The Long View

Standout Q&A with Timothy Wirth

Timothy Wirth

Timothy Wirth

Representative, senator, undersecretary, president, doctor… the diverse roles TIMOTHY WIRTH has held over the years make him one of the leading voices on global environmental and population challenges. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1974, became a U.S. senator in ’87, outlined the “cap and trade” idea in ’88 and helped guide U.S. foreign policy as part of the Clinton administration during the 1990s. As president of the United Nations Foundation since its inception in 1998, he oversees an international organization focused on the environment, women and population, children’s health, peace, security, and human rights. Wirth recently took a break from saving the world to chat with Momentum.

How did you start out working on environmental issues?

When I first ran for office, Earth Day had just happened and Richard Nixon was president and had been quite a good environmental president. It was just a natural thing to flow into working on environmental issues. I did it with much less intensity than I do now, though.

Given the recent debate over climate change, is there a role for government in solving complex environmental and population issues?

Government should be able to do it, but unfortu nately the current state of affairs is such that Congress is just out of touch with the 21st century. It’s remarkable to me their inability to handle the climate issue or immigration or the budget or just about anything. So the action is all at the state, county and local level. And that’s good because that’s where America does its best anyway.

What comes to mind when you hear the words "Population Crisis"?

There are two parts to that question and two parts to the answer. One, obviously numbers and consump tion patterns are directly related because the world is consuming more and more resources and more and more people are consuming high on the consumption chain. It’s not just the U.S. anymore. There are 600 million people around the world in the last decade who have en tered the middle class and are consuming at levels that look like the U.S., Japan or Europe. So that’s one part of it.

The other part is that the population issue is also changing significantly. It’s becoming more of a demographic issue. You have issues of an aging society, an urbanizing society, and significant issues of immigration. We really don’t know how to handle any of those questions. The world is becoming more and more urban. Is that a good thing or not?

Finally the issue of immigration is go ing to be driven by climate change, and we haven’t got very much of an idea how to deal with that. So there’s a whole new package of demographic changes that have to be examined and understood.

How do we avert a crisis?

The goal is to stabilize the world’s population. If we’re lucky we’re going to stabilize at 8.5 billion people. That’s still many too many for the carrying capacity of the earth and so we’re going to have to change our consumption patterns significantly.

What are you most proud of during your tenure at the United Nations Foundation?

I think what we’ve done is gotten the U.S. squared away in its relationship with the U.N. There was a period of time where the U.S. was a billion dollars in debt to the U.N. That debt has been paid off and the relationship is now stabilizing. So that’s a very, very posi tive accomplishment. Our basic mission is to try to strengthen the U.N., so we work on climate and population and children’s health issues and so on, but most important is getting the U.S.-U.N. relationship squared away, and that’s been pretty successful.

I understand your organization helps support adolescent girls around the world?

This is the most important demographic in the world. Whether girls stay in school or not, whether they delay the time of hav ing children, become economic contribu tors in the world. This is terribly, terribly important, and we want to do everything we can to get the institutions of govern ment to understand this especially impor tant demographic.

What are your hopes for the foundation?

I hope we’re able to help the U.N. strengthen its capacity to deal with population issues and energy ques tions, including climate change. We also have some very ambitious things we’re trying to do related to adolescent girls in particular. So the areas of population, cli mate change, energy and adolescent girls are top of the agenda for our future.

Visit unfoundation.org to learn more about the United Nations Foundation.