Norway’s Minister of the Environment and International Development between 2007 and 2012. In January 2013, he took charge of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC), a position to which he was unanimously elected. A special UN envoy for environment, conflict and disasters, he has received recognitions too numerous to list, including UNEP’s ‘Champion of the Earth’ award. He met Bittu Sahgal in Mumbai earlier this year when the Sanctuary Nature Foundation and UNEP jointly organised a discussion on economics, biodiversity and climate change, and shared his vision, work and determination to leave our children a better world with the million-strong Sanctuary network.
Erik, we know a fair deal about your work life, but what was your childhood like? Where did you grow up and how did nature so totally infuse your life with purpose?
I had a very normal, sheltered childhood in Oslo, where I grew up playing soccer and doing all the other things that European children do. But even way back then, around the age of 15, I began to develop an interest in politics. I think it started with a massive exhibition on poverty that was held in Oslo that opened my eyes to the state of the human condition beyond my own protected life. Nature? That is part of every Norwegian child’s life. There is almost nowhere you can go in Norway that does not infuse you with awe and respect for wild nature. Between the wildlife of the sea and the mountains, to which our family would inevitably escape during the holidays, my life choices were virtually predestined.
Clearly childhood experiences are critical to who we become. You shepherded Norway’s incredible Nature Diversity Act that changed the course of the nation’s development strategies. How was that received?
Overall, the response from the public was very positive, particularly among young people. Norway’s Parliament passed it with an overwhelming majority, which speaks volumes for the nation’s priorities. But, expectedly, some were unhappy. Some were opposed to realigning roads away from ecologically-sensitive and biodiverse areas, many of which were declared as protected National Parks.
Photo: Ragnhild H. Simenstad, Utenriksdepartementet.
You also led peace negotiations in violent hotspots including Sri Lanka, Burundi, Myanmar, Sudan and Nepal. What’s the connection between fighting for peace and fighting for the planet?
These two issues go hand-in-hand. All wars lead to environmental destruction and human fatalities, and the reverse is also true. For example, the ISIS set oil fields on fire in Iraq with unimaginable environmental destruction and damage to livelihoods. That destruction will make lasting peace even more difficult to achieve. Al Shabab in Somalia raise funds by burning huge swatches of forest trees for charcoal. If we look at issues like the illegal wildlife trade, it’s clearly connected to organised crime and networks that undermine stable governments. We’ve seen armed groups even set up unholy alliances with illegal mercury, gold and diamond mining interests. The consequences on the environment are direct and disastrous.
And the unfolding Syrian tragedy?
This has everything to do with Earth’s changing climate patterns. There is a strong argument suggesting that four years of consecutive droughts triggered desertification in what was once Mesopotamia’s Fertile Crescent. Coupled with massive environmental destruction, this pushed millions of farming families over the brink and into one of the world’s most vicious wars. Syria should be a wake-up call for nations, which take peace for granted and which are allowing their life-support infrastructures and climate to be degraded by those who do not have anyone’s public interest at heart, and certainly not that of future generations.
Photo: Anders Vethe, Utenriksdepartementet.
You are one of the world’s most respected authorities on the vexed issues of ‘Environment and Development’. Any advice for U.S. President Donald Trump?
One key message is that environmental protection and climate action is not a burden or a cost, but a huge opportunity. President Trump campaigned on increasing jobs and reducing the healthcare burden. Investing in renewables and cutting pollution are two ways to achieve these goals. The fact is that the United States of America is typified by its championing of national parks, an example that has been emulated by the entire world. Beyond recreation and tourism, these protected parks and their biodiverse plant and animal life are vital to global solutions to bringing atmospheric carbon back to Earth. It may sound counter-intuitive, but protecting our biodiversity also ends up fighting terrorism!
Job creation? Fighting terrorism? Do elucidate?
Absolutely yes. In time I believe President Trump will completely change his perspective on job creation through global climate investments and actions. The green sector has five times more jobs in solar than coal, and this ratio is growing. The same holds true for new jobs and livelihoods created by green agriculture and industry. It’s an old-fashioned idea that more jobs can be created by environmental destruction than protection.
On the terrorism front, as mentioned earlier, a dark nexus exists between the operatives working for the mining, arms, narcotics and wildlife trades. Also human trafficking, which goes hand in hand with forced migration. Everything is linked. Environmental destruction weakens states. These weak states become fragile states. That’s where terrorism and organised crime flourish.
Photo Courtesy: Utenriksdepartementet UD.
Socialism, communism, democracy or monarchy? What is going to work best for a planet in trouble?
What works best, plain and simple, is political action. As a young man I spent a lot of time with Marxist groups, shouting Marxist slogans. I remember a friend and mentor reminding me that what the people want are concrete things – things like healthcare, jobs, housing. So the focus needs to be on leadership and action. Such leadership must be non-corrupt, be committed to development for the people (not just the elite) and it must recognise that it is impossible to improve the lot of people through the destruction of the environment. This needs to be done irrespective of the rationale and justifications put forward by advisors, who often work at the behest of special interests with an eye on profit, not the security and well-being of planet Earth.
And which countries do you feel are key to our climate future?
At this point in history, I would say both India and China.
Not the United States?
Well every country is key, but if India and China take the right steps it will not only secure the lives of their own citizens, but set a global example for other nations, including the G7 countries, to emulate. After all, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi won freedom for India by setting the right example: non-violence and self-reliance. Prime Minister Modi also sent a clear signal to the world and in particular to President Trump: “It is mandatory to implement the consensus reached at the Paris Agreement. India will implement the Agreement in letter and spirit.”
Photo Courtesy: Utenriksdepartementet UD.
Well you certainly know India better than most.
I’ve have been a frequent visitor to India for over two decades, and I’ve seen a huge shift in attitudes. In the early 1990s, virtually all sections of society posited the nation’s options as ‘environmental protection or job creation’. Today, notwithstanding the very visible battles that are intrinsic to democracies, the dominant public view, particularly among the young, is ‘we want jobs, but we also want to protect our environment and protect the planet’. Maharashtra, in particular, seems to be setting the pace for higher biodiversity protection standards, if its efforts on the tiger front are anything to go by. The Community Owned Community Operated Conservancy (COCOON Conservancy) initiative underway at Gothangaon, Nagpur district, next to the Umred-Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary (Sanctuary Vol. XXXVI No. 1, February 2016) certainly holds out hope for replicable community sustainability, biodiversity enhancement and climate action. Most importantly, this idea touches on the key issue of poverty. Why must farmers who feed the world be forced to confront poverty? No one alive on this planet should ever need to worry about the next day’s food, education or health. We have it in our power to guarantee this. Whether we have the wisdom and determination… only time will tell.
I hear you, Erik. I hear you. Tell me… are you an optimist, or a pessimist?
Undoubtedly an optimist. It may sound counter-intuitive to the young, but we are living at the best time in human history. Poverty is still widespread, but it is probably at its lowest ever. Life expectancy has risen to 70… up from 46 half-a-century ago. Polio has been eradicated from India. Still, the world is very different depending on whether you are from Shanghai, Mumbai or Allepo.
How would you like to be remembered? And if you had a magic wand what would you do for generations unborn?
Not just because I have four wonderful children, but because of all the children of the world, I would like to be remembered most as one who tried to lift people from poverty and who spent his life working to leave this a better, safer planet.
Photo Courtesy: Utenriksdepartementet UD.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 8, August 2017.