Mary Robinson: ‘Climate change is the moonshot of this generation’

2 Dec 2018

Mary Robinson speaks at the Creative Responses to Climate Change event. Image: Embassy of France in Ireland

Former Irish president Mary Robinson discusses the injustice of climate change and how she maintains hope amid dismal forecasts.

Today, 2 December, marks the beginning of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland. This year’s annual meeting is starting a day earlier than originally planned to allow time for more work to be done on this increasingly urgent issue.

Government representatives from about 190 nations will gather to discuss the rules of implementation of the Paris Agreement from 2020. This landmark agreement between almost 200 nations in 2015 set the goal of keeping global warming below a rise of two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial era, and committed to a concerted effort towards a tougher goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

One additional day seems like a drop in the warming ocean when it comes to addressing this colossal global challenge. In terms of local action, Ireland’s attempts to reach its carbon emissions targets – or lack thereof, as the case proves to be – has been labelled an “extraordinary story of failure” by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, TD.

‘At the moment, what is committed by governments is not enough. It will have us on a trajectory to about three degrees Celsius – pretty catastrophic’

Former Irish president Mary Robinson minces no words when it comes to the ineffective action on this issue in her home nation. “We’re not getting political leadership, particularly, on [climate change] because it’s not an issue and because there are in fact lobbies that don’t want this to become an issue,” she told me during an event in Trinity College Dublin, co-hosted by the Institute of International and European Affairs and the Embassy of France in Ireland.

At the time, Robinson did not see present international policy bringing us towards our climate change goals either. “We know that at the moment what is committed by governments is not enough. It will have us on a trajectory to about three degrees Celsius – pretty catastrophic. Where are we going to get the real push that the policies become really serious about moving ahead?”

Climate justice

Robinson, fresh from her election as chair of The Elders, presented a keynote at the opening of the Creative Responses to Climate Change event, which also hosted a marketplace of ideas to tackle climate issues. The foundation that bears her name centres on climate justice, as does her latest book, and in her speech she urged those engineering climate change solutions to aim for “just transitions” that consider the impact on vulnerable communities.

“The way that my foundation has tended to talk about climate change is to focus on the injustice of climate change,” Robinson explained. “[We] tell a lot of stories of people who are becoming more resilient in the face of even more threats because they’re in vulnerable countries or vulnerable communities, even, in richer countries.”

The stories shared in Climate Justice, Robinson noted, were deliberately selected, including two stories from the US – one from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and another exploring the displacement of people in Alaska in response to erosion and sea level rise. I believe the former head of State puts it mildly when she says that US president Donald Trump is “not helping” when it comes to climate change action, but she is less reserved in her praise for the US business leaders committing to solutions. The We Mean Business coalition she namechecks represents hundreds of companies working toward net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“Have you heard the EU say this? Have you heard Ireland say this, properly or effectively? No,” she said. “Actually, small island states are saying it. The Marshall Islands made that commitment. Fiji either has made or is about to make that commitment because they’re desperate. They’ve got an urgency that we haven’t quite fully felt.”

People power

While Robinson is keenly aware of the need for political leadership on the climate change issue, what she strongly advocates for is bottom-up public pressure. She believes that individual shifts in behaviour, however small, contribute to an overall consciousness raising that will drive the public to seek action from governments. “Governments will hear that and need to respond more urgently,” she said. “If we can get enough people on that first step, then I think we’ll get voters calling for [it].”

She noted with interest the recent criticism of the Irish Government for not increasing the carbon tax in Budget 2019. It surprised her, as she toured the country to promote the book, that people were challenging this decision and essentially saying they wanted to be taxed.

But to ensure a just transition, a carbon tax needs to consider low-income farmers and those who need affordable transport. “That can be done with thought and either subsidy or other social measures,” explained Robinson. “It has to be fair and affordable. That’s part of that just transition.”

‘We put spaceships up in space. We’re trying to put people on Mars. Why can’t we at least save the sovereign nations that we have?’

Indeed, there’s greater public engagement on this issue now than ever before – something Robinson puts down to the convergence of two things. One, people can see climate change impact in their own back garden these days, what with the frequency of extreme weather events disrupting our daily lives. Two, the high-level discussion on climate change has hit the mainstream and, for Robinson, the recent damning report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clarified the issue in a new, defining way.

“Fortunately, we’re just at that tipping point towards people realising this is serious,” she said.

Transformative technology

So you get the people’s attention and they, in turn, get governments to act. What next? Some have heralded technology as the grand saviour of our climate destiny, but where are the technological solutions?

“I mean, we put spaceships up in space. We’re trying to put people on Mars. Why can’t we at least save the sovereign nations that we have and help them?” challenged Robinson.

In fact, Robinson calls climate change the moonshot of this generation. “When John F Kennedy announced in 1961 that the United States would put a man on the moon, it was incredibly impossible. And when, eight years later, [Apollo 11] landed on the moon, the average age at NASA was 26, which meant they heard the call from Kennedy when they were 18.”

But technology alone will not save us, Robinson warned. Yes, the apps that help change our behaviour and the innovations that provide sustainable energy will propel us forward, but there’s more to it than that.

“We are realising that we need to have a transition that is not business as usual. A transition to a safer, fairer and healthier clean-energy world,” said Robinson. What’s critical for this, Robinson argued, is inclusion.

“Think of the billion people in our world today who never switch [on] the switch for electricity. That needs to be an absolute priority, to get the clean energy to them. Because, in my experience – and I’ve seen it – when people have access to energy, they take themselves out of poverty. They don’t wait for somebody else to do it. They become more productive. Children do their homework. They have better health, better water. Everything changes.”

Robinson’s own family was transformed by such a technology transition shortly before she was born. “I remember my father talking about when rural electricity came to Co Mayo. As a medical doctor, it changed his life.”

Prisoners of hope

In the central Pacific Ocean lies the Republic of Kiribati, a sovereign state comprising 32 atolls and reef islands and one raised coral island, significantly at risk if the sea levels continue to rise. One story in Climate Justice centres on the president of Kiribati returning to his people from COP15 to declare there is no future for them unless they can raise the islands faster than the sea level.

Having enjoyed an energising conversation on what can often feel like an overwhelmingly desperate subject, my key question for Robinson was how she maintains hope in the face of such grim forecasts.

“Well, first of all, I am hopeful because there is evidence that the shift is also in a very positive direction. We’re seeing solar and wind [energy] become much cheaper. We’re seeing the battery retention being much more reliable now, and there are economic reports and the New Climate Economy report that show us that we can have a healthier world, a more equal world, a safer world, and a world where the opportunities are on the side of renewable energy and creativity,” she said, citing the solutions on display at the Trinity event as an example of this creativity.

In particular, a quote from Nobel Peace Prize-winner Desmond Tutu resonates with Robinson’s outlook on climate change. At a 2011 summit alongside Robinson, he described himself not as an optimist but a “prisoner of hope”.

As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002, Robinson said she visited “places of the most acute human rights problems” yet returned “energised” by the people she met who were fighting against these issues. “You found [that] human rights are more fought for and protected by brave people when they are most threatened,” she said.

Citing the upswell of movements in the US, from young people against guns to women against cultures of harassment, she noted: “The upside of trying to push people’s human rights is that people fight back.”

Updated, 8.52am, 3 December 2018: This article was amended to attribute a quote to Micheál Martin, TD, that was mistakenly attributed to An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, TD.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.