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International Climate Justice: Achieving the Future


 “Formerly, the future was simply given to us; now it must be achieved.”

A lone fisherman paddles homewards on Lake MalawiA lone fisherman paddles homewards on Lake Malawi
© Sandra Mbanefo Obiago / WWF-Canon

With these powerful words drawn from Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, philosopher Henry Shue posed a challenge to all of us at the International Climate Justice Conference.

The conference – which took place in Edinburgh last Wednesday – was an initiative of the Scottish Government and the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice. It tackled some of the most intractable questions about equity and leadership at the core of the UN climate talks – moving away from the technocratic UNFCCC language of “common but differentiated responsibilities” to the more accessible language of fairness, self-respect and family ties.

­The Science

Despite all the soaring, inspirational rhetoric (and there was plenty of that) – the most striking presentation came from the usually dry and conservative world of science. Building on the latest IPCC report, Professor Anne Glover – Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission – stated that she is as certain that humans are responsible for the majority of climate change as she is about gravity.

Climate Leadership and Inter-Generational Justice

I found presentations on leadership by Henry Shue, Mary Robinson and Dorothy-Grace Guerrero of Focus on the Global South particularly memorable and they are worth watching back when they are posted online. Shue emphasised our duty to get away from a “you go first” mentality. This kind of self-serving argument is being eroded by climate action in emerging economies such as China and from many developing nations who refuse to be passive victims of climate change. He argued that ultimately the driver for climate action should not be national, individual or corporate self-interest but self-respect.

But what about the respect of others? Particularly future generations? What will our grandchildren say when they look back at our actions in 2013, 2014, 2015? asked Mary Robinson. What are our children already saying? As Anita Tiessen of UNICEF reminded us climate change is one of the greatest obstacles to realising children’s rights. Making sure that children’s voices are heard is critical.

Climate Justice in Scotland

It is hugely important that Scotland has clearly recognised its national responsibility on climate change. Minister for Climate Change Paul Wheelhouse emphasised that the country would take its place as a “responsible global citizen”, whilst First Minister Alex Salmond said that Scotland has “a duty to play [its] part” in addressing the problem of climate injustice. It was good to see the Government announce a doubling of Scotland’s Climate Justice Fund from £3 to £6 million (read some thoughts from IIED on what this can achieve) – a small sum but an important symbol. I was also interested to hear about Scotland’s on-the-ground capacity-building efforts in Malawi.

Unburnable Carbon

Another strong theme that emerged was the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground if we are to have any chance of limiting warming. This was an important message for the Scottish Government to hear as its North Sea oil and gas strategy and its climate justice leadership are not easy bedfellows. WWF’s own Samantha Smith – head of the Global Climate and Energy Initiativ -, made a powerful case for “systemic change in the energy sector.” This means getting out of fossil fuels and into solutions that we know are already viable – such as energy efficiency and renewable energy – where Scotland has strong ambitions.

Closing the conference Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth John Swinney stressed that climate justice starts at home and praised the cross-party support for Scotland’s 2009 Climate Change Act; a strong signal, he said, that no future government would renege on its long-term climate commitments and responsibilities.

The challenge now is for Scotland to make good on these promises, both to the global community and to ourselves.

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