By Rob Jordan

“Until recently, climate change seemed like a science fiction scenario,” Helen Clark told a Stanford audience recently.

Ahead of global climate negotiations set to begin in Doha, Qatar later this month, Clark, the administrator of the UN Development Program (UNDP), visited campus Nov. 8 to discuss climate change and poverty alleviation. Her Environmental Forum talk, co-sponsored by the Stanford Woods Institute and Stanford’s Program in Human Biology, came on the heels of Superstorm Sandy in the Eastern U.S. and a wave of extreme weather events worldwide. “It’s not just a problem for small coastal regions in developing countries,” Clark said.

Clark argued that a lack of coordinated global action on the issue is undermining efforts to alleviate extreme poverty by damaging agriculture, driving up food prices, creating water insecurity, destroying coral reef fishing grounds and exposing millions to diseases such as diarrhea, dengue fever and malaria.


Helen Clark | November 8, 2012 from Cyperus on Vimeo.

The Nov. 26 – Dec. 7 Doha talks will be the eighteenth conference of the 192 signatory countries of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol – the only internationally legally binding regulations on climate protection. To date, international discussion on the issue has tended to focus on the long-term rather than the short-term and to underestimate the effect on poor populations, Clark said. Commitments such as developed countries’ pledge to give $100 billion to an adaptation fund have fallen through.

Clark reviewed five key areas for Doha negotiators to pursue international cooperation and climate action later this month, focusing on moving on from the Kyoto treaty; regular reviews of international climate actions planned and taken; private climate financing and carbon markets; increased international cooperation to deploy new technologies, and addressing greenhouse gas emissions created through forest loss and degradation.

She also used California as a model of climate progress, pointing specifically to the state’s cap and trade program launching this year as part of the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.

Any action should be interdisciplinary in approach, Clark said, arguing that real progress would require holistic changes in government and social structures – “just as fixing health problems is about far more than fixing your hospital system.” By example, she pointed to corruption and weak government as enabling forces behind deforestation and forest degradation – the source of about a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Like any intractable problem, climate change cannot be tackled by government alone, Clark said. Grassroots advocacy and consumer choices – “bottom-up action” – will drive meaningful progress, she said, citing recent surveys showing increased public support for action on climate change. “The costs of inaction are increasingly clear.”

In an interview following her lecture, Clark stressed the need for President Obama to use the momentum of his second election to act quickly on climate change. "There is a window of opportunity to see the U.S. take a strong position," Clark told ClimateWire. "This is the hour for moving on climate change. I think it's time to mobilize, and not just the U.S., but worldwide."

Read the full text of Clark’s speech.

Photo Courtesy of New Zealand Office of the PM