Former Ireland president Mary Robinson: Governments are thinking only about the next election

Updated: Dec 17, 2019, 19:11 IST | Dalreen Ramos | Mumbai

Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, who was in the city last month for Tata Literature Live! talks about her book Climate Justice, Greta Thunberg and why we need to be prisoners of hope

Former Ireland president Mary Robinson. Pic/Ashish Raje
Former Ireland president Mary Robinson. Pic/Ashish Raje

You have written that the birth of your granddaughter prompted you to write the book Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future. But at what point in your life did you realise that something wasn’t quite right?

I often say, quite humbly in a way, that when I served as President of Ireland from 1990 to 1997, I never made any speech on climate. I may have talked about the environment a bit but not climate. Then I became UN High Commissioner for Human Rights but I didn’t make the connection between climate change and human rights. It was siloed and scientific. I formed the NGO Realizing Rights — a kind of pun. We were working in African countries on economic and social rights. I was then made aware of human-induced climate change and read up the science and realised that this was the biggest human rights issue.

So, what was your understanding of the environment while growing up in Ireland?

Very little. I didn’t study environmental law when I was a lawyer. I was a justice and human rights person. I grew up in the west of Ireland and my family was not very political. Both my parents were doctors and I was the only girl wedged between four brothers, so of course, I had to be into human rights. I was lucky because both my parents told me that I was equally important to both my brothers. That was not the message in Ireland in those days. I would hear my father say, "I heard that phrase again. Doctor is it a boy, or a child?"

When you embarked on this mission to write Climate Justice with people at the heart of various movements around the world. Did you also think about who you were writing for?

I wanted to bring the voices of the most-affected to the table. And my team and I succeeded. We wanted to make this about the people, not science and glaciers and yes, polar bears — not that I have anything against polar bears. This had to be about human beings, the most vulnerable and least responsible. It was injustice.

You also mention the regressive environmental policies of some countries like the United States. Can capitalism been seen as the sole underlying cause?

The major causes are well-known: manufacturing, agri-business and transport, for instance. I don’t talk about climate change; I talk about climate crisis, climate emergency, and my preference, climate justice. In this crisis that we’re in, governments need to stop and commit to being zero carbon by 2050 and work backwards to where they need to be by 2030 which entails a 45 per cent reduction in global emissions. We’re not there at all. There’s a greater awareness but that hasn’t translated into action. So, 2020 is a vital year to try and move that needle. It’s also a needle for the corporate sector; companies need to also commit to the same cause, including fossil fuel companies.

 There’s this farsightedness then that something is going to happen in 2050 but it won’t happen now…

That’s changing because things are happening and people are seeing it everywhere. The awareness is there but the political action is in the hands of elected representatives in most parts of the world, and governments don’t think 10 or 20 years ahead, they think of the next election and how they’re going to get elected.

So, we need people to put pressure, starting with schoolchildren coming out and saying, "Listen to the science. This is our future." I feel strongly about this since I have six grandchildren and the eldest is 15. In 2050, they’ll be in their 30s and 40s. And we know it’ll be a much more populated world with 9 billion people. We also need businesses to give more of a top-down pressure. Business does look ahead actually, for better or for worse, because you do need good climate for doing business. And the corporations that do follow climate science are very worried because they see chaos in 30 years. The fact that the European Investment Bank won’t invest in fossil fuels now or Mark Carney of the Bank of England telling companies not to be investing too much in fossil fuels is helping. But we need a more radical switch to supporting affordable clean energy, something that people actually want.

What are your thoughts on environmental technology?

I see the need for innovation. We cannot stay at 1.5 degrees [upper limit to avoid global warming according to the IPCC] without carbon capture. But that’s not a substitute. We need to do far more and Greta Thunberg has been an extraordinary voice in all of this. Because she’s saying, "Don’t listen to us, we’re children. Listen to the science". I was at the UN Climate Summit when she spoke. She’s quite tiny and 16 and she said, "You have stolen my childhood… how dare you!" I was in tears. I find it so unfair that she has to be doing that. I worry about her because I’m just as preoccupied by climate change but I can switch off. She talks about Aspergers as her strength. How does she relax? But I admire what she’s doing.

There’s also this pessimism, though. If we’re going to die anyway then why try?

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu and I were in the United States at an event with young people and an American journalist was moderating us. And she asked him, very sharply, "Archbishop Tutu, why are you such an optimist?" He said, "Oh no dearie, I’m not an optimist. I’m a prisoner of hope." That’s really, really important. If you have hope, you have energy. That’s the spirit we need.

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