UN Environment Chief on hurricanes, climate change and opprtunities

Originally aired on Channel NewsAsia on September 7, 2017

I sat down with Erik Solheim, the Executive Director of UN Environment, to talk about the effects of climate change on the recent hurricanes in the Americas, similar disaster risks in the Asia-Pacific region and what's been already done to contain the effects of global warming and more needs to be done.


SAKSITH SAIYASOMBUT: "Mr. Erik Solheim, thank you very much for taking your time. Let's start off with very recent events: There have been many hurricanes and tropical storms in the Atlantic basin. Hurricane Harvey caused huge devastation in Texas and Hurricane Irma is on the way and so are two other tropical storms/hurricanes. How much has climate change contributed to this destructive force of nature?"

ERIK SOLHEIM: "On these kind of issues obviously we need to listen to the scientists who understand it much more properly than I can. And there seems to be fairly broad global scientific agreement that these storms are intensified by climate change - they're not caused by climate change, because we have had storms all over the planet since god created this beautiful planet - but much more intense, creating more havoc, and more damaging to environment and to humans than in the past."

SAIYASOMBUT: "Are there similar risks when it comes to tropical storms and what other natural disaster risks do we have here?"

SOLHEIM: "Yeah, I mean after all of course the risk to humans is bigger in Asia than America because the population is so much higher. I was frequently visiting Myanmar after the Nargis cyclone, which killed more than 100,000 people in one night in the delta region in Myanmar. So there can be no doubt that Asia is very very vulnerable to this. However, the good news: Asia is also much, much more prepared - we’re going to say that - the outlying regions of Bangladesh, people are prepared. They have built houses on pillars so that the cyclone can go under, they [have] warning systems by mobile phones, so that they can be warned and there’s weather forecast where there was not in the past. So yes, we will see much wilder, much worse natural events - but we’re also much better prepared to handle that fortunately."

SAIYASOMBUT: "In recent years, it has become quite obvious that the effects of climate change become more stronger and stronger and the time to fix or to contain the effects is slowly running out. Where are we at right now when it comes to combatting the effects of climate change, not only on a global scale but also in the Asia-Pacific?"

SOLHEIM: "In my view, we have clearly made the shift. We are on the right track. We are rapidly going into renewables, to solar, to wind, we are starting with electrical mobility and the cities going into electrical parks and cars. So we are on the right track. The only issue is the speed, because the climate warming is happening very fast, so we need to speed up. It’s like a train which hast left the station, we know the destination - but to reach in time, we need to speed up."

SAIYASOMBUT: "Let’s talk about the central topic of this summit here. It’s about pollution and it’s about how to effectively use the resources that we have here in the region but without having a negative effect on the enviroment and on the people living here. Have you, in your expierence, seen - is it a balance that is hard to strike?"

SOLHEIM: "I think we need to go into a completely new thinking - and we are. Which is that we cannot either develop or protect the enviroment. We need to devise policies that where we do both at the same time. And the good news is that is happening much faster than than we thought. President Xi [Jinping of China] has declared that fight against pollution with the fight against poverty will be the biggest ambitions of China in the next five years. Prime Minister Modi of India has really put India into a development path where they go- provide prosperity, getting out of extreme poverty while doing [it] through solar, through wind and through going green. So, for the first time in human history we have no choice between development and enviroment - one policy which will achieve both."

SAIYASOMBUT: "Mr. Erik Solheim, thank you very much!"