Climate Change: the most important Challenge is our own Mindset


Welcoming Remarks by Ambassador  Martin Dahinden, Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States of America

on the Occasion of HEID Alumni Reception

at the Ambassador’s Residence, Washington, D.C.

Speaker: Ambassador Martin Dahinden


Last year was the hottest year on record. Temperatures reached one percent above pre-industrial levels. Climate change, global warming and its effects are certainly not new topics. I encountered them constantly and strikingly when I was head of the agency responsible for Swiss development cooperation and humanitarian aid. Nowhere else are the effects of climate change more apparent than in developing countries. Nowhere are the effects more severe than among the poorest populations.

I do not speak to you as a scholar of political science, natural science or the life sciences, but as a person who was involved in policy discussions, international negotiations and operational work; but first and foremost from personal experience and a personal point of view.

In western countries, climate change is a somewhat abstract topic. We can hardly see or feel a tangible impact on ourselves. And sometimes we might experience warmer days as something rather pleasant.

Climate change causes droughts and flooding. It forces farmers to abandon farmland; it distorts watersheds and produces effects you would not think about in the first place. In Bangladesh the degradation of watershed and water levels leads to a degradation of soils and eventually to water contaminated with arsenic because the soil cannot absorb the arsenic naturally. People do not necessarily die immediately after drinking arsenic-contaminated water, but their organs are damaged and the health effects on the population can be dramatic in the long run. The changing patterns of diseases constitute another effect of climate change we hardly speak about. There are regions where malaria and other transmissible diseases are progressing.

When I took over the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in 2008, we were strongly committed to acting on two levels. We put in place programs to deal with the effects of climate change such as desertification and protecting people from flooding, and helping them to live in areas with risks such as contaminated drinking water. Those measures were climate adaptation. It was a challenge; the demand was always greater than what we were able to put in place, but it did not require disruptive technology.

The much harder challenge is what to do to mitigate climate change in the first place:  how to avoid and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Prohibiting certain technologies such as coal power plants and taxing emissions makes sense, but they are often politically difficult to implement and they alone are not sufficient to turn the tide.

Developing countries rightfully say that global warming is caused by the fossil energy path advanced industrialized countries have taken since the industrial revolution. In doing so, industrialized countries achieved economic prosperity, poverty disappeared, and their economic strength made them politically powerful as well. Prohibiting developing countries from taking that path toward development could easily mean denying them the opportunity to overcome poverty and economic backwardness. You may disagree with this way of looking at things, and there are many reasons for disagreeing. However, you cannot be blind to the close relationship between poverty, sustainable development and climate change. Therefore international agenda topics are interlinked. Last year there was not just COP21 in Paris, but also the new set of Sustainable Development Goals. Both are interlinked.

One of the years-long discussions was about transferring money from wealthier to poorer nations. While that can be understood from the ethical standpoint, it is, in my view, not the promising avenue for fundamental change. It instead goes  back to old fashioned redistribution. We would go back to a paradigm of a past time before climate change was even considered a problem.

I am a strong believer in innovation and in changing incentives and parameters. Observations I made in past years make me hopeful and optimistic. Here is an example:  when I was living in Nigeria decades ago, I often asked myself how a grid for phones or for data exchange could ever be maintained in the country. Mobile technology has solved the problem by jumping over a whole phase of what was done on the path the industrialized countries took. I am sure that such jumps are possible in many other areas, in energy, for instance. It is about innovation. And innovation is not invention. It is making a business model out of inventions.

Such thinking was the starting point of a program I began with my colleagues years ago under the name  Global Program Climate Change. We embarked not on conventional programs focused on capacity building as you would do by supporting an educational system or health services. It was and still is a program very much focused on technology transfer, on promoting innovation. Making technology for clean energy or for better insulation accessible to reduce energy consumption, for instance for cooling buildings, would have an effect not only on the place where you make the innovation. It would eventually reduce carbon dioxide emissions and have positive effects on the living conditions of people somewhere else on the globe. If successful, in the long run it would be much more powerful than a tiny project to protect people from the effects of warming. We started such cooperation with very little funding in China, India, and other countries. However, it was difficult to make the approach understood at the time. I was often criticized by those whose focus was still on the tiny African village.

Last month I was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where the Fourth Industrial Revolution was one of the main topics. I am convinced that sometimes scary technological developments can significantly contribute to innovative solutions. However, we need the right mindset. And we need to have the right policy framework in place. As a strong defender of market economies, I know that the market alone—through its reaction to relative scarcity—will not bring about the desired result.

Policies and the right incentives are paramount. Switzerland proposed the idea of a global carbon dioxide tax years ago, with little success. Most countries were even reluctant to participate in a discussion. It was seen as having little chance in domestic politics (even we, the Swiss government, who endorsed and proposed the idea were not sure about whether the parliament and eventually the voters would approve it). But it is the kind of framework we need.

But there are many more measures we could take. One would be to ban subsidies for the consumption of fossil energy. Subsidizing fossil energy has two negative impacts:  firstly, it encourages carbon dioxide emissions since it makes it cheaper than the free market. And secondly, rich people profit far more than the poor. Owners of cars, climatized houses, and so forth are the main beneficiaries and not those living at the bottom of the social pyramid; and, at the same time, a lack of funding for services most needed by the poor such as education, health services and safe drinking water. There is an Asian country which spends more to subsidize fuel than for its entire educational system.

The most important issue is to come up with real game-changing inventions and innovations. That is the role of both research institutions and the private sector. The most critical element is innovation, finding the right business models that put new technology in practice. It is a strong multiplier if such undertakings are profitable and companies can eventually earn money as well. The fast developing sharing economy is excellent news in that regard. It creates a promising environment for dealing with scarce resources economically.

I am convinced that public-private partnerships have important untapped potential. PPPs are not about tapping corporate money. They are about bringing expertise and knowledge together. Development agencies like the one I ran usually have excellent knowledge of the living conditions of the poor including the markets of and for the poor. It is knowledge many technology-oriented and other private companies do not have. Sharing that knowledge with the knowledge in the private sector and in academia is promising.

Perhaps the most challenging and important task is our own mindset. It is about values, but not only about values. Knowledge and experience are often not only an asset; they can be a limitation as well. Our successes and our failures shape our thinking. And in that way we often become hesitant to think about what has not been thought about or was considered unthinkable. That is the challenge. And that is where I see an important role for research institutions and particularly for younger scientists.

Thank you very much for your attention


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