Keynote Speech at the International Bar Association Annual Conference Showcase Session on Climate Change and Human Rights

October 22

Tokyo, Japan

Thank you for that introduction.

I am very pleased to join you today for this session on climate justice and human rights.

Your timing is impeccable. This year, the question of climate justice has taken on a new urgency.

As greenhouse gas emissions hit record heights, we have heard new warnings about the speed and extent of climate change.

We have watched as New Zealand rejected the world’s first climate refugee, only to grant residency to a family who fled their homeland because of climate change.
And we have seen Kiribati become the first climate vulnerable nation to purchase territory in another country, in preparation for the floods that will submerge their islands.

Every week brings more evidence that climate change is already changing lives. The drumbeat is growing stronger. But so is the grating sound of dissent from the mouthpieces of the polluting economy.

Climate change used to be the domain of concerned scientists and committed environmentalists. It used to be possible to have a reasonable discussion of scientific evidence, and to make sensible policy decisions – even if they inconvenienced the titans of industry.

What has happened?

The politics have got messy.

Fossil fuel firms – one of the most profitable, most influential and most protected industries in history – poured huge resources into anti-earth messaging. Dirty industries, used to abusing the global commons, threatened economic ruin if their free pass to pollute was revoked.

The age of information has brought greater scrutiny of governments and companies. But it also blurred the line between opinion and fact. Today you can get your all your news only from those who completely agree with you. And for every demonstrable point, there is an impassioned counter point; for every contested fact, a counter opinion.

The result is the kind of foolishness we see today: a dead-end argument where environment and economy are set as mortal enemies, and countries squabble over historic per capita emissions while the world burns.

In the five years since Copenhagen, environmental policy has grown more contested. As nations prepare to gather in Peru to draft a climate deal, we need all the voices we can muster to call for commitment, ambition, and all those other abstract nouns on which the fate of the world depends.

To break with our tradition of inaction, we need people from outside the movement to speak up.

Businesses and professions are essential advocates for progressive climate policy. Every time a respected financial or security institution talks about climate risk, the case for climate action grows stronger.

Governments are sensitive to risk – and that includes legal risk. So the legal profession will play a key role in driving climate policy. By drawing attention to the specific consequences of inaction, you can make the real implications of climate change a little more real.

The law is a living thing. Its evolution reflects the forces changing society – from human rights to equal opportunity. But the legal fraternity itself can also shape those forces.

In the United Kingdom, slavery was abolished by legislation, but only after the Somerset vs Stewart case declared that slavery had no place in England. The legal community also led the fight against big tobacco, securing the settlement that ended cigarette advertising. The Marlboro Man is now the man on cigarette packets without a throat.

Lawyers and the law have had a profound effect on the way things are done in society. Now they are adapting to frame our response to a changing climate; to temper the built-in inequality of climate change, and produce a more just outcome.
That is why I welcome the International Bar Association’s pioneering report on climate justice. By showing the clear connections between climate change and human rights, it makes a case for action that is not heard often enough: that the fight against climate change is not just a matter of earth science or economics, but fundamental human rights.

This is of particular interest to me – and to my people.

In workshops and white papers around the world, there are lots of abstract discussions about big concepts: climate migration, climate adaptation, climate justice.

But for Maldivians, these are not abstract problems. They are not distant concerns, to be filed away as something we will have to worry about later.

They are existential. The inundation of the Maldives is just a generation away.
When I was elected president, I caused some controversy by saying we would someday have to leave our islands.

I was hopeful then that we would be able to change the way our story ends. But I fear it is too late now for the Maldives.

The world has lost the window of opportunity to mend its ways. Big emitters have sentenced us. The world temperature will rise, and the seas will rise over our nose.

The Maldives is home to 350,000 people. We have lived, scattered across our distant archipelago, for thousands of years.

When our islands succumb to the water, we will leave. We will take with us as much of our culture and customs as we can carry. Our stories, our history, our food; our distinctive language, and its beautiful script.

But that will be nothing compared to what we leave behind.

We will leave behind our homes. Our streets. Our buildings.

We will leave behind the beautiful Friday Mosque, carved out of coral stone three centuries ago. We will leave behind the trees we grew up with, the sands we played on, the sounds we hear every day. The sea will claim those things, and with it, the soul of a people.

It is hard to put it into words – the feeling of losing what makes us us. On one of our islands, I met a lady who spoke with the wisdom only age can bring. “Mr President you can we can move a people,” she said; “but where will the sounds go? Where will the colours go? Where will the butterflies go?”

Ladies and gentlemen,

Adam Smith once said that ‘there is a great deal of ruin in a nation’. We are watching our own ruin. And we need your help.

If current trends continue, Maldivians will be amongst the first climate refugees. We will face issues of citizenship, sovereignty, and even reparations.

If our nation sinks, we will be forced to answer questions more familiar to Palestinians, Rohingyas, and Kurds: what becomes of a people without a territory? Can you have sovereignty and dignity without land? Can an independent nation exist on foreign soil?

And what restitution, if any, can be made for the damage done to us – damage we warned about, but did not cause?

I fear that these questions will be answered one day, not in the abstract, but in a court of law. And I fear that we, the people of the Maldives, will be the star witness.

So we look to the international community to provide legal protection, where it could not provide environmental protection. To build new defences against a changing climate. To help us prosecute those responsible after the fact, if they will not accept responsibility before it. And to strengthen democratic governance and human rights, the fundamental guarantors of a just society.

Some of you may be familiar with my story. I have been jailed and beaten; exiled and elected; feted and overthrown. I have seen my friends imprisoned, and my staff attacked. I have watched the spark of democracy snuffed out, and I receive death threats every day.

You do not persevere in these circumstances without healthy reserves of optimism. So let me conclude by saying this: there is still hope.

It may be too late to stop climate change, but there is still time to slow it down.
There is still time to change the world economy. There is still time to ensure our future development is cleaner than our recent past. There is still room to adapt, to grow, and to learn to protect ourselves all over again.

Our starting point should be our end goal: a zero-carbon economy. Rather than aiming to limit climate change to within a tolerable level, we should just stop polluting. In the Maldives, we had a plan – approved by the World Bank – to go completely carbon neutral by 2020.

On a global level, studies suggest a net-zero emissions economy is possible by 2050 – a timeline that is consistent with preventing the most dangerous climate change.

To build this economy, we need more renewables, more clean technology, more energy saving. We need to capture, store and distribute energy with 21st century efficiency, not Victorian machinery; to move from the age of extraction to the age of absorption.

We need to harness the disruptive brilliance of the tech sector to the clean energy ambitions of the environmental movement.

Markets may have failed to price carbon, but they are capable of bringing new technologies and industries to life with breathtaking speed.

Six years ago, the ‘App Store’ didn’t exist; last year, it made $10 billion in sales. Today, most of us carry more computing power in our pockets than the Apollo astronauts took to the moon.

These kind of exponential leaps are happening in the energy industry, too. The first hybrid car was launched in 1997; today, more than 9 million have been sold. Since 2008, the price of solar modules has dropped by 80%.

In a future run on decentralised and renewable energy, our grandchildren will laugh when we tell them that we used to power our economy by setting fire to prehistoric sludge.

Alongside this new energy infrastructure, we also need to build new defences against an already-changing climate.

Human history has been marked by efforts to master our surroundings, to create shelter where there was none, to find safety in the face of the storm. Now we must find ways to adapt to a climate which is more unpredictable, more intense, and more hostile to life.

When it comes to climate change adaptation, we should learn from the best: nature itself. The earth and the seas already provide us with the best protection: the coral reefs and mangrove forests which have preserved life for countless generations.

One of the lessons of the Indian Ocean tsunami a decade ago was that whilst human follies fail, natural defences, such as mangroves, work. They are the reason some islands and coastlines were spared, whilst others were destroyed.

In the face of rising seas, countries like the Maldives must grow gills. Alongside traditional adaptation programmes – improving buildings and managing flood risks – we must grow new corals, new reefs, and new mangroves. We must use innovative technologies to reinforce natural barriers; like the Australian-Bahraini team that is using 3D printers to print artificial reefs.

We need more coral nurseries, as they have in the Maldives and Malaysia, to help reefs recover. Just as selective breeding brought the Green Revolution to Indian paddy fields, we can genetically modify corals, to strengthen them against a changing climate.

These two efforts – building a clean economy, and rebuilding our natural defences – are already underway. But they can be kick-started by a new consensus on climate action. So we should continue to pursue a strong global agreement on climate change, in Peru this year and in Paris the next.

For the best part of a decade, UN climate negotiations have been stuck in a rut, with countries hiding behind labels, and few showing leadership.

A comprehensive deal will require developed and developing nations alike to abandon their comfortable entrenched positions, and have the courage to find common ground.

Ambitious countries should continue to work together, and chivvy along those who are falling behind history.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It may be too late to save homelands in Kiribati, or Tuvalu, or the Maldives. It may be too late to save the species which depend on stable temperatures, clean air, or placid seas. But it is not too late to change our ways.

There’s an old Chinese proverb which says the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second best time is now.

The best time to secure climate justice – for the people of island and delta nations, for the poorest and most vulnerable – was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

Thank you very much.


What do you think?

Name (required) :

Email (required) :

Website :