DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Though a cloud of unresolved corruption allegations hangs between former Costa Rican President José María Figueres (1994-1998) and his homeland, this affluent emirate on the banks of the Persian Gulf presented nothing but blue skies for the selfexiled politician who led a global climate change conference here Sunday.
Before an audience speckled with head cloths and traditional Arab shirt-dresses, Figueres delivered a two-hour presentation at the oil-wealthy nation’s first global climate-change conference entitled “Global Warming: The Role of the Business Community.”
Covering everything from the signs of climate change around the world to its disastrous consequences if unchecked, Figueres urged the crowd of approximately 70 Emirati and foreign members of the business world gathered at the opulent Grand Hyatt Dubai to engage in eco-friendly practices.
Climate change “is on the verge of becoming a full planetary emergency. The good news is we have about 10-15 years as a window of opportunity in which to act,” said the ex-President, who was implicated in a corruption scandal that shook Costa Rica in late 2004 and landed another other former President temporarily in jail. Though no charges have been filed, ex-President Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002) is still being investigated by prosecutors in Costa Rica for allegedly accepting millions of colones in connection with a government contract with French telecommunications firm Alcatel.
A report published in the Costa Rican daily La Nación in October 2004 revealed Figueres was paid nearly $1 million from Alcatel. Soon after admitting he received the payment, which he said was in exchange for his consulting services, he resigned from his post as executive president of the Geneva, Switzerland-based World Economic Forum (TT, Oct. 29, Nov. 5 2004).
Though he was wanted for questioning by Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly during the previous administration (2002-2006), Figueres has not returned to Costa Rica since the scandal broke.
The conference he led Sunday was organized by Hussein Lootah, director general of the DubaiMunicipality, and sponsored by the DubaiIndustrialCity and DubaiRecyclingPark, two projects slated for completion in 2008. The industrial park will house a cluster of industrial companies and the recycling park will contain a recycling plant and waste-management facility.
In his presentation, Figueres, sporting a graying beard and moustache, called attention to the fact that global temperatures have risen in recent years. The year 2005 was the hottest ever recorded, and in the past 14 years, the world has experienced the 10 hottest years on record, he said. Statistics have not yet been complied for 2006, he added.
Like climate change awareness advocate and former U.S.Vice-President Al Gore in the movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” ex-President Figueres displayed alarming images of what he said are the effects of global warming worldwide, and cautioned that if no action is taken the consequences could be devastating. He showed views of Mount Kilimanjaro in east Africa, capped by considerably less snow in 2000 than 1970. He warned that if the world sits with its arms crossed, in 10 years, all of Kilimanjaro’s snow could have melted.
Figueres added that in Dubai, real estate projects such as the World, a collection of manmade private islands shaped like the world, and the Palm, a manmade island city shaped like a giant palm tree, could become scuba diving sites within years because of sea levels rising as a result of global warming.
The ex-President expressed concern that unless the business community joins in the global environmental effort, the work of non-governmental organizations and philanthropists around the world might not be enough to combat the threat posed by climate change. He stressed that working with the environment is a remarkable business opportunity, and held up his own country as an example.
“We have made the environment a tremendous business success. When you think of eco-tourism in today’s world you think of Costa Rica. 33% of our territory is national park land. That is one of the major attractions for the tourism sector,” he said.
Figueres, who cancelled an earlier-scheduled interview with The Tico Times saying he would speak only to local journalists, told conference-goers the emirates are already an example to the rest of the world for their forward-moving development.
“Why not also become an example in terms of good environmental stewardship? Why not be a region of the world that is at the cutting edge with respect to the environment?” he questioned, suggesting that economics and the environment don’t have to be mutually exclusive fields.
As the sole speaker at the conference, Figueres listed ways in which the Middle East could become more environmentally proactive.
He proposed business initiatives such as the adoption of alternative energy sources like solar and wind power, two resources that are certainly not lacking in the area. He recommended exporting more of the region’s oil or simply not using it at all, and in terms of transportation, choosing cost-effective options such as hybrid technology and shying away from “gas guzzlers that will take you nowhere.”
In what might have appeared to be an overstatement to a Costa Rican audience, the ex-President concluded his presentation and remarked, “I am not your typical tree hugger.”
The crowd seemed pleased with the speaker, whom they referred to as “Mr. President” and “Your Excellency.”
In fact, after Figueres finished his presentation, Jamil Sultan, Chairman of the National Real Estate Company of Dubai, said, “Mr. President, I am now converted to your cult,” referring to Figueres’ pro-environment stance.
Figueres helped found the Costa Rica Foundation for Sustainable Development in 1993, and has worked with the Earth Council Geneva, Clinton Global Initiative and Global Environmental Action. He also joined the advisory board of the DubaiRecyclingPark last November.
During Figueres’ administration in 1997, Costa Rica signed the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement ratified by more than 140 countries outlining steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide in efforts to slow global warming. The treaty went into effect in early 2005 (TT, Feb. 25, 2005).