Q&A With Mary Robinson – The Conversation

Mary Robinson: ‘Climate change is a threat multiplier.’ (Photo: James Akena/Reuters)

The Conversation - Six of The Conversation’s top experts from around the world put their questions to Mary Robinson about climate justice, women’s rights and the progress being made in Paris.

Former Irish president Mary Robinson is one of the world’s leading voices on climate justice. Appearing at the UN climate summit in Paris, Robinson has argued for warming to be kept within 1.5°C, to protect the nations most at risk from the effects climate change. She has also campaigned for women to be front and centre in the negotiations, citing their increased vulnerability in a warming world.

Robinson was President of Ireland from 1990-97, after which she was appointed United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She has been a UN Special Envoy for Climate Change since 2014. She is president of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, and a member of The Elders, a group of world leaders founded by Nelson Mandela which lobbies on peace initiatives and human rights.

Six of The Conversation’s top experts from around the world put their questions to Robinson about climate justice, women’s rights and the progress being made in Paris. Her answers reveal optimism about the negotiations, a concern about the link between radicalisation and climate change and a challenge to the world’s biggest fossil fuel emitters.

Yves Petit, Université de Lorraine: What do you think the risk is of climate change aggravating conflicts between nation states?

I do not think this is just a risk. I feel it is already a reality. Climate change is a threat multiplier – it exacerbates poverty and water scarcity, it compounds food and nutrition insecurity and it makes it even harder for poor households to secure their rights.

During the opening day of the COP21 climate talks, I was particularly taken by the words spoken by Enele Sopoaga, the prime minister of Tuvalu, in offering his condolences to the people of France on the terrorist attacks of November 13. He said that the global community must target the root causes of these barbaric attacks, including “the lack of opportunity to do good”. People without such opportunity are easily drawn to ideologies that they see as striking out against the system that limits their prospects of living full lives.

In a world where climate change exacerbates the stresses of daily life on people already disenfranchised by poverty or social standing, radicalisation is very likely. We are seeing more and more evidence emerging of the links between conflict and climate change.

The recurrent drought in Syria towards the end of the last decade, which destroyed harvests and forced rural communities to migrate to the urban areas, is now seen as a key aggravating factor in the lead-up to the civil war that has eviscerated the country. Research on other conflicts seems to indicate that higher temperatures and extreme precipitation correlate with greater incidence of conflict.

Drought in Syria, 2010. Khaled Al Hariri/Reuters

We are now seeing world leaders recognise the security threat posed by climate change. US president Barack Obama has said that climate action is a security imperative and UK prime minister David Cameron has described it as an issue of national security.

I appreciate this message may be effective in a world so sensitised to security issues as ours is today. However, it saddens me that action would be motivated by the worst aspects of human nature, rather than the best – immediate climate action will help save the people and cultures of small island states like Tuvalu. Surely this should be motivation enough.

Cathy Alexander, University of Melbourne: It seems that it’s people on lower incomes with fewer resources who have the most to lose from climate change, while they have to face well-resourced commercial interests who may wish to block climate policies. How can citizens who are not well-resourced successfully push for climate action, and overcome a lack of financial backing?

There are many inequalities that must be overcome if the world is to successfully turn the tide on climate change. These start in the rooms where the negotiations are taking place – countries with great resources have a structural advantage over poorer countries that face personnel and capacity constraints. These asymmetries mean that the concerns of some of the world’s most vulnerable citizens are sometimes not even heard in negotiations.

In recent weeks we have seen hundreds of thousands of citizens around the world march for climate justice, standing in solidarity with those people whose lives are being devastated by the impacts of climate change and calling for real leadership to avert this crisis. The truth is that we are all in this together – climate change confronts us with the reality of our interdependence. I believe that there is a growing awareness of our role as global citizens in the face of climate change and that the movement growing out of this is becoming an irresistible one. This movement will only accelerate as the impacts of climate change become more apparent.

There are no interests, commercial or otherwise, that can block the will of a global movement of people calling for real action, regardless of how well-resourced they may be.

Climate action in the Philippines. Erik de Castro/Reuters

Gail Whiteman, Lancaster University: As a leading political thinker on climate justice, and a grandmother, who are your heroes and what gives you hope at COP21?

I often think that when Eleanor Roosevelt was drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights she could never have imagined that human-induced climate change might force whole countries to go out of existence. But that is the reality we face today. In Geneva in early March, I participated on a panel at the Human Rights Council with Anote Tong, president of the Pacific Island state of Kiribati. He described vividly the threat to his people’s very ability to remain on their islands posed by climate change. He has bought land in Fiji as a precaution, but if he has to move, what becomes of the identity, sovereignty and heritage of a small island people?

Kiribati’s President, Anote Tong, addresses the climate summit in Paris. Etienne Laurent/EPA

Another woman who fought for human rights, gender equality and sustainable development was my dear friend Wangari Maathai. She understood that meaningful development could not take place without both environmental sustainability and respect for human rights. As the world moves to take action on climate change, we must ensure that in saving the planet we don’t trample on the rights of people made vulnerable by poverty or social standing.

The value of a human rights framing for the new climate agreement has been recognised by the Climate Vulnerable Forum, initially a group of 20 countries on the front lines of climate change – a number that is likely to expand to 43 by the end of the climate talks. I was very happy to be a part of the third high-level meeting of the Climate Vulnerable Forum where the member states declared that they will aim to achieve full decarbonisation of their economies and run their countries on 100% renewable energy by 2050. This is the type of leadership we need from all nations – this gives me hope.

Catherine Gautier-Downes, University of California, Santa Barbara:What role do you think women from both developed and developing nations can play in the years to come in helping achieve the substantial emission reductions that are necessary for warming to remain below 2°C?

Women across all sectors of society are already leading the way in efforts to build resilience and adapt to the impacts of climate change, and they are demonstrating their unity, collective ambition and willingness to act with urgency, regardless of their societal or political position. Women’s agency plays a significant role in driving climate action and their participation in the climate debate is a key factor for a fair and equitable climate agreement.

Too often, women are categorised as vulnerable with little acknowledgement that they are already offering solutions. They offer hope for successful adaptation and low carbon development through critical knowledge, experience, and the unique role they play in agriculture, food security, income generation and management of natural resources.

It is not only emissions reductions where women have a vital role to play. They must also be included in the design, planning and implementation of adaptation strategies. Climate change exacerbates existing social inequalities, leaving women disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts. Women’s voices must be heard and their priorities supported as part of the global response to climate change.

There are many strong examples of how women are already leading the way in the fight against climate change. The Solar Sister project is tackling energy poverty through empowering women with economic opportunity. It is delivering the transformative benefits of clean energy technology to remote communities in rural areas throughout Uganda, Tanzania and Nigeria.

James Dyke, University of Southampton: One of the arguments against reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other human-produced drivers of climate change is that to do so would be to apply a powerful brake on economic development. Is that true – should we prioritise poverty alleviation over climate change mitigation?

I think this is a false dichotomy. I think if we were to pursue an “either/or” approach to these two great challenges of our time we would achieve neither. The reality is that development is the priority for poorer countries, and they will pursue the path most likely to lift their citizens out of poverty. If affordable, sustainable development pathways are not made available, developing countries will turn to fossil fuels based development as the only option available to them – who could blame them?

My foundation recently commissioned a piece of research called Zero Carbon, Zero Poverty the Climate Justice Way. This indicates that achieving zero carbon emissions by 2050 is compatible with achieving the right to development, with a shift to sustainable development, poverty eradication and a more equitable and inclusive model of development. However, this requires all countries to participate in the transition on the same timescale.

Robinson endorses a new forests programmes at the Paris summit. Chrisophe Petit Tesson/EPA

Of course this transition would require leadership from all countries, but the leadership would differ depending on a country’s circumstance. Developed countries would have to rapidly peak and reduce their emissions, while also delivering their commitments to enable climate action in developing countries. Developing countries would have the greater challenge – they would have to forge new, sustainable development pathways.

This has never been achieved before and would require unprecedented levels of support from the international community. It is only by acting in global solidarity, motivated by enlightened self-interest, that our leaders steer us on a path to a safer world.

Britta Renkamp, University of Cape Town: What is an example of partnerships for climate justice really working out and why? How can this knowledge help other cases worldwide?

I would offer two examples of partnerships that are both working out and providing a framework for others to follow.

In February, the climate negotiations were hosted in Geneva on account of some construction work at their usual home in Bonn, Germany. This provided a unique opportunity to bring the climate community and the human rights community together to discuss the incorporation of human rights into climate action. My foundation hosted a climate justice dialogue with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights which brought climate negotiators together with their Human Rights Council counterparts for the first time.

At the event, Costa Rica announced their intention to develop the Geneva Pledge on Human Rights and Climate Action. The pledge is a voluntary initiative undertaken by countries to facilitate the sharing of knowledge between human rights and climate experts at a national level. Initially, 18 countries signed up and the pledge was announced in the closing plenary of the Geneva negotiation session. Today, the pledge has 29 signatories.

Another example of partnerships in action for climate justice comes from Malawi, where an initiative to deliver access to clean energy to the very poorest households is bringing together government, civil society and donors. In 2012 I visited Malawi and discussed the potential of coupling renewable energy access and social protection with the government officials and bilateral donors. The government of Malawi has since set a target of delivering two million energy-efficient cookstoves to households by 2020.

Climate-friendly stoves in Malawi. Deutsche Welle, CC BY-NC-ND

In conjunction with Irish Aid and Concern Universal, the government is piloting a project to deliver cookstoves to the poorest households, using a social cash transfer delivery mechanism. By the end of 2015 the programme will have reached 8,400 homes. The programme will then be scaled up to 320,000 homes by the end of 2016, and should be on course to reach the two million household target.

Social protection systems can deliver at scale if supported by genuine political will and appropriate financing. Adopting this approach for delivering sustainable energy solutions could drastically reduce energy poverty.

This article was first published in “The Conversation” on 6 December 2015.