1945 and 2014: different battles, same magnitude


Following D-Day and the Overlord Operation on the beaches of Normandy, world leaders were faced with challenges that must have felt insurmountable: rebuilding regions devastated by war, maintaining a hard-won peace and igniting economic growth.

In 1945, leaders did not shy away from these mammoth tasks, but, armed with the mantra of “never again”, they were galvanised to take transformative action, putting in place measures, structures and international laws such as the Charter of the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions, the Marshall Plan and laying the foundations for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In this 21st century, we face challenges of a similar order of magnitude.

The impacts of a warming world are already being felt, and the injustice of this is that those most acutely affected are those least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions: the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised all over the world.

To put it starkly, the physical world faces potential catastrophe because of climate change and we are running out of time to take the necessary corrective action.

Quickly and equitably we need to make the transition to a carbon neutral world. If we are to avoid dangerous climate change and ensure climate justice, we need to prioritise the phasing out of fossil fuels.

This is the only way to avoid the consequences of a world that is 3ºC to 4ºC warmer than pre-industrial levels.

These consequences include more extreme weather shocks, rising food insecurity, the spread of disease, higher levels of poverty and instability.

We simply cannot have a peaceful, prosperous and inclusive future unless we act as a global community to prevent dangerous climate change.


We must change if our children are to survive

The current economic model is incapable of averting this disaster.

We need to change our economic systems – how we produce energy, how we use our land and other natural resources, how we transport people and goods, and how we live, eat and work – if our children and grandchildren are to survive.

These are the issues that need to top the agenda of any discussion on the economy of the future.

In 2006, the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change showed that the benefits of strong, early action on climate change considerably outweigh the costs. Unfortunately, the world has not yet embraced the strong collective action the report advised, and during the delay climate impacts have intensified and lives and livelihoods have been lost.

The economic transition required does not have to place limits on growth, rather it can catalyze benefits, in the short and long term, that are sustainable and shared fairly amongst the people and countries of the world.

Many investors and business leaders have already realised that new investments in clean energy will provide multiple benefits yielding significant returns in the form of reduced fuel costs and creating jobs.

Research by the International Trade Union Federation (ITUC) shows that 48 million new jobs could be created in just 12 countries through an industrial revolution focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

We need to shift our patterns of consumption and production towards sustainability, minimising waste and the use of natural resources and toxic materials.

This does not necessarily mean consuming less or compromising quality of life, it means consuming in a more informed way: more efficiently with less risk to our health and environment.

Significantly, we need to ensure that the changes we make to our economic systems, and the transition we make to a carbon neutral world, are equitable, bearing in mind the different development stages of countries in the world.

Climate change is a global problem requiring a global response.

To ensure an equitable transition, concessions will need to be given, initially, to the least developed countries so that they do not have to move so quickly. The more developed economies, therefore, will have to move all the more rapidly.

While the scale of the challenge requires leadership equivalent to that shown in the post-war years, the structure of power has changed. Governments remain the key actors in global decision-making, but they are not the only holders of power.

The power of the corporate sector has risen dramatically in recent decades. Significant actors within the corporate sector promote fossil fuels, and some have even corrupted the science to deny the scale of the potential catastrophe. Corporations must be part of climate solutions in partnership with governments and citizens around the world. Political will is key to catalysing this partnership and delivering global action through solidarity.


Towards a legally-binding climate agreement

The significance of 2014 and 2015 is that these are the years in which world leaders will negotiate a post-2015 development agenda and a new legally binding climate agreement.

These processes will set the course for global development in the coming three to four decades. This is a rare opportunity carrying significant responsibility. Leaders today need to emulate the conviction and resolve of post-war leaders and articulate a new vision of sustainable development, putting in place policies and laws that will ensure the required transformation.

Business needs policy certainty in order to accelerate the move to renewable energy, increased energy efficiency and provision of the jobs which will come with innovation at all levels.

Access to renewable energy will bring huge benefits to the staggering 1.3 billion of the world’s poorest people who totally lack electricity and the 2.6 billion who still cook on charcoal, wood or biomass, with a terrible toll on their health.

Far from being afraid of transformative change we should realise that the results can be overwhelmingly positive and contribute to the protection of human rights, sustainable development and increased equality.

The survivors of Typhoon Haiyan and Superstorm Sandy, and of recurrent droughts in the Horn of Africa and rising sea levels in the Pacific Islands, know all too well the reality of climate change.

But many people have yet to experience these impacts and while they may empathise at the time of disasters with those affected, the felt experience that often drives transformational economic and social change is absent.

Our challenge is to link the scientific facts and projected climate impacts with the felt experience of those most vulnerable to climate change, to catalyse the same political will as in the post war years. This time it must be political will forged by a broad alliance incorporating governments, multinational organisations, business and civil society.

In rethinking the economy of the future, it is now time to commit to a world unconstrained by carbon emissions and to work backwards from there, identifying and taking the steps we need to take to have a fair pathway to that carbon neutral world.

Let me conclude with the prophetic words of Nobel Laureat Wangari Maathai:

‘In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called upon to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground’

That time is now!


This text was extracted from a speech given by Mary Robinson during a panel at the Freedom and Solidarity Forum in Caen, France, on 5th June 2014.