Climate change and global governance: day one of the Council on Foundations’ conference


Peter Laugharn


Addressing climate change is a focus issue at the 2015 Council of Foundations’ annual conference in San Francisco, and one of its most eloquent proponents is former Irish president and UN human rights commissioner Mary Robinson. In a session entitled ‘There is No Planet B: Why a Healthy Environment is Essential for a Healthy Community’, Robinson was interviewed by Aspen Institute CEO and Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson. Their conversation drew on key conference themes on collaboration and innovation.

Speaking with clarity, humour and soft-spoken integrity, Robinson recounted her journey from human rights advocate to climate crusader. Climate, she noted, had not originally been on her radar screen as human rights commissioner, since it was the purview of another part of the United Nations. But she increasingly came to realize that harsh and unpredictable climatic conditions were eroding the rights of poor people and making their situations more tenuous.

Robinson recalled that it was here in San Francisco in April 1945, exactly 70 years ago, that the nations of the world had come together to create the United Nations, an unprecedented act of ‘innovation in governance’. The community of nations, sobered by two world wars, the Holocaust, and the dropping of the atom bomb, realized that new institutions and new agreements were necessary to ensure a lasting global peace. The three subsequent years saw the creation not only of the UN but also of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Marshall Plan, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While these institutions have had their ups and downs in the ensuing ‘three score and ten’ years, they have been the standard to which we aspire, and the glue that has held our system together in spite of many unforeseen shocks.

From Robinson’s perspective, we are now, 70 years later, at a similarly critical moment, and we need to call into being similar innovations in governance, this time to address rapid planetary warming rather than war. We need to call on not only scientific evidence and businesslike operational skill, but also solidarity and empathy. The emphasis of the current system on the interests of autonomous sovereign nation states can actually get in the way of attaining global solutions.

Robinson points hopefully to three important meetings this year as the foundation for new approaches. These are the Addis Ababa Conference on Financing for Development in July, the UN Post-2015 Agenda Summit in New York in September, which will finalize the Sustainable Development Goals, and the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December.

Robinson focused particularly on the Paris conference, which aims to accomplish four objectives. The first is to come to a binding agreement to keep the increase in average global temperature to two degrees Centigrade (we are currently on a path towards a four degree increase). The second is to bring countries to declare their own emissions reductions which will add up to the required targets. The third is to advance climate finance and technological breakthroughs. The fourth is to involve wide sectors of the world’s population in getting to the reductions, from provinces and cities to business to civil society.

Robinson sees a role for philanthropy in this work. Foundations can fund public education and advocacy in favour of the binding agreement and the country reduction targets, especially as she believes the initial proposed reductions will be insufficient and will need additional effort and pressure to come about. Foundations are experienced at funding civil society involvement in support of global goals, and will be well placed to fund mitigation and community resilience. There may be a role for more specialized foundations in promoting tech advances. Whether and how foundations might weigh in on the question of ‘global climate governance’ remains to be seen.

Isaacson reflected soberly that human beings are wired to respond to past crises – for example, World War II – more robustly than to future ones such as global warming. And many may not share Robinson’s optimism about the potential for innovation at the Paris conference. But it is hard to argue with her premise that we face a challenge of epic proportions, one which our current global institutions were not designed to address.

Peter Laugharn is senior adviser to the Firelight Foundation. He was executive director from 2008 to 2014.

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