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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The UN Summit…What’s it Wirth?

Air Date: Week of
United Nations Foundation President Timothy E. Wirth. (Photo: Wikimedia/World Economic Forum)

Diplomats, organizations and corporations gather once again in Rio to assess progress and plot a path forward. United Nations Foundation President Timothy Wirth talks to host Bruce Gellerman about what’s needed to achieve sustainable development and energy for the world.


GELLERMAN: Well, expectations for the summit were low going in, but coming out Timothy Wirth had a positive spin on events. The former U.S. Senator from Colorado served in the Clinton Administration as Undersecretary of Global Affairs and is now President of the UN Foundation, which was started with a billion dollar grant from media mogul Ted Turner. The goal: to encourage other donors to support UN activities.
Senator Wirth was at the 1992 Rio Summit and he joined us from Rio +20.

Participants at the 1992 Earth Summit sign onto an
Earth Pledge. (Photo: United Nations)

WIRTH: It's a very different world from then to now. In 1992 I think most heads of state and finance ministers had just discovered the environment. Since Rio, people thought that maybe there would be implementation by itself. People thought that maybe all of the agreements would suddenly turn into some kind of regulatory patterns. Well, they didn’t. The devil is in the details, the devil’s in implementation, and so I think over the last 20 years what we’ve learned is that implementation is going to come from the ground level up, not from the top down, and largely with the engagement of the private sector.

GELLERMAN: Well, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said of this conference, he said, ‘We’ve got a once in a generation opportunity.’ So, did we make the most of it or did we blow it?

WIRTH: Well, it depends on what lens you’re looking through. I think for those who were looking for an overall framework for the whole globe, that did not occur. That already exists in Agenda 21 and elsewhere. For those who were looking for climate agreements or long-term agreements on population, you know, they are not part of this discussion and this deliberation.

If, however, you are looking for what the Secretary General calls the ‘golden thread’ of development and all social and economic activities-- energy-- then this has been a huge success. We’re obviously on an unsustainable course now in the developed world. The use of fossil fuel and the dumping of carbon garbage into the atmosphere cannot be continued, we’re going to have to shift and make the transition to renewables and we’re going to have to use the energy that we have much more efficiently.

And, for the first time the world has come together and really focused together on the issue of energy, access to energy for the poor and much more efficient use of energy for the developed world, and the transition to renewables for everybody.

GELLERMAN: Well, how does that happen? I mean, so far the model has been, you know, “Grow now, clean up later.” How do we reverse that?

WIRTH: The “grow now, clean up later” model is really bankrupt. And I think now people are largely understanding that. Utilities are making the shift away from great dependence on coal to a transition for the short-term to natural gas and a long-term to renewables. Automobiles are becoming much, much more efficient.

When I had my first car it got about eight miles to the gallon, you know, we’re now moving to 50 miles per gallon. That is a great step in efficiency. These are all opportunities that we have to take advantage of right now. If we don’t make all of these other steps then we’re going to so foul the atmosphere that we are end up boiling the earth and we don’t want to do that, obviously.

GELLERMAN: Well, what’s the role of the United Nations then? We’ve had twenty years of experience…

WIRTH: The United Nations is at its best as a norm setter. It sets the broad agreements that then other people operate against. That’s what the UN does on human rights, it does that on women’s issues, it does that on a whole series of global issues that move beyond national borders. And another very good example of this is of course climate change; there was the original UN agreement on climate change that was framed in Rio 20 years ago, and now part of the implementation of that is the energy initiative announced here in Rio.

GELLERMAN: And… what’s that?

WIRTH: That’s the “sustainable energy for all” initiative. You know, obviously climate is energy, energy is climate: they are the same thing. And, if you don't have a sustainable energy pattern, you certainly aren’t able to solve your climate problem. And we think that this new alliance on energy is going to be an example of really how to make one of these major partnerships really go, and it’s already moving with commitments from more than 50 governments, hundreds of billions of dollars of financial commitment-- it’s a pretty remarkable beginning.

Rio in Sand (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

GELLERMAN: So if I read you correctly, it sounds to me that you’re giving a greater role to corporations in terms of addressing the world’s environmental and developmental problems.

WIRTH: Corporations have a major role to play. It has to be a partnership between governments making sure that the right rules are being set, non-governmental organizations which tend to have the most yeasty ideas and sense of the future, and corporations which are the most efficient institutions.

GELLERMAN: You sound very optimistic, actually. The stuff I’ve been reading from Rio would suggest otherwise, but you actually sound up-beat!

WIRTH: Well people are depressed about Rio because they expect that one negotiated document is going to solve the problems, and that’s a very naïve view, I think, and it’s also the UN is changing dramatically. Just look at the makeup of the power at the UN: it used to be the United States, Europe, Japan and maybe Russia that were making all the decisions.

And now, you have the emergence of Brazil, India, South Africa, Mexico, major countries with major voices and they think differently about the world and they are making their thoughts felt. Of course there are people who are resisting that. There are people in the traditional north who don’t like that to happen—people are always averse to change—but if you don’t respect and understand change, you’re doomed to failure.

GELLERMAN: Well, Senator Tim Wirth, thank you so very much.

WIRTH: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: Talking to us from Rio, that's Tim Wirth, President of the UN Foundation.



The United Nations Foundation

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development


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