Changing by Degrees: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Climate Change

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Ambassador Martin Dahinden, Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States of America  

On the Occasion of the Symposium, Changing by Degrees: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Climate Change, at Johns Hopkins University,  Washington, D.C.

Speaker: Ambassador Martin Dahinden

Ambassador Martin Dahinden on a Panel Conversation at Changing by Degrees event: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Climate Change at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.
Ambassador Martin Dahinden on a Panel Conversation at Changing by Degrees event: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Climate Change at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. © Embassy of Switzerland

Before I became Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States, for more than six years I was head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the Swiss version of USAID. It is from that perspective and experience that I will speak today. 

Climate change is certainly visible in developed countries like the United States and Switzerland. Wildfires and melting glaciers are such phenomena. However, climate change has little direct impact on the daily lives of most citizens in highly developed countries. It is different in many developing countries, where most of the poor live. The impact of climate change on the hydrology of the Himalaya on water resources and agriculture is striking. In other parts of the world, desertification is dramatic. It is a harbinger of droughts, conflict, and streams of migration to come.

During my intense trips, I observed such effects firsthand; I had long and elucidating discussions with those affected. I came to the conclusion that it was not possible to cope with the challenge by applying traditional concepts, i.e., by building capacity to cope with the effects.

We tested and adopted a new approach. Examining the effect of all our activities on the climate became a marker we started to apply in all our activities. At the same time, we raised our voices in international and domestic discussions. We very often did so together with friends and partners from developing counties, countries that often lack a voice in the international discussion.

The most important challenge was to mitigate the output of greenhouse gases. And the most powerful and promising tool was and, in my opinion, still is the creation and transfer of knowledge and technology.

I have learned many lessons in the meantime. Here are three of the most important ones.

First: It is important not to address climate change in isolation. The focus must be on sustainability. Only by addressing the environment, the economy and poverty together can progress be achieved. That is easy to say, but hard to achieve in practice. Different interests, different winners and losers make it complicated. The task is complex. Straightforward planning won’t work. Progress can instead be achieved through trial and error, through imagination and swift action. But not with bureaucratic planning.

Second: To gain the necessary political support and to prompt progress, it is important not to allow the climate or sustainability agenda to be hijacked by other agendas. Now there is a risk that the justified concern about climate change is being treated like a Christmas tree where everyone puts his or her pet. Some might use climate change as a pretext to push an agenda of redistribution of income and wealth unrelated to climate. Some might abuse it to expand the role of government or to impose other lifestyles on people. Such attempts hamper combating climate change and are a recipe for failure.

Third: The focus shouldn’t be on soul searching, stigmatization or blaming. As a man-made problem, climate change can be reversed with human imagination and innovation. Having the right mind-set is the most important thing. When looking at challenges, we should imagine business models for solutions that are worth an investment. To me, it is obvious that climate-friendly technologies have a great future.

The United States is one of the most innovative countries on the planet (as is Switzerland). The United States is the country of pioneers bound to cross the next frontier. Those frontiers were once in the Far West and now they are in science, in space and so forth. I am sure that this American spirit will definitely develop and apply the technologies that reverse climate change.