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Gabriel Silver Memorial Lecture: Climate change – the leadership challenge of our time

Columbia University, New York

“I urge leaders of the G20 to catalyse the growing momentum on climate change…”


President Bollinger, Dean Coatsworth, faculty members, guests and students.

It is a great honour to have been asked to become a Global Fellow at Columbia – and to have been invited to give the Gabriel Silver Memorial Lecture.
The distinguished roll call of previous speakers underlines the prestige of today’s occasion.

That first address in 1950 was given by General Dwight Eisenhower – at the time this university’s President before becoming President of the United States.

His wide-ranging speech was very much a product of his own military experience and the start of the Cold War.

But what stood out for me were the fundamental elements necessary for a peaceful future – justice, freedom and opportunity for all men; international understanding; disarmament; and a respected United Nations.

These same fundamentals provide the backdrop today for my speech on global leadership.

This is a field in which Columbia has a remarkable reputation. I am particularly grateful for the tremendous intellectual and scientific support that it has provided to the UN Millennium Project, which I launched as Secretary-General.

You have produced leaders not just for this country – as the present occupant of the White House again underlines – but across the globe.

In an age in which borders restrict neither opportunities nor threats, the sense of global community that Columbia strives to teach is more important than ever.

It is one of these global challenges – I believe the greatest of modern times – and the test of leadership it provides all of us, that I want to address today.

Climate change is not, of course, the only grave threat we face.

Conflict, famine, disease and the scandal of over one billion people living on less than $1 dollar a day should be a constant spur for action.

Each of these challenges will be made worse by climate change.

More severe droughts, for example, are turning farmland into desert, sparking conflict over scarce water resources.

Rising sea-levels will flood some of the world’s most productive land, worsening food shortages and may displace millions of people, mostly in poor countries.

Increasing temperatures are accelerating the spread of disease to new areas and populations, as the joint report from global and national medical organizations last week stressed.

Indeed, climate change risks becoming the main restraint on development, reversing the significant progress being made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

More work is needed to anticipate and measure climatic changes and their impact so that they can be managed. But it is clear that some impacts are already unavoidable, and that change is happening faster than predicted.

We now know that unless we quickly arrest rising temperatures, climate change will become irreversible with catastrophic results.

A report this summer from the Global Humanitarian Forum, which I chair, began to chart the human impact of climate change.

It documented the damaging, often disastrous, effects of climate change on hundreds and thousands of people – overwhelmingly in the poorest groups in the poorest countries.

This was the message from the President of the Republic of Kiribati whose Pacific Ocean country is already being swamped by rising sea-levels.

“We will all have to leave our islands,” he said this summer. “We thought we had a century to think about this but the time frame is becoming ever shorter”.

Time is running out. It is why yesterday’s Special Summit of the United Nations called by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was such an important and necessary step.

And why I urge leaders of the G20 to catalyse the growing momentum on climate change.  Responsible for the vast majority of global greenhouse emissions, agreement among them in Pittsburgh will go a long way towards the success of the Copenhagen conference.

Even though there is now widening agreement among our political leaders that deep cuts are needed in global greenhouse gas emissions, this has not yet led to the tough political decisions and radical actions needed to address this challenge.

This is deeply worrying.

It is essential in advance of the Copenhagen meeting in December, to create the political momentum required for complex and detailed negotiations to succeed.

By success, I mean establishing a strong political framework for ambitious, cooperative action to confront the climate challenge.

The post 2012 agreement must be global, effective and fair, with climate justice at its heart.

For it is a tragic irony that the countries which have done least to cause climate change are those which will suffer most from its impact. They are also least resourced to protect their people.

The overwhelming majority of those most threatened by climate change live in the poorest countries in Asia and Africa, or on small island states.
Yet the world’s least developed countries have contributed less than 2% of the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

As we approach Copenhagen, there appears to be an emerging consensus that global emissions be cut by 50% from 1990 levels by 2050.

But that’s not enough.

Industrialized nations need to find innovative ways to reduce emissions dramatically, within the range of 25 – 40% by 2020.  They have the intellectual, technological and financial resources to do so.  I welcome the new Japanese Prime Minister’s commitment to this end, and hope that other major industrialized countries will step up to the plate as well.

The big emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Mexico feel passionately that their economic prospects must not be penalized. They are right, but they too must lower emissions relative to a ‘business as usual’ scenario.

As for the least developed countries, they have, in theory, scope to increase their emissions. However the way forward is to secure economic growth and social progress without a proportionate increase in emissions.

Least developed countries deserve financial incentives to benefit from the role they can play in contributing to global emission reductions, including through sustainable land use, forest protection or reforestation.

Fairness means implementation of the “polluter pays” principle. This should apply to countries, to companies and institutions as well as to individuals.

Fairness also requires accelerated support by industrialized countries for mitigation and adaptation measures in developing countries. They need help to protect their citizens from the impact of climate change now and the inevitable acceleration of these changes in the future.

This must include not just a major increase in funding – in addition to existing development aid commitments, which are currently not being met and must fully be met – but also a transfer of knowledge and technology.

Issues that still need to be resolved include the cost of adaptation and how it is measured. How much more money is needed. How it will be raised. And how it is then managed and accessed.

But one thing is already clear. The sums so far committed are simply nowhere near enough.

Nicholas Stern estimates the cost of action on climate change in Africa alone will amount to $30 billion a year by 2015, rising to between $50 and $100 billion a year by the 2020s, with adaptation needs taking the lions’ share.

So I welcome the call from the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for support of $100 billion a year by 2020 – with money coming on stream from 2013.

But we are a long way yet from mobilizing the money, let alone reaching binding agreements that will provide developing countries with a predictable and sustainable level of resourcing.

These extra funds will have to be raised from new and innovative sources, including the carbon market. We need to put a price on carbon, not just as a way of providing funds, but also to provide real incentives to reduce its production and consumption.

The point is that leadership has never been more needed than it will be in the coming weeks and months.

It needs political leaders to demonstrate vision and courage, to manage the threats and grasp the opportunities. To put aside narrow national and sectional interests.

Above all, we need leaders to focus on the long-term and the wellbeing of future generations, and ignore the usual electoral cycles which all too often restrain action.

Where will this leadership come from?

The US is the indispensible nation. China may have already overtaken it as the world’s biggest source of carbon emissions, but the US’s per capita emissions are still over four times as big as China’s, and twice as high as Europe’s.

President Obama has said about climate change, “the science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear” and that “delay is no longer an option”. He has expressed his determination that the US leads the world to a new era of global cooperation on climate change.

It would be tragic if his willingness to lead on the global stage was undermined at home. We must help him succeed.

So too must other Heads of State.  Each Head of State or Government has a responsibility to give clear instructions to their negotiators to make a deal in Copenhagen.

But leadership should not be confined to politicians.

The business sector, and US corporations in particular, have a major responsibility to minimize the negative impacts. They also have an opportunity to invest in clean energy and infrastructure, whether here at home or in developing countries.

This country’s genius and technological capacity means it will provide many of the advances which will help us combat climate now and in the future.

This also requires business leaders to ensure their pursuit of profit does not result in unnecessary barriers that will prevent developing countries from accessing the knowledge and technology they need to lower carbon emissions.

The academic world can lead, as Columbia is doing, by bringing different disciplines together to find solutions. Just as climate change ignores national borders it also does not stop at departmental boundaries.

And as individuals, you can make a contribution by the choices you make every day. Lead by example. Modify your behaviour and your consumption patterns to reduce your carbon footprint – whether in terms of the food you eat, the transport you use, the energy you consume.

Do consider courses and even careers that will engage you in providing solutions to the climate challenge.

Lobby your congressman or woman to demand an ambitious, effective and fair climate change agreement.

Network through social media to inform people what they can do about the climate challenge.

Get involved with one of the many civil society and grass-roots organizations that are tackling the climate challenge. Mobilize your family, friends and local community.

Join the million-plus who have already signed up for the tck,tck,tck global campaign for climate justice.  Launched by the Global Humanitarian Forum and other NGOs, the campaign aims to raise public awareness and demand a fair, global agreement in Copenhagen.

Through our actions and our voices, we can create such a noise that our leaders will not be able to ignore it, nor want to. Good leaders must also be good followers.

But just in case you think I am getting carried away, I have no illusions about the difficulties we have to overcome.

One of the striking features of that inaugural address from General Eisenhower when tensions were high was his optimism.

“What actually is the outlook today,” he asked towards the end of his speech.

“In my opinion”, he answered, “far better than most of us normally judge.”

I share his optimism and belief in the ingenuity and determination of mankind to overcome the barriers to advancement.

I believe as well if the global community can come together to tackle climate change fairly and effectively, it can provide the basis for a new age of international understanding and co-operation.

And one of the reasons for my optimism is sitting all around me. You are the first generation who can genuinely call yourselves citizens of the world.

Your leadership and action will decide the health and happiness of millions of people across the globe. It is a big responsibility.

But it is your world now. You must have the courage to change it for the better.

I, for one, have every confidence that you are up to the task.


“If the global community can come together to tackle climate change fairly and effectively, it can provide the basis for a new age of international understanding and co-operation”