Why we need more leaders like Desmond Tutu to champion action for climate justice

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a frontrunner in demanding climate justice for countries bearing the brunt of climate impacts. We need more world leaders to carry forward his legacy.

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Insight by 
Hannah Reid
Hannah Reid is a freelance consultant focusing on biodiversity and development, and climate change research
12 January 2021
Close up of a man speaking to a microphone and his hand raised. Behind him a sign says "climate hearing".

Desmond Tutu talking at COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark (Photo: Jens Astrup/Oxfam International via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

With the recent death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu the world lost an inspiration and a beacon of morality and hope. Much has been written about his leadership fighting the injustice of apartheid, but he is less known for his activism and demands for justice in the context of climate change.

Until 2000, climate change was largely seen as an environmental issue. Climate scientists and policymakers focused their efforts on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But poorer countries, their citizens and development NGOs were becoming increasingly concerned about the impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities.

Mitigation had dominated the climate conversation but adaptation soon started to pull attention in science and policy arenas. The ‘climate justice’ movement grew out of this focus on adaptation.

The Up in Smoke coalition first came together in 2003. Crucially, the group bridged the divide between environment and development NGOs in the context of climate change.

Development NGOs including ActionAid International, CAFOD, Christian Aid, Oxfam, Practical Action, Tearfund and WaterAid shared their knowledge of working with communities threatened by global warming, and fed this knowledge into the search for solutions.

Calling out the big emitters

In Tutu’s foreword to the second Up in Smoke report, focusing on Africa, published in 2005, he highlighted the devastating and disproportionate impact of climate change on the world's poorest people and countries, and the strength and creativity of African people in times of stress.

He emphasised the “moral obligation” of rich countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and provide support so Africans could build on their strengths.

It was groundbreaking to have someone so respected in humanitarian circles speak out so strongly on the injustice of climate change. His support was a huge boost for the Up in Smoke coalition. The Up in Smoke reports, later consolidated in the book 'Climate Change and Human Development', triggered much subsequent work on the links between climate change and development.

Tutu was one of many climate justice champions from the global South. When Saleemul Huq established IIED’s Climate Change group in 2001 he was clear that its focus should be on adaptation and the impact of climate change on the least developed countries. Huq’s services to combating climate change were acknowledged by the Queen with an OBE in this year’s New Year's Honours List.

While COP26 in Glasgow undoubtedly had its small victories, it cannot be claimed that climate justice was served. Atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise inexorably and promises of financial support for developing countries remain unfulfilled.

The devastation to countries most vulnerable to climate change escalates year on year. The need for climate justice, and leaders to champion it, are more apparent than ever.

About the author

Hannah Reid (hannah.reid@iied.org) is a freelance consultant focusing on biodiversity and development, and climate change research

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