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Climate leadership: it always seems impossible until it’s done

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Photo: The Elders / Ralph Alswang

Mary Robinson outlines the concept of climate justice and calls for urgent, multilateral climate leadership to protect current and future generations.

This speech was delivered at a Brookings Institution event entitled "Climate threats and climate justice: Action and adaptation for sustainable development" in Washington D.C. on 24 January 2020.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for your welcome; it is a pleasure to be back in Brookings, and an honour to address you in such distinguished company, not least my fellow Elder Ban Ki-moon. I have happy memories of participating over a number of years at the Brookings Blum Roundtable in Aspen, partly because the company is so good and we don’t have to work too hard!

These are momentous times: the political dynamics unfolding on Capitol Hill will have a profound impact on how the United States is governed, its place in the world and its influence on global debates.

But as Ban Ki-moon has so eloquently outlined, the world faces a challenge far greater than any political machinations in any country. The climate crisis must be the top priority for all leaders in 2020. It is not hyperbole to say that the fate of humanity as a whole rests on decisions taken this year.

Yesterday, Ban Ki-moon and I attended the unveiling of the Doomsday Clock. Its hands now stand at 100 seconds to midnight, meaning that in the view of the eminent women and men of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, we are the closest we have ever been to catastrophe.

As the name suggests, the Bulletin has historically been concerned with the threat of nuclear war, but the climate crisis is cited as the other existential threat facing our planet. Both demand urgent, sustained, responsible leadership and action – the time for talking is over.

The science of the climate crisis makes it imperative that we implement in full the voluntary commitments of the 2030 Agenda with its 17 Sustainable Goals and the commitments of the Paris Climate Agreement.

We need a bold new vision, where every country, city and corporation commits to being carbon neutral by 2050.

We need a change of mindset to enable a just transition to clean energy in a way that allows us to stay at or below 1.5°C of warming.

We need to put a proper price on carbon.

Every country needs to take seriously the report of the Global Commission on Adaptation and build resilience in communities for the “new normal” we are experiencing; an experience exemplified by the terrible bushfires in Australia.

Every country needs to raise the level of its political ambition regarding the Nationally-Determined Contribution climate plans ahead of COP 26 in Glasgow this November.

This has to include the United States, regardless of the policies of the current Administration.

Whilst I continue to deplore President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement as myopic and irresponsible, I have been heartened by the huge response from Americans of all backgrounds, from state governors and mayors to business leaders, labour unions, faith groups, women and youth activists who have declared they are “Still In” and are determined to push for real climate action.

Indeed I am convinced that we will only generate the necessary momentum and political pressure on leaders if we combine a top-down and a bottom-up approach that brings together all key actors, from the young activists so powerfully exemplified by Greta Thunberg, Jamie Margolin and Alexandria Villaseñor, to central bankers and the heads of the world’s top investment funds.

The recent announcement by BlackRock CEO Larry Fink that the firm will no longer fund investments that “present a high sustainability-related risk”, including divesting $500 million from coal-related businesses, is an encouraging sign, as is the new UN climate special envoy role in March for Bank of England Governor Mark Carney.

Last month I attended the COP in Madrid, together with my fellow Elder Ricardo Lagos, former President of Chile. I met many young people there and was struck by the fierce clarity of their arguments and their determination to secure their future.

We need their energy and their mobilisation, but there is also another important pressure from the top down, from business and investment.

Then who remains in the middle? Governments. It is governments who need to be squeezed; because if we are not squeezing them then they are not going to move.

This is part of what I mean by climate justice – the recognition that without urgent action, today’s leaders risk squandering the futures of our young people and those who have yet to be born.

We need to see climate change as an intergenerational injustice as well as a crisis whose burden is felt the most by the people who have least contributed to rising emissions.

Some small-island states will literally disappear unless the richer industrialised countries take much more radical and urgent action to keep temperature rises to 1.5 degrees, including a definitive and wholesale move away from fossil fuel use, exploration and extraction.

There is a big gender dimension because of the different social roles of women and men in many countries. Women are on the frontlines and have to try to build resilience when their communities are affected, and women leaders need to step up more on this crisis.

Failure to act will be a terrible stain on the world’s conscience, and will mean any future references to justice or common endeavour ring hollow for the millions impoverished and displaced by the climate catastrophe.

This is why a multilateral approach is essential, where the leaders of the rich and powerful countries such as the G20 take the lead – not only in a spirit of solidarity, but also from enlightened self-interest.

The challenge now is to increase ambition, which means keeping the G20 and its Finance Ministers closely connected to the UN’s climate agenda.

Nowhere is this more critical than the debate on fossil fuels.

We have entered a new reality where fossil fuel companies are losing their legitimacy and social licence to operate. 

If governments are to retain their own legitimacy and trust among citizens, this means they must end all fossil fuel subsidies, in all forms, so coal and other hydrocarbons are kept in the ground and resources are invested instead in clean, renewable energy sources and green technologies. 

We need action to deliver a truly just transition, so that regions and communities previously reliant on fossil fuel production for jobs and broader economic and social structures are not abandoned, that workers’ rights and dignity are respected, and that new opportunities are provided through investment and education for current and future generations.

We also need the fossil fuel and finance industries to make a firm and clear commitment to halt any and all plans for future fossil fuel extraction, whether through drilling, mining, fracking or any other form, and to develop a comprehensive, transparent database of all existing fossil fuel assets and reserves.

A publicly-accessible registry, whether state- or investor-owned, would enable all stakeholders to organise a new plan for an orderly wind-down of pending or proposed projects – a just transition, in other words.

It would give clarity to investors, who hold an extraordinary latent power to further the sustainability agenda, and thus secure a long-term future for their own assets and investment strategies.

There is of course an irony that this year’s G20 Presidency is held by Saudi Arabia, a state whose entire economy is based on fossil fuels. But I hope that this apparent dissonance will actually concentrate minds in all G20 states to work together to develop new, sustainable economic and industrial models that are compatible with a net zero world.

And this debate must not just be restricted to the G20. We need an inclusive global mobilisation with the United Nations playing a leading role.

A few weeks ago I had the honour of addressing the UN Security Council at a session on the future of the UN Charter 75 years after the organisation’s founding.

The Council should be a key player in shaping the new global mindset on climate justice and climate action – but unfortunately, it is seen by many as not being fit for purpose.

Too many members, not least those with the special responsibility of holding Permanent Seats, treat it as a forum for advancing their own narrow interests rather than a means of addressing common challenges.

From the East River to the Potomac and the shores beyond, a radical change is needed in 2020. The Elders were mandated by Nelson Mandela to bring hope. As he put it succinctly, “It always seems impossible until it is done”.

Thank you.

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