Interview with Maurice Strong – Transcript

Maurice Strong
Interview March 31, 2006 4 PM PST–Topaz Room #1038, Pan Pacific Hotel, Vancouver.

KS: …you want me to turn it off you just tell me. I realize time is short so I won’t spend a whole lot of time… We’ll go straight for the Kyoto thing. My boss, Ezra Levant…

Maurice Strong: Yes

KS: …wrote a book, Fight Kyoto. I know you are aware of the book (reference to brief conversation day before). I don’t know if you’ve read it…

Maurice Strong: No, I haven’t read it. I’ve heard of it, that’s all.

KS: Okay. How do you respond to critics, like Ezra, who are highly suspicious of the Kyoto Accord?

Maurice Strong: Well, I would just say, look objectively at the evidence, the scientific evidence, which of course continues to unfold. But overwhelming the world scientific community agrees that human activities are giving rise to changes in the earth’s filtering mechanism which is largely but not exclusively CO2 subject. And I know critics say that there isn’t scientific evidence, but there is far more scientific consensus on this issue than there is on almost every other issue on which people make decisions every day. I mean, for example, the oil and gas industry which I was involved in for years; everyday they use the best scientific knowledge available to make their decisions. But the best scientific knowledge available is not always perfect, and that’s why they have to drill several wells to have one discovery. But if they waited to do what many of the critics say about climate change, that you wait until the evidence is absolute, then they’d never drill any wells. In fact the whole of industry would stop if we did in our business life what many critics feel we should do in respect to climate change, and that is, wait until a post mortem. It just isn’t reasonable on issues like that, especially when we already know companies like BP and Dow that we heard from here at the opening (of the conference)—and others—have demonstrated that it is entirely possible to meet bottom line requirements and at the same time to reduce CO2 emissions. So, people can be critical of Kyoto. Whether Kyoto is alive or not, the climate change issue is not going to go away. Kyoto didn’t create the issue. Kyoto was a response to the issue. And if Kyoto were to go away—and certainly its influence has been significantly diminished—that doesn’t mean the climate change issue is going to go away.

KS: Well, the word Kyoto is now synonymous with climate change…

Maurice Strong: Yes it is, but Kyoto could disappear, that doesn’t mean the issue is going to disappear, because it was the issue itself—the evidence that the issue is an important issue—that gave rise to Kyoto. Therefore if Kyoto were to die, it doesn’t mean the climate change issue is going to go away, not at all.

KS: People, including myself, have been suspicious of the Kyoto Accord, particularly in regard to China because it appears to economically benefit them while punishing their global competitor—I guess the U.S. could be called their global competitor and their customer too—and that’s been a focus of a lot of criticism. China seems to benefit and the US gets punished and…

Maurice Strong: ‘Punish’ is not the word. The fact is in anything that the biggest offenders are obviously the ones that have to make the first adjustments. China is a party to the climate change convention. Those who say it is exempted are wrong. It is exempted from the first set of targets. That’s true. But the reason for that is quite valid. I mean, China’s per capita emissions are very low compared to the emissions of Canada and the U.S. and others. So the whole basis of the convention was that the countries that have given rise to the issue and have benefited economically from it are the ones who should take the lead, and that’s a perfectly valid premise in my view. And one of the reasons Montreal succeeded—to a degree at least, it kept the issue alive—was because China was very positive. China has done a lot actually to reduce its per capita emissions, even though its economic growth is obviously making it in the aggregate a very major source. There’s no question of that. But you cannot say… it’s not reasonable to expect the Chinese at their level of economic development and their very low level of per capita emissions to take the lead when we’re not doing anything.

KS: The follow-up to that question goes to something that you said yesterday and that was in regard to Canada. You actually echoed critics of Montreal and the Kyoto Accord in saying that Canada has lost its moral leadership. You actually said we’re coasting on our reputation. Maybe you could expand on that.

Maurice Strong: Well, the fact is that over many years Canada’s earned a place in the world out of proportion to our economic and political strength. We’ve done that because we’ve basically been in the vanguard of some of the more positive changes—not that everybody agrees that their positive—but that the world regards as reasonably positive, peacekeeping, climate change, the environment, that’s one of them. But in fact now people are looking behind our good guy image and looking at what is happening and we’re actually—we do some good things, I’m not trying to suggest it’s all bad—but over all we have lost the basis for leadership. I mean our environmental record is frankly in recent years very poor.

KS: This goes to the per capita thing the way Kyoto was calculated…

Maurice Strong: That’s right. I’m not anti-Canadian. I am Canadian and that’s why I want to remind my fellow Canadians that, yeah, you can be proud to be Canadian but don’t think that we’re full of virtue. We’ve got to keep earning it and we’ve been slipping behind.

KS: Yes, actually I agree with you on that, and surprised by how it sounded very much like the critics of Montreal in saying that, so…

Maurice Strong: I don’t whitewash all the things that have been done. Kyoto is a very weak agreement, no question. However, it was an important agreement because it did represent a step forward in the attempts of the world community to create a framework in which they could cooperate in dealing with an issue which no one of them could deal with alone. And my contention is not that Kyoto is perfect, far from it, but it is a lot better to work within a framework and make the changes that need to be made within that framework to deal with some of the obvious weaknesses than it is to start from zero again.

KS: Right, you have had some experience at the UN and probably know how difficult it is to get everybody together to do things.

Maurice Strong: Yes. And even when they agree to do them it’s even more difficult to get them to actually do them.

KS: (frantically flipping through notebook) I just actually, I was scribbling down the…I must confess I was making more stories up about how I didn’t get the interview than questions for you because I didn’t think I would get it.

Maurice Strong: I wasn’t trying to elude you.

KS: No, no.

Maurice Strong: But I’m back in home country and I’m very seldom here, and so all kinds of people trying to…

KS: Oh, actually, I do have a question on that and I hope you don’t mind me skipping around.

Maurice Strong: No, no, any question.

KS: You have said publicly a couple of times this week you are spending most of your time in China. Why are you doing that?

Maurice Strong: Well, because I’ve a long relationship with China. I active in the government, a deputy foreign minister when we recognized China. I started the Canada-China Trade Counsel and was its first co-chair. I had a trading company with China years ago. I’ve been very active in my environmental work and my UN and World Bank work, so I’ve had a long relationship with China. I’m getting to a stage in life where I said, how can I make use my latter years and whatever experience I have? And I’ve kept up a good relationship with China over the years—not in the ideological sense, but just because China is an important place and it’s an interesting place—and so I just thought that, you know, that—it was so step-by-step—and I thought what’s going on there is important to the whole world and the fact that I did have some good connections and experience there meant that perhaps in a very small way whatever impact I could have at this later stage in life might at least mean more in China than anywhere else.

KS: I’m going to go off my page here and let me know if I’m out of bounds here because…

Maurice Strong: No, that’s alright.

KS: One connection that people have talked about in the past was, I think it was your second cousin…

Maurice Strong: Well, she was not…

KS: Was she related?

Maurice Strong: Well, she was. Actually, when I was very young I very influenced by her letters from China, and I used to wonder. I didn’t know for sure. My family weren’t really good at keeping up with distant family members. We thought she was related but she wasn’t actually very close. But she was interesting to me because she was always talking about China and that got… so she had a lot of influence on me. But she was an American actually, an American journalist. And it wasn’t until later on that I realized… we thought she was related but she wasn’t close. But then her brother was head of the world YMCA in Geneva, Switzerland. And I became very active in the world YMCA. And he said, ‘Oh of course we’re related!’ And he showed me. So we have a distant relative and I tend to down… the Chinese up-play that, but I tend to downplay that. I say yes, she is a distant relative, but more particularly she was quite an influence on me because when she wrote about China it fascinated me. But yes, she was a cousin. She was maybe three steps removed, so it was a (phone rings) somewhat distant relationship.

KS: Okay. Actually, there was one (phone rings again) comment you made yesterday…

Hanna: (answering phone) Hello?

KS: …that sounded somewhat controversial when you were talking about…

Hanna: Who is this?

KS: …peoples rising up, or a people’s movement…

Maurice Strong: Peoples movement, yes

Hanna: (inaudible in background)

KS: …And you actually got quite passionate about it and said people should get angry about it (climate change) and I was thinking to myself, I know the Chinese leadership like order and they don’t like to hear that kind of stuff. And I was thinking, how would your Chinese hosts react to that?

Maurice Strong: They’re… I think they would… I mean, I’m pretty open in China. I get a lot of media coverage in China. I don’t see it, but I’ve been on national television, an audience of a billion people, two one-hour programs. I’m fairly… I’m careful how I say things but I say them. I say some controversial things. And remember the communist revolution was a people’s revolution. And they talk a lot these days about people’s movements. Now, they don’t want people’s movements that are going to overturn their government. That’s clear. But what I said was not just China, but it’s true in China, too, that the key to political action is in fact public attitudes. And there are very few governments that can resist major popular movements for long periods of time. That’s my point. And if we really want, don’t just wait for the government, political leaders. You know, people’s movements do make a difference. Now of course, they vary from country to country (phone rings)

KS: (movement) sorry, I was just checking to see if it (the recorder) was on, I get paranoid about that. “They vary from country to country” I know they’ve had a lot of protests especially when they try to…

Maurice Strong: And there’s a lot more people, citizen action there—not always negative action. You know, most Chinese will be supportive of their government because most Chinese are better off. They’ve raised more people out of poverty than any country has ever done in history.

KS: Yeah, you made that point yesterday. But of course there’s always that 800 million that everybody else worries about.

Maurice Strong: Oh yes, oh yeah. Oh no, look…

KS: That actually figured into the… (climate change discussion the day before) when people talked about what happens when they raise their standard of living, what happens when that happens, when they get up to our level…

Maurice Strong: That’s right. You know, but you know when you get to know the Chinese people they’re attractive people, too.

Hanna: (talking on phone in background.) I don’t know. Oh, let me see. Hold on.

Maurice Strong: They’re innovative, they’re hard working. Although the regime is still devoted to communism, to socialism, they’re all entrepreneurs…

Hanna: (into phone) Yeah, let me just ask. (to Maurice) Mr. (barely audible “Cam”?) from Chery.

Maurice Strong: Oh, I better take that. It’s from China.

Hanna: (to phone) Yeah, he will take the call.

Maurice Strong: Hello?

(at this point Hanna as she handed the phone to Maurice signals for me to shut off my recorder. Recording pause)

KS: …(not on recording—my question was about Chery Automobiles, and critics pointing out the hypocrisy of his being an environmentalist and yet being involved in the automobile industry; recording resumes)…okay, I’ve turned it on by the way…

Maurice Strong: That’s fine. Because their

Hanna: (seated at kitchenette table behind me, asking sarcastically) “Does he have critics?”

Maurice Strong: (laughs)…Because the Chinese are not going to be denied automobiles. No use saying, ‘Don’t use automobiles.’ So therefore I got in on helping to suggest to them that they become leaders in environmentally sound automobiles and hybrids for their own good, but also that could be a comparative advantage for them internationally. And the Chery company has made a commitment to becoming [sic] you know, real environmentally sound automobiles. And therefore, yes, I have been encouraging them with help. I even got offered… I was, for ten years I was on the international board of Toyota.

KS: Oh yes, I saw that on your résumé…

Maurice Strong: And I got off the board in order to help the Chinese. So yes, it’s true; I get in there where I think I can make a difference.

KS: Well, it was interesting to me sitting down there listening to you yesterday because I’ve done articles about you. I’ve done research into your career…

Maurice Strong: Uh-huh, uh-huh.

KS: …and whatnot because I’ve had to sort of put the puzzles together, and over the years, reading some of the articles about you on the one hand you get criticized by environmentalists who are suspicious of your motives; on the other hand you get criticized by industry who are suspicious of your motives…

Maurice Strong: That’s true, that’s true.

KS: But what I see down there (gesture meaning, at the conference)—and I like this stuff, where technology is providing solutions—we see industry I guess moving (gesture: towards MS). So how is the environmental movement treating you these days?

Maurice Strong: Well, it’s always… I guess I’ve been sustainable. But actually, someone just brought to my attention—(to Hanna) do you want to bring it, dear?—an article that I did 32 years ago in the Saturday Review of Literature, (Dec. 14, 1974) a very prestigious magazine. They had their 50th anniversary… they had their 50th anniversary and they asked a number of world leaders—I was just a young guy at that stage but I was in charge of the environment in the UN—and they asked me to do an article. I did a quick one and they liked and they made it the lead article in their 50th anniversary issue. That doesn’t show no great merit but it does show you I’ve been around.

KS: Oh, I know you’ve been around and doing this stuff for a while.

Hanna: (says something in background “He was the editor [inaudible]”)

Maurice Strong: This was the lead article, (reads) “The Case for Optimism: We do face risks for survival, but if we change course, there are probabilities of a decent life for all people. Here are ten major steps that must be taken now.” And ‘now’ is 32 years ago. So you see I’m a slow mover. It’s true. I learn along the way, but… you see (flipping through the pages; reads) “A new approach to growth… economic incentives and penalties.”

KS: Do you have an extra copy of that? No, I’ll write down the title and look it up…

Hanna: I can give you a copy. I just went down and made a bunch. [gets up and brings me a copy]

Maurice Strong: Oh. Anyway, (referring to the authors listed on the photocopied front cover of the magazine) these are all famous people and I was an unfamous person, but they did make my article the lead article.

KS: Well, this is actually this is the thing…

Maurice Strong: And I had forgotten about it until somebody brought it to my attention just the other day. That’s the reason I happen to have it now.

KS: Well, to say you’re ‘unfamous,’ I don’t know… that’s… excuse me I don’t mean to make a derogatory comment, but they call you the “international man of mystery”…

Maurice Strong: Well, yeah, they call me all kinds of things.

KS: …almost like, you know, I hate to say it, Forest Gump; but you’ve been in key places at key times.

Maurice Strong: Oh, I have been. But I haven’t been trying to do that. I just decided to do what I think is the right thing to do at any moment. I may be wrong, but still I do the best I can even though it does get me into controversy. I don’t do it for that reason, but I don’t avoid it either.

KS: Well, obviously you are talking to me, I guess, and I’ve been suspicious. I’m going to try to present this by the way as a Q&A in the magazine…

Maurice Strong: That’s fine, that’s fine. I’m used to criticism. But the kind of criticism where basically you use an interview to really simply demonstrate an already fixed ideological point of view… And what I was trying to say yesterday, though not in respect to me particularly, but that those who invoke science to condemn the process, and those who invoke science to… there is perhaps some common ground there, if they are both true to science. I don’t know if you actually know but I’m actually a member of the National Academy of Sciences of the US…

KS: You mentioned that yesterday…

Maurice Strong: It’s very unusual for me. I think I’m the only non-scientist member. Well, I don’t know that I deserve it. I’m kind of surprised at it. It doesn’t mean that I know more but it does mean I get exposed to a lot of information, at least a lot of information which I do get considered with.

KS: That might lead to a question to a current topic here. We’ve talked about you’re relationship with China. Right now as we’re talking, Canada’s new prime minister is down in Cancun talking to the presidents of the United States and Mexico. How do you view Canada’s relationship with the United States?

Maurice Strong: Well, I’ve spent a great deal of time in the United States. I’m very pro-American. But I have differences with the U.S. on policy, but not anymore than a lot of the U.S. people [who] have differences. I would love to see America returned to kind of moral leadership that it has exerted over the years and which has provided the world with such a model of how a real value-oriented democracy should work. And I still believe that and I would like to see them return to that. What the sad thing about the existing situation is that America has lost much of the basis for moral leadership which has made it, which was the great source of its strength over the years. I don’t think it has lost it irrevocably, but it certainly lost a huge amount of the support that’s necessary for leadership. I mean, coercive leadership isn’t very durable. Leadership requires being able to bring people along with you. And I think the U.S. realizes that. And the U.S. government, strong as it is, has gone through a learning experience. And I think it’s learned that it’s in the U.S.’s interests not to go it alone because it has to bear all the costs and consequences, whereas if it brings other people along it is able to be far more effective and the world leader. I mean, if the U.S. isn’t going to be the world leader, who is? You know, I want the U.S. to remain world leader, but I don’t like some of the things it is doing now which I believe are contributing to its lack of ability to lead.

KS: Any specific things there?

Maurice Strong: Well, I think the way in which it has gone about trying to support for, you know, military action, uh, it’s not so much whether it should or shouldn’t be military action. Everybody knows you’ve got to have a strong military. But how you use it, and to simply expect others to go along without giving them any role in the decision-making. And the U.S. is changing that. I think that was a big problem with support for the Iraq war. And the question, can anybody else take over the U.S. role, well, it can’t. But what concerns me is that the U.S. role itself is weakened if it does not lead by being, how we said, by at least consulting those whose participation and cooperation can help it to prevail.

KS: I know we haven’t got too much longer here so I’ll quickly…

Maurice Strong: No, we haven’t got…

KS: …and this will be just yes or no and then lead to the last questions. Do you have any role formally or informally with the United Nations now?

Maurice Strong: I’ve had roles over the years and incidentally—I don’t know about your paper—but the suggestion I left my Korean job had anything to do with this oil… it’s just not right.

KS: This would be Oil-for-Food…

Maurice Strong: Yeah.

KS: Okay.

Maurice Strong: It had nothing to do with that. Basically, I had this Korean role long before and it was just an advisory monitoring role, then I took on a more full-time role. And the negotiations were moving very slowly and I wanted to be free of them. And my contract ended anyway in July and so it just ended. I was just on the phone—just before my Chinese friend phoned—with the deputy secretary general of the UN. I’m in constant touch with the UN. I’ve always had a friendly relationship with the UN whatever my formal role was. And I continue to have. But I have no formal role.

[Hanna comes over and stands beside Maurice]

KS: Okay, I’ll wrap it up with this question. There are little questions (recording pause; recording resumes) …just a second.

Maurice Strong: It’s okay. We can go on.

KS: What advice would you have for the next secretary general of the United Nations?

Maurice Strong: Well, I guess, I think it is a difficult job. The next secretary general should be one who can the organization function. And in fact it does function better than most people think, not across the board because the UN is many things. Some things it does extremely well, some things it doesn’t do well. And the next secretary general has got to demonstrate he can make the machine work. Kofi Annan has been in my view one of the best secretary generals. Yes, it is a tough job but more than enough. That doesn’t mean he is to be immune to criticism but over all he’s restored the position of the UN. On almost any global issue now, you look at the media and one of the first things they do is quote Kofi Annan. Now, they didn’t used to do that with Boutros-Ghali and the others. With all the criticisms he’s received he’s done a good job. It’s not easy to do the job. You have to exercise a combination of moral leadership and pragmatic leadership, managerial leadership. It’s got to continue the reform process but it’s got to be more than rhetoric. You’ve got to remember, the secretary general is very limited in what he can do about reform. I headed up his first reform program and there were two sections to it. One was the things that were under his control and every one of those things was done. We took 30 different departments and consolidated them into four decision making groups. It wasn’t perfect but we did make some real progress at that level. But not a single thing that we recommended to governments, which only governments could do because they’re the board of directors, they’re the shareholders, they’re the owners of the organization, not a single one of them was done. So the secretary general always has to bear the brunt of criticism for lack of reform and yet the real decisions on reform are usually withheld by the very governments that keep pressing rhetorically for reform. So the secretary general has to be strong. He has to be a person of character. He has to have capacity. He’s got to have a type of willingness to withstand, to deal with a variety of crosscurrents of criticism and opportunity. So, you know, I think the quality of the person is the key thing, whether he has the characteristics to permit him to command confidence of his staff, yes, of governments, and to command confidence in a world in which agreement and consensus around every issue is simply not going to be feasible. But if you can command respect and confidence, you can help to come up with answers, and you can help to come up with the capacity to implement the decisions that are made. You can’t expect the secretary general to be a miracle person, but he’s got to be as close to it as we can find on this human planet.

This interview was referenced in Episode 15 of Grace & Steel, November 30, 2015 in my “Remembrance of Maurice Strong” that followed news of his passing.