Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas marking the 20th anniversary of IZES gGmbH

12.09.2019 - Speech

I am very happy to be here this evening – that’s how many of my speeches begin. What makes this one different is that, today, it’s really true.

I am indeed very happy to be here – because I feel a strong connection to IZES. It was a visionary project right when it was founded. At that time, the right parameters were set.

Albert Camus once said that

“real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.”

I think this fittingly describes the work of IZES. Anke Rehlinger has already pointed out how, sometimes, it’s not easy being ahead of your time. Certainly this was the case at IZES twenty years ago.

And you – IZES staff members and those who provide funding and support – contribute significantly to making the sentence “we need to do something about climate change” not ring hollow.

I, too, catch myself saying on a regular basis that “we need to do something about climate change!”

Yet political discussions on this topic often miss the big picture.

To illustrate how deceptive our first impressions can be, I would like to give you two examples, from places that I’ve visited in recent weeks, in my current function. Two places that, at first sight, could not be more different – namely, the Canadian Arctic and the Sahel region in the Sudan. When visiting these two regions within the space of two weeks, I saw clearly how, despite all of their apparent differences, they have a great deal in common.

Both are being directly impacted by climate change. And the effects on their people and the entire world are truly severe. In the Arctic, temperatures are rising at two to three times the pace of the rest of the world. The permafrost is thawing. In the Sahel, there is already now an increasing and ever more urgent lack of water and arable land. Simply put, this is making life there more and more difficult – also because the conflicts that people find themselves in due to these developments are getting harder and harder to solve.

These regions have one more thing in common: speaking with people who live there, I was fascinated to learn that they are entirely at the mercy of climate change. Being at its mercy is the right description, because these people’s behaviour can change very little, if anything. In the end, their fate depends on how others behave – on our behaviour, on what we do around the world.

These two places are certainly not the only ones that are feeling the impact of climate change. Unfortunately, more and more are constantly being added to the list. I think that today no one can deny that, in recent years, planet earth has been having us foot the bill for our actions.

I am happy that what’s been happening in those places, including the consequences for us, are increasingly becoming the focus of political and, above all, public debate.

Summer droughts in Europe, forest fires in Africa and Latin America, hurricanes in the Caribbean – the list literally spans the globe.

Extreme weather events are impacting more and more people in more and more places. It must also be said, as we saw in the last few days, that such events are destroying lives and threatening livelihoods.

Ladies and gentlemen,
To prevent this, we must “give all to the present,” as Camus put it. This is also a formidable task and challenge for policy-makers. However, I also want to say that it’s not all up to them. Because, to tackle this global challenge, we’re going to need help.

We need support from institutions such as IZES, which since its founding has championed the cause of climate and environmental protection, seizing on the phrase that is often invoked by politicians – we need to do something about climate change – giving it meaning and providing relevant instruments. The institute has been doing this for twenty years – also back when children attended school on Fridays.

Ladies and gentlemen,
In my first IZES speech, 20 years ago here in Saarbrücken, no one could have known how the institute would develop.

Mr Brand and many others will remember how part of what you had to do was fight for funding. Despite this, you also managed time and again to develop and grow your institution.

There is something else that I want to point out. I may perhaps be a better judge now that I also have a Berlin perspective on things. What began as a regional initiative has long since become much more than that. IZES is an important actor in the international energy and research community. Its reputation has spread far beyond this country’s borders, and so has the impact of its activities.

Crossing borders is, of course, one of the big issues that we must address right now. Currently, we hear much about “America first”; there’s also “Russia first”, and “China first”.

We’re feeling a certain push-back. In many countries, people are wanting to return to national decision-making – at a time when the challenges we face have one thing in common: they know no borders.

We currently have four major issues on our plate: there is economic globalisation and all of the social aspects that this entails; there is climate change; there is the digital transformation; and there is migration. All of these challenges are highly complex – and all of them know no borders.

So if, at the very time when policy-makers should be thinking and acting in broad and long-term ways, people wish to return to small, piecemeal and short-term ideas, then I think that’s a dangerous development. What we need instead is to find actual solutions for these challenges. We live in a day and age when the one thing we don’t need is a return to national patterns of thought. When we face problems that know no borders, we need cross-border solutions, and therefore international cooperation.

That’s why, ladies and gentlemen, the solutions that are being developed and proposed right now are so important. That’s also why it was so important to start this work early, namely twenty years ago, by founding IZES.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Climate policy long ago stopped being only environmental policy. For quite some time now, it has entered the domain of public policy. The fact that it’s being discussed in all sections of our society will reinforce this tendency. However, and this is something that’s particularly important to me, it has also become an important part of foreign and security policy.

That’s because the geopolitical effects of climate change are severe. Wherever people’s key life resources are threatened, conflicts are pre-programmed – the ones we see today and those that will arise tomorrow.

We know that climate change will destabilise entire regions of the world. If you want to address the reasons why people flee their homes, you must fight climate change. And, if you want to address the causes of future wars, then you must fight climate change.

We’ve adopted this as a priority at the Federal Foreign Office. And we are saying that, yes, this big-picture and long-term approach to climate change must become an even bigger part of our foreign policy. We must take forward-looking action, not only respond when it’s too late.

For this, we also need to invest more in scientific and research institutions. We must talk about this now, and decide to embark down new paths.

In all this, Germany and Europe should and must play a key role. Especially when others call into question their obligations under the Paris Agreement, we must even more strongly stand by the commitments that we made.

Ladies and gentlemen,
That is why I think it’s so important that next week – three days before the climate change summit at the United Nations – the Federal Ministers will be holding a climate cabinet meeting, at which we hope to reach agreement on ambitious and very concrete measures that are the subject of discussions and heated debate in Berlin right now.

The same is true when it comes to foreign policy – for, if I want to raise the international profile of climate and security, and if I want to remain credible, I will also have to do my homework here in Germany.

At the international level, we have used the opportunity we have been given as a member of the UN Security Council – a seat that we assumed at the beginning of this year, for a two-year term – to make the issue of climate and security one of the focuses of our work in this forum. We have already formed a group of like-minded nations that has meanwhile grown in size to 50 member countries. It’s interesting to note that many of them are small – Pacific island states that are already suffering severely from rising sea levels, but that are much too small and do not have enough influence to make their voices heard on their own. One of the things we want to do is give them a voice through our activities in that forum.

When I first had the privilege of taking a seat on the UN Security Council, the very first item that we placed on its agenda was climate and security.

I must say that, although the Security Council sees itself as the world’s primary body for crisis response, many in this forum convey the impression that they only want issues placed on its agenda when shots are fired, bombs are thrown and individuals have died. One of the things that we are campaigning for is to make the work of the UN Security Council more preventive.

That’s why we also want such prevention-related issues to be part of the Council’s regular business. That is not easy, because some of the representatives still believe that climate change is a Marxist conspiracy theory. It therefore becomes all the more necessary to have such bodies look for ways to prevent conflicts and crises in the long term. Climate change will play a very special role in this context.

Because I knew that some members of my audience would be difficult to convince, I brought along two photos to illustrate the points that I made in the Security Council: aerial imagery of our planet. One photo was decades old, and the other very recent. The decades-old one was green, and the other, present-day one, was brown. And I brought two other photos, as well: one of white ice sheets back then and one showing blue water today. I wanted to convince every last member that something is happening here.

After the meeting, Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, walked up to me and said that “the last time someone sat here in the Security Council and showed photos around it was Colin Powell, the former US Secretary of State, who wanted to prove that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Today, he’s ashamed of what he did, because it wasn’t true.” We agreed that it was a good thing that someone had now held up photos to underscore a factual point.

But this does show you to some extent how difficult debates in the international arena can be. Current discussions with the Government of Brazil, I believe, are a good example.

A second, related issue, although in a different sphere, is something else for which we want to step up our engagement in the United Nations – it’s what we’re calling an alliance for multilateralism. Precisely because there is push-back against international cooperation, because more and more countries believe they can solve their problems on their own, those who depend on international cooperation must get better organised. They must ensure that multilateralism will continue to have a future in an age when challenges are not restrained by borders.

Ladies and gentlemen,
The most important instrument that we have to limit global warming and thereby prevent conflicts is the path on which we embarked right here twenty years ago – discussing the energy transition, or to use the German term, the Energiewende. We need a global Energiewende.

Despite many difficulties, I think there is also cause for optimism here. Often during my travels, I am asked what Energiewende actually means, and what we’ve been doing for it in Germany over the past decades. The term now has a special ring to it – possibly comparable to what was once known as Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder.

For me, that’s a good development. Many are keeping a close eye on what’s happening here. Many things that have been developed over the past decades as part of the energy transition have long since become a top-selling export. They also, I should add, have created jobs here in Germany.

Today, more money is already being invested in renewable energies than in fossil fuels around the world. Studies predict that, from the mid-2020s, global oil production will see its first ever significant decline.

Today, we can say that the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel age has begun, and it’s an irreversible development.

The fact that IZES has so much energy transition expertise is an invaluable asset for all of us. In Germany, its research is helping us use our resources more efficiently. At international level, it is part of a transfer of knowledge that has probably never been more important than it is today.

That’s because many countries in the global south in particular could benefit from the energy transition. For them, solar, wind and hydro energy represent opportunities for development. That is actually something that I encounter time and again when I am in Africa, or in Latin America. All this is much talked about – but we must do a far better job of translating it into actual projects.

Ladies and gentlemen,
IZES proves every day what great potential it has for cooperation. It has long-standing international ties, and it conducts international research, both in and with other countries, including in Africa and Asia.

I will name only two examples:

Firstly, MENA Fuels. With this project, IZES is helping to create sustainable synthetic fuels through surplus solar power in the Middle East and North Africa. The project is exemplary because it strives to promote the global energy transition through German cooperation with different parts of the world, linking the north and the south – in what is ultimately a win-win scenario.

Secondly, there is the Rapid Planning project. All around the world, megacities are growing. Some of this growth is not being managed in any way, and the impact on man and nature is significant. IZES is examining how the growth of such megacities can be controlled in a sustainable way – in Asia, in Africa, and in Germany. It is also looking at ways for these cities to share information. This is similar to the Energiewende Partnerstadt project that receives Federal Foreign Office funding. Through it, we are promoting exchange among European cities that want to be at the forefront of the energy transition and serve as examples for others to follow.

We can discuss this new world of opportunity when we meet again next spring in Berlin, at the Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue that our Ministry is hosting. Many ideas will be presented at this event. That, too, shows how the issues of energy – not only energy transition – and of climate change are extraordinarily important for foreign trade and investment policy.

Ladies and gentlemen,
When I think of IZES, another famous image of Camus comes to mind. You will be familiar with it – it’s the myth of Sisyphus. Many of those who have worked here during the past twenty years have probably felt they shared his fate in being condemned to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of a mountain – namely, whenever people around the world ignored the threat of climate change. And when politicians placed short-term gain above sustainability.

However, despite the many setbacks and difficulties, I can assure you that your work, unlike that of Sisyphus, has not been in vain. It is you, after all, who have helped more and more people realise that the time has come to assume responsibility. To slow climate change and limit the most severe effects not only on the inhabitants of the Canadian Arctic and in the Sudan, but also for us in our everyday lives.

Ultimately, if we don’t act now, the impact will be far more costly than what some of us can imagine right now.

Ladies and gentlemen,
IZES has for twenty years been a true symbol of progress and innovation. The institute has, to say it once more with the words I quoted earlier, “given all to the present.”

I want to express my sincere thanks to all current IZES staff – and to all those who have made sure that this important institution exists. Something that everyone is talking about today was already set in motion right here twenty years ago.

Thank you very much indeed to everyone who helped make that possible!


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