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“Morally Unacceptable”: János Áder, President of Hungary, On Trump’s Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement – Exclusive Interview

Last month, Hungary Today had the unique opportunity to sit down for an interview with János Áder, Hungary’s President, during his time spent in New York for the UN General Assembly. During the interview, which took place at Hungary’s UN Mission in Manhattan, Áder discussed the state of Hungarian communities worldwide, the ongoing water crisis facing the world, as well as Donald Trump’s controversial and widely derided decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate agreement.

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision. and translated from the original Hungarian. In addition, the interviewee made edits to the original discussion prior to its publication.

photo courtesy of MTI – Noémi Bruzák

What was the purpose of your visit to New York, Mr. President, and what will your role be during the current UN General Assembly? 

There were several reasons for our arrival this week: on the one hand the UN General Assembly was in session. One and a half years ago, the then UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, and the President of the World Bank convened a panel consisting of heads of state and government to discuss problems of the water crisis threatening the world, and to come forward with proposals. We assessed the work so far during our meeting, and also discussed what the main messages should be for our report that will be prepared by next spring.

In addition, I also received an invitation from Mike Bloomberg. We had met here in New York in July, at which point he invited me to the Global Business Forum, which was organized earlier this week in New York. Executives of multinational companies, politicians, and the representatives of various NGOs gathered to discuss opportunities offered by the global economy, issues related to sustainable development, the implementation of the Paris [climate agreement] pledges, as well as tasks stemming from this.

Also, partially related to this, the Danish Prime Minister’s Office organized a forum on how best to support water infrastructure related investments, because we have significantly fallen behind. I was asked to deliver the keynote speech at that forum.

Thus, all three events focused on the theme of environmental sustainability. The world has reached a turning point: we cannot follow the same path that brought us here. We need to change, because the lifestyle we have created for ourselves is no longer sustainable. We do not want to give up on any of our comforts, and are not ready to give up on any developments. What should we do then? This is what these events were about.

 

Mr. President, why do you consider the water crisis to be one of the most significant problems facing humanity? What developments occurred in the domain of water-related issues during this week?

This may sound like a banality, but water is the source of life. Many people say that water is our most important natural resource. Despite this, in some places, in some cultures, in certain geographical regions, it carries no value. We use it irresponsibly, while visibly there is less and less of it, especially if we talk about good quality, potable water. Furthermore, agriculture also needs water, humanity needs more water as it grows in population, industry needs water, sprawling cities need water, we need water to generate energy, and so on. Without water, we are practically unable to maintain the conditions necessary for human life. Despite this, we waste water, we pollute our waters and, if we continue this, then we are basically squandering one of the most important preconditions of life. This is why I continue to raise awareness about this problem and talk about it at forums at which I am invited to speak.

Let’s look at how this is relevant to Hungary. If we look at the map from our domestic perspective, or if we recall our geography studies, then we will see that Hungary is a country that is relatively rich in water. But while this may be true, it is also true that 90% of the water in Hungary arrives to us from abroad. We are thus left at the mercy of our neighbours, who, if they build a reservoir, if they dam or pollute the water – and unfortunately there have been precedents for all of these – could leave us with no water or only bad quality, polluted water, which obviously limits our possibilities. In some parts of our country annual precipitation levels are among the lowest in the whole of Europe. If things go on like this, it is possible that these areas will fall into the category of semidesert.

A study has found that the Carpathian-basin, and Hungary at the centre of it, are among the most vulnerable in Europe from a climate protection point of view. The impacts of climate change manifest much sooner, and much more intensively, than in other parts of Europe. Hungary suffers from the effects of climate change in many ways, a significant part of which – some 80% according to scientists – is manifested through water. For us, the primary objective is water management, it is about preventing pollution, expanding the area of irrigated lands, cultivating drought resistant plants, it is about a country with an increasingly dry climate adapting to the changed circumstances. We wish to continue to grow plants on our land, we do not want to give up all the fruits, vegetables, the grapes and last but not least all the wine, that we can produce in good quality in Hungary. For this we will increasingly need water. Unfortunately, this divine blessing comes less and less frequently, and when it does it arrives in ever increasing quantities. As such, this is hardly a blessing, but rather the cause of serious problems, which we have seen examples of in recent weeks as well.

 

Mr President, this week you decorated László Papp, the Chairman of the New York Hungarian American Memorial Committee. How do you assess the current situation and the future of the Hungarian diaspora? 

Wherever I go, I meet Hungarians living abroad and I see two things: there are aspiring Hungarians who have arrived in their new countries after ’56 or during the ‘90s. They intend to become useful citizens of the countries that received them, while at the same time they do not want to give up their Hungarian identity. For this, they are ready to sacrifice their time to seek out other Hungarians and to organize programs together. The other organizing force is when there is a proactive representative of the Hungarian state, an honorary consul, a consul general or an ambassador, who helps to coordinate and promote this activity, because it forges a truly efficient and well-functioning community. The Friends of Hungary Foundation is perhaps the most important organization for Hungarians living around the world, which by now has built an international network. Nowadays in the world of the internet, people are able to remain in continuous contact with each other, and many of them actually return to visit Hungary at least once a year. Returning to the land of their birth allows them to meet each other personally and to transform earlier isolated attempts into vivid, everyday relationships. This is turn can reinforce their belief that it is worth preserving their Hungarian identity, because they are not alone, they are not the “last of the Mohicans” who are living all alone in a huge melting pot like New York.

President Áder presenting  civilian Officer’s Cross of the Hungarian Order of Merit to László Papp (left) alongside Hungary’s New York Consul General Ferenc Kumin (right) (Photo: MTI – Noémi Bruzák) 

They are important allies of Hungary – especially if they pass on traditions to the next generation, if they teach them the Hungarian language, and teach them about Hungarian culture, even if some of these children may not have visited Hungary. I know that the number of such Hungarians is decreasing, and the temptation is very strong to only hear the siren calls of the majority population. I think we need to do everything in our power to strengthen the positive examples, which show that one cannot deny one’s roots.

 

Mr. President, in June you criticized Donald Trump’s announcement to leave the Paris Climate Agreement, saying that the President’s decision “disrespected the future generation and was irresponsible”. Now we hear that the White House has begun to retreat from this position, and would be willing to remain party to the Agreement with some – so far unknown – conditions. Do you find it acceptable, Mr. President, that the United States of America should be allowed to define new conditions for its participation?

The United States of America has a historic responsibility for this present situation. During the decades following the industrial revolution the United States of America was the largest emitter and the per capita emission in the USA is still the highest worldwide. This is about 18-19 tonnes of carbon-dioxide per person! In comparison, Hungary only emits about one third of this amount. This is why I said that the decision of the United States was “morally unacceptable”: The largest polluter, with a historic responsibility for causing the damage wants to stay away from resolving problem. This is unacceptable.

The President of the United States will not change his decision, if we only sigh and express our regrets. The most important objective was to ensure that this withdrawal from the Paris Agreement did not create a domino-effect: that no one should be encouraged by the example of the United States and say that “if the largest polluters, the Americans, are getting out, why should we honour our commitments? We are also getting out.” Thankfully, we have managed to prevent this.

The other important thing is to find new allies – especially Americans – to send the message to the world that, in this sense at least, there are two sides to the US coin: one is what President Trump says, along with the industrial and the coal lobby, which is not to be underestimated. But there are others in the United States, who continue to be committed to the implementation of the Paris Agreement, such as California and [its governor] Jerry Brown, or Mike Bloomberg. From what I see, there is now a roughly 50-50 split, but if we were to gauge the country’s population for their opinion, then perhaps the supporters of the Paris Agreement would be in majority.

Meanwhile a significant, partly American movement was launched, with the participation of so-called “sub-sovereign actors” with whom we need to look for possibilities of cooperation – this is what I proposed to the Secretary-General and this is what we also discussed with Mike Bloomberg in July. The aggregate population of these cities, federal states and provinces who make up to so-called “Under 2.0” movement is close to 1.2 billion and they represent 40% of the world’s GDP. They are thus significant economic players and dedicated city leaders, who know what they want and how they want to go about it, so it is not only about words for them, they are actually doing something for climate change. Jerry Brown, the Governor of California, sets an excellent example by leading the way.

I proposed that we should also include them. The USA may have withdrawn, so let them join instead. We will have dedicated people on board, since they are supported by many, and most probably these particular cities, provinces, and federal states have provided examples – projects and climate protection agreements – that others can follow. All this is a more direct way of dedicated climate protection, than organizing further political events and reading out speeches filled with platitudes to each other. From what I see, there seems to be openness to this: there is a good chance that they may already attend the COP23 climate forum which will be organized in Bonn. If not, then, they will surely be there in December in Paris, now that French President Macron has also clearly committed himself to this cause.

I hope that these new actors will not only be flag bearers, but also engines during the next two years, since the task at hand is nothing less than not only enforcing, but actually speeding up the implementation of the Paris Agreement. If everyone was to only honour the Agreement, we would still be far away from the desired common objective of keeping the temperature increase on the planet under two degrees Celsius. We will need further pledges and commitments, which these organizations can help to promote.

So, you say that achieving the objectives set forth in the Paris Agreement will not be enough?

It will not be enough. If everybody delivered on the Paris Agreement – and the USA has at this moment rejected it – that they have deposited with the UN Secretary-General, even then we would only be at 2.7 degrees Celsius. This is the best-case scenario – the worst case is 3 degrees. There have been temperature increases of 3 degrees in Earth’s history and those had dramatic consequences.

 

Based on your visit to the USA this time and having attended the side-events of the UN General Assembly, what is your assessment, Mr. President, will the USA renege on its decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement? 

Mother Nature has recently sent a rather dramatic and serious warning to the United States. If decision-makers do not learn from this, especially if this disaster repeats itself, then the people living here will have to endure a series of natural calamities that they have not seen here in the past 100-200 years. But, if they do not believe their own eyes, then how could I or anyone else convince them that climate change is an existing phenomenon?

What is most important, and this is not me saying this, but former Vice President Al Gore at an event during the week, is that if the initiatives we have discussed (Jerry Brown, Michael Bloomberg etc.) will be successful and if the different federal states (like California) and cities joining the movement deliver on their pledges – to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 26-28% – then the Paris undertakings can still be met, regardless of Trump withdrawing the USA or not. The bottom line is that all those who are committed can help to ensure that much of the USA’s pledges are still met.

 

Reporting by Tom Szigeti

Photos by Noémi Bruzák—MTI