`It is not too late to act'

Published : May 20, 2005 00:00 IST

Interview with Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme and Director-General of the U.N. Office at Nairobi.

Klaus Toepfer became Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Director-General of the United Nations Office at Nairobi (UNON) in February 1998. He was appointed Acting Executive Director of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (formerly UNCHS/Habitat, now UNHabitat) from July 1998 to August 2000.

Before joining the United Nations, Toepfer held several posts in the Federal Government of Germany. He held office as Federal Minister of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety from 1987 to 1994. Before he started his political career as a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Toepfer was Full Professor at the University of Hannover, where he directed the Institute of Regional Research and Development (1978-1979). Klaus Toepfer is the winner of several awards, among which are the TV Rheinland Pfalz Environment Award 2000, the Bruno H. Schubert Environment Prize 2002 and the German Environment Prize.

Before he gave this interview to Lawrence Surendra, Toepfer spoke to him about the German philosopher Hans Jonas and his most significant work, The Imperative of Responsibility, which sold 200,000 copies and deeply influenced the German Greens. As an Environment Minister for seven years in Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government, Toepfer was considered a radical within the government. In his UNEP Governing Council speech, he quoted from Hans Jonas, who said, "No previous ethics had to consider the global condition of human life and the far-off future, even existence, of the race." Underlying this interview also, was the theme of responsibility. Excerpts:

In your speech before the 23rd Governing Council of the UNEP in Indonesia last February, you said that the UN Millennium Project requested by the Secretary-General made it clear that "the environment is the golden thread, the red ribbon running through and around all the goals". Can you elaborate?

There are eight Millennium Development Goals, all of which seek to reduce extreme poverty by 50 per cent by 2015, through the reduction of hunger, by providing safe drinking water, through sanitation, and by improving the health of children. If you ask where the central challenge lies in achieving these goals, then you realise that these goals cannot be achieved without taking into consideration the question of how to take care of the environment.

You cannot achieve any of these goals without eliminating the threats to the environment and the instability surrounding environmental and ecological systems. The link to biodiversity, for example, is critical to agro-biodiversity, which in turn is linked to agricultural production. You cannot reduce hunger and poverty if you are facing environmental degradation triggered by climate change. British Prime Minister Tony Blair made this outstanding connection very clear when he said recently that "taking care of the environment is something like a peace policy for the whole world". This is especially true in terms of seriously threatened life-sustaining resources such as water, and the conflicts emerging out of the growing shortage of water. For example, when we destroy wetlands, we know that we cannot achieve the goal of bringing safe drinking water to the people. Women suffer the most from the degradation of the environment. With growing water scarcity, they are the ones who have to spend a great portion of daily life to fetch water. They are obliged to collect fuel - the burden on them increases with the growing degradation of the environment. The interconnections with the environment for the Millennium Development Goals are very clear. I am very happy that United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his presentation to the U.N. General Assembly, titled `In Larger Freedom', said exactly the same thing. That the environment is not just a luxury for the rich who can afford it. It is the basis for overcoming the disaster of poverty and the dire situations faced by the poor of the world. This is also linked to the production and consumption patterns of the rich, which have to change because they are among the major causes for the increase of the burdens on the poor. This is why we take an offensive on behalf of the global environment.

In the same speech, you referred to your visit to India and the gift to you of The Tamil Book of Culture and Heritage by Union Minister for Environment A. Raja., and quoted from the book, "It is ruinous to leave undone what should be done." The last Governing Council of the UNEP met in February, a few days after the Kyoto Protocol was ratified by the required number of countries to give it legal life. You said, "It is the year of responsibility. It is the year of accountability." You went on to say that "the pessimists are for now silenced" and expressed the hope that "we may be turning the corner". What is the basis for such optimism?

I am happy you pointed to the quote from the book your Environment Minister gave me as a gift. Those words are very important. We must act. We have to believe we can act and things can be changed. For a long time, environmentalists have been criticised as `nightmare prophets'. They have succumbed to the belief that it is anyway too late to do anything and have propagated this belief. I do not believe this. I am very convinced that at no time in human history as now did humanity have so many resources, so much of knowledge. We have to use scientific and technological knowledge and resources to solve the problems we face. We must have a clear conviction. Yes, we can do it, we can change our ways. We can stop degrading the environment. If we hold a pessimistic view, then we cannot solve any problem. I am not saying this out of some simplistic optimism, it is not simply to say, let us whistle in the forest so that we are not angry. That is not my view. We have to show and prove that it is possible to change the way we do things. That is my philosophy, our (UNEP's) philosophy. I am living in the midst of poverty in Nairobi. The UNEP is not headquartered in Geneva or any of the wonderful cities in the developed world. We are in Nairobi, in Africa, where 70 per cent of the people live in extreme poverty. We have to prove to them that their destiny can be a better one. This is the basis of whatever we do at the UNEP.

One of the major challenges that confront all the concerted attempts at the global level to address the environment challenges seems to be a conflict between Environmental Treaties or the Multilateral Environmental Agreements and Global Trade Treaties and Agreements such as the Free Trade Agreements. How do you see this conflict between Environment Treaties and Trade Treaties being resolved?

In my view, until now we have not had any serious conflict between Multilateral Environment Agreements and the rules and regulations of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The Environment Agreements, I want to emphasise, are multilateral, and not unilateral. They are framed by the same governments sitting in the WTO, therefore I hope that this is a good basis for stability. Of course, logically, we will always have the possibility of problems and tensions between Environment Agreements and Trade Treaties. You are aware that in the Environment Agreements, the main criterion for decision is the Precautionary Approach, the Precautionary Principle. In the WTO Treaty and Regulations, it is not the Precautionary Principle but Risk Assessment. In terms of the latter, you have to prove one-to-one that this is a risk for health or the environment. In the environmental field, since Rio [the 1992 meeting of the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro] particularly, but even before, we go by the Precautionary Approach. So there are differences and possible tensions.

But once more, I believe if you read the language of the Precautionary Approach, where dangers or damages to health or the environment are to be expected or cannot be excluded, the lack of scientific proof or knowledge cannot be an alibi for proceeding with a particular line of action. This gives rise to the possibility of conflict or tension when proof is sought in the context of Trade Treaties, and the view that the precautionary principle is not based on science. We always try to put forth the scientific basis for advice against a particular action. There is, more critically, the question of responsibility.

If you go back to Hans Jonas and to his philosophy of responsibility, it is not a philosophy of not acting. It is not a philosophy that says that we should avoid everything connected with technological progress. No. No. On the contrary, he says the development of humankind requires technological progress, but we must be responsible for it. This is my philosophy. Even more in times when knowledge of the construction of life and nature is getting deeper and deeper. Yet, we find that all this knowledge is still not sufficient. For example, in relation to the human genome, we have the capacity to manipulate. I don't want to say manipulate - perhaps to influence the human genome, how do we handle this? These issues have great, serious consequences, now and in the long term, and maybe some of the consequences are irreversible. How do we handle such issues? There are very new dimensions of ethics and in facing these challenges we have to follow the Precautionary Approach.

Your other important contribution has been in linking the rule of law to dealing with the environment both nationally and internationally. The UNEP has strong law education and training programmes. Governance and the rule of law seem very critical for a sustainable ecology and environment...

The rule of law is indeed the basis for stable societies. Only a stable society will be able to handle the environment in a responsible way. You have linked it very correctly to governance. I always like to quote the well-known German poet Rilke. I shall give you a poor translation of one of his poems, which expresses our plight. Rilke wrote: "God, don't make any miracles for me, I only want to know that your laws are obeyed. This is the best." Whenever we are waiting for miracles or for some happy events to happen to us, we are a little bit outside the rule of law. We cannot destroy the environment and wait for miracles to happen. Let us make the rule of law function. We then have reliability and that is what the stability of society and governance is about. The rule of law is very, very, important and one of the most important pillars for the environment and natural resources. Without the rule of law, I do not believe any society can be rationally handled, and the environment is the first to suffer. Wherever there is no reliable governance and rule of law, it has been a disaster for the environment.

The year 2005 is the beginning of the United Nations Decade for Education for Sustainable Development (UNDESD), for which UNESCO is the task manager within the U.N. system. You signed, on behalf of the UNEP, an agreement with UNESCO in terms of joining forces for the UNDESD. What are your views on the importance of Education for Sustainable Development?

First and foremost, talking to you in the Asia and Pacific region, which is the world's culturally most diverse region, I want to state that the basic necessity for stable development is that we are deeply aware of our diversity, our diverse ways of living and doing things. I am convinced that there is a very big price to pay for uniformity under globalisation. I believe we need a framework of values, including spiritual values, and realise that there is value in the other. A very important dimension of this framework is tolerance. We need urgently a dialogue between the different perspectives for the future, so that we realise that we can learn the best in the other. This, for me, is tolerance. I take clear positions on such issues, these are not just words. I want to take a committed stance and for me culture and cultural diversity are very important. Cultural diversity is extremely critical in a region like Asia and the Pacific. We are extremely keen to link cultural diversity with biodiversity. They are connected, they are inseparably inter-related. That is where Education for Sustainable Development and the Decade has a major role. We need education, not just learning facts with regard to laws in nature or learning languages which in a globalised world is important, but very critically we must educate our young people that they have a responsibility. That they cannot wait for the government to take action. In open democracies, to be integrated in political life, education is important, education for sustainable development is important. Culture, cultural diversity, ecological diversity, sustainable development and education - they are all interwoven in the work of UNESCO and UNEP. Both have a big role to play for the UNDESD.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment