Climate Change Isn’t the Problem, It’s a Symptom

International agreements on environmental protection are not having the needed impact. There is no shortage of legal instruments, but the problem lies in implementation. Civil society can help to change this. An interview with María Fernanda Espinosa.

Climate change action Maria Espinosa COP
Jonne Roriz/Bloomberg via GettyImages

Almost 30 years ago, the Earth Summit took place in Rio de Janeiro, where the member states of the United Nations exchanged views on environment and development. It is seen as the starting point for global climate and environmental policy...

María Espinosa: The idea of sustainability as we know it today is even older. In June this year, the Stockholm+50 meeting will be held in Sweden to commemorate the first World Environmental Conference organized by the UN. In 1972, representatives of 130 states and civil society discussed the damage that our human societies and economies were causing to the environment, and the need to act, and do so at the global level. The declaration adopted at that time was the first appeal to mankind to strive for a development model that would preserve our life supporting systems. It was in a way, the founding moment of international environmental politics.

The conference in Rio in 1992 brought about the key environmental agreements: the Declaration on Environment and Development, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biodiversity, and the Convention to Combat Desertification. There are now more than 250 multilateral agreements on environmental protection. We have no shortage of legal instruments. Some accounts speak about more than 2000 considering regional and sub regional instruments. The problem lies in implementation.

As foreign minister of Ecuador, you experienced many international climate summits. How can we succeed in better implementing the agreement?

What we need now, above all, is cooperation and clear common goals. And better communication between the decision-makers in politics and business, the scientific community, and the people who work at grassroots levels. The voices of the people who are the dwellers, the caretakers of our earth system must become louder – and the other groups must also want to hear them. We have a shared roadmap, the Sustainable Development Goals and literally hundreds of environmental agreements. We should now act , connecting normative frameworks with policy and political will.

How could such profound cooperation between the various "communities" be achieved?

The key is accountability and compliance mechanisms. We need a global pact for nature, with clarity on who has to do what. This is not just about governments. It is also about society, entrepreneurs, scientists, and activists, local governments, all of whom must take their share of responsibility. The second issue is liability mechanisms, such as climate litigation, in the administrative and constitutional courts, as well as international tribunals. Unfortunately, that’s perhaps the strongest deterrence mechanisms for no-harm actions against our own livelihoods.

Thirdly, we need a holistic view of the environmental crisis. Currently, we look at marine ecosystems separately from forests, at desertification separately from a strategy against water scarcity, biodiversity policy separate from climate adaptation efforts – this is a very Western approach. Nature knows no such boundaries. Ecosystems are interconnected. We need an overarching international umbrella. A Global Pact for the Environment.

I always say climate change isn’t a problem, it's a symptom. Like a fever. When you have a fever, something is wrong with your body. And the earth is our body. What is really not working is our high carbon, high consumption high inequalities development and economic models.

How can we heal the earth in the absence of political will?

It's true that political will is often lacking. But think for a moment about a country like my native Ecuador. Over 40 percent of its exports are related to the oil industry. If you were president of Ecuador and had to pay teachers and doctors, invest more in infrastructure, wouldn't you increase oil exports in the light of skyrocketing prices due to the Ukraine war? Poorer countries and the Global South have to make very difficult decisions. At the same time, the G20 countries are spending trillions of US-Dollars in Covid-19 recovery initiatives, and very little of these resources are going to the poor countries in the Global South and the much needed ecological transition.

According to the OECD, only 17 percent of the recovery budget of industrialized countries can be called “green”. My point is twofold: First, it is now up to the G20 countries to muster the political will for greater climate investment in their own countries but also in the Global South, especially in the most vulnerable countries; and second, the climate crisis is also a symptom of global transectional inequalities that we have to address from an integral interconnected perspective. Climate justice should be at the core of our efforts.

What role can local communities and indigenous peoples play in this?

Early in my career, I had the privilege of living with indigenous peoples in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Many solutions involving sustainable water management, biodiversity conservation for example, come from these communities. But the opportunities for these communities to be heard on national and international stages are very limited. Yet we very much need their voices and experiences to inform decisions at all levels. So, we need to create spaces for participation at an international level. Nearly 170 countries of the world are now affected by drought and aridity. We need to act and act swiftly.

Where in the world can you see the extent of this drought most clearly?

I was in the region of the drying Lake Chad, which is located between Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, and Niger. This lake is dying as a result of climate change. Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing the drought, especially women. And with drought comes hunger and conflict. Here you can see the gender dimension of climate change. In general, where you have water scarcity, women have to carry their heavy water containers for miles. It hurts to watch this. It is clear the we are not doing enough.

Do you think that the majority of people are aware of the scale of the crisis?

Believe me, the women in Niger or Burundi or in the Northeast of Brazil know better than any scientist what is happening to their environment – and why they have to walk so far to get water. We know what needs to be done. The resolve and the pace we are making the changes are too slow, and this is fueling a catastrophe both social and environmental.

In addition to the environmental crisis, we are dealing with a crisis of values. Too often today, decisions are guided by greed, personal interest, and selfishness. But what we need is solidarity, empathy, generosity, basically the concept of “radical love” that I learned from a wise person recently. We urgently need a new narrative, to better explain and understand what is happening to our societies in this era of the Anthropocene. I firmly believe in the power of words. What distinguishes us as humans from other species is language. Our ability to translate feelings into language. Even our anger. We need to use that power to create a different reality. I read Maya Angelou's poetry often. Once at a reading in New York she said, "If you want to change the world, try never to be normal."

Do you ever lose hope?

There are moments of disappointment and deceit. A quarter of a billion people live in extreme poverty. When I see how many people are starving, while at the same time tons of food are wasted. The vaccination rate in Africa is still at seven to eight percent, while I'm about to get my fourth vaccination. Sometimes I think of all the hours I've worked to contribute with my grain of salt to this dystopian world of chaos and I wonder if it is worthwhile. The moral and ethical dimensions of inequality scare me. How can you justify or explain people dying in conflicts old and new, dying from preventable diseases, or hunger? But we should not allow despair to paralyze us. We all have the responsibility to act and keep hope and a moral compass to continue the journey.

And what helps you in such moments?

Poetry. It’s the most effective painkiller for me.


A longer version of this interview was first published on the site of the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

Maria Espinosa rund grau


María Fernanda Espinosa served as President of the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (2018/19), and as Ecuador’s minister of foreign affairs, minister of cultural and natural heritage, and minister of defense. She is Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.

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