Mary Robinson is Adjunct Professor for Climate Justice in Trinity College Dublin and Chair of The Elders. She served as President of Ireland from 1990-1997 and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997-2002. She is a member of the Club of Madrid and the recipient of numerous honours and awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the President of the United States Barack Obama. Between 2013 and 2016 Mary served as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy in three roles; first for the Great Lakes region of Africa, then on Climate Change and most recently as his Special Envoy on El Niño and Climate. Her Foundation, the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, established in 2010, came to a planned end in April 2019.
In this conversation, I speak to Professor Mary Robinson, Former President of Ireland, Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights & Chair of the Elders. We discuss the concept of climate justice, the human and human rights impact of climate change together with the need for more climate adaptive societies and how the world can share the burden of climate change, and the benefits of mitigation.
Q: What is climate justice?
[Mary Robinson]: I came to understand the impact of climate on people quite late in my career. I made no reference to it during my tenure as president from 1990 to 1997. It wasn’t until I became the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and observed another UN branch addressing climate issues that I grasped its importance. However, I initially failed to see its relevance to my human rights portfolio. My perspective shifted when I began working with a small NGO I founded, Realising Rights, focusing on economic and social rights in African countries, alongside my role as honorary president of Oxfam. It was then, particularly from 2003 onwards, that I witnessed the acute effects of climate change in Africa—flooding, droughts, and delayed rainy seasons. Women in these regions questioned if they were being punished by a higher power, prompting my realization of climate change’s direct impact. This led me to advocate for climate justice, highlighting the layers of injustice it entails.
The climate crisis disproportionately affects the poorest countries and communities, small islands, and indigenous peoples—who contribute least to the problem. This crisis also embodies racial injustice, as those most affected are often people of colour. Gender injustice is evident through the distinct social roles and limited opportunities for women, who perform a significant portion of agricultural work, especially in regions like Africa and India, yet face barriers in accessing credit and agricultural training. The issue of intergenerational injustice is brought to the forefront by the activism of young people and even children. Additionally, I identified a development injustice related to the unequal pathways to development across different regions. Industrialized nations, having built their economies on fossil fuels, bear the responsibility to transition away from these sources, ensuring a just transition for workers in affected industries. Conversely, developing countries face the challenge of pursuing development without relying on fossil fuels, a task made difficult without substantial financial support for clean energy initiatives. This situation underscores the need for significant grants and loans to enable these countries to leapfrog into sustainable energy solutions. My focus on climate injustice stems from these multifaceted injustices.
Q: Should we also see climate justice through the lens of national security?
[Mary Robinson]: I tend to view it more as a climate crisis issue, particularly because it disproportionately affects countries in the Global South, which are least responsible for the problem. This crisis is expected to trigger migration from these vulnerable regions to the more resilient Northern countries, with projections suggesting 80 million to 200 million people could be displaced by 2050 if we fail to mitigate the impacts of climate change on these nations. This migration represents a significant security concern. Additionally, the lack of resilience, insurance, and capacity in the poorest countries to cope with climate shocks, which are now costing billions of dollars even in the wealthiest parts of the world, further compounds this issue. The financial toll is increasing dramatically, leading to destabilization and a host of insecurities and challenges.
Q: How do we fairly share the burdens of climate crisis, and the benefits of change?
[Mary Robinson]: …let me share my current perspective and the initiatives I’m involved in with a coalition of others. Our movement is primarily inspired by women leaders who acknowledge the urgency of climate change and its disproportionate effects on the most vulnerable women. We advocate for a “feminist moonshot” approach, symbolized by the dandelion. The dandelion, a resilient flower and weed found on all continents, symbolizes our efforts. Despite its reputation as a nuisance, it’s a plant I’ve grown to admire for its beauty, deep-rooting ability that rejuvenates the soil, and its edible qualities. Its seeds, spread by children, represent the spreading of our positive narrative towards a cleaner, healthier, more equitable world on the brink of a clean energy revolution. However, our progress, although quick, still lags behind what science demands. A significant hurdle is the underestimation of our collective power.
To overcome this, we aim to create a global network, akin to a Google Earth image, connecting all stakeholders—indigenous peoples, youth, civil society, philanthropists, forward-thinking businesses, artists, scientists, and more—who are contributing positively towards this shift. The affordability of clean energy and innovations like green hydrogen are on our side. Yet, obstacles remain, notably the fossil fuel sector and its substantial influence through lobbying and misinformation, spending $4 billion annually to challenge scientific consensus and promote dependency on fossil fuels as essential for poverty alleviation. This narrative is particularly targeted at developing countries, suggesting a reliance on fossil fuels is necessary to combat poverty.
Moreover, as a member of the B-Team of business leaders, we’ve identified that $1.8 trillion a year is spent subsidizing industries that harm us, predominantly fossil fuels. Redirecting a significant portion of these funds could dramatically accelerate our transition. This challenge is fundamentally human, and while progress is being made, we must hasten our pace by reallocating financial resources towards sustainable solutions.
Q: Should we also be thinking of climate resilience for developed nations?
[Mary Robinson]: In recent COP discussions, particularly in Glasgow, wealthy nations committed to doubling adaptation finance by 2025—a target they’re falling short of. This unfulfilled promise adds to a growing list of commitments yet to be met as we approach the deadline. Additionally, we achieved an unexpected agreement on loss and damage at the start of the last COP, signalling a step forward. However, to support the necessary adaptation and mitigation efforts, we urgently require substantial increases in funding, beyond the $100 billion annually pledged in Copenhagen—a goal we’ve only just managed to meet. This funding is crucial for leveraging private sector investments in the trillions.
The focus of the next COP is finance. Discussions include Mia Mottley’s Bretton Woods initiative and potential actions by the World Bank to significantly expand financial resources. It’s baffling that $1.8 trillion is still being invested in harmful sectors. Clearly, we need a dramatic increase in support for both adaptation and mitigation efforts.
I recently returned from India, where I revisited the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a remarkable organization empowering women in the informal sector. SEWA demonstrates the power of organization—improving working conditions for waste pickers, construction workers, and garment workers through solidarity and practical support. However, these women, actively engaged in recycling and mitigation, are unable to access carbon credits, which are predominantly allocated to large businesses. This discrepancy highlights a broader issue: our climate finance mechanisms do not adequately support climate justice. Small farmers and other grassroots actors crucial to the transition are overlooked.
My time with SEWA, now involved with our Project Dandelion, reinforced the urgency of our mission. Despite being on the cusp of significant change, we’re not moving quickly enough. We need to harness collective pressure, power, and strength to accelerate our progress toward a just and sustainable future.
Q: How can we think past the existential nature of our climate crisis?
[Mary Robinson]: As a Guardian of the Planetary Boundaries, I’m guided by the scientific insights of Johan Rockstrom. Currently, we’re exceeding safe limits in six of the nine planetary boundaries. From this perspective, I could recount a very grim narrative. However, such a narrative only serves to overwhelm, leading many to disengage, convinced of their powerlessness, and resign to continue their lives unchanged. Instead, what we urgently need is to cultivate a positive narrative, to energize and unite us in a collective movement. This isn’t about asking everyone to do the same thing; rather, it’s about fostering a ‘movement of movements.’ We encourage everyone to persist in their individual efforts, with the understanding that they are part of a larger, progressive force striving for a better world.
Among our connected women leaders is Jade Begay, an indigenous woman with roots in a tribe in Mexico, who is deeply involved in climate justice work in the United States. She shares a powerful sentiment from her culture: “What if our best times are ahead of us?” This question challenges us to adopt a more hopeful and forward-thinking mindset, one that can inspire and motivate us towards positive action.
Q: What does legacy mean to you?
[Mary Robinson]: I simply don’t frame my thoughts in those terms. It’s a perspective I genuinely cannot align with. Reflecting on my journey, I recognize the immense fortune that has graced my path. Each step I’ve taken was possible not solely through my own efforts but because of the profound support, trust, and camaraderie extended by many others. We’ve embarked on this journey together, and it’s a path of continuous learning for me.
Engaging with the younger generation and participating in intergenerational dialogues has been particularly enlightening. The way they navigate and connect through social media is something I observe from afar, as I myself am not a participant in these digital spaces. Perhaps, were I thirty years younger, engaging in social media would be an unavoidable aspect of my life. However, my status as an elder exempts me from this necessity.
I choose to focus on living my life with the intention of making meaningful contributions, leaving concerns of a certain nature for others to ponder.