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John Ashton: “Bolivia and the UK have a powerful common interest in reaching a global deal on climate change”

Interview with the Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative for Climate Change, John Ashton, who visited Bolivia on 18-19 October and met President Evo Morales.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

**What was the purpose of your visit to Bolivia?
I came to Bolivia because I think that the voice of Bolivia is extremely important in the international conversation about climate change. Why? For two reasons. One because Bolivia is almost uniquely vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. In Europe we tend to think of the Arctic as the most vulnerable part of the world, where the consequences of climate change have already been felt. But that’s equally true in the High Andes, and some very significant effects have been felt and are doing damage to people’s lives and peoples livelihoods, making it harder to produce food, making the availability of water more difficult and so on.
In a sense that puts Bolivia in a very special position. Bolivia is already living the future that the rest of us are all going to have to experience. So if we want to understand the kind of future that we need to try to avoid, we should be listening to Bolivia.

The second reason is that the way in which Bolivians are talking about climate change is very interesting, and it contains some wisdom that we all need to understand better. Because, as I understand the narrative, the debate, the discourse about Mother Earth, about “Vivir Bien”, it says that climate change is not just a challenge about what we should do -of course there are lots of things that we should do in response to climate change, but we will not do them at the necessary level of urgency, the necessary scale and intensity, unless at the same time we respond time at a deeper level, which is a challenge about who we want to be.

Climate change tells us that we are all in the same position. Climate change touches everybody, we all have an overpowering interest in the success of the response to climate change. So climate change tells us that, as we enter a century of growing interdependence , the challenge we face is to break down the walls that divide us as peoples, the challenge is to define ourselves, to construct our identities on the basis of what we have in common with each other and also on the basis of the interdependence we have with nature.

We can’t afford to hold ourselves separate from nature, separate from the environment, because we are part of the environment and the environment is part of us, and I think that is something which is stronger in the Bolivian debate, the Bolivian discourse than it is in many other places. I wanted to understand that better so that I could learn from it and carry it as far as I am able back into the debate in the UK and the EU.

** What did you get from your visit and all the meetings you held?
I’ve found this visit very valuable, I’ve learned a great deal from it. I will go back with a much richer sense of what climate change is really about, and everything I’ve done in this visit, everybody I’ve met has helped me develop. It was a special moment to have the chance to have a dialogue with the President and the Vice-president together, and I was very grateful to them for giving me their time and their insights. But actually it was also valuable for me to listen to the opinions of the leaders of some of Bolivia’s social movements; it was valuable for me to have a debate at the Catholic University of Bolivia with some of the scholars, students and researchers there. It was very powerful for me to visit Chacaltaya and see how its glacier has disappeared. So all these things come together in my mind in a kind of single picture that I take home with me from Bolivia.

**What can you tell us about your meeting with President Morales?
It was a private meeting, so I am not giving any detailed commentary. What I would say is that it reinforced my sense that there is a very powerful common interest between Bolivia and the UK, more widely also between Latin America and the EU. You can look at the politics of climate change as actually a very simple dynamic, as simple dialectic: there are forces of high ambition, interests who want to go faster in building a response to climate change and there are forces of low ambition, people who want to go slower and that is not necessarily to criticise on the forces of low ambition. Some people are worried about the implications for their own economy or their own stability of moving too fast. But actually, we need to reinforce the forces of high ambition, we need to make it easier for those who are worried about the speed of the change to be able to go faster, to build a pathway that is available to them to go faster. I think that is something that Bolivia and the UK can work together, starting at the climate change meeting in Cancun in a few weeks, which will be a very important meeting because we have to show that we have understood the significance of what happened at Copenhagen, and we have to show that we have picked it up and we have started moving forward again.

So we have to re-commit to the project to build an international binding global framework that will be the envelope, or the spine perhaps, of our international response to climate change. This is something in which I think the interest of the UK and that of Bolivia is absolutely identical, and it was clear for me from the conversation with the President and the Vice-president that there is a tremendous opportunity to work together in pursuit of that goal.

**What does the FCO want to achieve by sending a senior official like you to countries like Bolivia to discuss climate change?
I think it is very clear from what William Hague has said, for example in the speech that he gave in New York three weeks ago, that he sees a successful response to climate change as an essential component of modern diplomacy. This is something which we have to mobilise our diplomatic resources to achieve. Because if we want to build a successful response, we will only succeed if we use the assets of diplomacy. Diplomacy is the way in which we understand how the world looks through the eyes of other people, and it’s the way in which by understanding that we build pathways on which we can move forward together. That’s what diplomacy does at its best.

So we need to use those levers. I don’t mean in the sense of negotiation, I’m not saying that we need to duplicate the work of the professional negotiators, some of whom are diplomats and some of whom come from other ministries. But the negotiations depend on the political context within which they take place, and for me the message in Copenhagen is that we haven’t invested enough effort in building the right political context, so the negotiators have the right kind of mandate to reach the right kind of agreement in the negotiations. And it is foreign ministries, foreign services who can shift the political conditions within which the negotiations are taking place to make the low carbon economy more attractive to more people, to make more people aware of the real and present danger of climate change. This is a problem that we need to deal with today, not tomorrow. That is all part of the work of foreign ministries in general and certainly of this Foreign Office. For William Hague and for me and for all of us in the FCO team working on the subject, there is no doubt that this is an absolutely essential part of the core business of modern diplomacy, including the Foreign Office.

John Ashton’s visit to Bolivia - Visita de John Ashton a Bolivia


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Published 22 October 2010