President Tong’s interview upon receiving the Sunhak Peace Prize

12 June 2015

Tong: It is exciting. Of course, I have been nominated also from Australia I believe for the Nobel Peace Prize and so this came to me as a complete surprise. I am excited. I think it would add a lot of momentum to the advocacy and the campaign. The timing is very good. It comes before the meeting in Paris at the end of this year and the campaign that I have been on for more than twenty years now has been something that…it’s had its disappointments, but I think more recently, there have been more people getting engaged and for me that is quite a change from what it was. And so this award I think, I’ve received other awards that recognized the same thing and undoubtedly they’ve added a boost to the campaign.

MC: There is a $1 million US dollar prize attached to the award I understand. Now I presume that money will go straight back into the ongoing campaign.

Tong: I know that the campaign will be ongoing. I finish my term in office at the end of this year, most probably the beginning of next year. But I see the campaign as not ending there. I know that my colleagues in the region are also very much engaged, so I think yes, we will continue the campaign. Whatever resources and whatever support we can get, I think it’s important we need to continue to shape international thinking on the issue because there are still people who don’t believe that climate change is an issue that merits urgent attention. So I’m hoping very much that this award will come a long way towards making that emphasis.

MC: So what are your intentions when you come to the end of your period of office? Are you intending to become a full-time climate change campaigner?

Tong: I’ve had 3 terms. That is of course the limit, 3 four-year terms. I will not be running for parliament. I don’t expect that I will do that, but after a good break, I can make a decision as to what to do next, but certainly, climate change has always been and I believe will continue to be very much on my agenda.

MC: The positive news of course is that you have been recognized through the winning of this award, the Sunhak Peace Prize. But it comes at the same time as climate change talks have been taking place over there in Germany, in the city of Bahn. And the word we’ve been getting there is that they haven’t been entirely successful. What is your understanding, and are you satisfied with the outcome?

Tong: We don’t want to repeat the mistake that we made in Copenhagen in 2009. We all went with very high hopes of a very positive outcome. But I think the world is a lot more complicated. There are a lot of interests at play here. But I think the very fact that it was at the top of the agenda is in itself a very strong indication that it is being taken seriously. I know that there is a focus of attention. It is going to be difficult to get absolute agreement on the final detail. There are countries particularly in Europe that are giving it a lot of attention. There will always be some differences as to the extent to which countries collectively will wish to go. So I don’t think I am too disappointed.  I try not to be too optimistic. I’ve learned my lesson.

MC: You mentioned earlier being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Australia. Ironic, bearing in mind that perhaps Australia and Canada are seen as the arch-enemies at the moment in terms of the global battle against climate change.  

Tong: It’s a question of priority. I know that perhaps Australia does not regard the threat of climate change as the top of the agenda. And I can understand that. You’ve got places to go with the sea-level rises. But I think the question is more of a moral one. Do we have the moral conscience to understand that what we do will impact those on the other side of the world, or even close by. And that’s always been the way I’ve shaped my advocacy on climate change, the greatest moral challenge that humanity has ever faced. And I think the future of humanity and this planet will be determined by what we do. We’ve got to understand this, and if not our very future, then the future of other people’s children. And so do we have the moral conscience or go ahead and disregard those costs. That is the question that will judge us as human beings.

MC: The Paris Summit of course comes in December. It may very well be one of your last acts as president to be involved in those talks. So I assume you would want to go out on a high, and get a meaningful agreement.

Tong: I’ve been working at it for most of my Presidency for the last 12 years. I’ve been working on this from the end of last year until the beginning of this year, I’ve been visiting a number of capitals in Europe trying to get some support. I am very encouraged by what is coming forward. At the end of last year, of course, we’ve had the support of the United States and China, which was something that has always been the missing part of the whole process. We needed these two to be part of this in order for it to be meaningful in many ways. And so that is an achievement. Of course, I have also visited other parts of the world following that meeting. I have had the opportunity to meet the prime minister here, and he has promised me a commitment. He is planning to meet with the leaders again in the few weeks ahead. And so I am seeing positive signs. That perhaps we will come away with a more forthcoming agreement. And of course, the host, the President of France, has also met Pacific Leaders and he has made an undertaking that he will do everything in his power to see that we have a positive outcome.

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