If there was any question as to why Gro Harlem Brundtland had traveled to the United States last week, her chauffeur was quick to clear things up.
Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway and current United Nations special envoy on climate change, landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and was met by a driver who brought her to New Haven for a Friday address. Along the way, he questioned the very premise of her visit.
“This was not a man without knowledge,” Brundtland said in a Saturday sit-down with the News. “But he had listened to people who said that climate change is just a left-wing myth. That’s what we’re trying to change.”
Seeking to change opinions on global warming has been Brundtland’s public mission for over 20 years, ever since her work in the 1980s as chair of an international commission that examined environmental issues and came to be known simply as the Brundtland Commission.
The commission produced a report, “Our Common Future,” which climate-change advocate and University President Richard Levin called “the bible of the environmental movement.” The report has not just helped spark a major movement but also given Brundtland cause to travel the world in hopes of, she says, saving it.
And this weekend, in honor of the report’s 20th anniversary, Yale’s School of Architecture hosted the symposium “Sustainable Architecture, Today and Tomorrow: Reframing the Discourse,” at which Brundtland was the keynote speaker.
All of this attention is somewhat surprising for Brundtland, a doctor by training who studied at Harvard in the 1960s.
“Norway is not part of the power game,” she said Saturday. “But we want peace, and today that means we need efforts and combined actions across borders.”
These global efforts must be about more than profits and self-interest, said Brundtland, who was once director of the World Health Organization. She pointed to Gerald Hines, the real-estate magnate who endowed a fund at the Architecture School this year for the study of sustainability in architecture, as an example of this spirit.
“He is fascinated by what architecture can do for the world, not just for his own bottom line,” she said of Hines, whose fund supported the weekend’s symposium.
The symposium, organized by Architecture School professor Michelle Addington, featured over a dozen speakers on topics ranging from indoor air quality to sustainable master planning. It took on an attitude similar to Hines’ — architecture, speakers said time and time again, can be about more than just abstract icons and ornamental detail; designing a built environment can also be about preserving the natural environment.
Architecture School Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, who has built for Hines’ firm through his private practice, said developers and architects must follow Hines’ lead and eschew the “expedient approach.”
As for Hines, there is little doubt he has done so. The Indiana-born, Texas-based, London-living developer has commissioned buildings from the likes of former Architecture School Dean Cesar Pelli, Lord Norman Foster ARC ’62, Frank Gehry and others.
It is this conscientious approach that Brundtland hopes will soon spread across the globe. She said people must work together in pursuit of sustainable growth, whether across corporate or even country lines.
“Look at China,” Brundtland said. “They are developing, and what they do with such a large country affects all of us. So why not try to make an impact and have an influence and give them better choices for their future and ours?”
And there might be cause for hope after all: Brundtland thinks she got to her chauffeur during the hour-and-a-half journey.
“By the end, he was saying things that led me to believe that a year or two from now, his love for nature — he’s a hunter — will make him believe in the call for sustainability,” she said.
“I think the same can be said of the world in 2008,” she added. “So I’m optimistic. I’m always optimistic.”