May 27, 2008
James Leape

Ipek Cem recently interviewed James Leape, General Director of WWF (World Wildlife Fund). Leape shared with Cem the latest information on climate change, as well as the threats and the opportunities presented by global warming. He called for a more concentrated and solid effort globally against climate change.

Ipek Cem: My guest today is James Leape, Director General of WWF International. Welcome to Global Leaders.


James Leape: Thank you very much.


Ipek Cem: I know you are now in Turkey for a conference in a number of days, and one of the messages you bring to Turkey is the pace of climate change, it was not anticipated that it was going to happen so rapidly. Can you tell us a little bit about the latest findings on global climate change?


James Leape: Sure. I mean this is an issue we have been talking about for a long time. Really for more than two decades. We have known that climate change was a serious problem. But what we found just in the last few years is that climate change is already upon us and that it is happening, and it is happening faster and it is more severe than we would have predicted even five years ago. You can see that most dramatically in the Arctic where, as you know, the Arctic ice cap last year melted further than it has ever melted before. And you see on Greenland, for example, that the rate of melting has increased ten-fold, just in the last few years. So it is clearly upon us; it is clearly already having impacts; and it is clear that we have consistently underestimated how bad those impacts would be.


Ipek Cem: You know, television today carries the message across the world, and oftentimes now on many international TV channels we see, for example, the Arctic cap melting, and other issues. But some how is this coming home to the individuals? We are very removed from the Artic and we see what's happening, but we don't necessarily see the immediate impact on our life. How to educate us?


James Leape: Well, I think this is actually a familiar challenge for all of us, is how do we come to grips with just how urgent this challenge is? And you see it most dramatically in the Arctic, but you see it around the world. I mean the fact is we have one year after the next have set records for global temperatures, and we have seen droughts is places that shouldn't be seeing the kind of droughts they have. We have been seeing more severe storms. So, you are seeing the impacts in lots of different places. But I think, actually, even as people become aware of the fact of climate change, they are still not fully realising how quickly we have to act if we are going to be successful in beating it. And that's the challenge we still have to face.


Ipek Cem: What is some of the methodology you use on governments, and on individuals?


James Leape: How do we approach governments and individuals?


Ipek Cem: Yes.


James Leape: Well, to some extent those go together. I mean, that is to some extent you have to be engaged with the public, and make sure that the public understands the issues, and is voicing their concerns, if you want to move the governments. But WWF really operates on three fronts. One is public education: raising awareness, drawing attention to what is happening to the climate, and what it means for all of us, because it is clearly the transcendent challenge of our time; it is the challenge we will have to meet over the coming decades. And at the same time, of course, we work with governments, because you need governments to come together and find a solution. I would like that we also work on a third front, which is business. Because while it is easy to say that ultimately government has to solve this problem, and government clearly does have to act, there is a lot that business can do, to help get started, and help make it easier, or politically possible for government to do the things that must be done. And so a big part of our work is working with companies who want to be leaders in this effort, and see a business opportunity in being a leader in this effort.


Ipek Cem: I know that internationally you work with some of the biggest companies of the world. Some critics argue that companies or international business is also the cause of global warming, and in expediting global warming. How to balance these sensibilities?


James Leape: Well, there is no question that the choices we have made as a global society over the last 100 years, in the way we have developed, has caused global warming. I mean, the reliance on fossil fuels, on coal and oil in particular, to develop our economies is what has led to this problem. Not something that anybody, of course, anticipated 50 years ago. Businesses of course have done their part in that: they are the engines of economic development. But what we see now is that some businesses recognise that both as a matter of managing the risks of entering into a climate changing world, but also as a matter of growing their business, there is an opportunity, there is a need, to act now, and so we are looking for those companies. We are looking for the companies who say, "We want to begin to set an example in increasing the efficiency with which we use energy, in shifting to renewable energy, in developing products that will be part of a low-carbon economy – like more efficient cars, or like more efficient air conditioners, or like new fuels", and we want to work with those companies to help them do that, but also then to help use their example to help inspire others.


Ipek Cem: What about companies like traditional oil companies? Would you be working with them?


James Leape: We are… we have an active conversation with some of the biggest traditional oil companies. We have not yet found opportunities to engage with them as substantially on this issue, as we have with some other companies. So we have had better luck with companies like Lafarge, which is the largest producer of cements, and a big source of carbon emissions, or Coca Cola, Nokia and so forth. We have not yet found the opportunity for that kind of partnership with an oil company.


Ipek Cem: What's your position on our dependence on fossil fuels, and some of the emerging, new renewables? There are many different varieties, from wind to bio-fuels etc, and there is pros and cons of each. What do you think could be some of the winners that as industry, as societies we should focus on?


James Leape: Well, let me start with the first part of your question, fossil fuels. There is a very simple answer: we have to move away from fossil fuels, and we have to do it very quickly. And that is, of course, first and foremost moving away from coal, because coal… burning coal to generate electricity or heat has a huge impact on the climate, and we just have to move away from coal. But it is also moving away from oil. And so that's the first part: fossil fuels are the heart of this problem. As to other energy sources, there are many opportunities for us to develop energy sources that don't destroy the climate. And in renewable energy, I would start with wind, which is already economically competitive. I mean, wind power is growing very fast in many different parts of the world. Solar also has a lot of potential, both as solar cells, which generate electricity. Something called concentrated solar power which concentrates the sun's rays, which uses it to boil liquids to generate power.

So there are those kinds of technologies that are straight forward.

And then you raised the question of bio-fuels (Yes), or bio energy, and that's of course, as you know, a challenging issue. I don't think there is any question but that bio energy – whether it's bio mass, or liquid bio fuels – will be part of the solution, that in 2050 a significant part of our energy will come from sources like that. The question is how do we develop sources that don't compete with food, and that actually do yield real gains over fossil fuels.


Ipek Cem: This was going to be my next question, because already we began to see food shortages, and scares of food shortages, we have a demographic that is growing – world population is growing and then we have emerging countries, such as India, China and others who are producing and consuming more. In this equation, do you foresee food as being a scarcity in the near future?


James Leape: Well, there is no question that we face greater challenges now in the global food supply than we have at least in a very long time. And that there are many different causes to that situation. But certainly it relates to all the things we have been talking about. I mean that is to say that those challenges will only get more daunting, as we move into the… as climate changes, because places that are now fertile will no longer be so productive. Places that now have plenty of water will be facing water scarcity. So climate change has direct implications for the challenge of food supply. And it's possible of course that bio-fuels will, as well. If we adopt misguided policies in pursuing bio-fuels, we start devoting corn crops to ethanol, for example, which is the worst strategy, then we will begin to find that in trying to solve one problem, we are making the other much worse.


Ipek Cem: I know you work very much on bio diversity, and also on water resources. Can you tell us a little bit about what's happening on these fronts, because I know that about a quarter of the world's bio diversity, approximately, has been lost over the past 30 or so years. It is very alarming. Is this continuing at the same pace?


James Leape: This is continuing at the same pace, and I am… maybe you won't be surprised to hear it ties back to the things we have already talked about. Yes. Bio diversity is steadily declining around the world, and WWFs own living planet index, which measures that decline, shows that it is not abating, and as we look at the prospect of things like climate change, that you can expect that problem to get even worse. And coming at it from the other direction, if we continue to allow the loss of bio diversity, it will be that much harder for us to deal with climate change, because it is bio diversity which creates resilience on the systems which we depend upon. It's bio diversity from which our crops were derived, and as we need to develop new crops – new strains of wheat or rice, or maize – to deal with the changing climates, we are going to need those wild sources to help us meet that challenge. And bio diversity, of course, is also forests, and wet-lands, and coral reefs, all of which are important to the health of the eco systems that supply us water, that supply us fish. So, yes, it's all related, and the decline in bio diversity is a big concern.


Ipek Cem: When you look at a country like Turkey, we are in the Mediterranean, we might have shortage,  water shortage problems, we are surrounded by seas, and rising sea levels may affect us, changes in temperature may affect us.  What are some of the things you can tell us, to perhaps scare us, or to prepare us for the future? What are some of the issues we should be aware of?


James Leape: Well, I think actually you captured well the kinds of challenges that face Turkey as you look at the prospect of a changing climate, because yes, the models tell us that the climate is likely to get significantly warmer in this part of the world, which means heat spells are likely to last longer, which means that more generally things are going to get more uncomfortable at the hot times of the year. You also can expect increased droughts. You can expect water supplies to dwindle, and you can expect sea level rise to affect a lot of places that matter in this country, including of course Istanbul.


Ipek Cem: Including the Bosphorus…


James Leape: Including the Bosphorus. Just to take one example. If we were to allow the ice cap on Greenland to melt, now that's not imminent, but if climate change continues and we don't do something about it, eventually you get to the point that the ice cap on Greenland melts, and that by itself would raise sea levels around the world by seven metres. Now imagine seven metres of water in Istanbul. This is not a happy prospect…


Ipek Cem: It would be devastating.


James Leape: It would be devastating, and that's just Greenland. Now, if you're going to get that kind of change in Greenland, you are going to get something like it in Antarctica, so if we were to let climate change go forward… happen, those are the kinds of things we'd be facing.


Ipek Cem: I always wonder also, the Bosphorus is a very narrow strait, and we have – through international treaties – we have free passage of lots of ships perhaps you have observed. You know there is spills, there is accidents. In this day and age, can we have a different perspective on this matter, to protect our shores, to protect our environment?


James Leape: Well, I hope so. I mean I think one of the good things that has happened in the last several years is you begin to see a growing recognition that we are in fact quite dependant on our environment, even though we are now, many of us live in cities, and sometimes in air conditioned buildings, we are still very much directly dependant on the health of natural systems; on healthy oceans that produce food for more than a billion people; on forests that supply the water to more than a third of the world's cities, so that in fact even if we feel protected or isolated in our urban areas, we are still directly dependant on the health of those systems. And so taking care of marine resources, like the Bosphorus, taking care of the forests of this country, and others, those kinds of conservation efforts are actually critically important from an economic perspective. Just from our own livelihoods and well-being.


Ipek Cem: I know that when you make your projections as World Wildlife Foundation, you look into all the years leading up to 2050. What are some of the issues we have talked about, the scare factor, we talked about…. What are some of the solutions in terms of policy coordination between the different countries, or what can mitigate really, these factors, in the next thirty, forty years?


James Leape: Well, this is actually quite important, because while it is important to recognise there are some scary things that could happen, the key thing is to get going on making sure that they don't, and the good news is that that is entirely possible: that in fact we know what needs to be done to meet the challenge of climate change, and we know it can be done at a cost which is reasonable, and at a cost which is tiny compared to the cost we would suffer if climate change were to happen. So, we have mapped out, in fact, how the world meets its energy needs in 2050 without wrecking the climate. And the first and most important piece of the puzzle is energy efficiency. It is just getting more value out of each unit of energy that we use. Driving more efficient cars, insulating our buildings so they take… require less heat, using more efficient appliances, things like that. And that's maybe 30% or 40% of the solution, right there, and most of those changes would actually pay for themselves, because you use less energy. But in addition, we are going to have to find a way to get our energy from cleaner sources, and this goes back to something we talked about a few minutes ago. That's about getting serious about investing in wind, and solar energy, and bio-mass, and so forth. And if we do those things, then there's no question we can meet this challenge, but we have to move very strongly, and very quickly.


Ipek Cem: What countries, in your opinion, or what groups of countries are meeting this challenge?


James Leape: Well, I don't think actually anybody yet is stepping up to the level of urgency and action that I am talking about. I think you see some political leaders who are doing important things. I think Angela Merkel's leadership of the European Union, when she held the Presidency, was very important, and I think the policies adopted by the European Union, now just over a year ago, are very strong in important ways. We get to the hard part, which is translating those into change, into action, right? But the statements they made, the decisions they took, were quite important. I think what you see Governor Schwarzenegger doing in California is also quite important. Really setting that economy which is one of the ten largest economies in the world, I think, on to a low carbon path is important in its own right, and also important of course as a way of beginning to move the United States to a more constructive position. In China you see the Government beginning to come to grips with parts of this problem, emphasising energy efficiency, for example, investing in wind power. So you see pieces of the puzzle falling in to place in a lot of different countries. But you don't yet see any country which has fully stepped up to what has to be done if we are going to succeed.


Ipek Cem: Do you see a generation gap in the way environmental issues are perceived, because I have the observation that younger people are more in tune with the environmental issues. This is a generalisation, of course. Would you say that there is a generational approach difference?


James Leape: Well, I don't think there is any question but that the young generation is quite attuned to these issues, and quite concerned about what we are doing to their planet. And so I take some hope from that. I think you see in… well take in the United States, for example, in the political arena, now, young people really becoming a force, a political force, and they clearly are one that is much more focused on saving the planet. So that's got to be a good thing.


Ipek Cem: The United States is viewed as a global leader politically, and we know that their stance on the environment has not always been perceived positive, or progressive let's say, and now they are facing an election.  What are your expectations from the nominees of the election? Do you think they will further for the environmental cause?


James Leape: I think there is no question about that. I think there is no question that whoever wins the next election in the United States will be much better on these issues than President Bush has been, and will be particularly much stronger on climate change, because John McCain, the Republican, has been actually quite active on climate change for a long time, and as you might expect both of the Democrats have very strong positions on this issue. So I think we are ready for that, and in fact in the Bali negotiations in December, one of our messages to other governments, the Government of Japan, the Government of China, and so forth, was don't be focused on who's across the table from you from the United States today, think about who will be across the table in Copenhagen in 2009, because the US posture in the international negotiations will be very different in 2009.


Ipek Cem: There is also the prospect of the melting ice cap, the prospect of oil exploration. How to form some sort of governance over that, because there is many different countries with many different stakes in place?


James Leape: Now a global priority for us is the Arctic, and we have offices and members in every one of the Artic countries, and have been involved in those issues for quite a long time, and I think there are a couple of things there. One is clearly you need those countries – the eight countries that ring the Arctic – to come together in some joint mechanism for managing that resource, because that's an area which will go… is already going through huge upheaval, and is hugely valuable, of course. Some of the most valuable fisheries in the world are there, so it needs… there needs to be some way to collectively manage it, and make sure that it is managed wisely, because if you just leave each country to its own, things could really spin out of control. That's the first thing. The second thing is it's time for us to say "No more oil development in the Arctic". Let's make sure that we are… have in place what we need to manage this resource intelligently.


Ipek Cem: How would that work legally? Could that work legally to say what you just said?


James Leape: Well… I mean the best thing would be for those eight countries to come together in an international agreement and say "We recognise we depend on each other for good management of this resource. We need to find a way to do it together". That's worked reasonably well in the Antarctic region. The question is now can we do that in the Arctic, and I think we clearly need to.


Ipek Cem: There were some voices saying global warming is exaggerated. Now from what I read, from the literature, this kind of voice has really dimmed, and there is a consensus that there is actually something very wrong going on. On the other hand, much of world life is driven by global trade, by aviation, by exports, imports, etc. and this is seen as an important vehicle of growth for emerging countries. How to balance this need?


James Leape: Well, I think it's got to be clear that, I mean two things, if I take your question… I mean one is that it can't be climate change versus development. Right? It's not a question of whether we stop development; it's a question of how do we develop? How do all the economies of the world prosper in a carbon constrained future? And there is no question that it can be done. There is no question that there is economic opportunity there to advance a new economy, that uses much less fossil fuel, eventually no fossil fuel, that is easier on the climate. And then if I take your question within that is the particular challenge of developing countries, and emerging economies like China and India, and so forth. And they have a challenge, you can put in different terms, but it is how do they leap frog the Western development model, which is so heavily dependant on fossil fuels, to a new development model that is better for their people, and also easier on the climate. And there's number one no question that that's possible; number two, no question that the industrialised countries have to help make that happen. And an important part of a global climate agreement will be not only that industrial countries agree to reduce their own emissions, but they agree to invest substantially in helping developing countries get on to a low carbon path.


Ipek Cem: To bring the message home to the citizens of Turkey, to the law makers, to the governors, what would you point out as the priorities they should look at when forming new legislation, when doing zoning for their cities, and for basically caring for their future?


James Leape: OK. I think the first thing is recognise that climate change is something which would have huge negative implications for Turkey. Alright. Turkey shares with the rest of the countries of the world an interest in beating this problem, and Turkey needs to be part of the solution, which means that Turkey should be signing the Kyoto Protocol, and should be at the table in the international negotiations, working with other countries to find a way to solve this problem. In the mean time, there is a lot that can be done here. And the easiest place to start – the most obvious place to start – is the efficiency with which energy is used here. And that's something which can be addressed at home by individuals, and the choices they make: the car they buy, the light bulbs they buy, the refrigerator they buy, the way they live. And that's important, because that can send a signal into the market place that people want to live differently, they want the chance to buy efficient products. But it's also a matter of how businesses develop. You know, not using old inefficient, wasteful technologies, but investing in technologies that will use much less energy and which will therefore save fuel costs when oil is $129 a barrel. And so I think there are roles for everybody: governments, individuals, and business, there. And a lot that can be done while the international negotiations are going forward.


Ipek Cem: So, on that note, I take your message as a message of hope, and thank you for your time.


James Leape: Thank you very much.


This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, NTV networks and Ipek Cem cannot vouch for its accuracy.