Chris Seekings talks to Mary Robinson about human rights, climate change, and the crucial role that women are playing in the struggle for a sustainable future
Former president of Ireland, UN high commissioner, human rights champion and climate change warrior, Mary Robinson's journey has been both transformative and inspiring. And It has been a “strong sense of justice“ that has always guided her path, from young lawyer defending women's rights in the 1970s, to global stateswoman galvanising climate action among world leaders today.
Now she wants to “connect the dots“ by shining a light on the inextricable link between climate change, human rights, female empowerment, equality, #MeToo and other social movements. In recognising the common thread that runs through these struggles, Robinson hopes that a mass awakening will emerge to drive collective action and pave the way towards a sustainable future for the planet.
“It is important for people to understand the human dimension behind climate change, and to have more empathy“
“It is important for people to understand the human dimension behind climate change, and to have more empathy,“ Robinson tells me. “Those that are not responsible are having to deal with the shocks – particularly women.“ It is estimated that, of the 26 million people currently displaced by weather-related disasters, 20 million are women – and they are overwhelmingly from poorer countries.
For Robinson, this is an issue of human rights, and the pursuit of 'climate justice' is her raison d'√™tre as president of the Mary Robinson Foundation. “Our work has been focused on bringing gender and rights into the climate change discussion using my experience and access to decision-making at the UN level, which we have been able to do.“
Her foundation was instrumental in establishing the Troika+ of Women Leaders on Gender and Climate Change at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) in 2011. This network of female ministers and leaders committed to ensure women's voices are heard in international negotiations around tackling global warming.
The group has since opened up to less high profile women, giving a platform to people who are having to deal with the direct effects of climate change. “That had a huge impact,“ Robinson explains. “We now have women from the grassroots coming to conferences and having their voices heard. When women such as indigenous leaders speak, their words carry a lot of impact, and it is an important way to bring human rights and a people-centred approach into the process.“
But Robinson is keen to highlight how there is still very little climate finance given to the women that play such a “crucial role in changing behaviour“. While praising organisations like the Global Fund for Women, and the grassroots Global Greengrants Fund, she says their work only provides “a small trickle in comparison to the money that goes to big projects“.
As a former president of Ireland, Robinson has been all over the world talking to inspirational women who are on the ground tackling climate change and extreme weather. She tells me a story of a female saloon owner in Mississippi who helped transform her community after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and another involving a woman in Uganda who was instrumental in rebuilding her village after it was ravaged by floods. “These are the people on the frontline when climate change hits a family or community,“ she says. “They are the ones who have to manage the impacts, go further for food or fuel, for example, and there is such an extraordinary range of efforts that women are making.“
In the West, #MeToo is seen as symbolic of women taking control and female empowerment. It is this desire to fight back against the patriarchy and a “capitalist system that has run rampant and created great inequality“ that Robinson wants to harness and use to protect the environment. “We want a feminist solution to climate change – which doesn't exclude men, of course,“ she continues. “I am keen to try and connect the dots between the women on the frontline of #MeToo, but also Black Lives Matter, and other communities around the world disproportionately impacted by climate change.“
It is a new mass movement that Robinson says could make the biggest difference in driving action, citing numerous examples of people who are taking matters into their own hands. She talks glowingly about Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who made headlines last year after protesting outside her country's parliament for weeks in order to draw attention to the climate crisis and more recently addressed the COP24 climate summit.
There is also the Urgenda case in the Netherlands, in which citizens won a lawsuit against the Dutch state, forcing it to take more measures against climate change. A similar crowd-funded case against the Irish government opened in January, while others are expected to start in the US this year. “We need all these pressures, including the divest movement, which has been able to shift $1.6trn away from fossil fuels,“ Robinson says. “But more and more we need women's leadership, we need young people, and we need to join the dots of all these movements on this issue because it is in existential threat.“
The just transition
The severity of the issue was brought into sharp focus last year, after a landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed that the world has just 12 years to prevent uncontrollable global warming. Although a 'rulebook' to deliver the Paris Agreement was agreed at the COP24 climate summit last December, Robinson laments the fact that high-emitting countries such as the US, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait struggled to even welcome the IPCC report – she describes this as a “great pity“. “You don't always expect wonderful progress at these summits,“ she says. “We have got the rulebook, and now we move on, and I will continue to encourage the human rights community to take up the mantle and communicate how climate change is having serious negative impacts on rights to food, water, health, safety and life itself.“
It is this people-centred approach that Robinson keeps coming back to, and something she says she will raise at a UN high-panel discussion on human rights and the Sustainable Development Goals in Geneva the day after we speak. Part of this, she explains, involves the need for a “just transition“ to a low-carbon economy that protects workers in the oil and gas sectors who will be impacted by the switch away from fossil fuels. “We are going to have to move forward as quickly as we can, removing subsidies for fossil fuels and a stronger carbon tax, so we cannot afford to leave anyone behind,“ she says. “Businesses will be key as they often know what they are doing with their companies 10-20 years in advance, and we need political leaders to raise their horizons.“
But she recognises that politicians must be careful about the steps they take, and highlights how policies must be framed in a way that avoids repeats of the anger manifested in the gilets jaunes movement. “We have learned in a rather bitter way from what happened in France, when president Macron put up a carbon tax, and also removed a tax on the wealthy, that this transition has to be perceived as fair.“
A prisoner of hope
“We have learned from what happened in France that the transition has to be perceived as fair“
With numerous studies suggesting the world is heading towards 3-4ÀöC of global warming, a rising frequency in extreme weather events, and the president of Brazil hinting he could join the US in potentially withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, Robinson admits it is easy to paint a bleak picture.
However, when sharing a panel with Desmond Tutu some years ago, she recalls the former archbishop of Cape Town being particularly enthused by the young audience in attendance. She tells me that, when asked why he was such an optimist, Tutu responded by saying: “Oh no, you are mistaken, I am not an optimist, but a prisoner of hope.“
It is a statement that has stuck with Robinson ever since, and one that she has reflected on a lot, admitting that it is not always easy to be cheerful about progress made amid such a dark situation. “If we are prisoners of hope, we don't see the glass as being half full, but see something in there that we can work on.“
You could be forgiven for thinking recent events might have tested her resolve, with Robinson's human rights work seeing her caught in the centre of a much-publicised row involving Dubai's royal family. Although admitting there are times when she might get frustrated, she tells me that she will keep fighting for what she believes to be right for as long as she can. “My father used to say 'it is better to wear out than to rust out', and I very much support that view,“ she says. “I will continue to wear out for as long as I have my health, and always keep fighting for climate justice.“
A long fight for human rights
1967 Graduates with a degree in law from Trinity College Dublin and is called to the Bar
1969 Appointed Reid Professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin
1969 Elected to the Irish Senate (serves until 1989)
1979 Elected to Dublin City Council (serves until 1983)
1990 Inaugurated President of Ireland (serves until 1997)
1997 Becomes UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (serves until 2002)
1998 Elected Chancellor of Trinity College Dublin
2001 Serves as secretary-general of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance
2002 Founds Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative
2010 Founds Mary Robinson Foundation
2014 Becomes UN special envoy for Climate Change
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