Mary Robinson: What if this present were the world's last night?

Mary Robinson

The 2012 John Donne lecture was delivered on 16 March by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation: Climate Justice. The version below is summarized with thanks from her script.

The quotation 'What if this present were the world’s last night?' is taken from a sonnet which is typical of John Donne’s reflections on his own mortality. It was a theme which concerned – one might even say preoccupied - Donne and his contemporaries. There were good reasons for their preoccupation with death. As one writer puts it 'Death, as all of Donne’s contemporaries readily recognised, was not simply inevitable and all pervasive; it was a familiar presence in an unstable, unhygienic and disease-ridden world.'

Three hundred years on, scientific advances have made the risk of early death much smaller for most people in the rich countries of the world. Unfortunately, the same is not true for the millions living in the developing world who have no access to clean water, who experience terrible levels of infant and maternal mortality, who do not have enough to eat, who are undernourished and hence prey to disease. This situation should shame us into action.

Many initiatives exist which can improve the prospects of people living in the developing world; simple interventions such as providing malaria nets and improving nutrition levels in the vital first 1,000 days of children’s lives. I would encourage students of Hertford, and young people everywhere, to take an interest in changing the circumstances of those less fortunate by contributing in any way possible to improving poor people’s access to education, healthcare and food. But tonight I would like to focus on an even greater risk mankind has created, the fact that the very future of our planet has been brought into question.

Fossil fuel based growth has brought wealth and wellbeing to millions, on a scale which would astonish previous generations. But this growth has come at a heavy price. There is an imminent danger that we will destroy the delicate fabric of the earth’s ecosystems. Nor is this a far distant threat. I have no confidence that my grandchildren - and the nine or more billion others who will share their world - will have a safe world to live in, unless we have the intelligence to act with urgency and change course. Let me modify Donne’s words a little: 'What if this present were the world’s last chance to change course and save itself?'

Meeting the challenges posed by climate change is, I believe, the most serious issue facing our planet. The goal of the Foundation I lead is climate justice - putting justice and equity at the heart of national and international responses to climate change. The evidence against the climate sceptics is overwhelming, and one of the consequences of climate change is the increasing incidence of extreme weather events. The report of the International Panel on Climate Change on managing the risks of extreme events and disasters predicts that the frequency of heavy precipitation will increase in the 21st century over many regions; increases in the frequency of warm daily temperature extremes and decreases in cold extremes are virtually certain to occur throughout the 21st century on a global scale; it is likely that the average maximum wind speed of tropical cyclones will also increase and there is evidence that droughts will intensify and that the average sea level rise will contribute to upwards trends in extreme sea levels.

The information assembled by the Panel is echoed by other authoritative bodies. The UN Environment Programme lists the following statistics:

  • The average amount of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere has shown a steady rise over the past two decades
  • Global mean temperature has risen by 0.4% between 1992 and 2010
  • The 14 hottest years ever measured have all occurred since 1998
  • Most mountain glaciers around the world are diminishing rapidly

The International Energy Agency noted in its annual report last November that the door to achieving the goal of keeping the rise in CO2 to 2°C is closing. The IEA predicts that growth, prosperity and rising population will inevitably push up energy needs over the coming decades, but that we cannot continue to rely on insecure and environmentally unsustainable uses of energy. 'Without a bold change of policy direction,' the IEA concludes, 'the world will lock itself into an insecure, inefficient and high-carbon energy system'.

To put a human face on these trends: last summer I returned to Somalia, and while I was there famine was declared by the United Nations, with the all too familiar sight of starving babies with their desperate mothers and fathers walking for miles in search of food. Successive droughts in the Horn of Africa have made a bad situation worse. The extreme effects of climate change have overwhelmed the Somali people who have shown great resilience in the past but who are unable to cope with the enormous difficulties posed by the change in climate. I had been there as President of Ireland in 1992, but this time everything was worse, not least that the Horn of Africa had just endured the eight hottest years in succession ever recorded.

Another example: the Philippines is one of the developing countries most at risk of climate change because of its geographical location. The Philippines Minister responsible for climate change and disaster management told me that in 2009 her country experienced two hurricanes simultaneously. The damage in cash terms was $2 billion – a huge problem for a very poor country. Not to mention the human toll in lives lost and livelihoods destroyed.

The people of the Philippines, like the people of Somalia, and the people of the Maldives and Bangladesh and the Pacific islands, are in no doubt about the impact climate change is having on them and the need for urgent action to address it.

The evidence of global warming and the grave threat it poses are incontrovertible. Far from moving towards the 2°C target, the world is heading towards 4°C.

The greatest problem I see these days is not so much climate scepticism, but rather the lack of a sense of urgency about tackling the problem. But doing nothing is not an option. Leadership is needed to bring out the urgent scale of the problem; however, as one environmentalist put it, ‘Our leaders are sleepwalking us into a disaster’.

The only realistic answer is a legally binding agreement which limits global emissions, with all nations, including China and the US, participating. To those who doubt that this is possible I would point to the Montreal Protocol which showed that when most countries in the world – 195 to date – join in concerted action they can achieve the desired result, in that case, reducing the damage to the ozone layer over the Antarctic. The Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice is dedicated to the goal of climate justice. Our approach is human rights based, safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable. We take seriously the principle of sharing the burdens and the benefits of climate change equitably, making sure that the discussions are participatory, transparent and accountable, that gender equality is highlighted and that the transformative power of education for climate stewardship is harnessed.

We hold that climate change both highlights and exacerbates the gulf between rich and poor, between countries in the North and South and within countries, and that the approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be based on the principle of equity, with common but differentiated responsibilities.

My foundation aims to play a catalytic role, relying on effective partnerships and working with agencies such as the African Climate Policy Centre and the World Resources Institute, and with UN and other agencies on specific aspects. We highlight the concept of climate justice and commend its merits to governments, multilateral organisations and others and seek to influence their deliberations. Meanwhile our own priorities are: food and nutrition security, access to energy for the poorest and bringing out the gender dimensions of climate change.

We argue that addressing climate change and achieving sustainability in the global food system are dual imperatives. Given the impact climate change has on agriculture – particularly for poor subsistence farmers - we feel that agriculture and food security ought to be the subject of a work programme under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Durban conference of the parties to the Convention agreed to explore the issues involved, which was an advance on the previous position, in which food security and agriculture were not on the agenda. We will continue to press for agriculture and food security to be included. We are working closely with the Irish government, which has a strong record in its development aid policy on the fight against hunger and on the impact of climate change on food and nutrition security.

Secondly, access to energy for the poorest. To maximise potential for development, effective ways need to be found to provide affordable, low carbon energy to the 1.3 billion people in the world currently without access to electricity, and the 2.7 billion who cook on firewood, coal or animal dung. While there is considerable momentum gathering to focus resources and research on finding effective energy solutions for low income communities, much work remains to be done. With an increasing number of social protection systems operating in developing countries, there may be ways of linking off-grid energy initiatives with poor households in social protection systems which target the most vulnerable in society. It may also be possible to harness climate finance in its various guises to complement social protection transfers and contribute to local development. The Mary Robinson Foundation is exploring potential synergies between the fields of social protection and green energy technology. The aim is to identify the opportunities for linking the two fields of work and to consider further actions to pilot and test innovative approaches to try to scale up access to electricity for the poorest.

Thirdly, the gender dimension of climate change: women’s voices must be heard and their priorities supported as part of climate justice. In many countries and cultures, women are at the forefront of living with the reality of the injustices caused by climate change. They are critically aware of the importance of climate justice in contributing to their right to development being recognized, and can play a vital role as agents of change within their communities. The Mary Robinson Foundation has established both a Women’s Leadership on Climate Justice Network, which is made up of grassroots women’s organisations, and a Troika+ of Women Leaders on Gender and Climate Change which is a high level group of influential women leaders. We have been facilitating a two-way dialogue between women leaders at international level and networks of organisations working on gender and climate change at grassroots level to provide a coherence of approach to the climate change framework. Bottom up and top down women’s leadership can really change the narrative on climate change, because women are both instinctively inter-generational and usually practical in being able to influence behaviour.

All of these initiatives are aimed at contributing to the overarching goal which is the conclusion of a legally binding agreement on climate change by 2015. I know that many would like progress to be faster than it has been – I certainly would. But the prospects have improved somewhat lately. The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action has opened the door for a new international and inclusive legally binding agreement to solve the climate change problem. We have a start date, January 2012, and a deadline, December 2015, with decisions to take effect no later than 2020. There is a lot of work to do, barriers to break down and agreements on different aspects to be reached before then. Central to this will be overcoming the divide between developed and developing countries in the climate negotiations. Progress was recorded at Durban on climate finance and technology. An alliance was formed between the EU, the Least Developed Countries and the Small Island Developing States which has started to challenge the divide between developing and developed countries. It is a move in the right direction that will need to be nurtured in the coming years to facilitate an ambitious new agreement. Issues of equity and the right to development - principles underpinning the climate justice approach - will be core to agreeing a new legally binding regime.

My message is: the climate change issue is not some distant threat which we can put off facing because difficult decisions will be needed. The dangers are here, present and real, and we must take concerted international action to face them. The UK’s record is among the best, going back to Lord Stern’s review of 2006, the Climate Change Act, the establishment of an independent advisory committee on climate change and the tough, legally binding carbon targets which the UK has adopted. I hope that the UK will continue to prove itself a model for others, even in difficult times of cutbacks, and it is impressive that it is on target to reach the development aid target of 0.7% by 2013.

I wonder how John Donne would have viewed climate change? The aspect of his character that interests me most is his inquiring mind. He travelled, he described what he saw, he reflected. He was interested - to use that awful cliché - in the 'big picture'. And he had a clear sense of all of us being in this together: 'Every man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in Mankind'.

If his sense of mortality was driven by the ever present risk of death and fear of what lay in the hereafter, then we must bear in mind that he was a product of his time. Without wishing to be alarmist, it is the mortality of our planet that should most concern us today. If we do not take action we could, indeed, be facing into the world’s last night. The good things of the earth are not inexhaustible. We have a moral duty to conserve them, to protect them from danger, to safeguard them for generations to come, and to share them fairly with all of the world’s people.