Mary Robinson: climate change is a ‘serious issue of human rights’

Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, speaks to RTCC about climate justice, the UN, and why climate sceptics make her angry

Pic: Flickr / Open Government Partnership

By Sophie Yeo

Climate justice is a phrase which eludes a neat definition. 

Morally laden and politically controversial, it is used interchangeably to discuss the law, politics and ethics of climate change. Even the most seasoned negotiators may find themselves promoting one of its many meanings over another.

For Mary Robinson, these various meanings are not disconnected concepts, but a jigsaw of related ideas that together create a comprehensive picture of how best to tackle one of the world’s greatest problems: “When we’re talking about climate change, the issue of justice starts with injustice,” she says.

A barrister, a politician, and a top official in the UN, Robinson, now 69, remains best known as the first female president of Ireland – a largely ceremonial role she occupied between 1990 and 1997 through which she strove to influence through the “moral authority” it bestowed on her.

She admits that moral leadership continues to fascinate her, and is something she continues to exercise since became a member of the Elders in 2007, a group of global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who work together to provide guidance on peace making and human rights.

She was led to the climate debate, she says, not as a scientist or even as an environmentalist, but through her campaign work on human rights.

“I was very struck by the fact that the impacts of climate change are undermining a whole range of human rights: rights to food, safe water and health and education,” she says.

“But it is also displacing people, which is very likely to cause not just human distress but potentially conflict. So for me it’s a very, very serious issue of human rights.”

Mary Robinson with Desmond Tutu, an honorary member of the Elders (Pic: Flickr / Oxfam International)

Throughout her career, Robinson taken many approaches to the fight against injustice. Not satisfied to rely on the influence she wields through the UN, she has also sought to encourage leadership at a grassroots level, and established the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, through which she promotes action on a more direct scale than is possible through her other roles.

“There’s good grassroots leadership if only we’d listen to it,” she says. “They are the resilient experts on how to cope with the increasing negative impacts of climate change.

“I’m very struck by the resilience of local communities and the local knowledge that is used, but they don’t have insurance, and the unpredictability is really hurting.”

As a lawyer, trained in her teens and early twenties at Trinity College Dublin and Harvard Law School, she is now advocating for a strong legal framework through which climate policy can be enforced.

The Mary Robinson Foundation has joined forces with the World Resources Institute to put together a declaration on climate change to be published during the week of the United National General Assembly, highlighting issues that need to be addressed to bring about climate justice.

One aspect of the declaration that she says she is particularly pleased about is that it highlights the importance of rule of law.

“There is a need for a strong legal framework to ensure transparency, credibility and effective enforcement of climate and related policy. We firmly believe that legal systems need to protect the most vulnerable,” she says.

As former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Robinson has learnt from experience how to work the system at an international level, and is hopeful that this declaration, put together by former heads of state, climate experts and also representatives of social communities and academia, will prevent the issue of climate justice being drowned out by other concerns.


She is passionate about the overtly political issue of equity, which is becoming ever more prominent at high level negotiations.

Discussions of equity, or the issue of who should foot the bill for climate change, are particularly prone to slipping into emotive debate, with the wrangling over how the developed countries can best make amends for their historical responsibility for climate change having held up concrete action for years.

But enshrining principles of justice into mutually satisfying financial arrangements is always going to be a troublesome task, and it doesn’t help that the dryly worded UNFCCC definition – “common but differentiated responsibilities and and respective capabilities” – is frustratingly vague, leaving open for interpretation some of the most controversial decisions about what ‘justice’ actually means.

Mary Robinson speaks with a healthcare worker in Somalia (Pic: Flickr / Trocaire)

The difficulties embedded in this definition makes talking about the equity issue problematic, says Robinson.

Developed countries, for instance, who are looking to avoid donating vast sums to other countries, can promote the ‘capability’ aspect of equity over their own ‘responsibility’, suggesting that any country with the ability to do so should take the flak for reducing their own emissions regardless of their historical responsibility for the problem.

Developing economies such as China, on the other hand, will focus on their right to use fossil fuels to develop in the present as the UK and the US have done in the past, and that it is therefore up to these countries to enable them to do so.

Meanwhile, in places such as Gambia, where emissions remain low but climate impacts are already severe, the endless quarrelling over equity can seem little more than a frustrating failure to act.

A practical approach

Despite her concern for the damage already being done to the most vulnerable countries, Robinson is unwilling to let the emotional nature of the problem interfere with her pursuit of the most effective solution. Indeed, she says that her response to climate change in general stems more from “emotional intelligence” than emotion itself.

In the clipped tones of a veteran politician, she says: “Now the emerging countries are responsible for a greater part of the emissions, and developing countries generally emit more than the developed world, so we’ve got a new kind of responsibility, and that’s why I think you can get locked in to the historic responsibility in an unrealistic way.”

But, she adds: “There has to be an acknowledgement of the historic responsibility before people fully appreciate it.”

“It has to be acknowledged, and it has to be addressed in particular by greater commitments by those countries that benefitted in their economic development from fossil fuels – that’s the reality.

“Therefore they have to commit to more serious reductions of emissions because they’re in a position to move more rapidly towards renewable energy.”

The only time when her pragmatic breed of stoicism slips is when the subject of climate deniers arises. It is “hard to be patient” with sceptics, she says, because of the corrupt way in which much of it is funded by fossil fuel lobbies.

“That makes me angry because they’re playing with the future of people in the world, and it’s an injustice that it’s hurting the poorest already and will hurt them most,” she says.

“So I do feel quite angry – not just frustrated, quite angry – at lobbying against the reality. Climate justice keeps faith with science and is based on acknowledging the importance of the true science on this.”

Human rights

She left the UN as High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2002, but has since taken up the role of Special Envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa, which encompasses the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda – countries where conflict and climate stresses are putting human rights on the top of the agenda – on the particular request of Ban Ki-moon

In every country in the Great Lakes, she says, climate shocks are undermining food security, while the population just keeps on rising. But, she adds, the thought processes surrounding the two issues are still not as connected as they could be.

“Governments have agreed in the context of the Human Rights Council that climate change is eroding and undermining the protection of human rights, but this has not been joined up to thinking in the context of the environmental and energy ministers who go to the climate conference,” she says.

“I believe we have to join that up more. That’s where climate justice is helpful, because it’s a link between climate change, development and human rights. We will be working strongly with the Human Rights Council over the coming year to make sure that voice is heard and that we have joined up thinking at government level.”

United Nations

Is it possible to spend so many years in the UN and not be disillusioned by the system, which has so far failed to put a satisfying proposal on the table on how to cut global carbon emissions? “It’s always frustrating,” she says, “and yet the UN has the value that all countries are involved in it, so I have to be patient with a very bureaucratic and sometimes unwieldy system and try to get results.”

Plus, she adds, despite her emphasis on the virtues of grassroots leadership, she still firmly believes that the UN is key to getting the world back on track.

“We can come together under the UN system if we are intelligent about what we want to do, that we want a fair robust climate agreement,” she says, “because we must have an agreement which commits countries to bring us below the 2C warming, which will mean a safe world for generations to come.

“That’s a huge responsibility and we cannot avoid it. We do need the climate agreement to reach that.”

And the 21st Conference of Parties in Paris in 2015 – an event which many look towards as the final deadline for putting a framework in place to reduce global carbon emissions – is an unparalleled opportunity to should this responsibility, she says.

“It’s very rare to have a year like 2015, where the world faces two huge complementary agendas,” she says, referring to the paradigm-shifting replacement of the Millennium Development Goals with a set of Sustainable Development Goals, along with the global commitment to come up with a legally binding agreement that will keep the world below 2C of warming, the temperature considered ‘safe’ by scientists.

“I borrow the words of Desmond Tutu: I’m not an optimist, I’m a prisoner of hope,” she says.

“I’m a grandmother. I think a lot about my four grandchildren. They’ll be in their forties by 2050 and they’ll share the world with nine billion others. I want it to be a safer world than we’re predicting at the moment. I want it to be a world where they can say at least when they got round to it in 2015 they took their responsibilities.

“I don’t want them to say how could they have been so selfish and so stupid that they didn’t see the impacts on us and our children and grandchildren in the future? That’s a preoccupation of mine.

“If by the end of 2015 we have really accepted and understood our responsibilities then I think our grandchildren and their grandchildren will acknowledge that we helped them.”

RTCC climate leader interviews:

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Bob Watson: IPCC must address slowdown in global warming
Jody Williams: Nobel Prize winner on tar sands & human rights

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