The Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen once wrote, “A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.” With our global ship being tossed by the stormy and dangerous waters of climate change, each of us must be ready to display appropriate and realistic leadership.
The late Kofi Annan once said that climate change is the “existential issue of our time.” A wave of extreme weather events this past summer – from wildfires in California and Sweden to floods in India and drought in Australia – show just how right he was. And, as Annan also understood, addressing this crisis does not mean only protecting the economy or even the environment; it also means defending justice, preserving human rights, and committing to social solidarity.
For more than four decades, these values have motivated my work to advance sustainable development at both the national and international levels. In the 1980s, while serving as Norway’s prime minister, I chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development, at the invitation of then-United Nations Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. The Commission’s 1987 report, “Our Common Future,” became a landmark document that brought sustainable development to the attention of presidents, prime ministers, and finance ministers worldwide. It spurred the 1992 Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, and it continues to influence global discussions.
Today, I write as a member of The Elders, a group of independent leaders founded by Nelson Mandela to work for peace, justice, and human rights. Climate action is integral to progress in all of these areas.
We know what needs to be done. Carbon dioxide emissions must be taxed and reduced. Fossil-fuel industries must have their subsidies cut off. And financial support must be delivered to the least-developed countries that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, despite having contributed almost nothing to the problem.
Why aren’t these steps being taken? With a few regrettable and conspicuous exceptions, world leaders recognize the reality of climate change. They see the damage extreme weather events can inflict on homes, infrastructure, and livelihoods, and they hear climate scientists’ warnings that conditions will only deteriorate.
But a sufficiently bold climate strategy demands courage and political commitment from leaders. Moreover, such strategies must be continuously updated to reflect changing socioeconomic realities – from globalization and artificial intelligence to greater awareness of gender and race discrimination – in order to secure the support of citizens, especially younger people.
Of course, ordinary citizens – again, especially young people – also have a responsibility to help bring about effective climate action. The challenges the world faces may appear overwhelming, but the job of its citizens is simple: engage. This means changing their own behaviors, including by voting, demanding more action from leaders, and even stepping up to lead themselves.
In his searing study of human courage and cowardice, “An Enemy of the People,” the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen wrote, “A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.” With our global ship being tossed by stormy and dangerous waters, each of us must be ready to display leadership in an appropriate and realistic way, whether within our local community or at the national or international level.
We already have charts that can guide us toward safety. The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, agreed by all 193 UN member states in 2015, cover all of the interconnected elements of human life and development, from health, education, and the environment to peace, justice, security, and equality.