“Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

-Desmond Tutu

We were greatly saddened by the recent passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a passionate advocate of fairness and peace in every area of life, from religious and racial tolerance, to environmental protection and equality. In 2014 we were honoured to publish an article written by Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson for The Geographer calling for greater European leadership on climate change, which we re-share in honour of his life and work. 

Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu

From recent flash-floods in Britain and France to summer wildfires across Southern Europe, the threat is coming into sharper focus. The impacts of climate change are here, on Europe’s doorstep.

Europeans are worried. In recent weeks, devastating winds and floods throughout Western Europe caused trauma to their victims, raising further concern about extreme weather events, but it’s the big picture that alarms the population at large: in a future defined by our success or failure to tackle climate change, are today’s leaders ready to act?

Nine in ten European citizens now consider climate change a ‘serious problem’, a Eurobarometer poll revealed in March.

European heads of state have begun discussing a package of new climate-related measures and targets for 2030 – one of the first in a delicate sequence of international events and summits over the next two years, concluding with a major conference in Paris, in December 2015.

What happens in Brussels could have life-or-death repercussions for millions of people now and billions more in the future. Climate change is a slow, grinding crisis, but urgent action is needed to defuse it.

The EU has often been the driver of the world’s ambition – morally, politically, economically – in tackling climate change. There have been setbacks, but its overall record is a model to others on the world stage. Its leadership has created the space for other blocs, such as the world’s least developed countries, to make themselves heard. And Europe cannot falter. The targets decided now will set the terms for further negotiations. Europe must seize the opportunity to act now and create momentum towards a robust, universal, fair and legally-binding agreement in Paris in 2015.

The implications of climate change are vast and complex, but two things are clear.

If the EU agrees a package, it will have a chance to lead discussions at a major summit convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York this September. And if Europe does not lead, who will? The signals are that the other great powers may not be ready to speak out. This risks leaving many of the more vulnerable – and more outspoken – small islands, least developed, and Latin American countries without an ally.

And the target itself should be ambitious enough to be meaningful. The European Commission’s current proposal of a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 on 1990 levels is not enough to guarantee Europe’s status as a leader in climate negotiations, or to meet its own objective of reducing its carbon emissions by 95% in 2050.

With clear, strong policy signals and targets, European businesses can boost their competitiveness. The United States and China are also making leaps and bounds in adapting their economies to meet climate targets, and Europe is losing ground. Those two countries now lead the world in wind power capacity, and are catching up with Germany and Italy, the world leaders in solar energy. European businesses must be given the conditions to compete or may lose their edge completely.

We aren’t naïve. We know it is complicated to negotiate an agreement among 28 countries. But as Elders, we believe leaders’ decisions must be accountable to moral imperatives. Addressing climate change is also a matter of justice. If we are to be true to our commitment to human rights, then rich nations owe a fair and honest deal to the world’s most vulnerable regions. The people on climate change’s frontline have often done the least to cause it.

This means reducing the suffering of those worst affected and acting now to avoid further suffering in the future. It also means sharing technology, funds and solutions to help vulnerable countries and communities to engage fully in the transition to a low-carbon world. As the cradle of the industrial revolution, Europe created our carbon-heavy world and must lead the world into its next, low-carbon, safer and more caring chapter.

As Elders, representing different parts of the world and a shared moral compass, we would like to encourage and support leaders in the EU to act in the interests of their own citizens and the citizens of the world. Strong action on climate change in Europe will help EU members to maintain their competitive edge and be ‘ahead of the curve’ in the transition to low-carbon development. It will also help the countries and communities least responsible for the causes of climate change to make their voices heard in partnership with a strong ally; an ally that acknowledges and acts on their responsibility for carbon emissions.

Current and future generations, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, need the world to act decisively now to avoid dangerous climate change. The EU is well placed to create the positive momentum needed to enable others to act. Tackling climate change is in Europe’s economic interest. It is also a chance to display leadership at its finest.