‘We are running out of time’: Colombian President calls for climate action during Stanford visit

April 20, 2023, 5:52 p.m.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro called for decarbonization and global adaptation to climate change during his speech on Tuesday at a discussion event hosted by the Freeman Spogli Institute’s (FSI) Center on Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law (CDDRL). In addition to advocating for climate action, Petro doubled down on his condemnation of the 2022 Peruvian political crisis, labeling the Peruvian president’s attempts to dissolve Congress and subsequent impeachment as a parliamentary coup rather than a self-coup. 

Petro began his address to a full audience of members of the Stanford community at the CEMEX auditorium by outlining why Earth’s climate is changing and arguing why current policies are failing to revert it. 

“We are living in the times that are the beginning of the extinction of mankind,” Petro said, according to his translator. “There would be political action at a global scale, but this is something that our political structures cannot afford.” 

Colombia, as a nation with abundant natural resources and massive rainforests and biodiversity, has been facing a challenge in balancing environmental protections and development, and Petro places both issues at the forefront of his platform. 

Stanford was the second leg of Petro’s trip to the United States. The president participated in the 22nd Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues earlier this week and returned to the East Coast to meet with President Joe Biden yesterday to discuss cooperation between the U.S. and Colombia on climate change, protection of the Amazon Rainforest, drug trafficking and rural development.

Tuesday’s discussion began with brief introductions by Michael McFaul ’86 M.A. ’86, director of the FSI, and Kathryn Stoner, the Mosbacher Director of the CDDRL. Petro spoke solely in Spanish, with a live translator interrupting intermittently for non-Spanish speakers. Petro’s discussion event at Stanford was hosted in collaboration with the Stanford Society for Latin American Politics (SSLAP), the Center for Latin American Studies and Stanford in Government. 

In his speech, Petro described at length topics such as the history of hydraulic power at the beginning of the industrial revolution, and the relocation of factories to cities from riverbanks that led to the dependence on dirty-fuel sources such as coal. 

“Since then we’ve had an economic system that links cheap labor, carbon-based fuels and profits,” he said. “It’s the law of capital.”

He detailed the economic and labor theories that he said he believes produced the shortcomings of environmental policies, including how the workforces of less wealthy nations produce goods for wealthier nations. 

“We need to create a new space with historical perspectives. That begins with planning the transition of technological changes and moving from fossil-fuel capitals to decarbonized economies,” he said. 

Petro said that tackling climate change is encapsulated by two “magic words:” adaptation and mitigation. “In the case where nothing happens, by 2070, most of Colombia will be uninhabitable,” he warned.

“In general, of course, the countries with more economic capacity [adapt], and the countries with less capacity, do not,” he said, further alluding to the importance he places on global cooperation in the face of climate change. 

Petro emphasized collaboration and democratization on the issue of climate action, saying that “we also need more power to the people.” He noted that all regions around the world must operate multilaterally.

He concluded with a definite statement: “we are running out of time.”

“It’s great that Stanford put on such a high-profile talk on the climate,” said Nilou Davis ’25, a student who attended the event. “Sometimes conversations that are held on sustainability feel really absent in political events at Stanford, so this was amazing.”

In an interview with The Daily prior to the discussion, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Alberto Díaz-Cayeros touched on the Petro and SSLAP’s decision to focus the event on the environment, as opposed to problems in Colombia in general, noting that climate change is an issue that has a global impact. 

“The topic he chose to talk to us about reflects an internal audience in Colombia, as well as us here at Stanford,” he said. “[Petro] wants to signal that regardless of the day-to-day business of the government, there is nothing more vital for the future of our societies than the challenges presented by climate change.”

Additionally, Díaz-Cayeros highlighted the importance of Petro’s background as a guerilla fighter turned public administrator turned economist. 

“It is a symptom of a healthy democracy in the region to have someone like Petro run for office, win the election and become the president today,” he said. 

Tara Hein ’23, founder and president of SSLAP and honors student in the CDDRL, spearheaded the charge to bring Petro to campus and echoed Díaz-Cayeros’ point. She emphasized the importance of hearing from democratically-elected Latin American leaders.  

“We were really intent on bringing a democratically elected Latin American head of state to campus,” she said. “It’s a really valuable experience to get first hand… it gives you a sense that change is possible.”

Petro on Peru

During the questions portion of the event, a student asked Petro if he considered the 2022 Peruvian political crisis a self-coup, and whether he was willing to condemn it. A self-coup is a form of a coup d’état where a leader who has gained power through legal means seeks to maintain it through illegal ones.

The 2022 Peruvian political crisis occurred in December, when, after a controversial presidency, leftist President Pedro Castillo of Peru attempted to close Congress, rewrite the constitution and revamp the judiciary. 

On Dec. 7, when the alleged self-coup occurred, the Peruvian parliament’s right-wingers were preparing for their third attempt at the impeachment of Castillo since his election in June 2021. After his attempt to seize more power, the Peruvian congress quickly impeached him and Castillo was arrested for rebellion as he was driving to the Mexican embassy in Lima to seek asylum. He was succeeded by his vice president, Dina Boluarte, who has been accused of killing and assassinating pro-Castillo supporters.

Although nations such as Argentina, Mexico and Bolivia backed Castillo, other nations, including the U.S., have condemned him. 

Castillo’s critics claim that Castillo attempted a self-coup and needed to be ousted. Castillo’s supporters claim that the Peruvian congress and Boluarte conducted a parliamentary coup, where the legislative branch ousts the executive leader, and wrongfully removed Peru’s democratically elected leader, which is the view that Petro shares. The crisis in Peru is one of the most divisive topics in modern Latin American politics.

Previously, Petro had denounced the ousting of Castillo and declared that “the Latin American oligarchy doesn’t want progressivism… what they can’t win at the ballot box, they are trying to topple,” emphasizing his support of other leftist Latin American leaders like Castillo.

Castillo is supported by the indigenous people of Peru, and opposed by the ruling elite of Lima, according to Petro. He said that he ultimately “saw a man cornered because of a corrupt political class.” 

Petro said thatCastillo should not have lost his political rights, and did not mention the alleged attempt to conduct a self-coup. He concluded by doubling down on his condemnation of the alleged parliamentary coup. 

“That does seem to me like a coup,” he said, referring to the actions of the Peruvian parliament.

Petro has been declared a persona non grata by the Peruvian government, meaning he is banned from entering Peru — which he stated as the reason why he spoke on the issue at the event.

Hein said that she believes that the discussion successfully launched conversations on Latin America and sustainability, which she said was the primary goal of the event. 

“To me, this was about bringing attention to Latin America. This is a region that has tremendous social, environmental, and political potential,” she said. “That potential isn’t being harnessed to the extent that it should. I’m hoping that this event sparks conversations about Latin America and Latin American development.”

In terms of the discussion logistics, Hein said, “hosting a bilingual event of this magnitude is always really hard.”

“Latin American politicians are famous for talking,” she joked, referencing Petro’s 90-minute speech. “We may have underestimated the magnitude of that.”

Coco Sanabria ’23 M.S. ’24, a student of Colombian origin, said that she enjoyed the event, considering her vested interests in Colombia and sustainability. 

“It was a great opportunity to discuss sustainability with someone of a nation that not only has a rainforest, but also a very prominent indigenous population,” she said. “As he mentioned, this conversation needs to become a global action.”

Andrew Gerges '25 studies economics and international relations and writes for News. He enjoys playing GeoGuessr. Contact him at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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