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Climate justice: why is it relevant in 2015?

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This Earth Day, Mary Robinson calls for the reinvention of 'business as usual' into a sustainable, green and people-centred approach, or risk endangering the planet for future generations.

"We urgently need to change course and catalyse a transformation of the way we develop, the way we live and the way we do business."

When I served as President of Ireland nearly thirty years ago, we were a people about to embark on fast economic development.

As President I led trade delegations to the United States, Japan, India and elsewhere as we attempted to attract investment, create decent jobs, build better health and education infrastructure.

What I didn’t have to do, was raise money to buy land on mainland Europe so our citizens could move there because the rising sea level was threatening our existence. What I didn’t have to do, is to consider Ireland’s territorial sovereignty in light of the threats posed to our island by climate change.

When Eleanor Roosevelt and her Commission drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it was never imagined that human-induced climate change might force whole countries to go out of existence.

Last September I attended the Third International Conference of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) on the island of Samoa. The sea level is rising, and visiting the parts of the island affected by a recent cyclone, you could sense the reality of the immediate threat posed by climate change.

We are not on course for a safe world for millions of people, and even more seriously for their children and grandchildren.

We urgently need to change course and catalyse a transformation of the way we develop, the way we live and the way we do business. Our current system is flawed and unsustainable and if it continues the world is on course for catastrophic climate change and vast inequality.

The human rights of climate change

My perspective of climate change is one of justice, human rights and fairness, where people and their right to development are at the heart of the discussion.

It was not the science and the graphs or the pictures of polar bears on icecaps that brought me to climate change – it was the impacts it was having on peoples’ lives and peoples’ rights. I met farmers unable to produce a harvest because the growing seasons had become so unreliable, and Heads of State in African countries unable to plan their infrastructure development because of the impacts of floods and storms.

For women in vulnerable situations, climate change impacts can be devastating. In many homes, women are at the heart of the household's nexus of water, food, and energy – and thus often know first-hand about the challenges and potential solutions in these areas.

This is why my approach focuses on climate justice, motivated by the injustice of the impacts of climate change on the rights and opportunities of the people who are least responsible for causing the problem, and it is committed to making sure that the costs and the benefits of the transition away from fossil fuels are shared equitably.

Time to remould ‘business as usual’

2015 is the year to catalyse a transformation – away from business as usual to a more inclusive, sustainable and just alternative. 2015 is the year the world agrees on a new development agenda to succeed the Millennium Development Goals, a new legally binding climate agreement to avoid dangerous climate change and on the resources needed to implement both agendas on the ground in all countries.

So what is required of the countries engaged in the international processes this year?

Leadership. No matter how big or small a country’s’ economy or population, all actions count and should be counted in the international effort. No country alone can protect their citizens from the impacts of dangerous climate change. All countries and citizens must act together motivated by enlightened self-interest and human solidarity for a better future for all.

Developed countries’ leadership must be based on rapidly reducing their emissions while making the transition to sustainable development. They also have an obligation to help developing countries adapt to climate impacts and to make the transition to zero carbon development.

The majority of developing countries will need to meet their Sustainable Development Goals without using fossil fuels. No country has developed without fossil fuels to date – so cooperation is key to providing the technology, finance, skills and systems to create an alternative way of developing.

Emerging economies, for their part, face both leadership issues. Their emissions have grown rapidly, so they have to determine a pathway to reduce their emissions. At the same time, they need development through renewable energy to lift their people out of poverty, which again must be supported with finance and technology by the international community.

The consequences of failing

Without this transition and this new model of development we will exceed the carbon budget and be forced to accept the consequences of a 4°C world.

Business as usual has resulted in dangerous levels of pollution, caused climate change and biodiversity loss and has failed to eradicate poverty and inequality.

Business as usual with fossil fuels as the foundation of the global economy is the dominant discourse but it can be changed with transformational leadership .

A zero carbon, climate-resilient pathway to prosperity is more likely to support the right to development than business as usual. In a transition to zero carbon and to zero poverty, the potential benefits outweigh the risks, with opportunities for developed and developing countries in terms of energy security, greater competitiveness, better health, decreased mortality, job creation and greater resilience.

Another driver for a new ways of doing things is inequality. In 2011, 2.2 billion people lived on less than US $2 a day – only a slight decline from 2.59 billion in 1981, according to the World Bank . It becomes clear that the Business as Usual model of development we are so wedded to is not doing such a good job.

We haven’t yet created this social and international order – and any hope of creating it in the future would be wiped out by uncontrolled climate change. But I think we could create an international order where all people realise their rights if we grasp the opportunities 2015 presents.

Now is not the moment to manage expectations or get cold feet – 2015 is the moment to catalyse a transformation – and achieve the social order the Universal Declaration aspired to.

Now is the time for climate justice.

This blog was adapted from Mary Robinson's delivery of the Annual Grantham Lecture at Imperial College London which took place on 16 April 2015. Read the full speech at Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice

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