Greetings to you all at the Arctic Assembly.
Our world is changing drastically before our eyes: Once in a lifetime rains now occurring with regularity; temperate days in the Arctic in the midst of what should be an icy winter; droughts and forest fires becoming part of a ‘new normal’.
Sometimes I feel at a loss for words to describe our reality, very few words in the English language suffice. So I want to borrow three words from other languages to use as touchstones in my message to you today.
Swedish novelist Kerstin Ekman coined the term fotminne, or ‘foot memory’, in her 1993 novel Blackwater. This expression speaks of our relationship to the land as one of embodied memory. In walking the land not only are we connected to all who have walked before, but our own foot is in relationship with the earth - we leave our mark.
Human beings have left indelible footprints. The latest IPCC report tells us that the recent changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years. Some of the changes already set in motion are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years. We have created unsafe ground for future generations.
We are bequeathing a terrible legacy to the young and to those yet to be born. In just a couple of weeks from now world leaders will meet in Glasgow at COP26 to work out how we can limit that damage - how we can limit global warming to no more than 1.5C.
The second word I want to draw on is the southern African philosophy encapsulated in the Zulu and Xhosa word ubuntu. It loosely translates in English as “I am, because you are.” I was introduced to this concept by my dear friend, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was one of my predecessors as Chair of The Elders. He defined ubuntu thus: “The concept teaches that my humanity is bound up in yours - that we are all connected. In this era of globalisation, this interdependence is more evident than ever before.”
Ubuntu is a word that speaks as much about a desire for justice as it does a hope for unity. The climate crisis has created so many layers of injustice, I identify five:
Firstly, it has disproportionately affected the poorest countries, poorest communities, small island states, indigenous peoples.
Secondly, within that, it has exacerbated gender injustice. The roles of women, the difference in access to power - to rights. Yet it is often women who are the ones building resilience in their communities.
Thirdly there is the terrible intergenerational injustice I have already mentioned.
The fourth injustice is a subtle one. Industrialised countries built their economies on fossil fuel. Now our challenge is to wean ourselves off far more quickly than we’re doing and to provide a just transition for the workers that helped us to build our economies. And we need to support developing countries to bring themselves out of poverty.
Lastly there is the injustice to nature herself. In the Arctic we must do all we can to prevent further harm. With glacial melting accelerating and an ice-free summer ocean extending every year, the Arctic becomes easier to gain access to. But this should not signal an opportunity for more extraction.
We need an ubuntu-inspired sense of climate justice that will address these layers of unfairness and we must acknowledge we need all of us to play our part.
This brings me to my final word, and it is one from my own native Ireland.
Misneach is one of those words that requires the whole of your mouth to pronounce it and the entirety of your imagination to embrace it.
Misneach refers to a kind of courage for those who are not ready, or not in the right mood, to be courageous.
The past two years of the pandemic has felt heavy. When we consider the climate crisis we can feel heavier still. We live in an era marked out by its burdens and threats. But we must find courage! We must find courage as the alternative is to give up, and that is an alternative too awful to consider.
This is the challenge I want to leave with you today: How can we find our courage, our misneach, in the midst of this crisis and how can we encourage our leaders to do the same?
Let us all tread lightly. Walk together seeking climate justice. Imagine a future with the courage and determination needed to get us there.