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Gro Harlem Brundtland: the 2018 Barbara Ward Lecture

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Photo: Julius Honnor/Contentious for IIED

Gro Harlem Brundtland delivered the 2018 Barbara Ward Lecture at the International Institute for Environment and Development, speaking on her engagement with sustainable development over the last three decades.

"We will only make progress if we act in concert with one another, not just competition."

On 19 June 2018, Gro Harlem Brundtland delivered the 2018 Barbara Ward Lecture at the International Institute for Environment and Development, speaking on her engagement with sustainable development over the last three decades, her assessment of the current situation and what measures need to be taken to ensure the success of the Sustainable Development Goals and the wider development agenda in the coming years.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here this evening.

Barbara Ward was a seminal figure in the movement to foster a greater consciousness of our collective responsibility, also towards the environment.

She helped inspire and formulate a holistic and humane way of thinking about the world and its people.

I even had the pleasure of meeting her, in the 1960s, when she was a visiting scholar at Harvard, as my husband was, while I studied at the Harvard School of Public Health.

When I chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development in the 1980s, I and my fellow Commissioners could benefit from Barbara’s work as we made our definition of “Sustainable Development” – in particular, her 1972 book Only One Earth, co-written with René Dubos.

One of its key quotes continues to inspire me today:

“The careful husbandry of the Earth is sine qua non for the survival of the human species, and for the creation of decent ways of life for all the people of the world.”

Sustainable development has been the guiding principle of my political career and wider engagement in public life for over three decades.

I want to take this opportunity to emphasise a point that may seem like a semantic footnote, but in fact has great political significance: I want to talk about sustainable development, not sustainability.

The latter word is becoming commonplace in corporate vocabulary, deployed in “mission statements” and glossy reports as proof that businesses are committed to acting in a responsible and ethical manner.

But taken literally, “sustainability” simply means that a business model or political system is capable of being maintained to deliver profits or electoral success.

The global arms trade has demonstrated great sustainability in the decades since the Cold War, for example, identifying new markets and refining its offerings to suit the changing needs of its clients.

Forgive my cynicism; I do know that many people who use the term “sustainability” do so with the best of intentions. But its inherent ambiguity is why I always refer to “sustainable development”.

As with Barbara Ward, my value base and vision has been social democracy and the belief that that we must meet the basic needs of all and secure equal opportunity, dignity and human rights for all.

As threats mounted to the environment on which we all depend, and the need to protect Planet Earth became a major concern, I found myself in the role of minister of Environment in Norway in the 1970s.

I became deeply involved, engaged and convinced in pursuing a pattern of development that could benefit everyone, protect our planet and promote peace.

I continued this agenda as Prime Minister in the 1980s, while I also chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development at the invitation of UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar.

I am glad to say that our 1987 report, “Our Common Future”, became a landmark document that brought sustainable development to the attention of Presidents, Prime Ministers and Finance Ministers, and thereby into the mainstream of policymaking, nationally and internationally. It initiated the Rio Conference in 1992 and continues to influence global thinking today.

Of course, the world has changed immeasurably over the past thirty years. The ideological struggles between capitalism and Communism have been consigned to the history books, and the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain are mercifully fading memories.

Issues that in the mid-1980s were still viewed as “fringe”, from feminism, racism and sexual equality to climate change and biodiversity, are now taken seriously at the very highest levels of state power.

Equally importantly, we are increasingly realising that we must address these issues as a whole, conscious of how they intersect with and influence each other, and no longer keeping them in silos.

Today we have a critical window of opportunity to decarbonise by 2050 in order to reach the goal of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

With a few regrettable and conspicuous exceptions, world leaders do now recognise the severity of climate change and the damage rising temperatures and sea levels, hurricanes, droughts and other extreme weather events can inflict on homes, livelihoods and infrastructure.

At the same time, globalisation has transformed economic models, supply chains, labour markets, industrial relations and migratory flows.

Millions of people worldwide now work in the so-called “gig economy”, facilitated by digital technology, while advances in robotics and artificial intelligence are fundamentally transforming everything from manufacturing and heavy industry to education and the service sector.

Those of us who believe in sustainable development now need to ensure that our own models and approaches keep pace with these changing realities and remain relevant to younger generations.

But we must also identify strands of continuity. The concept of “Our Common Future” still resonates.

From fighting terrorism to managing migration, from developing new methods of environmentally-sustainable economic growth to promoting tolerance in multi-cultural societies, we will only make progress if we act in concert with one another, not just competition.

None of this is possible without a strong, effective and principled system of international rules and institutions to ensure fairness lies at the heart of governance and decision-making.

We all need to maintain and inspire strong support for the United Nations.

Over the past four decades, I have had the opportunity and honour to serve on various UN committees, as well as heading up one of its flagship agencies, the World Health Organisation.

Today, I am happy to work alongside two former Secretaries-General of the UN, Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon, as part of The Elders, the group of independent former leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela to work for peace, justice and human rights.

Throughout all these varied roles, it has been clear to me that the UN is an indispensable player. Without it, we would not have the Paris Agreement on climate change or the Sustainable Development Goals – the two key weapons in our collective arsenal in the fight for a better world.

But being indispensable does not mean the UN should be immune from challenges, criticism or reform.

An institution created over seven decades ago must recognise and respond to shifts in power and wealth over that period, as well as the profound changes in technology and communications that have altered how we as citizens view and engage with public institutions.

The challenge for the UN now is far greater than just trying to maintain peace and security among nations or containing superpower rivalry; it is to develop inclusive, fair and viable solutions to the economic, social, humanitarian and environmental problems facing the whole planet.

The importance of reaching out to and engaging different sectors of society has always been at the top of my political agenda.

From the start of my work on the World Commission on Environment and Development, I insisted that we listen to as wide a range of voices as possible.

We convened public meetings in every country we visited, reaching out to academics, trade unions, businesses, women’s groups and civil society as well as politicians. This was not always a popular move, especially in countries that were not full democracies at the time, including Brazil and Indonesia.

But we insisted on it, because we knew it was vital that our Commission heard from grassroots voices as well as ministers and their advisors in the corridors of power.

I believe we did make a difference and reassured those brave activists, many of whom ran the risk of imprisonment, exile or worse, that their opinions mattered and that they should continue with their struggle for liberty and justice.

I am also convinced that this careful, methodical and inclusive approach helped pave the way for future milestones that brought sustainable development into the mainstream, including:

• the Rio Earth Summit in 1992;

• the Cairo Conference on Population and Family Planning in 1994;

• the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995;

• the Millennium Development Goals;

• and, of course,

• the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.

2015 was really the breakthrough year for sustainable development, and a culmination of the hard work that so many of us had undertaken for so many years.

I was in Paris at the time of the final negotiations at the COP21 summit in December 2015, and was struck by the determination and optimism of the activists, many of them young people, to deliver a better future to the generations to come.

This spirit was all the more impressive given the awful terrorist attacks Paris had suffered just a few weeks previously.

I remember taking part in a public event where the Mayor, Anne Hidalgo, told the audience: “Paris a fait sa part… il n’est plus temps de se taire” – which translates as “Paris has done its bit… this is not the time to be silent”.

Her words continue to resonate with me today, and of course they apply not only to Paris but to the whole world.

As we all know, the global political climate has changed dramatically in the past two and a half years.

The continuing fallout from the financial crisis has led to a growing backlash against globalisation, and a resurgence of populist, protectionist and xenophobic politics.

Much of the hope and unity we saw in Paris in 2015 has been replaced by fear and despondency – but also, I am glad to say, by a determination to protect our hard-won gains in the face of this new, crude and narrow political vision.

Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are just two prominent examples, but we can see comparable trends across Europe, including Scandinavia, and further afield.

The crude, simplistic and bigoted politics of populism are the complete antithesis of everything I have worked for in public life.

They exert a malign influence on policy and discourse, consciously scorning the principles of solidarity and justice that lie at the heart of sustainable development.

They also deliberately seek to intimidate and bully dissenting voices, particularly those of women and minorities, including via the cowardly cloak of anonymity provided by social media.

This is why those of us who still believe in solidarity and justice cannot stay silent in these troubled and turbulent times, and must speak out!

One of the most egregious examples of the damage wrought by isolationist populism is, of course, the decision of President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

As my fellow Elder Mary Robinson said at the time, this makes the United States a “rogue state” on climate issues.

And when so many people still look to that country for global leadership, the consequences of such a myopic and misguided decision will be felt worldwide.

However, the reaction to President Trump’s decision, both inside the US and abroad, paradoxically gives us hope.

Below the federal level, US states, cities, businesses and ordinary citizens have made it clear they reject the Administration’s climate policies and are committed to working to make Paris succeed.

Partly, this is gratifying evidence of a continued affirmation of global citizenship by millions of Americans.

But it also suggests recognition by business and local political leaders that pursuing policies that deliver sustainable development and climate action is in their own best interests, and those of their constituents and consumers, both economically and electorally.

To go back to the words of Madame Hidalgo, this is no time for any of us to be silent. We all have a responsibility to each other, to our community and to our planet.

This is a basic democratic assessment which informs and underpins my belief in social democracy. But in fact, when we talk about climate and sustainable development, it transcends party politics and Left or Right. It is a matter of human survival.

When young people ask me how they can make a difference in the face of such overwhelming global challenges, my answer is very simple: go out and vote! Take a stand! Engage!

Too often in the media we hear people, including many who really are old enough to know better, claiming that it doesn’t make any difference whether or not you vote, that all parties are the same and all politicians are liars and crooks.

This cynical and irresponsible approach is just as bad as those wilfully perverse voices who deny that climate change is a reality.

Voting matters, politics matters, and civic responsibility matters. Here in Britain you are celebrating 100 years since women got the vote. In Norway we got there a little earlier – but in both cases, think how different the role of women in society would be if they were still denied the right to participate in elections.

In his searing study of human courage and cowardice, An Enemy of the People, the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen gives the following words to one of his characters:

“A community is like a ship – everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.“

Norway, like Britain, is a seafaring nation, so I hope you’ll allow me to extend this metaphor a little.

Our global ship is currently tossing and turning through stormy and dangerous waters.

But is anyone prepared to take the helm and steer a course that will bring us to safety, whatever hardships this may entail? And is anyone listening to the voice from the crow’s nest, warning of fresh dangers on the horizon?

Or are we huddled below decks, either waiting for someone else to take the initiative or fooling ourselves that all is fine, the waters will calm themselves of their own accord and there is no need to trim the sails or change course?

Each of us, in our own way, needs to be prepared to take the helm in an appropriate and realistic way, from our local community to the national and international level.

If we are prepared to do so, we will find that a chart exists to see us through the storm.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals cover all aspects of human life and development from health, education and the environment to peace, justice, security and equality.

Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, they importantly apply to all countries and not just the developing world. So every head of state, every government and every citizen has a responsibility to ensure that these goals are met.

The SDGs are a riposte to the view that prosperity and security lies in putting one country “first” above others, or walling itself off from its neighbours, or indulging in misplaced nostalgia for a bygone age.

Instead of reducing international relations to business transactions and trade wars, the Goals are significant achievements that show the power of multilateral diplomacy and states coming together in their collective self-interest.

And crucially, the goals and the work towards their implementation are not static.

As with the Paris Agreement, they are organic and evolving instruments that must increase momentum and ambition to be successful.

Much of this work is technical, scientific and highly specific. Without reliable and robust measurements, it will be impossible to judge whether sufficient progress is being made across the 169 indicators for the 17 SDGs, or for the 193 different National Defined Contributions of signatories to the Paris accord.

Just as important however is continued political pressure to tackle the underlying causes of the problems the SDGs seek to address: poverty, discrimination, conflict and inequality.

In fact I believe that if we do not put inequality at the heart of the global development agenda, we are doomed to failure.

We need courage to confront the vested political, business and economic interests who seek to maintain our current unequal order, and grasp the opportunity that the move to a low carbon economy offers us to rectify current inequalities.

We need to promote agreement, inclusivity and consensus to achieve policies that work for the common good rather than narrow self-interest, across both the public and the private sectors.

And we need to inspire hope across all sections of society, especially young people, letting them know that their voices will be heard, their experiences acknowledged and their ideas anchored into the policy-making process.

According to the most recent Inequality Report by Oxfam, 82 percent of the wealth generated last year went to the richest 1 percent of the global population.

By any measure, this is a scandal.

A wholesale paradigm shift is required in international economic and fiscal policy towards a holistic approach that values access to health, education and justice as drivers of a sustainable and green pattern of growth.

We also have to deal with culture change and shift the practices – both seen and unseen – that hold back women, young people, sexual minorities, people with disability and other vulnerable and marginalised groups from developing their full potential.

To do this, the voices of the people most affected by inequality must be heard in the debates that now follow.

And in these debates, we all need to confront the challenge of unsustainable lifestyles, production and consumption patterns, and the impact of population growth on our planet’s future.

Just look at the current debate about the use of plastics in everyday life. We can all take steps to address our individual patterns of behaviour, but we also need to put pressure on leaders to deliver viable, systemic and sustainable change at scale and speed.

Ahead of the Rio Plus 20 summit in 2012, I served on the UN High Level Panel on Global Sustainability set up by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon – who, today, is one of my fellow Elders.

Our report emphasised a critical point: the need to measure and to price what really matters in terms of climate change and human development.

The marketplace has to reflect the full ecological and human costs of economic decisions, and establish price signals that render transparent the consequences of both action and inaction.

Specifically, we argued that:

• Pollution, including carbon emissions, can no longer be free;

• Subsidies should be made transparent, and phased out for fossil fuels by 2020;

• New ways be devised to measure development beyond GDP.

Ironically, these are word for word the same recommendations that we presented here in London in 1987, in “Our Common Future”.

On one level, it is understandable to feel frustrated at the slow level of progress made across the decades, and the fact that the same diagnosis is repeated in different guises and formats.

On the other hand, it is proof that our initial diagnosis was correct and has been borne out by subsequent events.

To put it bluntly: we know what we need to do, we just need to get on and do it!

I cannot emphasise enough how urgent this is.

We are at a tipping point for the world’s climate; if meaningful action is not taken right now, the damage to our ecosystem could be irreparable.

A similarly blunt challenge, however, is that we need to work out how we will pay for it.

Financing for climate action and sustainable development remains a critical question, especially in an age of public austerity.

There is a growing recognition that limited public funds must be used strategically as incentives to unlock greater private investment flows, share risks, and expand access to the building blocks of prosperity, including modern energy services.

It is also vital that poor countries are given the financial support they need to address climate change and move to renewable energy.

This is a matter of “climate justice” – the poorest countries in the world did not create the problem, but they are suffering first and worst from its impacts.

This means investing in, and creating a favourable environment for, sustainable technologies that will create jobs and support the poor, improve health and education, and build more resilient and equitable societies.

Private investment and private philanthropy have critical roles to play. In fact, the need for private-sector engagement is stronger than ever.

We cannot solve global challenges without the resources, expertise, technology, and brainpower of business.

The old-fashioned idea that the business sector is somehow exempt from being responsible is now buried in the past.

Now, all serious business leaders know that their companies are part of the solution, and that their employees and customers require positive and determined action for good.

Nevertheless, the public sphere remains a critical place to set the policy agenda and drive forward change.

Public policies are needed to stimulate markets, remove barriers, level the playing field and establish clear objectives and targets for new, green industries and technologies.

Public policies are also needed to ensure democratic accountability, respect for human rights and safeguarding the interests of vulnerable groups in society including women, minority groups and indigenous communities.

Over my long life, I have learned that public policy changes only when the politics of taking action changes, and when bold initiatives come to the fore. That happens when citizens get involved: when they vote, when they march and when they themselves stand for office.

One of the most important areas of public policy is, of course, health. You might expect me to say that, as a medical doctor and a former Director-General of the World Health Organisation.

But this is not special pleading. When you think about it, it is just stating the obvious. Without a healthy global population, there can be no development, sustainable or otherwise.

This is why health must be seen as a public good, with responsibility falling on the public sphere – not private finance or multinational corporations – for its delivery.

This holistic sense of public health, and its intimate and intricate links to wider social issues, informed my vision for the World Health Organisation and continue to guide my work today as a member of The Elders.

As part of our wider efforts to support the SDGs, The Elders have for the past two years been campaigning for Universal Health Coverage, or UHC.

UHC means that everyone receives the quality health services they need without suffering financial hardship.

Delivering on UHC offers employment and economic opportunities, particularly for women and youth, while furthering the overarching objective of ending poverty.

But again: if we only view UHC in its own silo, we will never make progress.

We can deliver and fund the best healthcare imaginable, but if we do not take action to tackle climate change, if temperatures continue to rise uncontrollably, health outcomes will worsen and the burden of treatment will become ever costlier in a vicious circle.

Here in Britain, you will celebrate the 70th anniversary of your National Health Service this year. It is no coincidence that the NHS shares its anniversary with another cherished product of the post-war settlement: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The very first article of this seminal text states:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

If ever a sentence needed to be loudly proclaimed on every street corner, in every school classroom, workplace and public square, it is this one.

It is a simple and powerful rejection of racism, hate speech, “fake news” and the politics of division.

Let it be our lodestar as, following the words of Barbara Ward, we strive for the “creation of decent ways of life for all the people of the world”.

Thank you.

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