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Typhoon Haiyan is a warning: we need to change the climate debate

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“Climate change is a problem caused by people, with impacts on people, and must be solved by people.” Writing from the UN climate conference in Warsaw, Mary Robinson calls for transformative leadership to recognise climate change as a human rights issue and urgently protect those most affected by it.


Last April I had the pleasure of meeting Josephine Castillo from the Philippines again as she had travelled from Manila to Dublin to speak at a conference on the impacts of climate change on nutrition. She told me how her community had been wrecked by terrible floods; that they were struggling to rebuild their lives and increase their resilience to such severe weather. She was in no doubt that there would be more flooding and was frustrated at the lack of urgency within the international community to address the impacts of climate change.

Then this month, Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines. It has caused more than 3,900 deaths and displaced 4 million people, devastating communities that will take many years to recover. The disaster took place just five days before the opening of a UN climate conference in Warsaw. Typhoon Haiyan is a portent of things to come in a climate change-affected world; it should be a wake up call for the negotiations taking place in Poland.

Climate change affects us all – but not equally

We need to change the debate on climate change; to move beyond its construct as a scientific or environmental problem and realise that it is in essence an issue of development and of rights. Climate change is an issue of importance to people now and in the future, a phenomenon that will shape our societies in the coming years and decades.

It is the impacts of climate change on people and societies that first drew me to the subject of climate justice nearly 10 years ago. I saw first-hand the impacts of extreme weather events and unpredictable seasons and rainfall on livelihoods and lives in communities already struggling to survive. These impacts were affecting the human rights I spent so much of my life upholding and protecting. Over and over again I heard local people echo what my friend Constance Okollet said about the impacts of climate change on her village in Northern Uganda: that “this is outside our experience.”

Mary Robinson with Constance Okollet

Mary Robinson with Constance Okollet, November 2011. Photo: Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice

What I saw was an injustice: climate change affects us all, but it does not affect us equally. The negative impacts of a warming climate are being felt most acutely by those who contributed least to the cause of the problem. And as my fellow Elders and I have stressed, this injustice extends further to the future generations who will inherit a warmer and more unstable planet, home to more than 9 billion people and with resource scarcity and human security undermined by climate change.

We need brave, enlightened, transformative leadership

For too long climate change has been left to scientists – and they, to their credit, have given us the evidence we need that climate change is happening and that it is caused by human activity. Climate change is a problem caused by people, with impacts on people, and must be solved by people. But business as usual will not deliver climate justice, nor will it deliver sustainable development or inclusive societies. To move away from business as usual requires brave, enlightened and above all transformative leadership.

Mary Robinson with women leaders

Meeting with women leaders in Bangladesh after a devastating cyclone, Mary Robinson urges a people-centred approach to climate change. February 2011. Photo: Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice 

This leadership is needed at all levels. It is needed at the grassroots, where farmers like Mulualem Brhane (whom I met in October in Addis) from the Amhara region in Ethiopia are finding solutions to cope with increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns, while building the capacity of their communities and giving leadership at the district level. And it is needed at the highest political level, where increasingly leaders like President Joyce Banda from Malawi and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are recognising the need for climate justice.

We need visionary leaders to drive the change from our fossil fuel-powered ‘business as usual’ to a new model of low carbon, climate resilient development with people at its centre. I think much of this leadership will come from developing countries, where climate change presents an opportunity to invest in the infrastructure needed to enable this transition – an attractive alternative to the expensive retro-fitting of infrastructure that will dominate in industrialised countries.

At a conference I attended in Addis Ababa in October, the theme was Africa on the Rise and it posed the question ‘Can the opportunities from climate change spring the continent to transformative development?’ The discussions centred on the challenge of lifting people out of poverty, creating jobs and generating economic growth in a way that meets not just the short term needs of current generations but also paves the way for a sustainable and secure future for Africa’s young population and the generations to come.

Transformation on a global scale

But to be successful, and at the scale needed to be transformative, developing country leaders and investors will need the support of the private sector and international financial institutions to implement these ambitious plans. They will also need an international climate agreement that clarifies and ensures the delivery of ambitious commitments by industrialised countries, in keeping with their responsibilities.

All these actors are gathered here in Warsaw this week for the climate conference, but progress is too slow. These are not meant to be trade talks; people’s lives and the lives of future generations are at risk. The phrase ringing in my ears comes from Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, delivered 50 years ago this year: “the fierce urgency of now”.

Mary Robinson is currently attending the climate conference in Warsaw, Poland, as Chair of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice.

This article also appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Canberra Times, the Skoll World Forum and the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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