As this year draws to a close, it is hard not to feel daunted by the challenges posed by the current wave of political and economic uncertainty. All across the world, we see rising levels of xenophobia and intolerance and a narrowing of political vision focused on parochial introspection. Public discourse is increasingly tarnished by harsh and ugly rhetoric, especially online where women and minority groups are targeted for cowardly abuse. This dangerous rise of “uncivil society” threatens us all.
Yet the need for concerted action to tackle global challenges has never been greater. Despite the rise of populist, at times isolationist, figures in several countries I am happy to report that there are many leaders, organisations and ordinary citizens who are still determined to act together to secure a sustainable future for our people and planet.
I saw this for myself at the COP22 climate negotiations that took place earlier this month in Marrakesh, Morocco. After the great success of reaching the Paris Agreement at COP21 last year, the focus now is on the hard work of implementation, aiming to keep any rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius or below, holding governments to their word and asserting the imperative of climate justice. This is painstaking, laborious work but it nevertheless needs leadership - just as much as the high-level political negotiations that gave us the Paris Agreement in the first place.
Fortunately, this leadership exists – even if many of the most developed (and most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions) countries still need to take quicker, bolder action to meet their commitments. In Marrakech, I was very impressed by the Climate Vulnerable Forum: a group of around 47 countries, who are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change, and most committed to a rapid transformation to a carbon-neutral, climate resilient economy.
I was inspired by their call for “a new era of the pursuit of development, ending poverty, leaving no person behind, and protecting the environment”, and for an international cooperative system fully equipped to address climate change. This is precisely the right vision and attitude, and a powerful antidote to the fatalistic gloom that pervades so much of our public discourse.
Only by embracing this holistic approach can we successfully implement not only the Paris Agreement but also the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Taken together – which is absolutely essential, because without action on climate change, the rest of the 2030 Development Agenda will be unachievable – they have the potential to improve the life chances of millions of people across the planet. This must be a bottom-up approach, where leaders and policymakers show humility, and listen to the experiences and voices of people at the sharp end of climate change, poverty, violence and injustice.
As Elders, we will continue to follow this path in the year ahead and work for a better world where human rights, peace, justice and security are enjoyed by all. This is no time for naïve or complacent optimism – the challenges ahead are stark, and the voices of hostility are strident. But as so often the words of our founder Nelson Mandela provide inspiration in dark times. Speaking in 2003, Madiba said that “Those who conduct themselves with morality, integrity and consistency need not fear the forces of inhumanity and cruelty.”
I can think of no better counsel as we move together to continue the fight for our values in the months ahead.