Feature Story

Climate change isn't fair

April 5, 2017

Around the world, university students are leading the charge calling for divestment from fossil fuels and investment in renewable energy services.

By Mary Robinson, president, Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice

In the face of the existential threat of climate change, the task of protecting future generations must start with ensuring fairness and equality in the current one. We are living through deeply troubling times – anxious about security, subjected to the shallow appeal of populism around the world and shifting towards increasingly myopic national policymaking in many countries. But for every regressive policy, for every small-minded comment demonising “the other”, we are witnessing communities coming together to deliver a different message.

Millions have taken to the streets to call for an end to the use of fossil fuels, respect of human rights and intergenerational equity. Around the world, university students are leading the charge calling for divestment from fossil fuels and investment in renewable energy services. People are becoming increasingly aware of their role as global citizens and the need to protect the global commons. We can see all around us an indomitable spirit of empathy and compassion that will not be cowed by cynicism or fear mongering. In this spirit, I recognise the emergence of a new wave of guardians for future generations.

When, like me, you have experienced the joy of becoming a grandparent you begin to think a lot more about the future. I have become very aware that world leaders and policymakers today are drafting decisions that will shape the world that my grandchildren, and their children, live in. And yet we afford little thought to how the policies we make today will impact the world of 2050, when my youngest grandchild will not yet be 40.

We are custodians of our planet, a global commons that, by 2050, will be home to some 9 billion people. It is our duty to live in such a way that the precious, life sustaining environment which keeps us is passed to future generations in at least as healthy a state as we received it from those before us.

Today we are knowingly jeopardising the wellbeing of those future generations if we do not take action to achieve sustainable development. Without ambitious and sustained action to end poverty and tackle climate change, we are condemning them to an uncertain world, where the impacts of climate change exacerbate food and water insecurity, conflict, and the displacement of people from their homes and countries.

To tackle the common enemy of climate change we must view the challenge through a climate justice lens. Climate justice is the antithesis of the rise of populism and short-termism. Climate change confronts us with our global interdependence. Climate justice tells us that, in order to realise the right to development while avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, which means achieving the ultimate goal of the Paris Agreement – to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2C above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C above preindustrial levels – world leaders must act in solidarity, motivated by an enlightened self-interest.

The solutions and national strategies that will ensure we stabilise our climate and pioneer new pathways to sustainable development will come out of a sense of empathy and fairness as much as by technical skills and expertise. The industrial revolution, the transition that ushered in the prosperity in which those in developed countries now live, left billions of people behind. Global inequality continues to worsen today.

Therefore, the challenge we face is not simply about leaving fossil fuels in the ground. In fact, weaning the industrialised world off them, though requiring great urgency, is perhaps the easier problem to solve. Avoiding the most devastating impacts of climate change, while eradicating poverty and enabling all people to enjoy the benefits of sustainable development, is the greater challenge.

In the face of this unprecedented challenge, the leadership demonstrated by so many developing countries is inspiring. Developing countries, small and large, grasp the urgency of the moment we are in and are working out how to transition to low carbon economies.

Fiji, serving as president of the climate negotiations this year, has confirmed its determination to become carbon neutral, and recently announced the creation of a future generations trust fund. Ethiopia aims to be middle-income, achieve ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reductions and invest in renewable energy by 2025, despite its backdrop as one of the world’s poorest countries, with 74% of its population currently living without access to energy. Costa Rica is also transitioning to a low carbon economy – in 2016 it achieved 98% renewable energy. This leadership must be emulated around the world.

In his 1968 paper in Science, the Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin wrote, “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.” Today, we are faced with a dilemma. If we pursue national interests, if we close ourselves off from collaboration and unified action, the global commons will fall foul of the grim future that Hardin foresaw.

It is only by urgently and ambitiously pursuing a new paradigm of sustainable development for all people that we can ensure a safer future for those yet to be born. This is our obligation as guardians for future generations.