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ClientEarth Communications

18th May 2023

In conversation: Professor Tommy Koh and Laura Clarke OBE on using law and diplomacy to address climate change and biodiversity loss

Two esteemed career diplomats were brought together at the historic Temasek Shophouse in Singapore to talk about how law and diplomacy play a role in addressing climate change and biodiversity loss.

Organised by the Asia-Pacific Centre for Environmental Law (APCEL), the dialogue session between Singapore’s Ambassador-At-Large Professor Tommy Koh and ClientEarth CEO Laura Clarke OBE was captivating.

Among the audience were high level members of the diplomatic, philanthropic, academic, finance and legal community in Singapore. Against the backdrop of a three-story tall vertical garden, audience members were treated to rare insight from two diplomats on how the international community is confronting these existential issues.

Professor Koh was Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the UN and Ambassador to the United States of America in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He was president of the Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982, and chairman of the High Level Task Force that drafted the ASEAN Charter. Professor Koh was also the Chairman of the seminal UN Conference on the Environment and Development, or ‘Earth Summit’, that led to the Rio Declaration in 1992.

Laura previously served as British High Commissioner to New Zealand with diplomatic roles across Africa, Asia, and Europe over 20 years. Laura was also the Governor of the Pitcairn Islands, exercising oversight of the governance and sustainability of the Islands.

To kick the session off, Tara Davenport, Deputy Director of APCEL, gave opening remarks. Following her introduction of the speakers, Tara highlighted the relevance of the session in today’s context.

Underscored by the urgency of the climate and biodiversity crises, the international community stands at an inflexion point to address these crises. Tara added that law and diplomacy play a critical role in shaping the collective action that is needed to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.

Moderated by Jolene Lin, the Director of APCEL, Professor Koh and Laura dived into their experiences of and perspectives on how law and diplomacy have operated in practice.

Laura explained that we face a 'polycrisis’ with the environment, for which ClientEarth operates through the entire life cycle of the law to tackle. In this way, ClientEarth works in different ways in different parts of the world.

Professor Koh showed his appreciation for ClientEarth’s tailored approach in Asia that takes into account the political, social and cultural contexts of the region. Professor Koh was particularly heartened to hear about ClientEarth’s commitment to contribute to the ecosystem in Asia through advancing capabilities, which is crucial to the region. He suggested to the audience that programmes should ideally be initiated locally, by the locals for the local community in order to gain wider traction.

As Laura elaborated, ClientEarth’s work in the region is focused on the three main areas of finance, training and international cooperation. All these are based on the fact that climate change is an all-encompassing issue, taking place at an unprecedented pace. Through its experience and expertise, ClientEarth hopes to be a valuable contributor to the ecosystem in the region, adding value to the great strides already being achieved.

Both speakers reflected that the past few decades have been particularly troubling for biodiversity. Drastic actions are needed quickly to stem the loss of nature, and bring down global CO2 emissions. Professor Koh remarked that it is promising to see that most of the world is awakening to the realities of climate change and the Singapore government has taken important measures with the introduction of the Singapore Green Plan 2030. Professor Koh said that the situation is desperate, but not hopeless. He is encouraged that the business community in Singapore is very much onboard Singapore’s green journey.

Laura told the audience that diplomacy is the art of the possible. Creative solutions could be found once the interest of different stakeholders were discerned. Finding common ground and building consensus would lead to innovative approaches that would be hugely beneficial towards climate action.

When asked by the audience how essential it is to keep politics away from climate change, Professor Koh responded that that geo-political factors have so far not translated directly into cooperation on climate change between nations but held hope that this would be on the horizon.

Overall, the dialogue was a riveting and insightful one. The audience was highly engaged and gained a deeper appreciation for how existential and far-reaching the problems of climate change and biodiversity loss are.

Cross-border understanding and collaboration is essential to avoid calamitous consequences for nature. Law and diplomacy are therefore critical dimensions to the solutions needed to resolve these crises. They are important tools that can help nations appreciate that these crisis threaten their own national interests, galvanise cooperation across borders, and materialise ambition at a domestic level that result in meaningful climate action.

If you have missed the session, here is your chance to catch up! You can now view the dialogue in the link below.

(16) In Conversation: Professor Tommy Koh and Laura Clarke OBE - YouTube