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The Global Politics of the climate emergency

The Global Politics of the climate emergency

Speech by Tanaiste and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Royal Irish Academy, April 2020

                                                                           Check against delievery

Members of the Royal Irish Academy, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.

It’s a pleasure, though to be honest also somewhat strange, to speak to you this morning. Over recent weeks I have got used to communicating across many different technology platforms. So often these days I participate in meetings by video conference. This morning I’m delighted to give my first keynote speech on Microsoft Teams! And I hope the technology allows us to manage a good Q & A at the end, as I will be very interested in hearing from this audience today.


Greta Thunberg has challenged us. She said, ‘I want you to act as if the house is on fire. Because it is’.

When Greta spoke those words - in Davos in January last year - it was before the fires in Australia and Brazil, or the fires in Ukraine this month that remind us that, 34 years on, we still live with the environmental consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.

When Greta spoke those words last year, the world had yet to experience Covid-19, a terrible reminder of our global inter-connectedness and fragility.  Those countries which climate change has made more vulnerable will be the worst affected by this crisis.  And as we in Europe move to define our new normal after these horrible times, we have an opportunity to dampen the flames and rebuild the house.


Covid-19 makes the theme of this year’s conference, “The Global Politics of the Climate Emergency”, even more relevant.  The tensions between national and international actions, which the Covid-19 response reveals, remind us of how difficult global challenges impact on the way in which the business of international relations is conducted.


Let me start by saying that I am an optimist – and as the American thinker, Alex Steffen, says, ‘optimism is a political act.’  We can achieve the change we want. 

We won’t, of course, achieve global change on our own.  Change requires friends and allies, a critical mass of countries to come together. 

That is why I am a passionate advocate for multilateralism, and for Ireland’s leadership role within the international system.  That is why Ireland is a candidate for membership of the UN Security Council.  That is why I want to build on Ireland’s reputation for excellence in international development, addressing issues of global concern and global security in our wider neighbourhood. That vision drives the Government’s Global Ireland strategy, which aims to double Ireland’s global influence by 2025. 


To be optimistic is not to be naïve.  It is important that, in advocating change, we recognise the highly complex challenges which we will have to overcome. These include reorienting our economies, protecting the most vulnerable, and ensuring the transition is as fair as it can be.  It means that we must be particularly sensitive to the needs of those of whom we will be asking the most – those whose current jobs will maybe disappear, or who will have to change practices deeply embedded in their culture.  This will be hard, and our responses will require real political leadership and pragmatism.


Those of us in leadership positions must articulate a clear vision of the future – disruption today to mitigate climate change is an investment in a better future.  Warren Buffett, hardly a utopian, argues for taking a long-term perspective on any investment.  He says of a good investment “our favourite holding period is forever.”  He also reminds us that “someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”  We must be climate mindful in our investments today if we are to ensure our long-term prosperity. And recognise too that if we don’t move to actively manage our future, disruption will happen anyway – probably to our detriment.


Those were the insights which lay behind the achievement of the Paris Agreement in 2015.  This set out a manifesto – countries came together in common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, and to support developing countries in doing so.  The central aim of the Agreement is to restrict global temperature rise this century to less than 2 degrees centigrade.


As Greta Thunberg reminded us in her powerful speech to the United Nations last September, we are not making sufficient progress.  She said the eyes of future generations were upon us.  She spoke for those anxious about the future, genuinely struggling with the existential threat which climate change presents.


I hear those anxieties in the questions from my own children.  I’m sure all of you hear them too, at home, from your children, your grandchildren. We are responding.


Last year, the Government launched the National Climate Action Plan, based on a broad consultation around the country. This sets Ireland on a trajectory to meet our Paris Agreement targets, which feed into the EU’s overall commitments. It also will ensure we can get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. It is a vision for a new Ireland, one which our grandchildren can proudly inhabit.


Change is never easy.  That is why we ensured that the Plan has a strong built-in accountability mechanism.  Commitments made are being monitored and met.  This will inform the first review of the National Climate Action Plan later this year.


I recognise that these are early days on our journey.  Ireland, like other countries, has ground to make up.  We have missed our emissions targets in recent years.  That is why the Government worked with the other parties in the Oireachtas to ensure cross-party consensus on the need for bold climate action, as expressed in the Oireachtas declaration of a ‘Climate Emergency’ last year.  [Of course, how we give expression to this is part of the discussions ongoing regarding the formation of the new Government.]


We are of course living through another emergency right now, as we collectively respond to Covid-19.  In our response, we have been experimenting with different ways of living and working, of using technology.  By travelling less we have given nature a chance.


As we move forward from this awful virus, there may perhaps be opportunities to learn from our experiences, ideas that can help us set our economy and society on a more sustainable pathway for the future.


There are those who say Ireland is small and it doesn’t matter what we do – it won’t make a difference anyway.  I disagree.


It is essential that every country, no matter its size, plays its part in the global effort. Ireland is being affected by climate change already – some of the fierce storms we have experienced in recent winters are testament to that.  We need others to act if we are to be protected.  One of the best ways to influence others is when our actions at home are consistent with our advocacy abroad.


The response to climate change will change the global economy.  We can be a leader, and use the knowledge gained to reposition our economy – through investment in technology and in our native genius. 

Ireland is already the second highest wind energy producer in the EU, and we can grow this more as we look to offshore wind: the day is not far away when 100% of Irish electricity will be generated from renewables.


Strategic, coherent climate policy is strategic, coherent energy policy.  In today’s world, it is also coherent diplomacy.


Notwithstanding that the world’s attention – rightly – is focused on our response to COVID-19, intensive climate diplomacy continues right across the globe.  This diplomacy is complicated and difficult. 


There are some countries that do not accept the principles we collectively agreed in Paris.


There are those who reject the science which informs the positions of countries such as Ireland.


There are moral issues, such as how to move forward while not unduly damaging the legitimate aspirations of developing countries to grow their economies and deliver for their citizens.


There are the other day-to-day issues which crowd out political space and make the politics of change in each and every country difficult.


There is the need to navigate a multipolar world.


These challenges were present in Madrid last year, when Spain hosted COP25 – the latest annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Climate Change Convention.  It is no secret that negotiations there were difficult, and consensus was not reached across a range of issues, including the role of market mechanisms in trading emissions. Many negotiators, particularly those from developing countries, left as negotiations went on and on.

This failure to reach agreement was disappointing, and highlighted the need for a step-change in ambition if we are to avoid the catastrophe of a planet that is 3 or 4 degrees hotter.


We have an opportunity now to think through next steps clearly, as COP26 will be delayed to allow the world respond to COVID-19.  Let us not waste that opportunity.


A breathing space from the intensity of the multilateral process may provide climate experts and government officials with the opportunity to focus on ambitious national actions, and how to take those forward. Ireland stands ready, through our Irish Aid international development cooperation programme, to work with our partners, in particular the most vulnerable countries, in their endeavours.


We are working intensively to ensure the EU maintains its vital support for climate action in Least Developed Countries and Small Island States.


We continue to liaise closely with the Least Developed Countries on their aspirations for a climate resilient future, and how development cooperation can help them realise those aspirations. And we continue to advocate for those needs within the OECD Development Assistance Committee.


We have also ensured our investments are consistent with our work to influence the international system. Our international climate finance - €80 million in 2018 - is predominantly targeted at helping the poorest to adapt to climate impacts, in the sectors that most affect the poor - and in the poorest countries. Our commitment to reaching the furthest behind first drives this focus. And we have quickly responded to circumstances where the needs are acute. Last year, we committed to €10 million in funding to a solar project in Gaza, working closely alongside colleagues in France. We have established a €12 million trust fund in the Asian Development Bank to help build climate resilience in Small Island States in the region.


The breathing space I have referred to could allow for reflection on the implications of the COVID19 crisis.  Arguably, the international collective action in response to COVID-19 might serve as a template for our future engagement on the climate emergency.  


We are seeing the multilateral system respond to the virus by working across siloes, and with renewed flexibility and unity of purpose. A similar urgency is required in response to the climate emergency -  building from this terrible reminder that none of us can go it alone.  I am optimistic that, working together towards a shared goal, we can achieve great things.


And while COP25 in Madrid was fractious and difficult, I am confident that if we use the additional time wisely, COP26 in Glasgow could be important.




In part because the urgency of the need to respond to climate change has not gone away.  It is ever more present.  And the majority of the global community is alert to the emergency we face, and we are seeing unprecedented activism from civil society, and in particular young people.


Political leaders in many countries are hearing their constituents, current and future, demand action, and are responding with leadership.


Among those constituents are the inspirational young who show genuine concern for their futures, and are challenging us to make the right choices. In Ireland, we saw great leadership from our young people late last year during the Oireachtas youth takeover, which led to a number of recommendations for consideration by Government.


Increasingly, business is also vocal.  Food production is intimately linked with climate.  Business is looking at long term sustainability, not least as this is now increasingly linked to businesses ability to access capital. 

We are learning new phrases, such as stranded assets, as investors reconsider whether holding certain shares long term is worth the risk.  And we are seeing new businesses develop – for example, green bonds, where Dublin is becoming a European hub.


In the climate negotiations, we have also found inspiration and solace from the progressive leadership shown by the Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States. Ireland has explicitly taken a stand in solidarity with countries who have done the least to contribute to the problem of climate change, and yet face the harshest impacts, accelerated by limited institutional capacity and investment resources which constrain their efforts to push ahead with bold climate adaptation measures.


This support is at the heart of Ireland’s policy on international development, A Better World, which I launched last year and which pledges to double Ireland’s contribution to international climate action.


I am heartened that, despite the challenges they face, the least developed countries and the Small Island Developing States have become a highly progressive and effective voice in climate negotiations - pushing other less progressive groups to listen to the science, address their vested interests head-on and show global solidarity with the most vulnerable.


We have seen an inspirational response from the broader range of stakeholders. In the US, the ‘We are still in’ movement has mobilised cities, state-level administrations, civil society and the private sector to implement ambitious climate action, which is making a significant dent in US emissions, in spite of the commitment by the US administration to withdraw from the Paris Agreement this coming November.


Mary Robinson, who is addressing the plenary at this conference, has been a highly effective champion of climate justice. This movement has grown in momentum over the years as a result of her leadership. 

She has helped reframe the international discussion on climate. While initially scientists dominated the climate discourse, today the climate justice movement has put a human face on climate change.


We cannot ignore the women living in rural villages across Africa for whom climate change creates new and daily struggles.


We cannot ignore the communities in the Pacific whose homelands are likely to disappear under water.


We cannot ignore the indigenous peoples around the world who are watching as their precious ecosystems and heritage are eroded.


We cannot ignore them because of the work of the climate justice movement.


It reminds us that grassroots action can be extremely powerful.


It reminds us that giving voice to grassroots perspectives all over the world can change political dynamics.


And crucially, it reminds us that the climate change crisis will not be solved by 50% of humanity alone - we need to ensure all climate actions take into account the unique circumstances and perspectives of men and women, and harness the unique contributions women can make as agents of change and innovators.


It is a call to hope.


I am hopeful. 


The climate challenge is one small countries can play a meaningful part in addressing.

One thing that tends to bind smaller countries together is a firm commitment to multilateralism. We understand inherently that global solidarity is a critical ingredient in addressing global challenges. This principle is at the heart of our Strategy for Engagement with Small Island Developing States. It is also central to the approach we will bring to our tenure on the UN Security Council.


This means working effectively with our friends, and engaging with those who take different positions in the climate negotiations processes. Our EU membership is a strength in this regard, where Ireland has a pragmatic, progressive voice.


The EU’s Green New Deal is an important indicator of the high level of ambition across the bloc, and we all have a role to play in delivering this ambition on emissions. The EU has now committed to ‘walking the walk’ as well as ‘talking the talk’ and this is to be welcomed and embraced.  


In this time of fractured global consensus, we and our EU colleagues are acutely aware that we have an important role to play in championing multilateralism, and bridging divides. Importantly, high-polluting countries need to be convinced, and incentivised, to consider different political choices about economic development.


Ladies and gentlemen,


This once-in-a-generation battle against a warming planet can be won. Indeed, we don’t have a choice – it must be won.


But to do so requires political leadership, citizen engagement, and a whole new mindset for long term investment.


It requires us to acknowledge that change is difficult, and must be just.  That is true at home and internationally.


An international just transition requires the multilateral system to be as effective and relevant as it can be.

Ireland is committed to realising the goals of the Paris Agreement, championing progressive action, and ensuring the most vulnerable are at the heart of all our engagement.


I trust that you will have a stimulating discussion today, despite the logistical challenges that this current context poses. Of course, the nature of a climate emergency is such that we do not have the luxury of postponing these discussions. And indeed it may be that, as we respond to the climate challenge, we make ever greater use of technology to facilitate diplomacy, reducing our need to travel.


I want to thank the RIA Standing Committee on International Affairs for inviting me to address you, and to commend them for facilitating today’s event in such an innovative way.


I hope you all continue to stay safe and well.


Thank you.


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