An hour with Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP

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Skepticism ahead of Rio+20 is rife, let’s be honest.

And for good reason: We are still a long way from having even a proper definition of Green Economy, a concept which is considered the cornerstone of the conference and of sustainable development at large. Meanwhile, the European financial crisis dominates many a political mind, with environmental conferences finishing, at best, a distant second on the current political radar. Amidst all this doom and gloom, I recently had a rare chance to hear what one of the true leaders of the environmental movement had to say about all this.

More specifically, I attended a small-group meeting on the 23rd of April with Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP. He spoke in an informal setting in Stockholm in the think tank cluster where I work. This talk was especially interesting since it concerned primarily big-picture issues ahead of Rio+20, many of which I consider supremely relevant and symptomatic also of the environmental movement as a whole. But I am getting ahead of myself.

My immediate reaction, when settling down to listen, was that you wouldn’t think the environmental movement was in any sort of crisis by just observing Mr. Steiner. Calm and collected, he talks of issues of momentous importance with requisite gravity, but also possessing the tempered intellectual detachment that undoubtedly is needed to observe the troubled state of the world as it truly stands.

Thinking about the Future

The future is a favourite subject of environmentalists, and this time was no different as it was the subject that opened up the talk. Interestingly, Mr. Steiner proposed a changing of mindset just with regards to this:

 “We used to talk about the future, but we are already in the future. In fact, we can’t even catch up with all the change that is happening environmentally to the planet.”

Agreed. In fact, a continously future-oriented approach can be tricky since it inherently lulls you into the feeling that the time that really matters is always just beyond the horizon. Indeed, it is this very collective delusion that completely runs much of the public stance towards climate change and other severe environmental problems. Larry King, the famous CNN host, perhaps said it best: “Nobody cares what happens 50 years from now”. Particularly if such caring implies that something onerous must be done right now of course.

Global Change and Society

The word change was one that also ran like a thread throughout the stream-of-consciousness style of the talk delivered by Mr. Steiner on this day. Even UNEP itself, the premier world environmental organization (and a likely candidate to expand into a true world environmental organization at some point) is changing rapidly.

On this note of change, Mr. Steiner uttered the unfortunate opinion that I myself hold, which is that Rio+20 is unlikely to be a “game-changer”. It will, in all honesty, probably not be the conference that will be talked about generations from now. Why? Steiner jots it down to the simple point of lacking political will, without going too deep into why this is. As someone who is very interested in the changing geopolitics of the world I have a few guesses, but I’ll resist the temptation to go off on a sidetrack here. The important thing, Steiner continued, was to keep the faith. Rio might not be the watershed moment that we all long for and want to see as soon as possible. However, he continued, it is the faith of civil society that is important at this juncture, and particularly in the case of a “blah” Rio+20 outcome.

Again, I couldn’t agree more. The environmental community at this point is sufficiently hard at core to withstand the blows of a failing multilateral system, but how robust is the engagement of civil society? Arguably, it’s nowhere near as robust as we would like, and further interrupted momentum can take a long time to rebuild. So, considering the implications, let’s not kid ourselves and just call a spade a spade. Disillusionment rules the roost right now, even in environmental institutions and in an increasingly skeptical civil society, whose financial reality is being turned upside down on a daily basis. An alarming signal, that Steiner also pointed out, is that the environmental movement is not all that young anymore. Many of the people working on these issues have now been in this “game” for 20-25 years. And it is exactly among these people that disillusionment seems to be most rampant. This is disturbing, but I wager that it also points to a certain subtle hubris that has existed in the environmental movement: That of success in splendid isolation. That is to say the belief that the movement would somehow organically transform the state of the world through its own momentum and without really needing outside help from “old” society.

Nope, turns out we still need politics, finance ministers and civil society to be on board with this. It’s just that the true inertia of these systems is finally beginning to dawn on the brave souls that led the initial charge of the environmental movement, and this realization is perhaps depressing a lot of these “old hands”.

In any case, Steiner continued by noting that he thinks Rio+20 is unlikely to do any damage either (a statement that is pretty indicative of the expectation level in and of itself).

Moving Forward

So what to do? Here is where Steiner contrasted the decidedly gray state of things as they stand with the key questions and actions for moving forward.

Number one on the to-do list: The ability of instituitions to create imperatives for action. That is the key question according to Steiner. The reasons for this are many in his opinion. First of all, we now live firmly in the age of the anthropocene. Put simply, human activity leads environmental change. However, this realization remains largely theoretical on most levels, and this prevents us from generating fitting responses to what is happening around us. More than this, he continues, a separate problem is that even if we had the required level of comprehension of this fact, our institutions are stuck in a largely obsolete state. The speed with which this change is happening is something our current social, political and economic systems are simply not equipped to handle. So how to change this? Well, Steiner suggests that a “big one” to embrace for the vanguard of the environmental community is becoming more economically literate. The debates on environmental issues all too often stop flat on questions of economics, employment, growth, trade and competitiveness. This will not do. The environmental community must learn to be comfortable with these questions, something they are clearly not at the moment. Put simply, the environmental knowledgebase must be economically viable. Lacking this, there is a risk that the superficial penetration of many of these supremely important concepts becomes chronical and effectively neutered.

As for UNEP itself, Steiner’s ship to sail in very troubled waters, the institution is given a lot of responsibility,but perhaps not the requisite influence and power it needs to actually exact the change that is needed. Certainly Steiner seems to think so. He suggests to take the organization to “the next level”. That is to say the institution must be transformed to be able to deal properly with the real scope of the issues that it is facing. Almost everyone agrees that environmental governance needs to be improved, and Steiner is adamant about putting in place a strong “anchor” environmental organization as a foundation from which to work. Without a strong core, governance will always suffer, and environmental issues will continue to be secondary, at best, to other concerns.

But governance of course extends beyond just the multilateral form. Arguably even more important in the coming years will be the role of governments. More specifically, for governments to properly capture in laws & regulations the societal “streams” of public choices and priorities that are currently ongoing. That is the job of government after all, and it is especially important now to facilitate public discourse and choice. Importantly, Steiner suggests that governments must also become much faster at detecting and channeling this public choice. It is a classic democratic idea, the state as a vehicle for the citizens, but it’s a very important one, and an idea that the private sector should also have no trouble coping with.

Hopes for the Future

Reflecting broadly, Steiner ended his take on the situation by wishing that one day, hopefully we will live in a world where the environment ministers are the second most important ministers after the heads of state. But to get there, the institutional and governance questions need to be solved. It is lamentable, Steiner also notes, that UNEP was born by being put into an environmental “box”. A box that it is now struggling to get out of as the true nature and scope of the challenges facing it are becoming clear.

Succinctly, a closing quote by Steiner captured much, in precious few words, about the challenge of finding constructive  paths to the future:

“To have creative interactions is very important, and that is where we are now.”

And on that note, perhaps the very idea and concept of Rio+20 does make the conference truly worthwhile after all. If just for a moment one lets go from the results-oriented mindset that demands solutions delivered yesterday, and instead witnesses the conference in a more benevolent light, seeing it as an attempt at just the type of creative interaction that Steiner hopes for, and that is so sorely needed at this stage. At least seen from this perspective, the conference might even already be a success.

3 thoughts on “An hour with Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP

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