A new champion for climate justice

Below is the interview as published over two pages in the main section of yesterday’s Sunday Tribune:

Mary Robinson doesn’t scare easily. In the course of more than four decades in public life, it’s easy to forget that she has been pilloried at least as much as praised at home and abroad. The radical young lawyer and Senator in the Ireland of the late 1960s could hardly have picked a more incendiary set of issues upon which to challenge the status quo than contraception, gay rights, women’s rights and the status of children.

Decades later, as the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, her highlighting of atrocities and ‘collective punishment’ of Palestinian civilians in particular earned her the wrath of the Bush administration and the powerful US Jewish lobby (one conservative publication suggested she be indicted for ‘war crimes’). Washington was reportedly apoplectic that this fiercely independent figure doggedly refused to come to heel.

Having spent the last 13 years in New York (where the UN is headquartered), she will be moving home for good at the end of this year and, at the age of 66, will be entitled to her free bus pass. After a brilliant but bruising career spanning over 40 years as a human rights campaigner and advocate, crowned last year with the award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom – America’s highest civilian honour – few would begrudge her putting her feet up at last and spending more time with her grandchildren.

But, rather than fading gracefully into the twilight, Robinson is once again a woman on a mission. And her new challenge is to fight for what she terms ‘climate justice’. To this end, she has recently established the eponymous Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice (MRFCJ). She will head the organisation on a pro bono basis, working alongside her long-time advisor and friend, Bride Rosney.

She has in a very real sense come full circle, as the fledgling foundation is based in an elegant if dusty Georgian building overlooking her old alma mater, Trinity College, Dublin. The MRFCJ’s ambitions, however, remain global. To this end a star-studded advisory council that includes Richard Branson, Al Gore and former World Health Organisation chief, Gro Harlem Brundtland has been assembled.

This initiative stems from the realisation that hit her some years ago: any hard-won gains for the world’s poor are being wiped out by the growing impacts of climate change. Therefore, any human rights work that doesn’t tackle the climate change dimension is ultimately guaranteed to fail.

However, the icons of climate change are polar bears and icebergs. Robinson feels this inures us from the reality that right now, millions of the world’s poorest people are seeing their lives and livelihoods threatened by dramatic changes in climate patterns. This manifests itself in much more severe droughts and flooding, and a general unpredictability which is causing havoc for farmers.

Climate justice argues that we in the industrialised world created this disaster, and we have a moral, indeed a legal, responsibility to clean it up. This is not about charity. Rather, it is enlightened self-interest, for what goes around, comes around. In our fragile, highly interconnected world, ultimately together.

By taking such a clear stance against the trillion-dollar fossil fuel lobby, Robinson can look forward to being excoriated and painted as a Luddite she-devil by the well-oiled climate denialist PR machine. It will, in other words, be just like old times.

Just because you are not easily scared does not mean there’s nothing to be afraid of. And Mary Robinson is, perhaps for the first time in her life, manifestly fearful. And this fear comes from the gnawing sense that we are on the edge of an unspeakable catastrophe. “I know it sounds unreal, and I think about it a lot”, she said in an exclusive in-depth interview in Dublin. “Yes, we have had concerns in the past about nuclear, and the potential for destroying parts of the world, but I don’t think we’ve ever had this kind of situation”.

Her rigorous legal training allows Robinson to keep her emotions firmly in check. This time, somehow it’s different. Discussing the spectre of a looming climate disaster causes her to put aside the jargon of the negotiating rooms and the formulaic language of international diplomacy. She lays it out plainly. Climate change is “the biggest human and human rights issue of the 21st century, because of its potential for conflict, its potential for devastation, in fact its potential for destroying our world as a whole”.

Robinson shakes her head as she recalls a comment by Tim Wirth, a former US senator and now president of the UN Foundation that if planet Earth files for bankruptcy, all the subsidiaries go under. “If we’re not careful, planet Earth will file for bankruptcy”, she adds with a rueful laugh.

Almost as improbably as a 60-something Sylvester Stallone stepping back into the ring in Rocky Balboa, Robinson is coming out of retirement for one last fight, and this time, the odds have never looked more unpromising. When things are this desperate, despair is itself a luxury. But what really rankles with a woman who has spent her working life battling injustice is the fact that climate change is, by almost any measure, the gravest yoke the rich have ever placed upon the shoulders of the poorest, most vulnerable yet least culpable people on the planet.

That burden is the hundreds of billions of tonnes of climate-altering carbon emissions the industrialised world has pumped into the atmosphere in a feverish scramble for growth and prosperity at all costs. There is a widespread belief that climate change is some new, controversial idea that scientists are seriously divided on. It is neither new nor in any real doubt among experts in the field.

In 1965, while Robinson was still an undergraduate, president, Lyndon Johnson told the US Congress: “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through… a steady increase in CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels”. That’s how clear the science was almost half a century ago. The scientific report upon which Johnson’s speech was based warned of dire consequences for the climate by the year 2000 unless this was addressed. The basic physics in these early projects has proven entirely accurate.

The conservative International Energy Agency translated this into real-world consequences in the decades ahead. “Without a change in policy, the world is on a path for a rise in global temperature of up to 6°C”, was the agency’s grim assessment – a view drawn from a range of high-level scientific assessments. “I’ve seen the predictions, and they are frightening, frightening”, says Robinson.

She is also acutely aware of the role being played by the fossil fuel industry in funding ‘denialist’ think tanks to spread disinformation and confusion among the public and media about climate change. She recognises that this has spilled over from the US and into the public and media debate in Ireland. A favourite tactic of deniers is to highlight ‘uncertainty’ in science and insinuate that we can therefore ignore consensus scientific warnings.

“Predictions are not 100 per cent certain, because they never are, but I wouldn’t get on an aeroplane if I thought it had an 80 per cent chance of crashing”, she says with an uneasy laugh. She is visibly angry at the people behind the current wave of denial of even the most basic science.

The lawyer in her favours deploying litigation against the major polluters and their PR shills. “There is a reckless forseeability about some of the damage. Somehow we have to get at those lobbies who are purely in it for profit and are trying to bend the science all the time”, she says. She adds on a lighter note that as a retired lawyer, she would be happy to leave it to others to decide whether or not to take such actions.

But as for the gravity of the threat: “I don’t need any convincing; I’m just back from Addis Ababa and have seen at first hand the water stresses and other climate-related stresses they are having to cope with”, Robinson stated. The era of carbon-based growth is now at an end, she points out, as “it’s no longer sustainable since it’s creating the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming our world and creating climate changes”.

However, people in dire poverty have a human right to a better life, and she feels it is our duty, our imperative, to equip them with low-carbon technologies to do this. Africa, she points out, receives huge amounts of sunshine but lacks the technology to harness this as solar energy. Instead, many African women are suffering lung disease by having to cook using filthy kerosene burners.

Efforts at reining in human impacts count for little when emissions reductions are overwhelmed by the sheer weight of human numbers. There are, she points out, over 200 million women worldwide who want access to contraception but haven’t got it. The key, she stresses, is education and empowerment for girls and women, not coercion. The freedoms she and others fought and gained for Irish women remain elusive for countless others.

Ireland’s many links with the developing world, and the famous generosity of the Irish public in privately donating suggests strongly to Robinson that, despite our current economic travails, we are still capable of reaching out to others in altogether more perilous circumstances.

“Part of the problem with the climate issue is that is has been led by scientists, environmentalists and economists, but what we haven’t understood is that people are suffering dramatically, in parts of the world that Irish people care a great deal about”.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
This entry was posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sceptics, Sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to A new champion for climate justice

  1. denis says:

    Maybe as a start, she could persuade Branson to give up his airline interests—oops, how many would be out of work if he did ?
    She could also persuade US farmers to stop producing fossil fuel based grain —-oops, what is that I see on that sack being unloaded at Port au Prince airport—-produce of the USA.
    Nuff said.

  2. Barthololmew says:

    My last post on the other thread was not published. I wonder why?

    She says:
    ““I don’t need any convincing; I’m just back from Addis Ababa and have seen at first hand the water stresses and other climate-related stresses they are having to cope with””

    Are these just climate-related stresses like the famines in Ethopia in the mid 80s are they actually stressed induced by anthropogenic climate change?

  3. Gillian Andrews says:

    Delighted to see Mary Robinson take such a lead on this, in an era of low standards in high places, she’s a reminder of the difference that decent, compassionate, intelligent people can make when they get involved in public life. Too bad she isn’t our Taoiseach, do you honestly think she’d have stood by and let the builders/bankers/developers and their many friends in the professions run this country into the abyss?

    Or appear, dazed-and-confused, on national radio and have the country held up as an international laughing stock? The UN, and climate change’s gain has been Ireland’s loss (of course, Mrs Robinson did run for the Dail at least once, and was turned down on each occasion by our sophisticated electorate, the same one who are now moaning about the dreadful shower THEY voted in!).

  4. John Gibbons says:


    Your last post was canned because I’m not going around in circles with you indefinitely. If you want to start again here, be my guest, but I’m not to bother responding to publishing your riddles. If and when you have actually read ‘The Lomborg Deception’, send in your review and we’ll most likely post it. Until then, that cul-de-sac remains shut. If all of this seems terribly unfair, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of other, more sympathetic blogs to post on.

    As regards your actual point above, perhaps you should address it directly to Mrs Robinson? She can be contacted via the MRFCJ.org website.

  5. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    That’s a brilliant interview article. I notice you didn’t mention the Richard Branson/biofuels issue, perhaps there wasn’t room to go into that in the piece. I wonder how Branson got involved with the MRFCJ, was he invited by Robinson or did he invite himself? In a way it’s good to have such a high-profile figure on the committee, at least he’s trying to so something useful, but I hope it doesn’t mean Robinson thinks biofuels are okay. Perhaps she isn’t up to speed yet on what Branson is trying to do to extend the life of Virgin Airlines, using biofuels.

  6. Paul Barry says:


    Are you trying to argue that what Mary Robinson witnessed in Addis Ababa does not constitute evidence for AGW – just like you can’t say that flooding in Pakistan is either? Fair enough. The only problem is you are completely missing the point.

    The point she is making is that her experiences show her how devastating the IMPACTS of climate change will be. She is not making an argument about whether it is happening or not. If you want to debate the evidence for AGW, I’d suggest that you pick on some climatologists.

  7. Barthololmew says:

    Well my last three posts have not been published but I’ll try and answer your question Paul and who knows maybe John will think it’s only fair I can answer questions put to me and might actually publish this one.

    The point is, if Addis Ababa has nothing to do with climate change then Mary makes it very easy for climate deniers to say: “There is no evidence for climate change causing this whether in Addis Ababa” and be factually correct. This means the public get very confused and don’t know who to believe.

    It would be much better if climate change proponents just spoke about “climate change”, not “climate”. Because when you conflate the two, people get extremly confused.

    The same happened in that Duncan Stewart program recently. John (I think) starting talking about the cold snap. Again was this to do with climate change or climate?

    Remember we are talking about a complex problem. Do we dumb it down, simplify it in the hope that this will spread the message but then make the deniers case easier? Or, do take the time to explain things scientifically and logically treat the public as if they have intelligence and will understand things when they are explained properly.

    In my view we are doing way too much of the former. This is why there is so much confusion over the matter.

  8. John Gibbons says:


    feedback appreciated. I think MR is building a ‘coalition of the willing’ and perhaps reckons it’s best to get folks with clout like Branson “inside the tent”. This is only my opinion, it didn’t come up in the interview proper, I should add. She is a very persuasive person, and no doubt she has thought through her strategy viz. the folks she brings on board.

  9. Michelle Rogers says:

    Mary Robinson is neither stupid nor naive. She is fiercely intelligent and well-versed – and also almost uniquely independent and moral. It seems obvious to me that she will have studied the compelling evidence that underpins the scientific consensus on anthropomorphic climate change and its possible disastrous effects. Anybody who has done this can only be horrified. While I cannot share her enthusiasm for Richard Branson, I feel sure that she knows what she is doing!

  10. Paddy Morris says:

    Mary Robinson is giving one of the EPA’s climate change lectures this year: hers is on Nov 23rd, details are available at http://epa.ie/news/events/name,30395,en.html

  11. RonanG says:

    I attended an Oxfam International talk in Trinity last year part of the launch of their campaign to humanise climate change and put a human face to the issue. Mary Robinson is(still?) their honourary president and was guest speaker. Mary Robinson was, as ever, the consummate public speaker. She passionately presented climate change as the defining issue of the 21st century, speaking of her real fear of the livability of the planet in 2050 for her grandchildren and insisted that climate change is not some future event waiting to happen but something that is already affecting people’s lives around the world. Fair points. Important points.

    Not her life mind you. She let slip a string of long haul flights that she and her family had recently taken: ome(by her grandchildren) to attend the New York marathon; some to attend what many might consider glorified photo-ops with The Elders; and some, admittedly under the auspices of advocacy on behalf of groups with ostensibly worthy causes such as Oxfam Internationl et al. Honestly, I thought to myself, she must surely have a larger carbon footprint than anyone who was present in the auditorium that night?

    Ok, I don’t want to shoot the messenger and I can accept she is trying to raise awareness about these issues but when are our leaders going to start translating the impassioned beliefs they espouse into actions in their daily personal lives? And when are we going to stop waiting for our leaders and celebrity humanitarians to show us the way and start doing it for ourselves. I personally have more respect for someone who cycles to work, grows a few veges in their back yard and donates some of their earnings to worthy causes than a privileged, jet-setting, human-rights advocate.

    Anyway, in the subsequent Q&A session, I put it to the panel that the single greatest factor contributing to reduced future carbon emissions would be a prolonged and sustained reduction in industrial output i.e. an interminable global recession. There was what might be referred to as nervous laughter in the auditorium while the veil of illusion slipped and the matrix momentarily flickered. The laughter became polite and Mary Robinson herself responded that she had recently met with leaders of some of the biggest corporations in the world and assured us they were committed to more sustainable practices, green technologies, blah, blah, etc.


    Soulless, heartless, greedy, bloodsucking, profit driven, financial psychopaths are going to defy their company charters and put the interests of the planet, humanity & society ahead of those of their shareholder’s? Oh, right then Mary.

    I do respect Mary Robinson for much of her life’s work, but I am not convinced she appreciates the nature of the threat currently facing our planet. Our western-industrialised, resource gobbling way of life based on infinite growth economics must change.

    “After this, there is no turning back.
    You take the blue pill – the story ends,
    you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.
    You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland
    and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *