Robert Guest, US Editor - The Economist, in conversation with: Mary Robinson, Chair - the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice (MRFCJ) & the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Climate Change.

RG: Billions of people in emerging markets are becoming middle class for the first time. This is obviously a good thing, but it puts strains on the environment—as people grow richer, they tend to emit more greenhouse gases. At the forum you asked: “How do we accommodate the right to development in the context of our world today?” Can you answer your own question?

MR: You’re right to point out that people do tend to emit more greenhouse gases as they grow richer. But what we need to do is stop taking this as a given, and work towards developing our world’s economies in a sustainable way.

The growth of a middle class in countries like India is welcome, but climate change threatens this newfound prosperity. We saw such a threat in India in the summer of 2013, when monsoon floods tore through northern parts of the country, leaving 5,700 people missing, feared dead. The deluge toppled homes and destroyed agricultural land and essential harvests, undermining basic human rights to shelter, food and life.

I could point to other examples of extreme weather that have hit the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest. Severe droughts in Namibia have led to starvation. Typhoon Haiyan left much of the population of the Philippines helpless, despite that country’s commendable efforts to mitigate and adapt to such disasters.

To me, the only acceptable response to such events is clear: most fossil-fuel reserves must be left in the ground. We need to see a just transition to a low-carbon economy. By that I mean that the parts of the world which have benefitted the most from burning fossil fuels in the past must be the ones to set strict limits on the amount of carbon they emit in the future. And new emerging economies must find new ways to grow without polluting as much as the rich world did.

The opportunities of a low-carbon economy are tremendous. The renewable-energy sector will create all kinds of new jobs. And if we get it right, future generations will have the same options in life as we enjoy, without the constant threat of climate-related disasters around the corner.

To enable all the world’s citizens to exercise their right to development, without suffering from rising temperatures and weather shocks, all nations need to be equipped to engage in a low-carbon economy. Free worldwide access to breakthrough green technologies is therefore essential. We must work together with ambition and urgency to deal with the climate crisis. National and international leaders should take charge and, through their actions, encourage a sustainable way to live.

RG: How effectively do you feel the G8 addressed your question?

MR: In their post-meeting communiqué in 2013 the G8 leaders recognised climate change ‘as a contributing factor in increased economic and security risks globally’. It was encouraging that they acknowledged the urgency of the problem – the need to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by the end of this decade, and work towards a low-carbon world. But as positive as the statement was, unfortunately it didn’t go far enough.

My Foundation (the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice) looks at the injustice of climate change – the fact that those who contribute least to the problem are the same people who are most severely affected by it. In doing so, we see the links between climate change, human rights and development. As I said at the Zamyn Cultural Forum session ‘Lessons for the G8 Members’ just before the G8 meeting in June 2013, we have an unprecedented opportunity in 2015. Two agendas – the post-2015 development agenda and the global climate agreement – are due to be concluded that year. So it is time to act. If we understand that our future climate can have an enormous impact on global development, we can forge agreements which reflect the need for equity in the way we grow our economies, and which assist those whose livelihoods have been put most at risk from climate change. I hope that in the near future G8 members will come to the same conclusions as I have. Equity and the rights of the most vulnerable need to be at the centre of any new global policy agreements if we want justice for all.

RG: Is the G8 the right body to be dealing with global warming? Given the complex relationship between developed and emerging economies, what sorts of organisation(s) do you think can most effectively tackle global environmental problems? Who should be held accountable?

MR: Members of the G8 consist of some of the biggest per-capita emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. I believe an equitable and ambitious approach to tackling global warming would not be possible without the support and active participation of these nations, so I believe the involvement of the G8 is imperative. The annual Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is mandated to deal with climate change. It is at times a strained process, but it is a necessary one. Other fora, such as the G8, can and should support it.

The global influence of the G8 members is vast, and it provides them with an opportunity to lead. I believe they should do this in two ways: what I call the ‘we can’ and ‘we must’ approaches. The ‘we can’ approach emphasises the opportunities that a low-carbon future presents, and outlines how it can be achieved. Global leaders have a chance to highlight this message, and reassure their nations that a move away from fossil fuels doesn’t spell the end of prosperity, but rather opens up the doorways to new, more sustainable methods of growth.

The ‘we must’ approach emphasises the moral imperative we all have to achieve justice for future generations. Science tells us that, should we continue burning fossil fuels at our current rate, the planet will heat up by 4°C. Failing to act now will leave devastating consequences for the people who follow us – our children and grandchildren. Acting now gives them a chance to enjoy the same opportunities in life as we do, without the constant threat of climate change of unimaginable proportions. The Leaders’ Summit which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will convene in September 2014 also provides a unique opportunity to foster the ambition and urgency required if a 2015 climate agreement is to be effective. I hope that all attendees realise the need for ‘we can’ and ‘we must’ approaches to climate change.

The threat from climate change is enormous and long-term. But there are actions we can take right now to help those on the frontlines of global warming.

Our response, as a society, has to be based on an understanding of the continuum between mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage. The more we limit the greenhouse gases we emit into the atmosphere, the more feasible and affordable adaptation will be and the lower the risk of unavoidable loss and damage.

With this in mind the global community needs to make the transition to a carbon-neutral economy. Commitments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions need to be delivered, accounted for and increased - not reduced. That is why I believe we all need to be held accountable for the commitments we make. Such accountability is crucial if we are to build a just and equitable world.

RG: What constraints do you think it appropriate to place on profit-seeking private corporations for the sake of the environment? How do you measure which ones are justified and which ones are not? Please give examples.

MR: The United Nations has made progress in recent years in recognising the responsibility of business to respect human rights. The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights outline the role that companies can play in preventing human-rights abuses. These principles were unanimously endorsed by the Human Rights Council in 2011 and have been widely and rapidly adopted by diverse stakeholder groups.

In my view, they should also specifically address the human-rights implications of climate change. This would provide important guidance to corporations in monitoring the effect their actions have on the environment. Measuring the constraints placed on business in terms of their effects on human rights, and in turn, climate justice, can provide us with a benchmark for which constraints on business are justified, and which are not.

The Guiding Principles make clear that all businesses have a responsibility to put in place policies and processes to respect human rights. All of these measures should apply equally to climate justice – for example:

a) A policy commitment to minimise greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, which cause climate change and undermine human rights. This commitment could also include adapting to climate change and building resilience in the face of climate risks.

b) A due diligence process which assesses the impact of business activity on the environment and human rights. This would seek to minimise the contribution of business to GHG emissions while maximising investments and actions to increase resilience to climate change and accelerate the transition to low-carbon development.

c) Business engagement in processes to remediate the negative effects of climate change on human rights. This could be through support for adaptation and disaster risk reduction or through remediation of unmanageable climate impacts such as extreme events (like Typhoon Haiyan), sea level rise or glacial retreat.

It is not yet possible scientifically to attribute responsibility to a particular state or business. But most corporate leaders accept that all fossil fuels are contributing to the problem. That should be enough to make them respect the human rights of those whose lives, livelihoods and cultures are at risk--and take measures to protect them.

So 2014 can be and needs to be a year of action. A year in which business, working with a range of partners, shows political leaders what can be done, demands of them the policy certainty needed to transform the global economy, and makes them feel supported in committing to grapple with climate change.