One-On-One Interview with Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and current head of UNDP
At the Rio+Social summit on social media today, I had the pleasure of an interview with Helen Clarke, head of the United Nations Development Program and former Prime Minister of New Zealand. She had some very interesting things to say about fossil fuel subsidies, the Australian carbon price debate and the power of vested interests in politics. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation.
You may have noticed the debate we’ve been having in Australia over the carbon price. What have been your impressions of it?
It is really tough getting a price on carbon. When I was Prime Minister we first tried a carbon tax and the agricultural community in particular was very strongly opposed to it. We had an MP from the opposition driving a tractor up the front steps of our Parliament. It was a little wild. So we re-grouped as a Government and passed legislation for emissions trading, which had a slower phase-in for agriculture than for other sectors.
But it is tough. It’s very tough. I commend those who have been prepared to voted for it, because the way of the world is to put a price on carbon. Otherwise we keep consuming it as if there’s no tomorrow. And we have to have a tomorrow for future generations.
Do you see any echoes of the debate happening in Australia with things that happened in New Zealand?
Oh yes, I’ve seen it all. The big difference though, between New Zealand and Australia, is that the agricultural community has had the most opposition [in NZ]. The agricultural sector contributes 50% of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions profile.
But in Australia it is the mining industry that has been the focus of the dialogue around greenhouse gas issues. The biggest emitting sectors will be the most controversial.
We’ve just learnt that Tony Burke won’t be coming to Rio because the Opposition won’t be granting him a Parliamentary pair. What kind of message does it send?
I’ve got an idea. Why doesn’t he bring the opposition environment spokesperson with him? They could both get on the plane together.
Because it’s always good when there’s cross-party representation at these great events. Everyone needs to be involved. I remember at the original Earth Summit my party was in opposition but we were invited to send a senior member of the delegation, and we sent our energy spokesperson.
In politics these days we’re often so polarised, yet we can’t dodge the big issues. The big issues are that our way of life is not sustainable.
If all of Earth’s 7 billion people – growing to 9 billion by the end of the century – were to live the way we live, we would need 3 or 4 planets. And we only have one. Mars doesn’t look too inviting, and Jupiter and Saturn even less!
What do you think the state of international environmental politics now, compared with 20 years ago at the first Earth Summit?
The issues are as they were but the need is much more urgent for action. We have to look ahead and ask what are the steps we can take that can make a difference. Our friends in Western countries – apart from Australia – are bogged down in fiscal and budget issues at the moment. And that’s not so conductive for looking ahead, because you’re worried about your budget tomorrow. But we have to look ahead.
Developing countries have always been concerned that sometimes if the environmental side is pushed hard, there’s a protectionist element behind it. And the way those concerns can be assuaged is to keep the commitment for 0.7% of development assistance. Developing countries want to know what are the means of implementation [of the commitments made in Rio]. How are we going to make this transition? Where’s the helping hand?
What’s your impression of Australia’s role here in Rio?
I think Australia comes with a lot of credit because of the steps its taken to put a tax on carbon, Everyone knows this isn’t easy. It’s hard, it’s tough politics. But that gives Australia a voice of authority to speak.
The former Prime Minister of Ireland, Mary Robinson, is here in Rio doing a lot of work on the human rights implications of climate change with her foundation for climate justice. Have you had a chance to speak with her in Rio yet?
I know Mary well, and she’s leading a fantastic campaign for climate justice. She’s right in saying that the state we’re in with climate has largely been produced by the way Western societies have developed, with a heavy carbon footprint. The impact of this is felt by the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, who have the least means to adapt to what is happening.
You’ve been to a lot of international meetings. What role do you see lobbyists from the fossil fuel industry playing – or trying to play – at these meetings?
What’s impressed me at this summit is how busy the tweeters on hashtag #endfossilfuelsubsidies are. They are very busy!
The reality is that fossil fuel subsidies should go. I need to immediately qualify that by saying that for the poor, it needs to be replaced with an effective social protection or social security scheme. But overall, most fossil fuel subsidies aren’t going to the poor – they’re going to industry, theyregoing to richer people. So you’re better to just drop the subsidies but have a deliberate cash transfer or some kind of scheme to ensure that poor households aren’t the losers in that. You can save Governments a lot of money, you can still support the poor with access to energy, and it needs to be associated then with new initiatives for sustainable energy for all.
The estimates I’ve heard is around a trillion dollars going to fossil fuel subsidies.
I’ve used the same figure in my speeches. The truth is that it’s not affordable [for governments]. I go to some countries where fuel subsidies are a signiifcant part of the national budgets. Imagine if they had that money to invest in renewable energy and other constructive things.
What would you do with the 1 trillion dollars?
What I would do is invest it in the education health services, housing and infrastructure that would give people a chance to earn a decent wage and set up their own micro businesses and small enterprises. What a virtuous cycle you could create with a trillion dollars!
When you were Prime Minister, what role did vested interests play?
I’ve rubbed up against a lot of vested corporate interests in my time. I should say that also met fantastic people in the private sector who want to do the right thing. But in my time I’ve battled alcohol companies, tobacco companies, drug companies. And then of course when you get into the tough issues of carbon neutrality, which was the goal of our Government, then the greenhouse gas polluters all come out as well.
Industry lobbyists have money, they employ public relations firms, they have access to media, they get their message across. It can be very difficult for Governments to overcome these lobbyists in the public interest.
What advice do you have for young people wanting to get involved in public life, activism or politics:
Get involved! Use social media, speak to your classmates, your workmates, lobby your politicians, there’s so much more that can be done in every country for sustainable development.
What’s a motto or saying that’s got you through hard times?
“Life’s too short to be pessimistic”