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World Must Decarbonize Before “Point of No Return” on Climate Crisis: Colombian President Gustavo Petro

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In Part 2 of our interview with Colombian President Gustavo Petro, he says climate change is a “vital matter” the world must address collectively. But unlike world trade, which is governed by a set of common rules, there is no organizing rubric for decarbonizing the world economy in time to prevent catastrophe. “There’s no courts for this. There’s no justice. So everybody can just slip by,” Petro says. He says the amount of money rich countries have provided to hasten the clean energy transition falls far short of commitments made in the 2015 Paris Agreement and is a drop in the bucket compared to what is being spent on the war in Ukraine.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We return now to our exclusive broadcast interview with the president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro.

AMY GOODMAN: So, President Petro, you said mankind has dedicated itself to war, and that instead it must put its resources into dealing with climate change, which you’ve called “the mother of all crises.” How do you propose the world do this, as you’re together with world leaders here at the United Nations?

PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] Well, I’m not very optimistic with these meetings. There’s like a mise en scène, as the French say, where there’s not necessarily conversation among themselves, but rather each one is speaking to their own people. The stage of the United Nations is used, but to speak to one’s own country or to see oneself. But it has not produced a sufficient interlocution.

There’s a little bit more of interlocution in the conferences of the parties, the COPs, but they have no binding force. They just come up with a list of recipes, which may or may not be taken into account. The status of the conversation around climate change is very different than, say, the status of the conversation around world trade. World trade has a binding institution. If one breaches a rule of those is subject to serious financial punishment. The World Trade Organization, for example, is the institution of free market economies. But as it’s more important to resolve the issue of the climate change, because this is obviously a vital matter, yet one doesn’t find the same binding force. Nobody fails to just obey rules. There’s no courts for this. There’s no justice. So everybody can just slip by, as we say, ignoring, turning a blind eye to the decisions made.

And that is why, in relation to the 2015 COP in Paris, where the most powerful countries on Earth made a commitment to provide $100 billion, which today is a very small sum compared to what’s needed to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis, not even 10 billion has come in of that. Yet that same figure, in just one week, if you look at the military contributions of Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, all told, then these sums have come forward, but for war, the war in Ukraine.

AMY GOODMAN: You have called for decarbonization of the economy, for an end to fossil fuel extraction in Colombia. Yet Colombia exports — oil is the number one export. You have the largest open coal pit in the world. Can you talk about how you accomplish this?

PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] Yes, this is certainly a matter of debate in Colombia especially. I have wanted to show the world that even though we live off of oil and coal, the president of the republic can ask the world for decarbonization of the economy. It makes sense vis-à-vis the whole world, because in many countries — the Arab countries, many Latin American countries, even Russia, which are powers in respect of their oil reserves, their gas reserves — there is an attitude of wanting to stop the possibilities of a transformation of the world by stopping our use of coal, oil and gas. And this obviously condemns us.

Science is not wrong on this. Progressivism, as a worldwide political movement, was always based on the idea of doing politics enlightened by science, not irrational kind of politics like the far right has done in the world. Today we see a conflict there, because science tells us that if we use what is buried in Colombia in the way of coal, or what is buried in Venezuela in terms of oil reserves, then we would pass a point of no return, and humankind would have no possibilities, and life on the planet would have no possibilities.

Venezuela lives off of oil — it lived off of oil — and Colombia, coal and oil. Nonetheless, we — Colombia is calling for a change in the economy. Now, within Colombia, that has produced a major debate. They say, “The president must be crazy or sick. No one in the world is listening to what he has to say. He’s taking us to an abyss.” I believe, because I trust that humanity will not let itself become extinguished, that in a relatively short time period — say, 10 to 15 years — in effect, the demand for oil and coal will collapse in the world. And what we call the fossil economy, which is most of the capitalism on Earth, has to turn to new technologies without coal and without oil.

Now, if that is the case of the world, then what we call the decarbonized economy today is going to impose new realities on the world economy. There, there will be different social relations of production. And if we don’t go in that direction, then we are going to have tremendous inequality and economic backwardness and backwardness in terms of knowledge vis-à-vis the world. So, therefore, I would hope that one could move in tandem, if not move ahead, on decarbonizing the economy.

I think it’s fundamental for a region like South America, whose greatest potential and whose greatest wealth is precisely in its natural biodiversity, in the amount of its water, in the amount of sunshine that falls on the region and the winds that blow through the region — that is to say, the sources of clean energy. In my opinion, coal and oil for South America is a mirage, in which they might become anchored even as a result of their own left wings. But they would leave Latin America behind in a transformation that the entire world is going to undergo. And that transformation is not a negative thing. It mustn’t be seen as backsliding to poverty.

In Colombia, for example, there are five generators of electricity, sources of companies. It’s an oligopoly. They have rates, which for the standard of living of Colombia, the electricity rates are extremely high. This is one of the irrational paradoxes, which is that in the Caribbean coast, there is plentiful sol year round. Indeed, most of South America — in most of South America and in Colombia, most of the energy consumed is gas, whereas solar energy could be much cheaper. That irrationality has to do today with a frontier. The oligopoly doesn’t want to make a transition to clean energies, because clean energies could enable us — well, could make it possible for 1 or 2 million households in all of Colombia to generate their own electricity based on solar energy, for example, and with great efficiency in the case of the Caribbean. We would move from one generator to millions.

And this could be called a democratization, that democratization that would produce the decarbonized economy, which is the intention, which is there. Well, it doesn’t like this big fossil fuel capitalism, which has become a sort of a great monopoly worldwide and which is putting up resistance. And that is why the move from a fossil fuel economy to a decarbonized economy, under a viewpoint which I would call of the left, should be plausible, because it would lead to democratization of the world, and not concentration of property and wealth, as has been the case so far.

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