Mary Robinson’s climate change awakening

Mary Robinson, former Irish President (1990-97), United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights (1997-2003), and UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Climate Change, was in Galway, Ireland yesterday to launch her new book, Climate Justice – Hope, Resilience and the Fight for a Sustainable Future

Now head of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, the activist and author drew a strong crowd to Kenny’s Gallery and Bookstore, taking the podium amongst an exhibition portraying abstract and disrupted scenes of rolling fields and rural dwellings. The irony of this imagery was not lost as the afternoon’s conversation developed.

Hosted by poet, author and artist John F Deane, the event focused on Robinson’s personal journey which has led her to become a staunch campaigner for climate awareness and what she terms ‘Climate Justice‘.

I came late to climate change“, admits Robinson, citing the genesis of her environmental passion as the birth of her first grandchild, Rory, in 2003. “I had a physical reaction I didn’t understand.” she notes, “I was thinking 100 years ahead.”

Robinson began imagining the world in 2050. ‘He (Rory) would share the planet with more than nine billion people‘ writes Robinson in Climate Justice, ‘These billions would be seeking food, water and shelter on a planet already suffering the effects from our global dependency on fossil fuels.’

As UN Human Rights Commissioner, Robinson was based in New York, but worked extensively in the area of economic and social rights in African countries. It was here that she began to hear first hand accounts of climate change in action. Unseasonable floods, followed by devastating droughts in eastern Uganda were described by Constance Okollett, a farmer and mother of seven.

It was at a UN climate hearing in Copenhagen, in late 2009, at which Robinson was in attendance with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that Okollett, along with a small selection of other farmers, relayed their concerns to the panel.

Robinson listened, but was taken back to her childhood in Co. Mayo, where she would accompany her father (a local doctor) on his rounds. Her father would speak with particular affection for the local farmers, noting however that they would inevitably complain about the weather. To lighten the mood a little, Robinson asked if this was simply an exaggerated example of the same thing; farmers complaining about the weather.

Okollett rose to her feet and looked Robinson directly in the eye. “This is different,” she said, “This is outside our experience.”

The story of Constance Okollett is one of many individual accounts of adverse and extreme weather conditions which are contained in Climate Justice. The effects of which are heartbreaking, devastating and inspirational all at once.

Robinson addressed the intersectionality of climate change. How race, poverty and gender can result in a catastrophic existence for many women and children, who the author says “bear the brunt” of weather related disasters. She references the 1.3 billion people who “cannot flick on a switch to get electricity in their homes”, and draws attention to the 2.6 billion who still cook on open fires and dirty stoves (many becoming fatally ill as a result). That is, she explains, the injustice of climate change. “The (improved) systems exist,” says Robinson, “But we’re not getting them out.”

‘There is universal agreement that total global warming should be kept below 2° Celcius (3.6° Fahrenheit), or as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The two degrees of warming has traditionally been considered the threshold beyond which the effects of climate change move from treacherous to catastrophic, but most experts agree that we are already on track to exceed that. To go above 3°C or 4°C, scientists warn, will initiate a “tipping point” in our planetary system from which there will be no turning back.’ – Mary Robinson, Climate Justice

The future might be somewhat dimmed, but it’s certainly not doomed. Following the IPCC reports earlier this month, it is estimated that 12 years remain in which collective change can be made to ensure that the earth’s temperature doesn’t rise above irreversible levels. Robinson highlights and approaches these statistics and issues in a clear and approachable manner (both in person and in print), making them comprehensible and jargon-free. The clarity of the climate change message is something she addresses, acknowledging how dense and foreboding many studies can appear. Robinson urges the younger generations to get involved, stating that it is ‘women and young people who are going to come out’ in the fight.

Several other stories from the book are highlighted, each of them containing their own poignancy and impact. Robinson urges people to make the necessary changes in their own lives, but also to focus on the bigger picture. When questions are opened up to the audience, several people voice their concerns about industrial and governmental involvement (or lack thereof). The author notes that she can get disheartened by some of the processes which hinder such development, or witnessing a continued dependency on fossil fuels.

Towards the end of the evening, a quote from Robinson’s colleague from The Elders (a group of representatives assembled by Nelson Mandela), Archbishop Desmond Tutu was mentioned; “I am not an optimist. I am a prisoner of hope.”

This sentiment seemed a wonderful way in which to draw things to a close, for it was with hope, as opposed to despair, which people were left with yesterday.

Climate Justice – Hope, Resilience and the Fight for a Sustainable Future is available now from Bloomsbury, however, a limited amount of signed copies are available (with free international shipping) from the Kenny’s official site.

The Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice is ‘a centre for thought leadership, education and advocacy on the struggle to secure global justice for those people vulnerable to the impacts of climate change who are usually forgotten – the poor, the disempowered and the marginalised across the world.’ They can be found on Twitter and YouTube.

Mary Robinson also co-hosts a climate change podcast, ‘Mothers of Invention‘, with comedian Maeve Higgins.

MGP writer Baiba Sustere, MGP Director Colin McCracken and Former President Mary Robinson at the release of Climate Justice – Hope, Resilience and the fight for a sustainable future.