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Mary Robinson: prisoner of optimism

INTERVIEW: Mary Robinson’s Foundation seeks to shift the climate debate from science and environment to people and justiceMichael Smith 


I don’t really have political heroes (Mandela maybe) but I do have a bit of  a thing for Mary Robinson.  Serious, clever, liberal, leftie, environmentalist. And now I’m interviewing her. It’s a pity it’s about climate change as we both know too much about it and it’s dull and depressing,  if staggeringly, critically important. Niall Crowley, Contributing Editor to Village and I meet her on a Tuesday in early February in the well-appointed Georgian offices of he biggest current project:  the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, near Trinity College in Dublin. There don’t seem to be any other men around. We sit in the elegant hallway and the former President arrives on time. She is elegant and precise but is suffering from a head cold which is making her hoarse. She is warm and approachable if not effusive and delivers at all times the diplomacy to be expected from an elder statesperson, before she finally ushers us out when her head cold becomes overwhelming.

Mary Robinson says she didn’t come to the climate issue from an environmental perspective, or from any deep knowledge of climate science.

“I came very much from a human-rights perspective because the work that my colleagues and I had been doing in various African countries when I was leading New-York-based ‘Realizing Rights’ (The Ethical Globalisation Initiative which addressed five urgent issues for greater human development and security)   was on helping African countries to benefit more from globalisation, which was what the UN’s Millennium declaration had promised but which clearly wasn’t happening.

“I was going to a lot of African countries  and realising that the climate shocks that African countries were suffering were already undermining development and making it much harder to have food security and that they were not responsible for the situation – therefore it was a justice issue. So before the end of my time with Realizing Rights, I had decided to create an entity which became the Mary Robinson Foundation Climate Justice (‘the Foundation”), operating out of Ireland.

“The Foundation is involved in four areas of work. The first of them is a climate-justice dialogue, which we have initiated with the World Resources Institute, based in Washington D.C. It’s an ambitious project because it’s seeking to shape a fair and equitable climate agreement by changing the narrative on climate change, which is largely a narrative that’s talking about melting glaciers and tipping points of an environmental nature, rather than how it’s affecting people. We want to have a strong evidence-based climate justice narrative, and by doing that, create what we call new constituencies of demand for an urgent, ambitious and fair climate agreement by 2015. In Durban first of all, and then more recently in Doha, the governments participating in the UNFCC process [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] have committed to a climate agreement, but we will not get there without opening up issues of equity and fairness.   “We have put together a very distinguished high level advisory committee – I made the calls for that. Countries and NGOs and business want to work with us on this”.

“What struck me in Durban and even more in Doha, was that there was no pressure from the rich-country delegates to do something. There was frantic pressure from the small island states and poor countries that are being undermined; they were going spare and trying not to get hysterical on the floor. But the rich countries are under no pressure because the ministers that go are going to some obscure conference and nobody knows what they’re doing. Because it‘s seen as being about climate. It’s not about people and the future of the planet, and how we’re to survive…”

Niall Crowley asks how you change that:

“I think this climate justice dialogue we are promoting will contribute. Because people don’t know what is happening. When I talk in this country, or in other countries, about the fact that it’s undermining livelihoods for the poorest, people look at you – they have no idea”.

I ask her if she thinks that other champions of climate change have failed to address justice issues, for example the UN or national governments but she skirts around it so I ask her directly if she  thinks the UN is not addressing the justice angle of climate change.

She says it’s not bringing it out to the same extent. There is a big focus on securing a climate agreement and also on the post-2015 development agenda, but the two are not being linked sufficiently, she thinks, as climate is actually undermining the development agenda because it is such  a difficult issue.

“I was in Malawi earlier in January and I saw   that providing food security and nutrition and water is much more difficult now than it was – not because of anything poor countries have done, but because of the lifestyles of rich countries, and our fossil fuels development growth. There is a huge justice dimension”.

As regards climate scepticism, she believes it is in decline now “because of the climate shock, including in the US, the drought in the mid-west and Sandy et cetera, so I think the pendulum has swung again. I think the fact that Obama, in his second inaugural speech made a strong statement about the importance of tackling climate change is helpful, and John Kerry, the new secretary of state is very personally committed, and knows how serious the issues of climate change are”.

I ask her if she gets good access to people like Obama and the incoming secretary of state: “It depends. I think what we try to do is use whatever access is possible to put forward the arguments about climate justice and to amplify the voices most affected by climate. And part of the way we do it is that we link to the ‘women’s Troika  Plus’ and we now have more than 60 members, mainly ministers of environment and energy, including people like Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women and former President of Chile, and Helen Clarke, former New Zealand Prime Minister – and we do have access.

She moves on to the second area where the Foundation, which she points out has only been operating for two years, is making an impact. It is what has been called by Christiana Figueres (Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)) ‘the Doha miracle’. That was an idea which the Foundation had proposed in Durban to the Troika of women leaders [who had chaired earlier summits]”.

Robinson is a bit vague about this and I later discover she is one of the Troika  Plus.   I’m interested in the process the Foundation used to lobby for women’s inclusion.

“There was a 10-year-old decision encouraging governments to have more women on the bodies of the UNFCCC and the Kyoto protocol delegations, but it just wasn’t being taken seriously. Women were less than 10%, or certainly less than 20%, of the membership. It’s a very male environment when you go to the conferences. So we proposed that there should be a new decision and we worked with a number of governments and the UN Women during last year, and in particular at a meeting in New York during the general assembly, hosted by Anne Anderson, Ireland’s UN ambassador. We brought together some key people – mainly women – who would take on responsibility to carry this forward. The Foundation and ‘UN Women’ said we would work together on getting a draft text and get it through the EU, with the help of Finland. Christiana Figueres (another member of the Troika Plus) said she would advise us on how to make sure it got on the agenda of the Doha Summit. We had Guyana,  South Africa, Mexico. A whole lot of allies… even the US said it would not object.  So we worked on the draft decision and it was tabled under ‘any other business’ on the agenda of the Summit. And then halfway through discussions on the gender day, a lawyer in the Commission came up with the problem that, procedurally, anything that was tabled under ‘any other business’ could not become a decision of that Summit”.

“So when I learned about this, I asked Christiana Figueres, and she said ‘Look, it’s almost impossible, now that this has been drawn to our attention’ and I said ‘define almost’. And she said ‘Well, if the presidency of the Summit agrees…’ So fortunately, during this gender day, the president of the Summit – who was a man, not a woman like the previous three presidents – recognized that there was big support for a decision on gender balance. So when this was moved by the EU, which referred to the Troika of women leaders moving it, we had to show that there was great support on the floor. So Grenada came in, Bangladesh came in, Mexico came in, the United States came in, Japan came in – it was fantastic! It never happens at an international conference. And in the end the President of the Summit threw up his hands and said: ‘What can I do, a mere man!’” (at this point Mary Robinson is delighted) “And he looked down and read what was in front of him, which was: ‘I see there is broad support for this, I pass it on’. It puts gender on the agenda of all future conferences not just for the bodies of the UNFCCC and the Kyoto protocol, but also to delegations going to the Summits. And it’s not just about gender balance, but also about gender-sensitive climate policy. So by Warsaw, the next conference, a lot of work will have been done”.

So what numbers would she aim for? “In gender balance? 50/50. That’s what they’ve accepted”.

She believes the gender dimensions of climate impact warrant being brought out, because “if you’re undermining welfare and food security, it’s women who bear the brunt of that, who bear the brunt of the water shortage, etcetera”.

I want to get back to how she effects changes like this.  Does Obama take her calls?  She does what in anyone else would be described as bridle.  She only admits that she is often called on to make calls on behalf of the Foundation.

“That’s how we work”, she says. “We’re not a doer, but we’re a thought leader in so far as we can be.

And the third thing that we’re doing in the short term is working with the Irish government on the Dublin conference on Hunger, Nutrition, Climate Justice.

I don’t think any other EU Presidency would have a conference on exactly that. I think it’s because of our long empathy with developing countries and all the lore that has been passed back by priests and nuns, by aid workers, by successive Irish governments.  I was linking with what Irish Aid is doing in Malawi, and the priorities are very good, and the work is very good”.

So does she think Ireland is playing an appropriate role in the debate? “In that area, yes, I do”.

Niall Crowley asks “In the development area as opposed to the climate area, or both?”.

“In the development area. I’m not going to talk about…”  Robinson is laughing: she nearly said something undiplomatic.

She talks about some of the practical initiatives the Foundation is interested in.

“What we’ve done is look at how access to energy to the poorest can be improved, because we have the gadgets. Technology allows clean-cook stoves, and  lights that you can hang out and be recharged by the sun. But there are still 1.3 billion people who don’t have electricity at home, their light is kerosene – horrible, dangerous – or candles, and 2.6 billion still cook on biomass. So we decided to address access to energy for the poorest. There are about 500 million people who have a mobile phone but don’t have electricity in their home. At least they be reached by social entrepreneurs and by businesses that are looking to the bottom of the pyramid. But below that, you have more that 900 million who have neither mobile phone nor electricity in the home. They’re the ones that we’re interested in. And by and large, they are findable. They’re in social protection systems such as, one I know, the Ethiopian social safety net system.The idea, supported  by Irish Aid, Foreign Affairs, and a number of NGOs  is to get the eight million people involved in the social protection system to work an extra day a week, on water maintenance or tree planting. Then – this is the productive part – they get a goat or some chickens to help them out of poverty. And so we brought together about 25 people, roughly half of whom worked in social protection systems from Mexico, India, Brazil – we tried to get Ethiopia but at the last minute they couldn’t get a visa – with energy entrepreneurs and policy makers.  It was a terrific meeting. We brought our thinking to the World Bank, because I know the vice-president for sustainable development there, and she was very impressed with the idea, because in the bank they had never thought of bringing their huge social protection regime and their huge energy regime together, and now they’re looking to pilot possible ways to do that. So we’ve influenced thinking. And on the 1st of March I’ll be in the World Bank pursuing that discussion”.

I feel we’re done with climate justice and I’m going to ask some questions about the non-human rights aspects of climate change.

How much of an imperative does she think reducing greenhouse gases is:

“I think it’s huge, I am extremely worried that we’re not on course for a safe world, for a world where the temperature does not rise more than 2 degrees Celsius.  The recent report of the World Bank that turned up the heat showing what it would be like to have a 4 degree world is a very chilling reminder”.

Does she think we’re going to keep it below 2 degrees?

“We’re not on course at the moment. And that’s why it’s so urgent, we urgently need a climate agreement that helps us to get on track”.

I’m getting stuck in.  Does she think it’s probable that we’ll avoid 2 degrees?

“I’m not an expert on it, but I’m worried enough for it to be a big preoccupation. Because even if we can average 2 degrees, that won’t help some African countries who will be way above 2 degrees.   I think it’s the biggest human rights issue, that’s why I’m so preoccupied by it”.

So does she think it’s possible the human species will become extinct? “I don’t want to speculate on that because my approach to getting things done is not to see that the glass is half full, but that there’s something to work on.

She may not want to speculate on this, but does she think that a technical fix is… “I wouldn’t know. But I doubt it”.

She’s not comfortable talking about the Science so I move on.

I announce that I’m going to ask  a few quasi-philosophical questions: How would she balance this and the rights of the next generation?

“That’s something that climate change requires of us. An intergenerational approach to human rights which we haven’t had enough of. I loved a comment I heard recently from an indigenous people – a decision should be thought through to the seventh generation. I don’t think we’ll get that far, but we are definitely talking intergenerational justice. And that’s also why, in a curious way, having women leaders focussing on the gender dimensions and climate changes is helpful, because we are instinctively, by our nurturing role, more likely to be intergenerational. I mean I, quite often, as you may have seen, deliberately refer to my four grandchildren, who will be in their 40s in 2050, and that makes it real. What kind of world will it be then, with 9 billion people? The Elders (a group including Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel, and Desmond Tutu who chairs it  which convened itself to contribute wisdom, independent leadership and integrity to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems) have been focussing on the intergenerational dimensions. We had a very good discussion before Rio with a group of very smart ‘Youngers’, from China, Brazil, Sweden and Nigeria, who debated with the Elders before going into Rio”.

And how would she correlate egalitarianism and environmentalism? “Pass”.  I suggest Niall Crowley should answer that one since he was formerly the head of the Equality Authority. Everyone laughs but nervously.

I suggest that she might say that the driver for her, psychologically or philosophically, is not so much environmentalism or equality, but justice.

“It’s all about equality, human rights and development. I think that justice is a good prism in which to view it – the right to food, water, education, living in your own home which are being displaced.  I started off as a lawyer, taking cases in court, and then as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. I learned  that the world was not paying enough attention to economic and social rights; I’ve tried to put an emphasis on that, and then climate became a big factor”.

Does she see a logic, in view of the history of this country, in Ireland taking a prime stance on climate change – and does she think it’s delivering?

And if she was advising somebody who is aware of the overwhelming significance of climate change as to how they might devote their energies, is it enough to make themselves a paragon of good environmental behaviour? Or does she think that they should also be devoting themselves on a political basis?

She doesn’t really answer the question: “The climate justice dialogue is committed to creating pressure for a fair climate agreement by encouraging these constituencies of demands, and we’re reaching out to civil society through CIVICUS – a network of networks – and they are the ones who will be more activist in that regard. We’re also reaching out to the private sector, to the individual countries, small island states and indigenous peoples. I’m conscious that the Foundation  encourages   civil society more than the private sector. But the private sector can play a really significant role if it commits, as I hope will be the case”.

Finally, is she optimistic – not just by temperament, but also specifically on the issue of climate justice and where we are situated at the moment?

“I would say I have more sense of urgency about the need to bring home the fact that climate is affecting people; that we need a more human-centred approach and that there is an urgency to that because we’re running out of time. Running out of time because we’re not on course for a safe world. We’re seeing the possibility the ‘climate cliff’, something that would make the ‘fiscal cliff’ in the States look like a very minor problem. So I can’t say that I’m optimistic. I like how archbishop Tutu describes himself when he is asked if he is optimistic, he says ‘No, I’m a prisoner of hope’. So I’m a prisoner of hope when it comes to climate change, hope that we will do the right thing”.