BNN Canada interviews Maurice Strong

Extracts of an exclusive interview by the Howard Green, from Canada's Business News Network with Maurice Strong.

Howard Green: The results from Copenhagen. You, I believe correct me if I am wrong, had called for a binding commitment, that was not what happened. What's your view on what happened?

Maurice Strong: I think what happened was a very modest step forward. But it did make it clear that these negotiations have to continue and the object of them has got to be mandatory commitment. We've had time and time again governments have committed in the past -- Kyoto, even way back in Stockholm, the Earth Summit in 1972, and many treaties and conventions. They have committed to things, which they haven't done. If they had, we wouldn't have needed Copenhagen. And if Copenhagen is simply another one of those, it will turn out to be unfortunately a disaster. It doesn't need to be. I hope it won't and the process has to continue.

Howard Green: But how do you get those binding commitments when you have local political considerations. It is the obvious question I realise, but here clearly we have the oil sands, that's a  huge local consideration. How do we get past that?

Maurice Strong: We have to. Each country will have to commit to reducing its emissions and there are many ways of doing that. It is up to them as to how they do it. Energy efficiency and efficiency, in fact,  in the whole economy will significantly contribute to this. In fact, the kind of what we call a green or low-carbon economy can open up major opportunities for business. And Sweden is a good example. Sweden has significantly reduced its dependence on external energy supplies, significantly reduced its greenhouse gas emissions and improved its economy. So it is entirely feasible. What we need is a transition in the way in which we manage our economies.

Howard Green: But how do you compare a Sweden to a Canada, for instance, when you had massive investment in, something like the oil sands going back decades now. You've been involved in the energy industry yourself with Dome Petroleum many years ago, you were the CEO of Petro Canada. How do you square that?

Maurice Strong: Sweden is a northern country with a northern climate and has far less in the way of natural energy resources than we have. We really are at an advantage. As as tar sands are concerned, we should slow down the development of the tar sands. Some of the leaders in Alberta, like Peter Lougheed, realise that. The social costs quite apart from the cost in terms of the environment. Now actually, I am and old man now. One of the things that I have been is the President of Abersand Oils that built the first plant on the tar sands. At that stage it was a very modest thing. I wasn't president when they built the plant, because it was taken over during the war. But I took it over later on. So I have had some involvement with the tar sands. We can't ignore their values to us. On the other hand, they are not going to loose value by developing a little more carefully and a little more slowly.

  BNN's Howard Green interviews Maurice Strong
Maurice Strong: "If doomsday were inevitable, I wouldn't still be working to prevent it. Doomsday is not inevitable. On the other hand, we have to consider that it is possible and not only that  it is probable if we keep on our present course."
 Business News Network's Howard Green

Howard Green: Do you believe as some people do that new forms of technology are really the solution in order to develop the tar sands or the oil sands cleanly?

Maurice Strong: That is one of the answers. But it is not going to in anyway that I can envisage change what's happening to the water supply and the polluting effects, many of them environmental effects. I think what is really in our economic as well as our environmental interest is to simply slow down the development, until it can be done on the basis of not being environmentally or socially negative.

Howard Green: But what about the fact that the world wants the oil, or seems to what the oil. Much of the world is using more and more oil. And it particular the United States, I don't have to tell you this, is looking for a secure and safe supply of oil. When there is a demand for this, how do you really stop the development of it.

Maurice Strong: Well you slow down the development of it. And basically, greater efficiency in both the production and the transmission and the use of energy will more than meet our needs and that efficiency is something that we are beginning to realise is the best investment as well. So its entirely possible. It is not easy, but it is entirely possible and it is actually necessary.

Howard Green: What about the consumer end of all this? Talking about the United States. They use energy per capita more than anybody else on this planet. What about the peoples' role in this? The politicians were clearly struggling in Copenhagen to come to terms with something. But the other side of the equation are we the people. What about we the people as consumers? What about our role in this and our responsibility in this? I mean the big three kept making SUVs because people wanted them.

Maurice Strong: Well people are really the key. No government can move ahead, far ahead, at least of the willingness of the people. Now also we have to remember that the great movements of history -- abolishing the slave trade, abolishing child labour in the UK, all these great movements really were people-driven and the politicians followed. What is now happening is that there is a huge people-centred movement that is going to force -- at least support or force -- depending on the situation -- the politicians to do what they have to do. This is a survival issue. The greatest security risk that the human community has ever faced. And all countries have to be willing to do what they have to do and find ways of doing it because their security is at risk. Now it is not the security  of one or two countries, it is the security of the whole ability of the Earth to support the human population.

Howard Green: How can you be so certain of that? In particular, given the so-called climate-gate scandal -- if I can call it that -- the suppression of data not consistent with climate change. Did that hurt the cause? Did that make more people think "Oh this is bunk"?

Maurice Strong: It was certainly used by the sceptics to re-inforce their self-interest and claims. However, it's not easy to get a consensus in the scientific community. Science is based upon controversy, about give and take, challenging each other theories. The scientists in the inter-governmental panel on climate change, these are appointed by governments and they are very conservative scientists. The one thing that was reported has been used, but it cannot change the fundamental point that there is a scientific consensus and we would be wise to follow that consensus. After all, governments and corporations have been making  decisions on much less convincing science than that which exists in terms of climate change. And the other point is that it is going to help use anyway. Energy efficiency and all the things we have to do to avert climate is going to be economically promising and open up a new generation of opportunity.

Howard Green: I want to pick it up with some of the criticisms that have flown your way. I know you want to correct the record or set the record straight yourself on some things. I want to put a few of these things to you. You have been called a doomsday environmentalist. First of all, how do you respond to these kinds of comments?

Maurice Strong: If doomsday were inevitable, I wouldn't still be working to prevent it. Doomsday is not inevitable. On the other hand, we have to consider that it is possible and not only that  it is probable if we keep on our present course. Even at the 1992 Earth Summit, some of the business leaders said that our current industrial system is not viable and that it must be changed. Those weren't environmentalists. I am not a doomsdayer. But I do believe that we have to acknowledge the doomsday-type consequences if we do not act in time to prevent them.

Howard Green: Just to follow up on that the notion of the economic system in your answer. How  do you propose that business in general reconciles environmental issues. At its essence, business is set up to produce things so people can consume. How do we get around that?

Maurice Strong: We don't get around it. We move beyond it. Because the things you have to do to deal with environmental, particularly with climate change issues, particularly in most cases, would be actually good for the economy. We have already seen that renewable resources although still only a small portion of the whole, they pay, energy efficiency, reducing the amount of energy, particularly reducing the amount of oil and gas required to perform a given function. All of these things are economically sound. And those who can get out front in doing them, we will have a comparative advantage in the new economy.

Howard Green: What about China. Because, if I can put in this way, You have been labelled of being a China sympathizer. You have spent a lot of time in China now. You live in Beijing. How to you respond to that?

Maurice Strong: I have had a long relationship with China, something like 40 years. We have to recognise that China is going through the same cycle that most of our industrialised countries did, that is rapid economic growth and the corresponding impacts of the environment and in particular, of course, the greenhouse gases emissions. It is also taking drastic action to change that. The difficulty is the scale of the issues in China. It is much greater because they are so much bigger that we are. And the rapid speed of development has generated problems, which their leadership is really intent on dealing with. In fact, such things as restrictions on automobile emissions in China are stricter than those in the United States. And officials are now  given debits or credit, depending on their environmental performance. So China has environmental problems, they are dealing with them. There is a whole host of others things you can say about China, certainly not perfect, but it's closer, to the kind of nation that is going to be a responsible global actor than it has ever been.

Howard Green: Is one-party governance working in it favour when it comes to the environment in your view?

Maurice Strong: The one party is not a dictatorship. The process is very consultative, by the time anyone gets into a leadership position in China, they have had all kinds of smaller positions. They have risen up and become very experienced. Some of the people who have come to the top in our system would never make it in the Chinese system. It is more like the kind of management system we have in our corporate life. Now I am not trying to suggest that China hasn't further to go, of course it has. Human rights in China are improving, but they are not what we would consider adequate. But they are significantly improving. The average Chinese is far better off that they have ever been. The nation is progressing toward its own form of democracy and that means consulting the people, responding to the wishes of the people. There is far of that than most outsiders realise. Do they have more to go, yes. Let's remember that we who lecture them on human rights understandably, should remember, it wasn't very long ago, that the kind of human rights standards that we want them to adopt, we only recently adopted and still not perfectly, like the way we treated native children, taking their children away from their families and forcing them into mission schools and preventing them from learning their own language. And the plight of African Americans. These things have only been recently corrected in our own countries. And China is progressing on that track, but it is not there yet.

Howard Green: You have been taken to task for comments related to the issue, democracy. I'll read a quote: "Our concepts of ballot box democracy, may need to modified to produce governments capable to making difficult decisions." Some people have taken you to task on that one. What you have to say about that?

Maurice Strong: If you read everything I have said, you will see that for many years one of the things that perhaps has been distinctiveness about my activities internationally is how I had to promote greater citizen education and citizen involvement. And what I have said is that mere casting of a ballot isn't sufficient. We have to citizens have to be concerned we have to involved, have to respond in their lives and well as in their contributions to the political life of their nation. Anyone who reads anything I have said in the past that I have been for more democracy, not less democracy. Don't just leave it at the ballot box.

Howard Green: What about political distraction in all of this. Looking, for instance, at the US President dealing with a financial crisis, banking reform, ten per cent unemployment, the auto industry and now another airline terrorist incident, how do you focus on the environment with of all that?

Maurice Strong: The fact is that we simply have to and they are very complimentary. The changes we need to deal with environmental issue are really changes that we need in the economy. The roots of the economic crisis and the environmental and climate change crisis are the same: inadequacies of our existing economic system. And is changing those inadequacies we not only deal with our environmental problems, but we also create a new generation of economic opportunity.

Howard Green: I want to follow up on the last point you made about the economic system. If there was one change, one central change, you would like to see in the way our economies operate, what would it be in order to achieve climate change ends you are proposing?

Maurice Strong: It's to attach proper costs and values to all things that enter our economy. We have a huge economy that is built up on subsidizing the wrong things and even things like fossil fuels. We have had an extravagant economy. We, at least particularly, the United States, have been living beyond its means. We need to restrain our indulgent impulses, still have a very good life, and we simply need to come to what I would call a kind of a total recycling economy, where the goods of one transaction are used to provide the materials for other projects -- whole series of things that have been done are being done, but need to be done on a major scale. Now this requires a major transition in the economy. Some of it is already being done.

Howard Green: On a personal level, I would have to ask you, what do you do yourself to minimise your footprint, your ecological footprint.

Maurice Strong: I don't have a car. Incidentally, I am a resident of Canada, tax payer of Canada, but I spend  a lot of my time in Beijing. I don't own a car in Canada . I don't own a car in Beijing, although I have access to an office car, if I need it. I do try to count, but my problem is the necessity of air travel, which I offset. I try. But the nature of my life is such that it's not possible to avoid impacts, but I try to make sure that I offset those impacts.

Howard Green: Do you think we need an environmental calamity to get people's attention?

Maurice Strong: I think actually we have got the peoples' attention. We haven't got them to the point of realising what they have to do. Copenhagen may have contributed to that and we don't know yet because the process of negotiating is going to continue with the object of agreeing on mandatory measures.

Howard Green: You were the Chairman and CEO of Ontario Hydro back in the 90s, what do you think about the privatisation of a bunch of Ontario assets. Will that be good for the environment?

Maurice Strong: Whether it is good for the environment or not, depends. But I actually recommended, I presented a proposal for privatisation, Ontario Hydro included, but it was based, first of all, letting the municipal utilities which have claimed ownership have the base ownership and then bring the public in. I did't get there.