It has been a bruising couple of days for the image of politics in Ireland. Yesterday morning, of course, we had a tired-and-emotional performance on RTE radio by Taoiseach Brian Cowen. A few hours earlier, junior minister Conor Lenihan had sent the squirm factor off the charts with his bizarre decision to preside at the launch an anti-evolution tirade authored by an obscure constituent suffering from an acute case of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Regular mortification was of course compounded by the fact that Conor Lenihan is Science Minister. It was a bit like sending our education minister to a book burning, or catching the justice minister laundering red diesel. Lenihan did back down as the firestorm broke over him, but still planned to attend the ‘book’ launch in Dublin earlier this evening, pointing out that “diversity of opinion is a good thing”. No matter how dumb, ill-informed or just plain wrong that opinion may be, it appears. The assault on science and the scientific method is, it appears, by no means restricted to the Tea Party lunatic fringes of US politics.
Things took a distinct turn for the better yesterday afternoon with the launch of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice (MRFCJ), a non-profit organisation that will be based in Dublin from the end of 2010. The stated aim of the foundation is to “ensure human rights are at the heart of the climate change agenda”.
Robinson’s outstanding career as a lawyer, academic, activist, politician and campaigner spanning more than four decades has been fired from the outset by a burning sense of outrage at injustice, and a determination to stand up for the oppressed. Cutting your teeth as a young female liberal academic and senator in the Ireland of the late 1960s proved to be an excellent boot camp to prepare Robinson for the rocky road towards justice and equality that lay ahead.
Now 65, and after many years away, Robinson is finally coming home to stay at the end of this year. Rather than collect her free bus pass, she is instead to head up the MRFCJ on a pro bono basis, with her long time advisor, Bride Rosney taking over as CEO. The foundation is to be “a centre for thought leadership, education and advocacy on the struggle to secure global justice for those many victims of climate change who are usually forgotten – the poor, the disempowered and the marginalised across the world.”
Herself a relatively late convert to climate change as a core issue, Robinson has quickly come up to speed, and is now throwing her very considerable international reputation and moral authority behind increasingly desperate efforts to put the climate catastrophe back on centre stage. In all of history, climate change may well prove to be the most egregious injustice ever foisted by the rich upon the poor and powerless.
I had the privilege of meeting Mary Robinson yesterday afternoon in the MRFCJ’s new headquarters just across the road from her Alma Mater, Trinity College, Dublin. She gave extremely generously of her time, sitting for a solid hour for a wide-ranging interview.
She pointed out to me that, until now, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process has been led by scientists, environmentalists and economists (including Nicholas Stern, whose eponymous Stern Review for the UK government in 2006 famously described climate change as “the greatest market failure in history”). What hasn’t yet been grasped and what Robinson believes may yet change our collective mindset is the clear realisation that people are right now bearing the brunt of climate impacts. This, says Robinson, is happening “in parts of the world Irish people care a great deal about”.
Robinson is highly skilled and measured in her use of language, weighing and wielding each phrase with the precision of a senior counsel, yet what sets her apart from the great bulk of the political and policymaking establishment (at least here in Ireland) is that she absolutely gets it. No amount of polish can conceal the fact that she clearly grasps the existential nature of the climate crisis; that we are the generation that either rises to this tremendous challenge, or is – quite literally – swept away by it.
Having been battered by the Climategate hoax, bewildered by the Copenhagen COP-out, infuriated by the media blow-hards, befuddled by our very own idiot savant class of ‘sceptical economists’, and humiliated by our Science Minister (and his boss), the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice could hardly have come at a time of greater need.
All is not lost. Moral leadership has been restored and our compass once again points towards True North.