I attended a short event at UNU here in Tokyo yesterday. Erik Solheim, head of the UN’s Environmental Programme, conversed with the audience. I couldn’t but feel a little exasperated upon leaving.

For lack of a better photo, this scene from rural Burma

Solheim is the “man tasked with protecting Planet Earth”. He looks back at a long political career in his native Norway, followed by a stint at the OECD’s DAC. In leading the Nairobi-based organization, he follows in the footsteps of Klaus Toepfer and Achim Steiner.

Under Solheim’s leadership, UNEP are about to come up with a new report that outlines ways to achieve a pollution-free planet by 2030. The consultation file is not currently available, but a cached version without charts and graphs can be downloaded here.

His short opening speech was thus necessarily optimistic in tone and framed the evening: We tend to look very negatively at some of the world’s problems and forget to note the significant progress we’re making.

This is mainly because of a reporting bias. There are more than 100,000 people lifted out of poverty, daily. Huge natural calamities today do not have the same human toll than they had just decades ago.

On climate change, he was optimistic too: After all, mankind has overcome incredible difficulties before and there is reason to be believe that this time will be no different.

Solheim referred to the abolition of slavery as one of these major accomplishments. In more environmental terms, he said that the Montreal Protocol shows that effective international agreements are possible.

I think both examples are unsuitable for their very own reasons, but let’s stick to the main message here.

I am not going to / cannot pick apart Solheim’s contribution on a factual or data basis. His UNEP have all the numbers at their disposal and produce a large amount of data themselves. Their Emissions Gap Reports are a widely quoted baseline publication. The IPCC came out of UNEP, too.

No, my disappointment stemmed from the tone of his speech. While he may not have had enough time to really develop his argument given the event’s format, this was a politician in fundraising mode.

Each for their own reasons of course, he heaped praise on PM Modi, Elon Musk, Silicon Valley, institutional investors and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name but a few. There was zero confrontation in his tone.

Asked by a PhD student whether we had to constrain consumption in the North, he dodged the question and referred to electric cars as a poster child technological innovation. Other promising innovations out there are bike sharing, or BYD’s forays into elevated transportation solutions for emerging cities etc. This sounded like technological solutionism.

He added several references to behavioral psychology and I would have liked to hear more about this. One of the organizations he is involved with also funds GreenNudge. Nudging, needless to say, has its detractors. Especially when used in public policy, it can quickly blur the line between achieving a fairly uncontroversial policy goal and curtailing individual liberties.

It seems that saving our planet is an iterative, step-by-step process that can be fine-tuned in order not to annoy anyone. The major point is trust in technological innovation. Market forces and private actors can best deliver this. A rather stiff reference to Solheim’s experience with mobile phones in the early 1990s was a case in point. You can agree with this narrative of course. And you may sleep better at night.

At best he can get hesitant politicians on board to give his organization more money that can be spent on hugely important R&D and advocacy work. His optimistic language may also prove contagious. This way, it becomes more expedient for politicians to side with him. Elections can be won with a positive message. Especially when talking about such apocalyptic stuff as climate change.

At worst, however, this narrative leads to complacency. His focus on behavioral change and a belief in the power of market forces did not sound like he is the head of a UN organization. It made him sound like the government relations officer of a major private enterprise or industry association.

Green growth, consuming ourselves out of environmental calamity, smart cities, …all this is increasingly becoming untenable in the face of the sheer scale of the environmental problems we are facing. You don’t even have to read Naomi Klein for this. You can watch Leonardo DiCaprio. Capitalism may need a bigger rethink, not a nudge.

True, many have become exasperated with the UN (COP – Conference of Polluters?) and how it is corrupted by corporate interest. However, there really is no better institution than the UN to deal with this crisis. Hearing the head of its environmental programme speak, however, was a real downer.

The questions provided no reason to cheer up. Most of them were related to special topics such as biodiversity / fish in the Gulf or the availability of drinking water. They allowed Solheim to respond with a factoid on how this is being solved in one country already, giving us hope for a global solution.

A long-term American resident Tokyo won the crown though: He referred to our human condition to worry about oneself and one’s neighbor rather than about one million people somewhere else. He also said pollution may really begin to affect us so many generations down the line. Therefore, how we can make such an abstract, far-away topic like climate change more dramatic, and bring it into people’s living rooms?

How about you turn on the TV, dear long-term Tokyo resident?

Solheim responded with gusto. He had just discussed this same question with Arnold Schwarzenegger a few days back.

One thought on “Greenwashing?

  1. HI Ben
    Another example of rational panic!
    it’s a shame that the UN is so corrupted by special interests.
    I fear for the planet moving forward.

    another great post

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