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Peter Brabeck, chairman of Nestlé, has suggested that man-made emissions are not the primary cause of climate change. Photograph: Christian Hartmann/REUTERS
Nestlé chairman Peter Brabeck has a history of courting controversy and is likely to further inflame his critics with his belief that man-made emissions are not the primary reason behind our changing climate.
Sitting in the Swiss mountain ski resort of Davos after we have both listened to the Tanzanian president tell the heartbreaking story of how global warming is making life increasingly unbearable for his people, Brabeck told me that:
"Climate change is an intrinsic part of the development of the world. Since the world has existed we have had climate changes and we will have climate change as long as the world exists ... For me the issue is more about what can we do in order to adapt to climate change and perhaps to try to gain more time … Are we God to say the climate, as it is today, is the one we have to keep? That's the way it's going to be? We are not God. What we have to assure is that climate change happens within a timeframe that humankind can adapt to."
Brabeck says that carbon emissions are a factor but are merely speeding up what is already a natural occurrence.
"If too much CO2 emission is accelerating climate change in a manner that will take away the possibility for us to adapt to it then we have a problem, but what I think is wrong to say is that we are going to stop climate change today," he says. "It's not the natural approach. What we have to get to grips with is the speed with which climate change is happening and to have the same speed for us to adapt to it."
One senior business leader who knows the Nestlé chairman well, claims he is a complex character whose views on climate do not sit easily with him playing a leading role in driving the issue of water scarcity up the global political agenda.
Chief executives from progressive companies, who focused their time at the World Economic Forum on seeking to build a common business platform ahead of the UN climate summit in September, will be unhappy to see Brabeck undermine their position. Brabeck's views are also not likely to be welcomed within Nestlé, given that global head of operations José Lopez has been working hard to build the company's reputation as a leader in emissions reduction.
One senior executive of Nestlé told me that Brabeck had no direct responsibility for the climate issue within Nestlé. He pointed to the Swiss multinational food and beverage company topping a league table of corporates who have made efforts to disclose and cut carbon emissions, published by the international NGO CDP.
While Brabeck will have stoked the debate on climate change, he also sought to dampen the controversy last year in which he was accused by some NGOs of arguing for the privatisation of water and claiming is not a human right.
Brabeck told me that campaigners "used an old video of 2005 of me and cut it down in the manner that it was most suitable to them. To say that I have said water is not a human right is the biggest lie I have heard. I have been fighting for water as a human right for hydration and hygiene since the beginning but I have always said this is 1.5% of the water that we are using. There is no doubt this is a human right and it is a right that has to be assured by governments. But this has nothing to do with the irresponsible usage of water of the other 98.5% of it."
Brabeck also defended Nestlé against accusations by Baby Milk Action that it contributes to the unnecessary death and suffering of infants around the world by aggressively marketing baby foods.
"We are the only infant formula producer which is part of FTSE4Good. We are being checked and controlled by FTSE4Good. They make their audits in different parts of the world and we have to prove that we are complying with the WHO code and up to now we can prove that in everything we are."
Brabeck was in Davos to chair the council meeting of the 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG), a cross-sector collaboration of business, government and civil society, which is seeking to find practical solutions to the crisis of water scarcity.
The success of early initiatives in countries such as South Africa and has led to a stream of governments approaching the WRG for advice and support, including Bangladesh, Kenya, Lebanon, Colombia, Panama and Lebanon.
Brabeck told me the issue of water has shot up the global political agenda because it is no longer a problem only of the future as many countries are already struggling to meet the demands of a growing population and an expanding economy.
"I have never seen so many presidents and ministers being interested to talk about water because they are constantly being confronted by the issue in their daily decisions," he said.
"The water issue is so complex that frankly speaking nobody can handle that alone. The food and energy safety of a country, as well as the wellbeing of its people depend on water.
"In most cases in government, the responsibility for water is split between 20 and 28 different ministers and agencies. So it needs to have a co-ordinated approach and the way the 2030 Water Resources Group can help is to establish a local private/public partnership which is coordinating all efforts to find and to elaborate a sustainable water strategy."
This is no easy matter, given so many organisations have their own individual initiatives, and there is a "natural human response to prefer to be the head of a mouse than the tail of an elephant".
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