During an April 18 address at Stanford University, Colombian President Gustavo Petro delivered a dire warning about the climate crisis and urged the world’s nations to transition to cleaner and greener energy.
“We are living in times that are the beginning of the extinction of humankind,” said President Petro, noting that the changes in climate are already visible and have greatly accelerated since the dawn of the Industrial Age a few centuries ago.
"The logical and coherent answer, like the one given at the end of the 19th century, is that humanity would have to organize itself to undertake a world revolution against capital," said Petro, who was elected in 2022 on a democratic reformist agenda.
The Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), in partnership with the Center for Latin American Studies, Stanford in Government, and the Stanford Society for Latin American Politics, sponsored and hosted the event, which was largely organized by students.
President Petro, an economist by training who specializes in environmental and population development, said, “We have an economic system that links cheap labor, carbon-based fuels, and profits” and “we’re facing a very serious global political problem — the problems of World War II, the Cold War are nothing compared to what we’re facing now.”
Humankind, Petro said, must “join together in a revolution against capital.” He called for more “power to the people” and that all states around the world operate in a multilateral approach to address ways to alleviate the climate crisis.
“The markets will not fix the climate crisis and save humanity,” and a new type of economy, one that’s not driven by carbon-based profits but by the general welfare of all people, must emerge to ensure the survival of future generations.
He said the origins of the crisis began with the current Anthropocene Era, which describes the most recent period in Earth’s history when human activity started to have a significant impact on the planet's climate and ecosystems. The “greedy and never-ending consumption of products related to fossil fuel energy” has landed humanity in its current predicament.
“We, the consumers, are the guilty and the ones to blame,” Petro said.
The Colombian president said that fossil fuels are used to maximize profits and that the climate crisis is the logical result of the accumulation of capital in the hands of a few.
And on top of this, he added, the political and economic establishments haven’t historically listened to the science about what happens when carbon is issued into the atmosphere and the social imbalance that follows. He expressed doubt that the current system of capitalism can achieve environmental progress based on the current data he observes.
“To leave markets with free reign will not lead to the maximum well-being of all, but virtually to extinction,” he said.
He concluded, “We are running out of time.”
On April 20, President Joe Biden will host President Petro for a bilateral meeting at the White House to discuss topics such as climate change, and economic and security cooperation.
Petro won Colombia’s presidential election in June 2022 with the support of voters frustrated by rising poverty and violence. He has vowed to bring peace to his nation of 50 million after decades of conflict. Time magazine recently named him one of the “100 Most Influential People of 2023.”
Under Petro, Colombia earlier this year announced that it will not approve any new oil and gas exploration projects as it seeks to shift away from fossil fuels and toward a new sustainable economy.
Alberto Díaz-Cayeros, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), affiliated faculty at CDDRL, and director of Stanford’s Center for Latin American Studies, participated in a questions-and-answers session with the audience and Petro after the president’s address. Michael McFaul, director of FSI, and Kathyrn Stoner, Mosbacher Director of CDDRL, both introduced Petro before his remarks.
In an email interview, Díaz-Cayeros explained that Colombia has weathered a four-decades-long civil war. Now, Petro will manage various high-stakes issues in his country, including an ambitious overhaul of the health system, a restart of the peace process, and the role of the mining and oil industries, among others.
“This visit is important as Stanford considers its engagement with Latin America and our hemisphere,” said Díaz-Cayeros, adding that it can refocus attention to a region of the world that is fundamentally important for California, the U.S., Stanford, and even Silicon Valley.
Héctor Hoyos, Professor and Director of Iberian and Latin American Cultures, and Professor of Comparative Literature (by courtesy), added that “it was great to see Stanford students come together to engage with an influential figure for hemispheric politics." Hoyos went on to note that civility and openness to different points of view were hallmarks of the event, which also included Bay Area community members.
Born and raised in Costa Rica, Hein was inspired to host Petro due to her goals of strengthening democracy, realizing the promise of political equality in Latin America, and connecting Stanford's expertise to the world beyond campus. “This can make life better for millions,” she said.
Highlighting the need to bridge academia and policy, Hein explained, “At Stanford, we’re tremendously privileged to have leading scholars and abundant resources to tackle the world’s most pressing issues. But if these learnings stay here on campus, or within intellectual circles, the impact will remain limited. We must not forget that there are real people being affected by the very events that we research and study.”
By inviting Colombia’s president to Stanford, her student community hopes to spark a larger dialogue between academic spaces such as CDDRL and democratic world leaders like Petro, she said.