Climate crisis - First Minister's speech: 24 August 2023

First Minister's speech at first Scottish Global Dialogues lecture given at the Signet Library, Edinburgh on 24 August 2023.

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Thank you Mark, Secretary Kerry, members of the consular core, distinguished guests and the most distinguished guest, Mr Ricky Demarco.

Good afternoon to you all. Can I thank our friends at Beyond Borders and of course the Society of Writers to the Signet for organising this fantastic event, which will of course be, an annual series, a highlight in the annual calendar at The Fringe.

And my thanks to Secretary Kerry, of course, who is a friend of Scotland, who has been to Scotland on a number of occasions, and I understand that today marks something of a homecoming for you since one of your – I’ll get this right – great-great-great-great grandfathers John Forbes was a Scot who moved to Florida in 1763, so we’re delighted to welcome you back home to Scotland.

It reminds me of that famous saying, Secretary Kerry, there are two types of people in the world, those who are Scottish and those who want to be Scottish and whichever one you are, you are all welcome to this wonderful annual lecture series. I want to thank the audience for coming.

Since we are in Edinburgh in August, I’m very well aware of the fact that there are quite literally hundreds of other events going on this afternoon, so I’m really pleased to see this hall filled to the absolute brim and I’m honoured to be, in true Fringe style, the supporting act for this very, very important lecture.

I’m also pleased to be here in this absolutely magnificent venue. This library was built at a time, as Mark has already mentioned, at a time when the Scottish Enlightenment had made Edinburgh one of the, if not the, intellectual centres of the world. The paintings above us, in the centre of this room, show Scots like Robert Burns, like Adam Smith, whose tercentenary, of course, we celebrate this very year – they’re right alongside poets and scientists such as Isaac Newton, Homer. They speak to the idea that Scotland has much to contribute to the world but also much to learn from the rest of the world, too.

That sense of dialogue and exchange is still very much a guiding principle behind the Edinburgh Festival. It’s, of course, also the inspiration behind these new Scottish Global Dialogues, which the Scottish Government is very pleased, Mark, to support.

I love the concept of the Scottish Global Dialogues. We are, after all, a nation that loves a good gab, we love to chat, we love to talk and, yes, we love to debate robustly, our strongly held beliefs. We’re also an outward-looking nation – a nation that has and continues to contribute our ideas to the world for the common good.

I also want to point to one other very noticeable feature of this room. The large vase behind me, it’s called the Garnkirk Florence Vase. It was given to this venue in 1842 by the Garnkirk Coal Company – the Garnkirk Coal Company in Lanarkshire - because one of the writers to the Signet was a director of the company. 

It’s a reminder of the fact that Scotland in the 19th century was an industrial centre, as well as an intellectual centre. It also highlights the extent to which Scotland – over many generations – has contributed to, and benefited from, burning of carbon. And that, of course, is directly relevant to the theme of today’s event.

Last month was, according to the UN, the hottest July ever recorded in human history. Scotland has not been immune to that – over this summer, we have seen some significant wildfires. We’ve received a number of warnings around water scarcity. Just think about that – in Scotland, in dreich, wet Scotland, we have warnings of water scarcity. Let that sink in.

However, of course, even worse consequences have been felt elsewhere. We’ve seen drought, of course, in the Horn of Africa, wildfires in Greece, Hawaii of course, and Canada – our sympathies go to each and every single person that has been affected by those extreme weather events.

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, he said last month that “the evidence is everywhere: humanity has unleashed destruction”. And of course, these tragedies are occurring at a time when the earth is 1.2 degrees warmer than in pre-industrial times. The consequences of heating going above 1.5 degrees, or beyond 2 degrees, would be utterly catastrophic.  As you have said many times, Secretary Kerry, the world must act with an urgency which matches the scale of the crisis unfolding right now.

And the Scottish Government will play our part. When COP26 was held in Glasgow two years ago, Secretary Kerry played a leading role in that event. We stressed, as Scotland, that as a country which helped the world, helped lead the world into the industrial revolution, we would help lead the world towards a net zero future.

For Scotland that means three things in particular. First, we must, of course, reduce our own emissions as quickly as we possibly can. Scotland has set some of the most ambitious targets for cutting emissions anywhere in the world. And we’ve already halved our greenhouse gas emissions in the last three decades.

But we need to face up to the fact that the hardest part of our journey is still to come. So we have to go further and we have to go faster. Secondly, people need to know that the costs of cutting emissions are being fairly shared, and that there are potential benefits for everyone – through well-paid jobs, through cleaner air, through nicer towns and cities, and a restored natural environment. That’s part of what we mean when we use the phrase ‘just transition’.

There are, of course – and we have to be upfront, we have to be honest, there are some very tough elements to a green transition. Some of the choices we have to make will be difficult – for example, how we replace gas boilers in homes, how we move away from North Sea oil and gas, and decarbonise our agriculture and transport sectors.

So as we take those tough and difficult decisions, we also need to show that we are delivering benefits to people. And that’s a key aim of this Government.

And thirdly, what we must do, and finally, this concept of fairness - of a just transition - can’t simply apply within national borders. It also has to apply internationally. The countries which are worst affected by the climate crisis, are, of course, the ones who are suffering the greatest consequences, are the ones who have contributed the least to it. For example, the statistic is used quite often but I think it is extraordinarily powerful, the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa are responsible for barely half of one per cent of global emissions.

That’s why the issue of climate finance has become, and is, so totemic. It’s also why Scotland – following discussions and engagements with representatives of the global South – that’s why we have championed the issue of climate justice and loss and damage.  You can’t simply “adapt” to loss of life and loss of your way of life – to continuing droughts, to continuing floods. So the global north must recognise and help address the lasting losses and damages caused by the climate crisis. That’s why Scotland two years ago became the first global north country to commit funding to this crucial issue.

The injustice at the heart of the global climate crisis is also why Scotland established a Climate Justice Fund more than a decade ago. We were the first nation in the world to do so. When I was International Development Minister, I saw some of those early projects that fund supported in Malawi and Zambia.

And I’m also pleased that today we’ve been able to announce the start of our £24 million Climate Just Community programme in Malawi, Zambia and Rwanda. And the three organisations which will work in each of those countries are all here today – SCIAF, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, NIRAS and DAI.

These organisations will work with local communities – including with those in the most marginalised communities – so that they can identify their own priorities, and build their resilience to the climate crisis. We are looking forward to hearing and seeing that progress that they make.

The programme that we are confirming today of course is small in terms of the overall scale of the climate crisis.

But it is a significant commitment from a devolved government and it will make a real difference to the communities that we are pledging to work with. And it’s a further sign, I would suggest, of Scotland’s determination to show leadership and be a good global citizen. Let’s do our bit in tackling the climate crisis here in Scotland and across the world.

The role of being a good global citizen is one we take extremely seriously. For example Scotland is the European chair of the Under-2 coalition - a global alliance of more than 150 states, provinces, devolved governments which are committed to reaching net zero by 2050 at the very latest.

The coalition was created because most of the actions needed to reduce emissions and adapt to the climate crisis are taken by devolved or regional governments. So we need to support each other, we need to spur each other on, and also raise the ambition of national governments right across the world.

The under-2 coalition – with Scotland as a leading voice – will be a significant presence at COP28 later this year.  And as we do look ahead to that COP, which starts in just under 100 days, I know that we are all pleased to be able to hear from Secretary Kerry.

Secretary Kerry has been a lifelong campaigner on environmental issues.

He attended the first ever world Earth Day demonstration in 1970; he championed Senate legislation against acid rain in the 1980s; and as Secretary of State in the Obama Administration, he was instrumental in achieving the Paris Climate Pact of 2015. His appointment as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate in 2021 was welcomed, it was hailed across the world, as a sign that the United States would return to global leadership on the climate crisis.  Since then, Secretary Kerry has helped to deliver the Glasgow Climate Pact at COP26, and he will undoubtedly again play a crucial role as we approach COP28 in Dubai. His tireless energy, his enthusiasm, his genuine belief in tackling the climate crisis is an inspiration to many of us.

And as we look ahead to that COP, which will require urgent collective action, I want to end by looking back briefly.

Edinburgh in August is defined by its festivals. They are currently bringing joy and inspiration to the city. The very first festival was established in 1947. It was a direct response to the horrors of World War II. It was part of that global effort to build a better world which followed the catastrophe of the War. The same impetus, on a far greater scale, also gave us the United States Marshall Plan, it gave us the United Nations, it gave us the forerunners of the European Union.

The task we face now is to build a better world – not as a response to military catastrophe, but to prevent climate catastrophe. We arguably need to show even greater urgency, even greater initiative and even greater ingenuity than the post-war generation so admirably did. But their example can perhaps remind us that achieving significant, lasting and positive change is always possible, regardless of the odds against us.

Scotland, Secretary Kerry, ladies and gentleman, will play a constructive part in this worldwide endeavour. In doing so, we will work with partners right across the world. And we will always value and welcome the efforts of people such as Secretary Kerry.

Secretary Kerry, it is my genuine honour, my genuine pleasure, to welcome you here today. All of us are looking forward to what you have to say. Please, ladies and gentleman, join with me in welcoming Secretary Kerry.


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