greatest hits:
Oscar Arias on the environment


To save the planet is less expensive than to destroy it.

Oscar Arias Sanchez, President of the Republic of Costa Rica addresses the Climate Change Summit,
United Nations, New York

My friends:

I feel that the privilege of speaking at this summit was granted, not to me as an individual, but rather to the hundred middle-income countries that deserve an audible voice in this conclave, at the edge of our planet’s precipice. Each one of us represents in this hall the silent presence of hundreds of millions of human beings, who, together, make up a prodigious species, now at the last outpost of survival. This species asks of us the courage, the basic courage, to choose life above any disagreement.

I have not come here to point out guilty parties: first of all, because I am aware that we inherit the errors committed by others in the past. And second of all, because I believe that if we are going to build, together, a possible destiny for humanity, it will be necessary for us to abandon the shameful practice of shirking responsibility through games of excuses and recriminations. I do hope that the nations that have contributed most to this state of affairs, and that have benefited most from unsustainable development, will today have the nobility to become the countries most willing to change course and offer a hand in solidarity.

The dilemma we face is brutally simple. Developed countries can do a great deal to reduce their carbon emissions, but it will not be enough; poor countries can do something, but it will not be significant; and middle-income countries can do plenty, but without clean and inexpensive energy, they will affect the rhythm of their economies’ growth. This global political stalemate leads us directly to the edge of the cliff. We need to do more, and above all, we need to do it faster. We don’t have twenty, forty or sixty years to make a radical change. We have, at the very most, eight years.

In those eight years, we must find a way to bring the price of renewable energy to accessible levels for developing countries. We must substantially improve the efficiency of our current energy consumption. We must preserve the forests that are being destroyed: declaring protected areas, compensating the owners of private forests, and scaling up mechanisms such as the Program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation in Developing Countries, the United Nations’ REDD+ initiative. We must design multiple means to transfer information and technology, ensuring that a successful experience in one corner of the world becomes the categorical imperative in another. We must build creative and robust alliances between the public and private sectors, allowing us to transform environmental protections into an asset and not an expenditure for our businesses – something Costa Rica has done with great success.

We must invest in adapting to climate change, particularly in developing countries that, because of their geographic exposure, their low income, their greater dependence on agriculture and their weak infrastructure, suffer more as a consequence of the droughts, hurricanes and floods that have worsened in recent years. Finally – and this is crucial – we must sensibly increase international cooperation. Last year, the member countries of the OECD dedicated 120 billion dollars to international development aid, less than half of what international accords require them to provide. That aid, furthermore, has been erratic, casuistic and lacking in priorities and strategic thinking. We must construct an international platform against global warming that allows us to channel aid, information and technology quickly from one country to another. And while all of this work is onerous, we must do it immediately.

The good news is that saving the planet is less expensive than annihilating it. What’s more, solving the problem of global warming, and preserving life, would cost only a fraction of what we spend each year on the business of death. With a small fraction of the 13 trillion dollars that we will assign, as a minimum, to military spending in the next ten years, we could cover the entire cost of stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions in the world. The most cynical of generals could say that the demented arms race builds a reserve for future emergencies. Today, I say to you that the emergency has arrived. The world has, in its military spending, a savings account that must be used to save our species from a very real enemy. And the world can do this without renouncing the security of its armies, a need I understand, though I do not share it. It is a matter of correcting excesses on one side, to address needs on the other. For we will have little use for nuclear submarines when the ocean becomes a burning cesspool; little use for armored helicopters when the sky is a black cloud; and little use for missiles that set their sites on nothing more than cockroaches in a barren desert.

Today, we are called to change completely. We must rethink the way we live and the way we develop our countries, and, like the conquistador Hernán Cortés, rid ourselves of the ships that brought us to this point. Very little time remains before Copenhagen. No leader should seek refuge among details as a way to avoid commitment. The great features of our new history have already been drawn before us. What remains to be seen is whether we will have to courage, the basic courage, to choose life and start again.

Many thanks.

President Oscar Arias
Costa Rica

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