Calderón: Economic Arguments Needed to Fight Climate Change

Former President of Mexico Felipe Calderón says the United States Congress and Chinese coal plants are the biggest obstacles to fixing climate change.
by Carmen Nobel

What do Chinese coal plants and the American legislative branch have in common? They are both major adversaries in the fight against climate change, according to former President of Mexico Felipe Calderón.

"The most serious problem is in the United States Congress," he told a packed audience at Harvard Business School on Monday. "If you are a Republican, it's like a formal requirement to be a nonbeliever in climate change. And that's bad."

In conversation with Harvard University Professor Rebecca Henderson, Calderón discussed The New Climate Economy, the primary project of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. Calderón chairs the initiative, which comprises corporate executives, local politicians, and former heads of state from 14 countries.

''If we provide economic arguments, we will win this battle''

"We know very well that climate change is happening," he said. "Scientists have rested their case. Climate change is associated with global warming, and global warming is associated with human behavior."

He said that political and corporate leaders have been hampered by the idea that fighting climate change and supporting economic growth are mutually exclusive endeavors. "We believe it's possible to do both," he said. "We need to switch from talking about carbon emissions to talking about economic growth, jobs, and profits for companies."

Time is of the essence when it comes to avoiding a climate change catastrophe, according to a United Nations report released this week. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that greenhouse gas emissions have increased dramatically in the past decade. They need to be cut by at least 40 percent and as much as 70 percent by the middle of the century in order to avert danger, the report said.

Such a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions will require the cooperation of China and India, which depend heavily on coal, Calderón said. Persuading them to rely on anything else will require an economic reason to do so, he said. (In fact, the economic fight against coal is the reason HBS Professor Joseph Lassiter is bullish on fracking and nuclear power.)

"If we provide economic arguments, we will win this battle,'' Calderon said. "The good news is that renewables are going down in terms of cost."

Ending Fossil Fuel Subsidies

Calderón and Henderson also discussed the idea of phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, an idea that both support. As things stand, total subsidies for fossil fuels are four times higher than subsidies for renewables, Henderson said.

Calderón also said he'd like to see the United Nations redesigned to streamline efforts to combat climate change. "I think fixing climate change might be easier than reforming the United Nations," Henderson responded wryly.

Henderson asked Calderón about the 2010 Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico, which took place during his presidency. He responded that he had been wary of taking a lead role in the conference, having had attended the 2009 conference in Copenhagen, a notoriously chaotic event that he deemed "a terrible failure."

In preparing for the Cancun conference, Calderón discussed the climate change issue with government leaders all over the world. In talking with Chinese government officials, he said, he learned that China does acknowledge climate change. "But what they didn't want was to obey or follow any instructions coming from the United States, which was understandable," he said.

The conversation concluded with Henderson asking Calderón what audience members could do individually. He issued a forensic call to arms.

"Help me to provide new economic arguments for the new climate economy," he said. "We need to provide economic arguments. If we provide economic arguments, we will win this battle."

In introductory comments, Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria expressed the same sentiment. "When business decides to tackle these issues, productive things can happen," Nohria said.

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

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    • Russ
    • self,
    A better course of action for President Calderon is to support repurposing CO2 from it's harmful form into a better form. We have done this by replenishing and restoring a large ocean pasture in the N. Pacific in 2012.

    The result was last falls largest catch of salmon in history in the near-by state of Alaska. Our work repurposed millions of tonnes of CO2 hundreds of millions of salmon. A small part of that bountiful catch has now been purchased by US Food Aid programs and is on the way to feed hungry children. Here's a link to learn more

    The same methods can replenish and restore the more southerly pacific ocean pastures off the west coast of Mexico where repurposing millions of tonnes of CO2 can bring hundreds of millions of fish into the nets of that nations fishermen and into the mouths of its people.

    Around the world ocean pastures can be restored repurposing a billion tonnes of CO2 into a billion fish to feed the worlds hungry.
    • Barry Shere
    Be suspicious when "Scientists [have] rest[ed] their case." As for economic arguments: Why do we never see both sides of the equation when left-wing politicians demand that we give up value for "climate change?" If, for example, we spend a certain amount to reduce CO2 omissions, what will be the impact on climate change and how will that improve the human condition? Don't "THE SCIENTISTS" have this data in their settled results? And why does the target change from global warming (when the settled science is not confirmed by the facts of life) to climate change?
    • Hugh Quick
    • home, None
    What evidence is there that human beings have any significant affect on climate change? I believe that the Earth's climate has been changing for millions of years. Human Beings only came on he scene some 200,000 years ago.
    • alex
    • company director
    What is the actual argument here?
    Economic what? The fact is that we are ALL on this planet sitting in the same sinking boat and argue over the reason WHY we need to fix the holes? The reality is that we rapidly and drastically need to change our approach. The only discussion we should have is HOW to fix it. Not why.