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The highest level of ambition is needed to deliver a liveable future for people and planet

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Mary Robinson discussed the key COP28 decisions affecting the future of people, planet and nature at the CISL, IUCN, the Wildlife Conservation Society and KfW Official UNFCCC Side Event: Unpacking the Biodiversity-Climate Nexus, Opportunities and Challenges. 

Read Mary Robinson's keynote address

Greetings excellencies and esteemed friends, and dear friends on the panel in particular.

I am honoured to give this brief keynote and I am very warmed by the introduction. 

I speak to you today in my capacity as Chair of The Elders

Earlier at this COP, at the World Climate Action Summit Presidency event, we heard María José Andrade Cerda from the Kichwa community of Serena in Ecuador say: “Our peoples have learnt the importance of observing and respecting mother nature, as it is only by doing so that we can build a relationship of reciprocity and mutual care.”

If I were to ask you about your community what would you describe?

Would you think about your family? Your neighbours? Your friendship circles? Perhaps you would think of the people living in your village, town or city. Often when we think of community we think of people. 

Yet this construct is at odds with the kind of relationships of reciprocity María was speaking of. What if our community were to include the birds roosting in the trees that surround us? Or the river that brings life-giving water? In many Indigenous cultures human beings are not seen as above and apart from nature. Rather, there is an understanding that any divisions between human beings and nature are untenable. We must respect nature because, I have learned slowly, but convincingly, we are nature. I learned this, at least, from Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim who will speak to you later. She and other indigenous friends of mine have conveyed to me the full wisdom that we are nature, not separate from nature. I think that is the most important lesson we can deeply, deeply try to understand.

In societies dominated by consumerism we've come to assign monetary value to the services provided by ecosystems, commodifying nature herself, as though she were a product with a price tag. Humans exploit, partition, and commercialise nature for profit in various forms. We frequently overlook the true value of nature. Nature has bestowed gifts upon us for millennia – clean air, pure water, rich biodiversity, and vital ecosystem services. Our failure to respect these gifts has led us down a path of unsustainable practices, including the burning of fossil fuels.

We are at a critical point in this COP. What happens here matters for our climate, it matters for people, and it matters for nature. 

In my role as Chair of The Elders, I have been repeatedly issuing our call for a full fossil fuel phase out that is just and equitable, with a just and equitable transition. 

Some might say I shouldn’t talk about this with you as we are focusing on nature in this session.  I disagree. In a world where we do not limit warming to 1.5°C, biodiversity loss will be part of the terrifying new reality we will be forced to live with. The science tells us rising temperatures are affecting biodiversity, while changing rainfall patterns, extreme weather events, and ocean acidification are putting pressure on species already threatened by other human activities. Nature cannot afford a slow phase down of fossil fuels.

Humans cannot afford a slow phase down of fossil fuels either. 

I firmly believe in the importance of a human-centred approach within the climate-nature nexus. But reflecting on my own journey, I must admit it took me time to fully appreciate the deep interplay between climate, nature and human beings and human rights. 

I just want to reflect on probably the key moment when I suddenly did feel that I am nature. It was when I was lucky enough to be gifted with a visit to Greenland on a scientific expedition. I had served for nine years on the European Climate Foundation and I had to step down because it was a good foundation, with good rules. The chair was also stepping down so we both got this gift of the scientific expedition to Greenland, in August 2019. We were lucky, it was just before COVID-19, which seems now a long time ago. 

Our last visit, on the day before we left, was to quite a remote area. We took a boat, we stayed in rough enough chalets, so we could wake up in the morning and sit and listen to a very large glacier. We were told to be on our own, to spread out or sit on rocks or go somewhere. Because I was the elder, I sat on the nice bench outside of where we were. I remember the sun was shining and I was feeling the sun, and I hadn’t brought any sun lotion, because I was in Greenland, why would I bring sun lotion? It was actually too hot for me.

I was listening to the carving of the glacier, it was like thunder: BOOM BOOM, and then there were rifle shot sounds as little bits fell off. It was really very alarming and moving. I found myself crying and I realised I was crying because of what we were doing to nature that we shouldn’t be doing, and it was wrong. I felt it very deeply and I knew then that I had a moment that Hindou has been coaching me on for quite a long time: We have to actually feel it deep in our hearts, that this is what we are talking about. We are doing damage to the very eco-systems that sustain us, to the gifts that nature gives us. I firmly believe in the need to feel that very deeply.

As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights I was not unaware of the climate or nature crisis, but I had compartmentalised the issues, aware of their significance but reassured other UN sectors were managing it, which made me feel my direct involvement wasn't crucial and that what was happening wasn’t relevant to my portfolio, which was, after all, human rights, gender equality, rights of indigenous people, and the rights of people with disabilities. But I didn’t connect them with climate at the time because we were in silos, which I’m afraid happens in the UN system.

It was only after my time as High Commissioner, engaging with grassroots work in African countries with a small NGO, that the harsh truth dawned on me. Climate change was drastically impacting the human rights of those in poverty-stricken and rural areas, particularly affecting women. They not only suffer the immediate effects of climate extremities but also endure the lasting socioeconomic consequences on their lives and livelihoods. 

Equally, some of our most biodiverse ecosystems under threat are being protected by people incredibly vulnerable to harm. Protected, I may say, without climate finance, protected because that is what the local, often indigenous or local grassroots communities knew they must do and some of them lost their lives as human rights defenders and defenders of the land and water rights of their communities.

At least 177 land and environmental defenders were killed last year for trying to protect the planet – one person every other day, according to a report by Global Witness and its partners.

These are ordinary people trying to protect their homes and livelihoods, standing up for the health of our planet and in respect and solidarity with nature!

Often their land is violently seized to produce goods used and consumed across the world every day, from food, to mobile phones, to jewellery, with attacks driven by destructive industries like mining, logging and agribusiness. We need to do far more to protect those who stand up for nature.

I am glad nature has been highlighted much more, at this COP. It is vital we recognise the interconnectedness of the climate and nature crises. As the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his poem ‘Inversnaid’:

"What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet."

We stand at a crossroads, a time of reckoning. Will leaders make decisions in the negotiating rooms that provide a liveable future for us and the multitude of other species of plants and animals we share this planet with? Or will we be left bereft? 

I started this COP deeply worried that a good outcome seemed improbable. I am still deeply worried but I wanted to end this address with a note of hope. And where better to find symbols of hope than in nature herself? 

In nature, new life springs forth in the unlikeliest of places. Plants shoot up through cracks in the pavement, even through ice and fire. We constantly see transformation in the most improbable of places. With resolve and collective will Parties can still transform this COP into a turning point for our planet.  Let us all get behind our leaders and our countries and ask them to get the highest level of ambition. 

This is the stocktake COP. This is the make or break COP. This is the COP that could be the death knell of 1.5°C. So, the highest ambition to have clear meaningful outcomes, including a full fossil fuel phase out, a just transition for workers and communities, rapidly scaling up finance, tripling renewable energy by 2030, putting in place pathways for adaptation funding; these are the things we want to see in an ambitious package, that is all about our future, a liveable future for people and planet. 

I think as Chair of The Elders I have to end with that well known quote of Nelson Mandela:

“It always seems impossible until it is done.”

Happy Human Rights Day everyone.

Thank you.


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