Climate change calls for courageous leadership

01:20, Jun 05 2013
Atossa Soltani std

The Hillary Institute of International Leadership has chosen Atossa Soltani as its fifth global Hillary Laureate for exceptional leadership and its second in climate equity, which considers the social impacts of climate change.

On World Environment Day, Mark Prain of the institute introduces her and her work.

World Environment Day has a proud history of calling the world's attention to global challenges.

The most compelling, arguably, is climate change. Measurements of global carbon dioxide have just reached 400+ parts per billion, which our species has never experienced. We have this century already had 11 of the warmest years on global record.

But despite the camera-friendly focus provided by Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, the recent inundation of Prague's ancient city centre and the rapid emergence of a summer passage through the Arctic ice sheet, the temptation is to continue to bury our heads in the proverbial.

That in turn puts minimal pressure on politicians and global business to expend their respective capital - to take courageous leadership, to do the right thing.


There remains a profound, psychosocial, communication challenge. How do we change hearts and minds, reach deep into the fear of losing our fossil stock-invested pension funds and build a global coalition of the willing for action? Surely the blindingly obvious is enough?

Unfortunately history reveals "having the facts on our side", plus possession of high doses of common sense and moral authority, doesn't necessarily mean that Jo Average - whether in Wellington, Warsaw, Wuhan or Washington) - hears or even wants to listen.

Or worse, is in fact perversely inspired to take a denialist position. And so most of us stumble blindly on, many with hand-wringing guilt about the planet we're leaving our children. One theatre where the dramatic shifts in climate are clear is the Amazon River Basin.

Contributing 20 per cent of planetary fresh water, the Amazon is the planet's largest weather conveyer after the oceans. Amazonian rainforests function like a massive heart that pumps columns of heat and vapour into the atmosphere, thereby driving global weather systems. The Amazon-ocean link is so direct it's easier to comprehend as parts of the same organism rather than separate entities.

This remarkable oasis of biodiversity and carbon capture, sometimes called for good reason the lungs of the planet (and by indigene the "heart of the world"), pours 300,000 cubic metres of fresh water into the Atlantic every second during the wet season. Every hour, the Amazon River delivers to the ocean more fresh water than is used in the Los Angeles metropolitan area each year.

But the Amazon is under attack, and not just from the encroachment of dirty oil and mineral exploitation. Annually, deforestation from industrial activities in the tropics accounts for 20 per cent of global carbon emissions. In turn, warmer global temperatures bring historic droughts, contributing to the death of trees and the risk of large-scale forest fire.

Science predicts a loss of one-third of Amazonian forest cover would have a catastrophic impact on its weather-generating and climate-regulating functions, further destabilising our global climate.

Enter Atossa Soltani, founder and executive director of Amazon Watch. Announced today as the 2013 global Hillary Leadership Laureate, her influence over the past two decades supporting indigenous people's rights to self- determination, natural resources, culture and way of life, brought her squarely on to the institute's radar.

A native of Iran, Soltani moved to the United States at the age of 13. Multilingual, she speaks Spanish, Portuguese, English and Farsi. She is a highly skilled strategist in media, policy advocacy and movement building, and a firm believer in the power of storytelling to create change.

Documenting and publicising Amazonian forest destruction and human rights abuses, she has led successful campaigns convincing oil companies and international financial institutions to adopt stronger environmental and social standards.

Soltani and her savvy team of campaigners at Amazon Watch have taken on Chevron in Ecuador in support of 30,000 indigenous and rural plaintiffs who recently won a US$19 billion (NZ$23.6b) verdict against the company - earning Atossa the moniker of the Amazon's "Erin Brokovich". 2013 sees the launch of their post-verdict (Ecuadorean plus US Appeal Court) "Chevron Campaign", supporting legal enforcement of the judgment for the environmental and social harms to forest communities caused by the company's oil extraction in the Ecuadorean Amazon.

Soltani has identified several issues that will be crucial this year. Prominent among them is the auction of massive areas of rainforest for oil leases in Ecuador and Peru, accompanied by the energy and environmental crossroads of the world's sixth largest economy and fourth largest greenhouse gas emitter, Brazil, whose growing economic clout has impact far beyond its borders.

There, US$47b has recently been earmarked for construction of large dams in the Amazon region.

Soltani contradicts Brazilian claims of hydro "clean energy." Unlike in New Zealand, large dams in the tropics cause methane emissions, decomposing vegetation and soil in reservoirs. Amazon Watch is instead promoting a wind and solar energy direction for the entire region.

An outspoken critic of the massive Belo Monte Dam, Oscar-winner James Cameron has travelled to the Brazilian Amazon three times since 2010, expeditions embedded in the DVD edition of his epic Avatar.

Twenty-nine new oil blocks are also on offer in the Peruvian Amazon where extant oil production has left a toxic legacy severely affecting the environment and health of indigenous peoples.

New oil projects include heavy crude, led by British-based Perenco between the Napo and Tigre river basins, and a light crude find in Block 64 - an ecosystem of high biodiversity in a critical hunting area for the Achuar people.

Increasing capacity of the indigenous movement, promoting indigenous voices and perspectives in international forums and supporting indigenous leadership development programmes are primary to Soltani's work.

Soltani said she was honoured "to join such a truly exceptional group of leaders and to be connected to the spirit of Sir Edmund Hillary, whose courage, determination, and passion for service has inspired so many of us".

The Hillary Institute in turn,is honoured to have her join our small family of truly courageous global leaders.


Atossa Soltani is the 5th global Hillary Laureate for outstanding leadership in mid- career.

Her predecessors are Jeremy Leggett (United Kingdom, 2009), Peggy Liu (China, 2010), Aimee Christensen (United States, 2011) and President Anote Tong (Kiribati, 2012).

Founded with (the late) Sir Edmund in 2007, the Hillary Institute for International Leadership's 2012-15 focus is climate equity. See


Mark Prain is the executive director of the Hillary Institute of International Leadership.

The Press