26 March 2019

Climate justice for the world's most vulnerable people

Richard Deverell, our Director, on Kew’s commitment to minimise the impact of climate change, and why we’re awarding this year’s Kew International Medal to Mary Robinson for her work on climate justice.

By Richard Deverell

Plants and fungi underpin our very existence.

They are the food we eat, the fuel we use, the materials we rely on and the medicines that heal us. They are the cornerstone of entire ecosystems. All life depends on plants.  

Humanity's greatest challenge

The last three decades have seen changes to our climate become apparent at a scale and level of variability not seen in the past 850,000 years.  

The incredible biodiversity of the natural world is being eroded. Extreme temperatures and rising sea levels are causing significant changes to our environment. Pests and diseases are adapting and affecting crop yields faster than we can protect them. Our scientists in the field are coming across plants that are near to extinction.  

Of course, climate change is complicated. Despite many brilliant scientists’ best efforts, we are only just beginning to understand the longer-term environmental consequences. We know even less about the inevitable impact on human life.   

Unfortunately, the people most likely to be affected by climate change are often the world’s most vulnerable. Severe weather events are forcing people out of their homes, pressuring strained resources and inflaming regional fragility. 

As our population soars, we face questions around how we are going to feed growing numbers of people in a healthy, nutritious and sustainable way. I worry about the implications for both food security and the incomes of families who depend on agriculture.  

As we learn more about the impact of our changing environment, we’re finding that the social and economic consequences of climate change have been grossly under-estimated

Madagascar forest
Madagascar forest, RBG Kew/William J Baker

Climate justice

The climate justice movement urges us to take a human-centred approach to tackling the challenge of climate change. It accepts that significant and urgent changes are needed in the way that we live our lives. It asks that the human impact of the changes required to reduce the impact of climate change are considered, and that the benefits and burdens of those changes are shared fairly and equitably, protecting the world’s most vulnerable people. 

Supporters of climate justice ask that countries that have benefitted from the exploitation of our natural resources in the past take more responsibility for combating the effects of climate change in the future. They acknowledge that the world’s poorest countries may need support to develop their economies without having a detrimental impact on the environment, ensuring a sustainable future for their people and the planet. 

They want those responsible for making decisions about our climate to be held more accountable – to be transparent about how those decisions are made and to consult with those ultimately affected.  

A man is harvesting coffee by hand in south-west  Ethiopia.
Harvesting coffee by hand, south-west Ethiopia. Credit: Alan Schaller, Union Hand-Roasted Coffee.

A global movement

At Kew, we have over 300 scientists working around the world researching and conserving plant and fungal diversity, assessing responses of ecosystems to climate change and studying the impact of deforestation and the relationships between communities and natural resources. 

I’m proud of our commitment to minimising the impact of long-term climate change on humans and to preserving the rich biodiversity of planet earth. 

We work in partnership with over 100 countries to help assess the impact of change on local ecosystems. Together we study the effects of deforestation, the relationships between communities and their natural resources and advise where decision-makers can best make a difference.  

We also celebrate the passion and achievements of leaders who are committed to this mission through the Kew International Medal. 

Researchers looking at plants in Colombian Paramos

Kew International Medal 

This year, we are awarding the Kew International Medal to Mary Robinson, a long-standing champion of climate justice and founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice.  

Mary’s work demonstrates how dependent humanity is on the ecosystems that surround us, and the impact of the increased threat to their existence. Like Kew, she is committed to meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals on biodiversity, agriculture and food security. She believes in supporting the next generation of scientists and climate activists and is working alongside them to demand that we make better use of our planet’s most precious resources. 

This work is closely aligned with Kew’s mission and values. I share her belief that science, politics and everyday lives are interconnected, and I am delighted to honour her by presenting her with this year’s Kew International Medal.

Mary Robinson
Mary Robinson, Kew International Medal winner 2018

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