Laurent Fabius listens to intro

Laurent Fabius listens to the introduction to the medal event at Edinburgh Castle by Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham MSP (Photo: Chris Watt)

In the week in which the UKCCC reported on Scotland’s achievement against climate targets, and on the day the RSGS ran its highly ambitious conference with the ECCI called ‘Bitesize’ to plan how Scotland could make the greatest difference to global greenhouse gas emissions reductions, we were joined by M.Laurent Fabius, previous Prime Minister of France, President of the French Constitutional Council and chief architect of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, whom we invited to receive the 2016 Shackleton Medal (along with Christiana Figueres and Manuel Pulgar Vidal).

Hosted by the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, guests made their way through a blustery night to the Great Hall in Edinburgh Castle.    With wind thrashing against the high windows, and a trio of young musicians playing in front of the giant hearth, an atmospheric evening was assured.

Guests hosted in the Great Hall

(Photo: Chris Watt)

The Cabinet Secretary led the way from a small ante-room into the main hall, with M. Fabius and his entourage, senior civil servants, and the RSGS Chair and Chief Executive, to get proceedings underway, welcoming everyone to the Great Hall and recognising the importance of the Paris agreement and the skill in its negotiation.

RSGS Chief Executive Mike Robinson then explained the purpose of the medal and the reasons for its award.

 “The RSGS is one of Scotland’s oldest and most dynamic small charities and for more than 130 years we have promoted the necessity of good geographical education, and encouraged research and awareness into critical geographical issues of the day.   In addition we have hosted talks by many of the greatest names in geographical science and exploration, and celebrated the very best of these through one of the most prestigious medals programmes of any organisation.    Remarkable people who have influenced both Scotland and the wider world like Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen, Edmund Hillary, Neil Armstrong; and more modern names like Wangari Maathai, David Attenborough, Yann Arthus Bertrand, Mary Robinson and more recently AIDS campaigner Annie Lennox.  

 “We are interested not just in the best of Scotland, but in the role that we play in the wider world and the global context in which we all operate.   We are particularly interested in the people who have inspired and contributed to addressing or understanding global geographical concerns.   The greatest of these concerns currently has to be climate change.    It is therefore fitting that we have spent the day today running an event with the ECCI called ’Bitesize’ discussing how Scotland can play more of a role in climate change globally, show moral and practical leadership in bringing about emission reductions (both domestically and internationally) and then help inspire others to do similar.

 “Tonight’s guest can rightly lay claim to have done exactly that.  

 “The Shackleton medal for leadership and citizenship in a geographical field is named after Sir Ernest Shackleton, one of the most famous polar explorers of all time, and a previous secretary of RSGS, doing the equivalent of my job in 1904-1905.    Shackleton was not only an inspiration to generations of people as an explorer, but he was recognised as a great leader, and it is that leadership we celebrate with the medal today.   Meaningful, inspirational leadership.

 “The recipients of this medal have definitely achieved that.   The Shackleton Medal for 2016 is jointly awarded to three of the critical actors in achieving a climate deal in Paris last year, at the 21st international UN Conference of the Parties (COP) on climate change.   Christiana Figueres – the UNFCC Executive Secretary, Manuel Pulgar Vidal, the Peruvian Environment Minister who Chaired the 2014 climate conference in Lima, and tonight’s guest of honour, M. Laurent Fabius – who was France’s youngest ever Prime Minister from 1984-1986, is the current President of France’s Constitutional Council, and who acted as the Chair of the Paris COP.

The RSGS Shackleton Medal

The RSGS Shackleton Medal

 “Shackleton himself famously stated that “Difficulties are just things to overcome after all…” Difficulties come in many forms of course, and it is as much Shackleton’s ability to manage his team as his ability to manage the obvious physical challenge that earned him his reputation.    Surely anyone who has tried to achieve anything by committee will recognise the difficulty of working out compromise, politics, sensitivities and disagreement to deliver tangible commitments.   Tonight’s medal is perhaps one of the most extreme & successful examples of this.

“This climate deal rode on M. Fabius’ ability to interpret the negotiations because if anything were to come out of the Paris meeting, it would be by unanimous decision. With the world’s attention on him, Laurent Fabius literally had to please everybody.

 “But in M. Fabius, there was a man who had played a key role in the recent and delicate Iran nuclear negotiations, the man who was first choice to replace Francois Hollande at the G20 summit in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks and a previous Prime Minister.    This experience and ability no doubt played a role, as delegates universally regarded him as exuding calm and as a good listener, and a safe pair of hands.

 “In the end, despite long and late negotiations lasting the entire fortnight, it came down to the team Chaired by M Fabius to pull victory from the jaws of defeat, as a last minute concern from the US and Chinese delegations threatened to undermine the deal.   But through strong leadership, vision and no nonsense diplomacy, a deal was done.  On December 12th 2015, at 7.16pm, two hours later than originally planned, Laurent Fabius returned to the stage, flanked by Christiana Figueres, Laurence Tubiana and other high-ranking UN officials. The last-minute compromises had been resolved, he said.   When he finally brought the green-topped gavel down on the final agreement, it looked as if his hand was visibly shaking with emotion.  Suddenly everyone was on their feet.   The room of international delegates erupted with cheers and relief and the sense that history had been made was palpable.    It will have repercussions for many years.   

“The Paris agreement does not in itself solve the climate crisis, of course.   But it is easily the most significant global deal of any kind to date.    And just last week the world’s two biggest polluters and the causes of that last minute hiccup, the US and China, said they would be signing the agreement along with those 27 or so countries that have already done so.   

 “So despite the enormity of the task the 21st Conference of Parties agreed the Paris document.   This recognises not only the need to limit climate change to less than a 2C threshold, but further acknowledged that a 1.5C was preferable and safer still.     Diplomatically it was a huge success. Climate talk is full of phrases about tipping points – maybe this moment will come to mark a tipping point away from fossil fuels and towards a new more sustainable future.   Only time will tell.    But it is thanks in particular to the groundwork laid so ably by Manuel Pulgar Vidal in Lima, to Christiana Figueres’s knowledge, commitment and passion, and to Laurent Fabius’s brilliant and delicate negotiation skills that this agreement happened at all and that it stands out as a shining example of international diplomacy on what is surely the most critical geographical issue of our generation.   

 “Christiana Figueres, previously Secretary General of the UNFCC was sorry she was unable to join the event in person, but sent a message to delegates : “The window of opportunity to stabilize the climate is quickly closing in on us and we must ensure that the risks we are incurring stay within manageable bounds.  Thus it is incumbent upon all of us to accelerate our actions now.  May this celebration this evening be another clarion call to action.”

Mike closed his comments by echoing this call.   “Scotland,” he said, “…has shown great willingness and leadership around this issue, and I believe can benefit by doing so even more.   I hope everyone here tonight will heed that clarion call, and perhaps as we have tried to explain during the day today, see it as an opportunity and as progress.   

As 18th century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated: “Those that are most slow in making a promise are the most faithful in the performance of it.”   It’s been fifty years since scientists told our political leaders about climate change, and 21 since the first UN climate change meeting in Berlin.   Let us hope those nations that are now signing up to the Paris agreement are indeed the most faithful in its performance.”

RSGS Chair Professor Roger Crofts then presented Laurent Fabius with the Shackleton Medal for his leadership in negotiating the Paris Climate Change agreement.


(Photo: Chris Watt)

Mr Fabius was honoured by the award, but was also insistent : “It is critical that as many nations as possible ratify this agreement and then work to help deliver their promises. This is the most important issue we face.

We will be presenting Shackleton Medals to the two other key players in the Paris COP21 – Manuel Pulgar-Vidal and Christiana Figueres – hopefully later in 2016.