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Inaugural Ireland at Fordham Humanitarian Lecture by H.E. Mary Robinson, Chair of the Elders

Ireland at Fordham Humanitarian Lecture Series

Inaugural Lecture by H.E. Mary Robinson, Chair of the Elders

United Nations, 29 April 2019, 6.30pm


Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Friends,  

It’s always a pleasure and privilege to return to the United Nations. And I’ve never seen this venue in quite the same configuration, so that’s also a pleasure. But it’s a particular pleasure this evening as I deliver the first ‘Ireland at Fordham’ Humanitarian Lecture. And I thank the Permanent Mission of Ireland, the formidable Geraldine Byrne Nason and Fordham University’s International Institute for Humanitarian Affairs for inviting me to inaugurate this series of lectures, which will focus on the challenges facing humanitarian action in the twenty-first century.

And I have to warn you. I am an angry granny for Climate Justice! So, you’re going to have to put up with quite a long lecture. You know, I’ve put a lot of thought into what I want to say and you are a wonderful captive audience here in the United Nations. So, be patient. 

As you’ve heard, Fordham University has a long and venerable connection to Ireland. Indeed, I was delighted, as President of Ireland, to speak at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus in 1995 to mark that institution’s one hundred and fiftieth Annual Commencement.

And, this new collaboration between Ireland and Fordham will build on their shared commitment to exploring the challenges facing policy makers and humanitarians in the 21st century.

Over the last century, we have made progress in addressing humanitarian and development challenges. 

However, as you’ve already heard signified, there are significant risks to our continued progress. Our commitment to strong, multilateral responses to major crises is challenged when we need it most. At the same time, conflicts are increasing in number, are becoming more protracted and fragmented, and are pushing unprecedented numbers of people into humanitarian need.

I think it will come as no surprise to you when I say that I believe climate change - which poses an existential threat to all humanity – is playing an increasingly central and destructive role right across the range of issues that the United Nations strives to address.

As Chair of the Elders, I am dismayed that we could reverse the development gains of the last 100 years, not because we cannot act, but because we will not act. The need to act and act fast is the message of marchers and school children that we have seen in recent months.

We hear these voices not only in the West. While the links between climate, poverty, fragility and insecurity are only beginning to be fully understood, there is little doubt that the links exist most for those who are living this reality every day.

As Hindou Ibrahim, a young women and a good friend, and activist from Chad, told the Security Council last year:

“My people are living climate change. Climate change has an impact on their daily lives and gives them insecurity. When they sleep at night, they dream that they will wake up the next day and be able to get food or water for their children. They also dream that if someone get to the resources before they do, they will have to fight for them.”

Climate change is not just an issue of atmospheric science or plant conservation; it is fundamentally about human rights and the protection of people. When we think about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the core principles it promotes, it’s abundantly clear that the impacts of climate change are rapidly undermining the full enjoyment and full range of human rights. It is quite often the most vulnerable who are facing loss of their right to life, to food, to safe water, to shelter and to health.

Last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report clearly outlines that our basic human rights stand to be eroded due to the climate crisis: risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are all projected to increase with global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius and to increase further to a danger level - to a danger level - with 2 degrees Celsius.

In 2016, as the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for El Niño and Climate, I saw for myself, with Macharia Kamau, who was also a Special Envoy for El Niño and Climate, how existing phenomena such as El Niño and La Niña are compounded by climate change. And I saw the real humanitarian consequences for poor people – particularly for women.

Now, the evidence is building. The number of people going to bed and waking up hungry is on the rise. The 2019 Global Report on Food Crises tells us that climate and natural disasters pushed 29 million people into situations of acute food insecurity in 2018, mostly in Africa. Unpredictable seasons in rural areas are dramatically effecting rural people’s – especially women’s – livelihoods, undermining the ability of farmers to grow and provide food, and the ability of communities to access health and education services.

Likewise, the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events as a result of climate change is leading to an increase in displacement of people and communities - 23.5 million people in 2016 according to the WMO.

I was very moved recently when my fellow Elder, Graça Machel, described the devastation she saw after a recent visit to Beira in her beloved country Mozambique. And now Mozambique has been hit by another cyclone, Kenneth, in another part of Mozambique. And these people don’t have a plan B, don’t have insurance, don’t have reserves that they can look to. They are just devastated…devastated and bleak and in poverty and in situations where they really don’t know where to turn. 

While, estimates of the number of people likely to be displaced as a result of climate change vary, the stark reality is that they will be multiples of those we see today.

And, the challenge of climate change is not only about droughts and desertification displacing people in Africa. Sea level rises threaten whole communities living in small island developing states. Island countries such as the Maldives and Kiribati are facing the loss of their sovereign islands with rising sea levels. As a result, they are championing the issue of climate change as a human rights challenge, connected to displacement of people, the potential loss of life but also the right to low-carbon development.

And we must remember that the people and countries bearing the brunt of food insecurity, social instability and forced displacement have not contributed to the main cause of climate change – a point that was made earlier by Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason and on behalf of Fordham. That is the injustice of climate change. This fact embodies the injustice and the necessity to recapture global justice through more ambitious climate action.

As the President of the IFRC has said recently, climate change is already making emergency response efforts around the world more difficult, more unpredictable and more complex.

However, we cannot only consider the direct effects of climate change. By undermining livelihoods, eroding food and water security, driving displacement, increasing competition for scarce resources, and increasing economic and gender inequalities, climate change acts as a threat multiplier, pushing already vulnerable and fragile societies over the edge. 

With few options available to individuals, particularly young men, economic hardship and marginalization can open the door for the predatory activities of violent extremists in search of recruits.

While no armed conflict has one single driver, there is an increasingly strong body of evidence that suggests that climate change, interacting with other factors, such as political, economic and social conditions, is a major contributing factor.

Armed conflict is now the main reason that nearly 140 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection this year – most in a small number of countries like Syria, Yemen and South Sudan.

The role that climate change plays in crisis is context-specific. Climate and insecurity interact in already vulnerable contexts and create a vicious cycle leading to increased humanitarian need. As a paper from the Overseas Development Institute and the Red Cross Movement released last month pointed out, ‘the most severe impacts of climate change are not necessarily in areas exposed to the greatest changes in climate, but in places where people’s capacities to cope with these changes are lacking’.

Individuals and communities affected by conflict and fragility lack access to social protection or necessary institutional supports. As a result, their resilience is undermined and their ability to adapt reduced.

Deputy-Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, told the Security Council last year: “Fragile countries are in danger of becoming stuck in a cycle of conflict and climate disaster.”

The most frequently cited example of this phenomenon is the situation in the Lake Chad basin region, where an environmental catastrophe – the shrinking of Lake Chad by 90% - has had profound economic and social implications. The shrinking of the lake was accompanied by a shrinking of economic opportunities, an increase in vulnerability, and the rise of instability and violent extremism – most notably the Boko Haram insurgency. Local leaders, such as Hindou Ibrahim, are in no doubt about the link between these two events.

Disasters are not the only climate change-related developments that affect security. I believe that we must also broaden our perspectives when we consider what we mean by insecurity and the potential for a humanitarian crisis. So-called ‘conflict’ can manifest at all sorts of levels; intra-national conflict, or conflict between major ethnic groups, is worthy of consideration, especially as it leads to displacement, which further exacerbates climate vulnerability and plays havoc with ecosystems.

Moreover, lower-level conflict can often have a negative impact, especially placing different kinds of strain on humanitarian systems including in zones or regions of the world not traditionally associated with conflict.

This reality was acknowledged by the leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum, where they declared “…climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific…”.

The Pacific Small Island Developing States, and I was with them in Fiji just leading up to Paris, they have pushed hard for the appointment of a Special Envoy on Climate and Security. Their aim is to put in place mechanisms that will allow them to forecast what future security threats might play out as a result of climate impacts in their traditionally peaceful region. And, this is an initiative I fully support as it aims to prepare for the future realities we know we will face.

The response to date in terms of how we, as an international community, prepare for the growing humanitarian needs that stem from climate change has been, I’m afraid, sorely lacking.

The Security Council had its first discussion on climate and security in seven years under the Swedish Presidency of the Security Council last July. This was followed last January with an open debate under the Dominican Republic’s Council Presidency.

I am acutely aware of the arguments against the Security Council dealing with this issue – encroachment on the mandates of other UN entities, the risk of securitisation of climate change, as well as a denial of climate change itself by some. However, we, The Elders, believe that is time that the Security Council caught up with the reality on the ground – the reality for the communities that Hindou Ibrahim gave voice to when she spoke to the Council.

Understanding climate risk should be an essential element of the Security Council’s prevention agenda. By deepening its understanding of how climate change is interacting with other drives in the individual country contexts on its agenda – or with the potential to reach its agenda - the Council can meet its responsibility under the Charter. Doing so does not mean that the Council is encroaching on the mandates of other UN entities, only that it considers all factors at play in a given context.

It’s encouraging that the Council has begun to move in this direction, with its recognition of the need for adequate risk assessment and management strategies relating to the adverse security effects of climate and ecological factors in a number of geographical contexts, including the Lake Chad Basin, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa.

However, in order for members of the Council to carry out their work, there is a need for a better understanding of climate related security risks across all of the Council’s files. This requires better reporting from the field that includes climate risk assessments as standard. Reporting needs to be integrated with an analysis of how the different drivers of conflict are interacting with one another. The inter-agency initiative established by the Secretary-General is a welcome move in this regard.     

Outside of the Security Council, the humanitarian community has recognised the challenges it faces in responding to the growing humanitarian needs as a result of climate change and conflict.

The World Humanitarian Summit Chair’s summary recognised that humanitarian assistance alone will never adequately address nor sustainably reduce the needs of the world’s most vulnerable people; rather, a new coherent approach is required based on addressing root causes, increasing political diplomacy for prevention and conflict resolution, and bringing humanitarian, development and peacebuilding efforts together.

In my view there are three elements that are needed to form the basis of this new approach.

Firstly, and this won’t surprise you, Climate Justice. This is a concept that I have championed for some time. It links human rights and development to achieve a human-centred - a people centred - approach, safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable people and sharing the burdens and benefits of climate change and its impacts equitably and fairly. Climate justice is informed by science, responds to science and acknowledges the need for equitable stewardship of the world’s resources.

Climate justice is a transformative concept. It insists on a shift from a discourse on greenhouse gases and melting icecaps into a civil rights movement with people and communities most vulnerable to climate impacts at its heart. Humanitarian action must put this concept at the centre of its efforts, particularly when engaging climate related impacts.

Part of this climate justice approach is a recognition of how men and women are affected by climate change in different ways. For example, in many communities women are the primary food producers and providers of water and cooking fuel for their families, so any changes in climate or disasters that affect these roles not only impact on women’s ability to provide but  also on the community as a whole.

It's for this reason that women must be at the forefront of the response. Women are best placed to identify the needs and vulnerabilities of their communities and should be consulted and should be involved in decision making in climate adaptation, humanitarian preparedness and response.

Climate Justice does not just cut across countries and societies. It cuts across generations – how we safeguard future generations. What kind of world do we want to leave to our children and to our grandchildren? Can we proudly stand here today and say that their lives will be more prosperous, more equal and fairer than our own? In fact, tomorrow’s leaders may well be frustrated and angry by our inaction today. We need to anticipate and integrate the needs and concerns of future generations to better inform the decisions that we make today.

So that’s the first point, Climate Justice. Secondly, we can no longer afford to regard the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement as voluntary, and a matter for each member state to decide on its own. And I was here when this was all negotiated, and I do believe this. It’s clear from the IPCC report that the full implementation of both the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement has become in reality imperative in order to save future generations from an increasing level of humanitarian disaster and need. Delivering on the goals we have set ourselves in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Climate Agreement as well as the Sustaining Peace Agenda would not eliminate the challenges ahead, but it would significantly improve our ability to address them. At the same time, without reaching the furthest behind we will never realise the 2030 Agenda.

The more just, equal, sustainable and prosperous societies envisaged in the 2030 Agenda would be better able to respond to the challenges of climate change. However, delivering on the promise of the SDGs will mean accepting profound changes to the way we live our lives. Are we ready for such a transformation? Making it happen will requires a change of mind-set at the global political level.

Limiting the increase in global average temperature to 1.5 °C would substantially reduce the risks and effects of climate change, particularly on those communities least able to respond. However, we must ensure that the most vulnerable communities, who face the worst impacts, have access to international support and financing for adaptation to impacts that will happen irrespective of limiting global temperature increases. Likewise, those working in fossil fuel industries cannot be left out. We need more funding for just transition, for adaptation solutions and for technology. The financing is there – I have absolutely no doubt of that. But we need to work harder and more collectively to make it work for those on the frontlines of climate change. 

Rebalancing our approach to peace and security in line with the Sustaining Peace Agenda means investing in early warning and prevention as well as tackling the root causes of conflict, including human rights violations. The Security Council needs to act before the first shots are fired. A ‘whole of organisation’ approach is needed from the UN but this must be aligned with inclusive nationally led processes as well as the efforts of regional organisations. In post conflict contexts, the Peacebuilding Commission has an important role to play in bringing all of these pieces together.

But how do we get this political will. How do we get this political will and sense of global solidarity needed to make this a reality? I believe it is through the emerging movement for climate justice, putting pressure on governments and on business, particularly the fossil fuel industry. It is heartening to see women leaders stepping forward, - and they really are stepping forward. Believe me, it’s amazing. I’m just really encouraged by this - school children striking and young people making their voices heard. Some, such as Extinction Rebellion, have taken to peaceful protest, and there’s increasing business and indeed investment leadership calling, indeed pressing, for more ambition from governments. Business pressing governments - because business does longer term thinking than government sometimes does. Governments are focused on the next election - six months, a year, two years. The importance of this growing climate justice movement is that it will call for a just transition to a world powered by clean energy, and climate actions that fully respect human rights.

And the third point is recognising that we know that climate change will drive humanitarian need, we should invest in measures that reduce vulnerabilities and increase preparedness and resilience to shocks, including climate shocks. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the implementation of which will be reviewed for the first time in this year’s Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction this May, provides a practical and tangible bridge between the development and humanitarian communities to prevent new and reduce existing disaster risks. The framework underlines the need for enhanced work to reduce exposure and vulnerability, thus preventing the creation of new disaster risks, and accountability at all levels for disaster risk creation. And most importantly, I believe, it identifies that there has to be a broader and a more people-centred preventive approach to disaster risk. Disaster risk reduction practices need to be multi-hazard and multi-sectoral, inclusive and accessible in order to be efficient and effective.

At the same time, the humanitarian community must continue to explore new tools and innovations that allows it to act early such as anticipatory financing, cash transfer programming and disaster risk insurance. We know that early interventions can greatly lessen the impact of climate related shocks – we need to become better at identifying opportunities to intervene before a looming risk transforms into a full blown humanitarian catastrophe. These initiatives should be seen as part of a much broader risk management approach that includes involves humanitarian, development, security and climate actors.

So, the three pillars I have outlined point to the need for an integrated approach, which puts the individual right at the centre of all our actions – not as a subject but as an active participant in their own destiny.

And this is very much the approach set out in Ireland’s new international development policy ‘A Better World’, where reducing humanitarian need sits alongside gender equality, strengthening governance and climate action as Ireland’s policy priorities. These are issues and above that actually, an approach, that I expect Ireland to highlight in its campaign for the Security Council in 2021 – 2022. And it’s also why I am very supportive of that campaign.

If we all fail to act now; if we fail to act decisively; if we fail to act together future generations will never forgive us for the world that we bequeath them.

I think a lot about that world. I have six grandchildren; the eldest is 15. They’ll be in their 20s, and their 30s and 40s in 2050. They’ll share the world with nine billion people, and I think a lot about that world and what they will think of us if we don’t use the window that we have.

I want to recall the haunting words of Hindou Ibrahim to the Security Council last July:

“For me, as one who comes from these communities, I see babies and young people growing up in this area and think about them in the next decade or the next 20 years. What will their futures be like? Are they also going to jump in the sea? Are they going to join terrorist groups? Or are they going to kill each other because, in order to survive, they have to eat? 

But I want to end with the words of the first chair of The Elders, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who when asked if he was an optimist answered “No, but I’m a prisoner of hope”. Because it is hope we need to give us the energy to go forward resolutely and to accept the challenge of this window of time that we have to transform to a world that will be safe for our children and grandchildren.

Thank you very much.

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