Sophie Prize Ceremony June 5th 2007

Speech by Sophie Foundation Board, Chair Gunhild Ørstavik

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Friends

We are gathered to celebrate Gøran Persson, the former Prime Minister of Sweden, and winner of the Sophie Prize 2007.

The Sophie Foundation has borrowed a motto from Mahatma Gandhi: Never underestimate an individual’s ability to change the world. Some individuals are however more able to make changes. Being prime minister in a rich, industrialised country certainly provides such opportunities.

As Prime Minister, Gøran Persson has shown remarkable political leadership and demonstrated a personal commitment to reduce Sweden’s dependence on non-renewable energy. Already back in 1996 he made the environment a political priority. He warned that unless we took radical steps to change our consumption patterns, we would ruin the preconditions for human life on earth. Facing the most important challenge of our time, he turned promises into actions, taking Sweden´s climate commitments substantially further than required by the Kyoto protocol.

 In ten years from 1996, Sweden reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 13,5%, while most other industrialised countries increased their emissions. Through taxes on fossil fuels and economic incentives for bio-energy, the country has reduced emissions from heating of private and public buildings by 40%. 

 This has been achieved by broad popular mobilisation and through a variety of political measures and incentives.

 Sweden has been a pioneer in introducing tax-exemptions for bio-fuel. It has close to 700 bio-fuel filling stations and 10% of the new cars sold in 2006 can be fuelled by bio-ethanol or bio-gas.

 Sweden has also started an ambitious expansion of the railway system, amounting to more than twice the Norwegian investments in railways per capita.

 We know it takes time before emissions added to the atmosphere affect the global temperatures. Thus, the warming we experience today is the product of gases emitted up to the mid 1980s. With the major growth in emissions over the last 20 years we are inevitably facing significantly further warming, even if we succeed in cutting emissions to ZERO from this very day.

 The current political debate on how to reduce climate gas emissions is not exactly impressive, considering the urgency of the crisis. Gøran Persson’s prediction is that 20 years from now today’s goals will look pathetically trivial. When I called Persson in January to tell him that he was this year’s laureate his immediate response was that yes, Sweden had made some achievements, but not at all sufficient, and unfortunately too late.

 In an interview I heard Persson say that he was born into the Swedish class society and that he hated it. He hated a system where single mothers carry the costs of tax relief for those better off.

 Climate change will ultimately affect us all, but surely, the consequences have a clear class dimension globally and within countries. Those who contribute the least to gas emissions will suffer the most.  Be it the Inuit indigenous peoples in the arctic whose culture, life, food and health are violated by global warming, or be it the millions of poor farmers around the world responsible for feeding their children.

The ravages of climate change are so severe that they could nullify efforts done to promote sustainable development in poor countries. At worst, they could reverse the real progress already achieved. It is once again Africa that will suffer the most . According to the predictions of the recent report by the United Nations’s Panel on Climate Change, the supply of food in Africa will be “severely compromised”, and in danger of total collapse in some countries. In the drylands, water may become a critical issue.

Climate change is already forcing people to leave their homes and the migration numbers are likely to increase dramatically. According to the British charity Christian Aid as many as 250 million people could be permanently displaced by climate change-related phenomena such as droughts, floods and hurricanes by 2050

 No other single issue presents such a clear and present danger to the future of the world’s poor. Climate change is not an area where the rich can ease their guilt and avoid changing their own lifestyle by handing out charity. It is rather a burning question of global injustice and violation of human rights.  There is no excuse if we, who are the most responsible for the damage done, do not take action now and carry the real costs.  Reduction has to be done where emissions are highest and the economic benefits from them have been made.

 At the global level it is obviously ethical, rational and feasible to take action now. The technology exists, what is needed is political commitment and courage to

prioritise sustainable development over short-term, populist concerns. 

 One of the last sayings by the German –American writer Kurt Vonnegut


 “Dear future generations,
Please accept our apologies.
We were roaring drunk on petroleum.

Love, 2006 AD, Kurt Vonnegut”

 It is certainly time to enter the most terrible hang-over and get the house in order. To quote Gøran Persson:  Politics must do what the market cannot.

 For the sake of all, on this small planet of ours, let us hope there is still time. Let us hope that political leaders realise that unless they use their power, our drunkenness on petroleum will soon turn into a living nightmare. 

 Dear Gøran Persson, thank you very much for your wake-up call and for sobering up before most politicians.