Dr Paul Vallet: Welcome to the Geneva Centre for Security Policy weekly podcast. I'm your host, Dr Paul Vallet, Associate Fellow with the GCSP Global Fellowship Initiative. For the next few weeks, I'm talking with subject matter experts explain issues of peace, security, and international cooperation. Thanks for tuning in. This past week, we marked Earth Day and the US President Joe Biden convened the virtual summit of 40 leaders to underscore the renewed participation of the United States in international environmental and climate change negotiations. The environment is a global cause that historically has been marked both by raising awareness and concrete action. To discuss this, I'm joined today by Mr. Alexander Verbeek. As well as being an Associate Fellow in the GCSP Global Fellowship Initiative. He led the virtual journey in Addressing Challenges in Global Health Security earlier this month. Alexander Verbeek is a Dutch environmentalist, writer, public speaker, diplomat, and former strategic policy advisor at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1992 to 2016. Over the past 30 years, he has worked on international security, humanitarian and geopolitical risk issues and the linkage to the years accelerating environmental crisis. Currently, Alexander is writer-editor of the planet, a newsletter about threats to our environment, as well as the beauty of nature. He is Policy Director of the Environment and Development Resource Center in Brussels, and also an independent advisor on climate security, water, food, energy and resources for governments, businesses, think tanks and civil society agencies. Alexander founded the Institute for Planetary Security and developed the Planetary Security Initiative, leading the team that prepared the first planetary security conference in the Hague’s Peace Palace in November of 2015. He is a world Fellow at Yale University and has been a fellow and associate of the Stockholm Environment Institute, the Stockholm International water Institute, a visiting fellow at Uppsala University, and on the board of advisors of several international environmental initiatives with an online following on all social media of more than 400,000. We're fortunate to have him with us despite his busy schedule. Welcome to the podcast. Alexander.
Mr Alexander Verbeek: Thank you.
Dr Paul Vallet: My first question to you relating to indeed this activity, as a great communicator for all things, environmental, I was going to ask you, if I could, you know, use quotation marks around the term influencing and we talked about this before, but I wanted to ask you whether influencing represents for you a new form of international advocacy for the environment.
Mr Alexander Verbeek: I don't think it's new. I think environmentalism has always been about influencing. So, you should start with the first environmentalist, but John Muir is the first name that that comes up because… I wrote about it a couple of days ago. I mean, if you look at John Muir, we talked them about, you know, late 19th century, activism to preserve the environment. So, you know, he couldn't send out tweets, but he wrote books and poems, and he was writing to the people in Washington to preserve nature. And he actually, well it was actually Teddy Roosevelt's idea. He contacted him to actually go out there in nature together, or think about, let's say, Rachel Carson with Silent Spring, I mean, that was still the days of, you know, book writing for influencing and activism. So, I think the causes may that we fight for may have changed in the methodology, but the basic principle of that you have to influence I think that's still there. And it's probably logical if you start by any environmental conflict, it's often between those in power, whether that is, the politicians or often let's say, the businesses, and they have the money and they have to connections and they have everything in place, to grab from the environment, what they want to have for their for their gain. And the ones that are affected by it, and the ones that want to protect nature, they have less financial means and they're not the ones in political power. So, they are the people that have no other option then to create a huge international campaign. I think the most recent example is Greta Thunberg was her school strike for climate. She had no power at all, two years ago, she was a 16-year-old schoolgirl in Sweden and with nothing else then then using social media and the and the established media to create a worldwide grassroots campaign that has been extremely effective.
Dr Paul Vallet: Well, I guess yeah, it's very interesting also, for me as someone who is a historians background To realize, of course, the rich history that we have in this notion of advocacy led by people in the know, and people with the means. So, I think that that tells us a lot about it. What I was wondering in my next question was whether because we talked about, of course, going back to examples from John Muir and others, whether this kind of advocacy has been more efficient for some environmental causes? Or do we really find with the newest means that you've been using in a variety of ways that it is effective for the full range of environmental causes?
Mr Alexander Verbeek: Yeah, I think both have changed. It's the kind of causes that that we fight for, if changed, and the ways we do it. And I think that the trend in both is that both of them are globalising or internationalising. So, when I was young, the environmental causes were always local, you know, people were worried about a local waste dump, or an old gas factory or it was always the community that got together for some environmental issue. During my lifetime. I'm not that old. I'm 55. But I, I've seen the environmental issues internationalising. First, we got acid rain in the 1980s. And that was there was already kind of cross border, and then the 1990s you got the hole in the ozone layer. And there we needed really, an international treaty was all countries in the world at the Montreal Protocol to stop it and then steady but increasingly more fast was the rise of all the other huge global issues where climate change is the most urgent and visible one maybe together with a few others, actually, so that was internationalising. And, and so was the campaigning, and then it used to be, you know, local campaign or some people that wrote some signatures and went to local government. And now environmentalism is using the internet is worldwide coming together to ask our leaders for better policies.
Dr Paul Vallet: Indeed, and well, we're the same generation. So I think that's also very interesting to retrace what you're saying of this shift from India, I think an intensely local awareness of issues to be in the experience of our lives, seeing the globalising of the issue, and the necessity, of course of a global response to which I think our technological revolution and obviously, of course, the increased connection between scientific institutions across the world, to provide these kind of technical, technical issues. So, on the issues themselves. My third question would be whether, in your view, of course, this last year has been very particular. And obviously, the pandemic has been the occasion of some interesting worldwide reactions to the situation. And I think it's been universally recognised, how interesting the lock downs, where it was a period in which people did focus on environmental issues to a great deal. We also rediscovered how nature was affected by the sudden halts of our frenetic development race nowadays, but the question that stems from that is whether this pandemic shifted focus among the range of environmental issues, to causes that we find perhaps more directly linked to the question of human health and environmental and public health security or whether that, you know, the focus on past priorities, which, you know, climate change and global warming are very exemplary, is that still at the forefront of preoccupations now? Is that what you see amongst likeminded experts and activists?
Mr Alexander Verbeek: Yes, I think it is, I think the what the can the pandemic has taught us a few lessons and it was a wakeup call for the whole world that you can have a global disaster that's it's everyone and everything and it is it is it doesn't respect borders, you know. A virus doesn't and nor does the climate, and it also taught us how badly prepared we are, we always knew that a pandemic was going to hit us we didn't know when, but we knew that the next pandemic was going to come and we were badly prepared. We've made a lot of mistakes. I mean, all of us are all countries. There's no country that didn't make mistakes here. So, we've seen our vulnerability to a tiny little virus that if you just wash your hands for 20 seconds, it's dead you know, it's such a such a tiny thing. On the other hand, it may have distracted us a bit from the most urgent, devastating threats that that we are facing, which is the combined crisis of climate change and the loss of nature and biodiversity. And that is so extremely urgent, and we really need with the whole world to get together and tackle this problem. And we are too slow, we've been too slow all the time. This is a climate change is not even 20th century knowledge, it’s 19th century knowledge. Already in the 19th century, we knew that if you burn too many fossil fuels you get this blanket around the planet that traps heat that comes in but doesn't go up. And that's potentially dangerous. And we know, already by the 1980s, we knew exactly what was going on, on the day that Jim Henson in the late 80s, testifying in Congress, we had that people's representatives of the biggest, most powerful country in the world, all of them had heard what was going on from one of the best scientists in the world. And since then, we did nothing for decades. And it's only now that climate change becomes so easily visible for each and every one of us, we all experience, you know, the hotter summers and all kinds of other problems. And only now we are taking action. But still, it's still a trickle of what it should be, indeed, the latest developments are quite positive. But these are like first steps. And what we also see is only the first impact of climate change, we're only at the beginning, we've now 1.2 degrees warming, on average, as atmospheric warming worldwide, that some places it's much warmer. And we already see the devastation that that is causing. And we're on track now to something like, whatever, let's say three degrees at the end of this century, that is an unrecognisable world that we leave for our children and the actions that we take and the kind of sacrifices that we are asked to make, you know, by things like transforming our economy are a completely reasonable price for what we get back to it for a better planet for children. So that's what makes me let's say, and environmental activists, just raising awareness for what's going on you just mentioned influencing it's what I do since I since I left diplomacy, I kind of without much of a kind of, you know, business plan or something, I just started to give my opinion about what is going on. And I first used Twitter for it. And then increasingly, I became a public speaker. And now with my newsletter, The Planet that has come out daily since I since I started, that's rapidly picking up speed. It's read by many, many people already in the short time of its existence. And that is just a way to prefer to promote, on the one hand, let's say the warnings about what's going on in the planet. But also I think the second narrative is appreciate the beauty of our planet, because when you better realise what is at stake, you're more willing to fight for it and to keep it for yourself and for the next generations.
Dr Paul Vallet: Yeah, well, that is very true. Quite recently, I was answering in some online discussion I was having, because of course, some people who are at times critical of our use of powered flight, as of course a major cause of pollution. And it brought to me the mind the fact that you know, without flights, we might not never have had the photographs that the Apollo 8 crew took from the moon, our first image of planet Earth alone inside space, and this really compelling vision that made it one of the most widely shown photographs of the time and is a really an icon for the environmental movement. So, there's a contradiction in that advocates and influencers sometimes need to raise. I was wondering whether in your observation, you've identified, perhaps, well you were adding to the fact that we have been very slow to act. But have you seen any kind of progress in the policies of the countries in the Conference of Parties to meeting their commitments or to improving them? Or do you see the trend as a continuing slowdown?
Mr Alexander Verbeek: Certainly. Well, first back to the picture. It's interesting. I recently read an interview with Bill Anders. I think his name of the astronauts in 68 took that picture he's describing that he was the only one with or colour film in the camera and that's how he saw the sunrise and how he took that picture “Earth Rise” it’s called now “Sun Rise”, of course. And so that's a fascinating icon. It's a one of my three Twitter accounts, actually the smallest one most people don't know, it's called Art For Our planet, about how art can raise awareness for climate change that also uses variation of that icon. But to come back to your question, now, I want to make one other remark, if you if you allow me because you spoke about flying, yeah, flying is about 2%, or something of all the emissions after check minutes, that's about the range. It's often mentioned, as an example. And of course, we should fly less I'm fully on board there. But it is exactly because we have a few issues that are that we come solved yet. That's a transatlantic flying, for instance, it's exactly for that we should have taken action earlier, so that we can have a bit of residual emissions for those things that we can solve yet, making steel is another one, you know, it's awfully difficult to use electricity to make steel, for instance, there's a range of other issues that we can tackle. And all the things from, you know, just going to electrification and in transport, etc, there's so much low hanging fruit. So, it is a kind of self-inflicted pain by the environmental movement to always point at each other. As soon as somebody takes a flight. And the one that keeps laughing at all this is the oil and gas industry through that we are constantly telling each other that it's so difficult to change, because we cannot stop flying, but it's only the 2% that we're looking at, look at the other 80-90% of all the low hanging fruit that you can do, you know, and that is just good government policies, I mean and first of all, let’s stop those absurd subsidies on the fossil fuel industry, because there's way more subsidies going to fossil fuel, the thing that's killing all of us, then that there are subsidies going to renewable energy, which is the solution. And so, we should avoid as let's say those people that are concerned about the environment, to constantly hit each other in the corner on that niche aspect of the much bigger problem, however relevant that niche also may be. But the real story is that we should really transform society, we should vote for leaders that really go for brining in the society. And that should come from the top, I appreciate everything that everybody's doing at the bottom, and I'm separating my waste and I've isolated my house, and I've renewable energy in my house, etc. But the real change comes from the top. And that means cutting out the absurd influence that the big industries have on policymaking. We are the people that are being represented in Parliament. And it's not the industries. And those are the kinds of things that we should look at. But now, back to your question because I'm drifting off on, do I see hope? Do I see positive momentum? Well, right now actually, there is the main story is that the United States is back. The United States was very instrumental in arranging the Paris agreements in late 2015. And as soon as the US had done their good works there. The American people voted for a very different president, a president who didn't believe in science, the president who called climate change a Chinese hoax, and who was promoting oil drilling and other mining activities in national parks. So, for four years, still the leader in the world, still the most powerful country in the world, was offstage was actually working on the other side. So now that the US is back, it is impressive to see what a change the US has made. It's just three months ago that Trump was still sitting in a White House. Look where they are nowadays. They organised this Leadership Summit on the climate, as I think is the name is Climate Summit that's taking place right now to virtual summit. They have kind of doubled their commitment, and they want to be one of the leaders in the world on climate change. And that of course it does there's quite a bit of marketing going on from the Biden government. Yeah. I see that too. But and I wrote last night an article came out this morning, and I gave it the title, “The US is Getting Greener”. Knowing that that would lead to a lot of comments that they are not green enough. And no America is not green enough. You know, just whatever any motel that I have stayed along the highways in the US, as serves your breakfast with plastic cutlery and plastic plates, and they don't even have a kitchen to wash it. And I can give 1,000 other examples of the wasteful way America is working on in per capita, the emissions of the average American are like two and a half times as much as the average European. So, they come from way back, they really have a lot to do. And of course, they took 2005 as the point where they start where they're going down with 50%. I see all that. But the main story is that America is back on board to take climate change seriously. This is a first step I'm hopeful that the more steps will follow America has made internally as well as in their international policies, climate change, the pivotal issue that is influencing everything instead of some kind of niche area where you have to focus on and they with their power and their influence, they are able to convince other countries to raise their stakes. And no, they're not as far as let's say the European Union is. We are far ahead of America. But the impact of America being back on board means also that for other countries, there's less places to hide, you know, by not doing anything, it used to be so easy in the past four years, like well, my country is doing nothing because America is also doing nothing and America is the biggest emitter in history. And so now that America's back on board, you know, the pressure rises farther. You see already other countries announcing now higher commitments than they did before in Canada, we're up, where I am at the moment is one of them, they raised their ambition as well in Japan is another one. So, these are interesting times it is still far too little, a lot has to happen. The race continues until November this year, when there's the Conference of Parties of the of the climate convention, the UNFCCC in Glasgow, their countries really have to raise their ambition. And, you know, it's this problem that has been created in many, many small steps. And we're going to resolve it also in many small steps. And I hope in many big steps. But you can't expect that within you know, just three months’ time do us is ahead of whatever, Iceland or Denmark or something. But so, I am optimistic from what I've seen yesterday at Earth Day. And I hope this trend will continue.
Dr Paul Vallet: Well, that. That's very good, where we're going hope for this this momentum to continue. And maybe my final question to you would be on this optimistic note is whether there are some emerging environmental causes that we might be discovering that we can pay more attention to along with those that we've been familiar with in the past years?
Mr Alexander Verbeek: Yeah. Well, for a lot of people climate change has been an emerging issue. Yeah. Other people have been aware of for decades. Yeah. But a lot of people are only now waking up to this challenge. But apart from climate change, it's there's a combination of environmental challenges. And they're all interrelated. I already mentioned the loss of nature, the loss of biodiversity. We live in this absurd situation on this planet that about 96 and other scientists say 97% of all the mammals on land on the planet, are either humans, or are domesticated animals that are there for humans and abused in horrible ways by humans, only 3 to 4% is still real wildlife and that is how we have destroyed nature, how we have taken over nature as something that works for us and this loss of biodiversity is coming back was a revenge, I mean the pandemic is maybe the best example of it. You see that when you have complex ecosystems like a rain forest, and you start destroying that, what happens if is that you will force animals to live together that normally didn't meet and they interact. And that is a source for all kinds of new viruses. So, where we are destroying complex ecosystems, you see new pandemics arise. So, you have Zika in the Amazon that we are destroying, you have Ebola in Central Africa, where we are destroying the environment. And the biggest source of all kinds of pandemics and new viruses is China where they're both destroying the environment, but also people. And any animal you can think of together on these wet markets. And I've been there, it's that is the best source of fires as the World Health Organization have been warning for decades about this, and also the way of farming and how humans and animals interact there. That is, we are going to get more pandemics, the frequency of pandemics will increase as long as we are destroying the planet. So, it is the crisis of climate change. It is the crisis of biodiversity loss, it is a crisis of pollution, look at the oceans, all the plastic in the oceans everywhere. And all those microplastics are coming back in the worldwide ecosystem. So, I believe the number is that you and I eat now one credit card per week. That's already how much plastic we are taking in. So, and then there's the water crisis made there. The numbers are terrible. If you look at if you're ready, see at those now, I think three and a half billion people that live in areas that are at risk to become water scarce. The estimate is that in just nine years from now, in 2030, that displacement in the world because of water can grow up to 700 million. If you read the numbers of people, I think it's like 1.4 billion people does don't have daily access to clean water. And the water scarcity is rapidly increasing water is used for practically any form of energy except for most renewable energies. But for oil and gas and coal, you need water. And because we are still increasing, and that's the bad news for climate, we're still increasing the use of fossil fuels worldwide. Because you have to look at China these things, and also quite a few other countries, you need enormous amount of water to get those coal out of the ground. And then there's of course, the food shortages. I mean, that's another crisis. How are we going to feed the world when the climate is getting so bad, and when there's less than less water resources? So that's another challenge. And while the world population is growing, especially Africa will keep growing this century at a tremendous rate, so where do we find to food for all that? So there's an energy crisis, a food crisis, a water crisis, what else did I mentioned the plastic and the oceans crisis, I mean, in the oceans, there's also the crisis of acidification, because about a third, or maybe 30% of the CO2 that we trap in the atmosphere is going into the ocean. So, you get the same as what you have with a soda that you like to drink, which tastes so nice and fresh and soda-y. That is because of the CO2, those bubbles that that are in there. But if you're a seashell, and your whole frame is basically made from chalk, you have to realise that when you remove chalk from the tap in your bathroom, you use acid. So, it's not very nice to swim in water, it is becoming more acid when you're made out of chalk kind of structures. And then there's the warming of the oceans we already see now the latest research that around equator, the fish are moving away either to the north or to the south. And at the same as I described with the rain forest, you'll get now new kinds of predator and victim relationships, because fishes are moving in each other's territory where they hadn't been before. And it also has influenced the billion people in the world that depend on the ocean for further food because your food is swimming away to another area now and I could go on and on. I mean, the dying of the corals, the loss of the Arctic, the permafrost problem. So yeah, new problems. Well, we're actually we're creating them daily. And it's we're creating them faster than we're solving them.
Dr Paul Vallet: Well, listen, I hope that you know, this great list and call to action that you've given is going to be another occasion for you to get this message across. Hopefully we could get as many listeners to the podcast as we had two followers that you have around but that's going to be about all the time we have for the moment. But thank you so much, Alexander for joining us today.
Mr Alexander Verbeek: Thank you, Paul, it was a pleasure.
Dr Paul Vallet: So, to our listeners, please listen to us again next week to hear the latest insights on peace, security, and international cooperation. Don't forget that you can subscribe to us on Anchor FM, Apple iTunes. You can follow us on Spotify and on SoundCloud. I'm Dr Paul Vallet with the Geneva Centre for security policy and until next week, bye for now.