International Climate Justice Conference, Edinburgh

On Wednesday I attended the ‘International Climate Justice Conference’ hosted by the Scottish Government at Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh. The dress code was listed as ‘business’, which for some reason amused me. The event was attended by around 150 delegates, drawn from the public, private and third sectors. Headlining the conference were Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond and the Former President of Ireland and now climate justice advocate Mary Robinson.

Alex Salmond didn’t actually manage to attend despite receiving prominent billing on the programme – he was instead in Windsor at the invitation of the Queen launching the Baton Relay for the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games – but in a video message used the event as a platform to announce that Scotland would double the funding of its Climate Justice Fund from £3M to £6M. But Mary Robinson was there, and used her keynote address at the start of the day’s proceedings to argue that “the time for radical leadership on climate change is now”. “Transformative leadership is needed, not business as usual”, she said.

As the day progressed this thought kept occupying me: where will this “transformative leadership” come from? The evidence from the UNFCCC negotiations suggests that it won’t come from the so-called ‘Global North’ who have frequently been called on to stand up because their current prosperity is most clearly linked to the exploitation of fossil fuels. There is certainly evidence that the EU is standing up for some leadership responsibility, but is it really “transformative”? The look it when compared with the global laggards, perhaps, but in real terms the consensus seems to be building that the EU has actually dealt itself an easy hand. The question of the role of nuclear energy in decarbonization must also be considered, particularly if we’re concerned with the inter-generational aspects of climate justice. The Scottish Government is clearly attempting to position itself as a leader, but will need to do more than host a conference and commit £6M to climate justice-badged development projects to earn its stripes.

So if not the governments of the Global North, could business step in with “transformative leadership”, particularly given that it has been the beneficiary of years of liberalization policy around the world? Ian Marchant, the Chairman of Scotland’s 2020 Climate Group and former CEO of SSE, the UK’s 2nd largest energy supplier, argued that “business can be a force for good” – and I wouldn’t disagree – but as the day went on it seemed clear that business will operate only within the constraints imposed on it by governments. ‘Give us a tough target to meet, and we know how to aim for it’, one business rep explained. That’s great, but it still isn’t “transformative”. Paul Westbury told us that his engineering consultancy firm Buro Happold were seeking to provide leadership, but the cost was half the profit of their competitors, and that you’d be hard pressed to find many in business willing to make that sacrifice. So he said there is a need to change the economic model driving business from one geared towards individual wealth creation to one geared towards collective wealth creation.

That leaves the NGOs, dozens of which were represented at the conference and who were the loudest voices on Twitter throughout the day. The term ‘climate justice’ emerged from this community, as Dorothy-Grace Guerrero from Focus on the Global South pointed out, and their voices grow louder every day. Arguably, they set the agenda with the 2002 Bali Principles of Climate Justice. So where are they taking the idea? I am currently working on a research project which seeks to cast light on this question among others.

As it was, the last word on the day (aside from the closing address by the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth) was given to Lady Susan Rice, the Managing Director of Lloyds Banking Group Scotland, who summarized the proceedings of an event on Tuesday night where Alex Salmond and Mary Robinson discussed climate justice with some 20 hand-picked representatives of the business community under Chatham House rules. Now wouldn’t it have been interesting to be a fly on the wall at that event?