Skip to main content
Climate change
Ethical leadership & multilateral cooperation

We must not succumb to fatalism or despair in 2019

Share this:
The Elders at their London Board meeting in October 2018.

Mary Robinson reflects on the events of the past year and looks forward to the Elders' priorities for 2019: climate change and nuclear proliferation.


The new year is a time for reflections and resolutions, and a moment to recommit ourselves to the causes we hold dear. 

As Chair of The Elders, I am proud of everything our group has achieved over the last twelve months, from politically-sensitive missions to the Middle East and Zimbabwe in the cause of political dialogue and conflict resolution, to the celebrations for our founder Nelson Mandela’s centenary in South Africa in July 2018.

But the loss of Kofi Annan of course remains a grievous blow which renders these reflections bittersweet. We all miss Kofi’s voice, wisdom, compassion and shrewd judgement – and I know that we are all determined to continue our work as Elders to honour his legacy and build on his achievements.

Our work remains substantial, and urgent. Today, our world faces two existential threats that are the top priorities for The Elders in 2019: climate change and nuclear proliferation. Both threats demand a concerted and coordinated international response, and in both cases the consequences of inaction are genuinely frightening.

Nothing less than the survival of our planet is at stake. We have no greater responsibility to ourselves and future generations than to act now, with clarity, conviction and compassion.

On climate change, the science is clear even if some political leaders continue to act with incredible irresponsibility and deny what is blindingly obvious. As the report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made clear last October, we have less than a dozen years to cut global emissions by 45 percent and keep temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Any rise over this level spells catastrophe for global ecosystems, flora, fauna and whole communities.

Share this:
Climate change is already affecting ecosystems and the people who rely on them for their livelihoods. Credit: Bioversity International/C. Zanzanaini


This is not just a matter of environmental concern. It affects social justice, sustainable development, human rights, peace and global stability – in short, it matters to every woman, man and child on the face of the planet.

None of them will forgive leaders who wilfully spurn their responsibilities, or continue to prioritise short-term political gains or the interests of their corporate backers over the imperative to develop a climate-resilient, zero-carbon economy and development model.

Many of the same moral arguments apply to the issue of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Those of us who grew up in the shadow of the Cold War were acutely aware of the devastating, indiscriminate threat posed by these weapons and were determined that they should never be used.

But over the past three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, an alarming complacency has grown up around the importance of this threat. 
The institutions and mechanisms established during the period of superpower rivalry have withered through neglect or deliberate misuse, even though the risks posed by nuclear weapons have in many ways increased through technological developments.

The common strand binding these two challenges is that both can only be effectively addressed by ethical leadership and multilateral cooperation. 
We need to puncture the vanity and delusions of those leaders – mostly men, it must be noted – who believe that individual nations can shape the global order to their liking through brute force or bullying, without any consideration for human rights or social justice.

Most importantly, we need to insist on a people-centred, holistic approach to tackling all the interlocked global challenges – including equality for women and girls, sustainable development, universal health coverage, access to justice and the strengthening of democratic institutions. 

We also need to be vigilant in upholding the values and standards of truth, integrity and decency across public life, including political and media discourse. When powerful men dismiss critical reports as “fake news” and defame independent journalists as “enemies of the people”, this is a mortal threat to all our freedoms which must be vigorously resisted.

Share this:
Kofi Annan and Desmond Tutu in Tehran 2014.


Faced with such an array of complex challenges, we must not succumb to fatalism or despair. As Elders, we know that positive change is possible, and we continue to draw inspiration from our founder Madiba and our two former Chairs, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Kofi Annan. “Arch” always called himself a “prisoner of hope”, and Kofi always reminded us that “you are never too young to lead, and never too old to learn.”

The year ahead will be critical in ensuring that our world takes the necessary steps to secure a sustainable, peaceful and prosperous future. It is incumbent on all of us to act with passion, hope and resolve to deliver this vision for our children and grandchildren.

Share this article

Keep up to date with The Elders’ COVID-19 digest:

Sign up to receive regular updates about The Elders’ activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. We will never share your email address with third parties.

Keep up to date with The Elders latest News and Insight:

Sign up to receive monthly newsletters from The Elders. We will occasionally send you other special updates and news, but we'll never share your email address with third parties.


I would like to find: