The antidote for your climate change paralysis. Sierra Magazine
An urgent call to arms by one of the most important voices in the international fight against climate change, sharing inspiring stories and offering vital lessons for the path forward.
Holding her first grandchild in her arms in 2003, Mary Robinson was struck by the uncertainty of the world he had been born into. Before his fiftieth birthday, he would share the planet with more than nine billion peoplepeople battling for food, water, and shelter in an increasingly volatile climate. The faceless, shadowy menace of climate change had become, in an instant, deeply personal.
Mary Robinson’s mission would lead her all over the world, from Malawi to Mongolia, and to a heartening revelation: that an irrepressible driving force in the battle for climate justice could be found at the grassroots level, mainly among women, many of them mothers and grandmothers like herself. From Sharon Hanshaw, the Mississippi matriarch whose campaign began in her East Biloxi hair salon and culminated in her speaking at the United Nations, to Constance Okollet, a small farmer who transformed the fortunes of her ailing community in rural Uganda, Robinson met with ordinary people whose resilience and ingenuity had already unlocked extraordinary change.
Powerful and deeply humane, Climate Justice is a stirring manifesto on one of the most pressing humanitarian issues of our time, and a lucid, affirmative, and well-argued case for hope.
“As advocate for the forgotten and the ignored, Mary Robinson has not only shone a light on human suffering, but illuminated a better future for our world.” -Barack Obama
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About the Author
Mary Robinson is president of the Mary Robinson FoundationClimate Justice. She served in two capacities as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Climate Change. She is the former President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and is now Chair of the Elders and a member of the Club of Madrid. In 2009, she was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Read an Excerpt
UNDERSTANDING CLIMATE JUSTICE
On December 12, 2003, my thirty-third wedding anniversary, I was at a meeting in Trinity College Dublin when my cell phone rang. It was my son-in-law, Robert, breathless with news. My daughter, Tessa, had just given birth to their first child, a boy. Could I come to the hospital, Robert asked, and meet my first grandchild?
I grabbed my coat and stepped out into the brisk winter air. It was a ten-minute walk from Trinity College through the heart of Georgian Dublin to Holles Street and the national maternity hospital, where, thirty-one years earlier, I had given birth to my own first child, Tessa.
In the hospital ward, I embraced the exhausted but elated couple. Tessa tenderly passed me a tiny bundle and watched with delight as I peered inside. Face-to-face with my grandson, Rory, I was flooded with a rush of adrenaline, a physical sensation unlike anything I had ever felt before. In that moment, my sense of time altered and I began to think in a time span of a hundred years. I knew instinctively that I would now view Rory's life through the prism of our planet's precarious future. I made a quick mental calculation: In 2050, when Rory would be forty-seven, he would share the planet with more than nine billion people. These billions would be seeking food, water, and shelter on a planet already suffering the effects from our global dependency on fossil fuel. What would that world be like? Would we have pushed ourselves by then to the verge of extinction? The abstract data on climate change that I had skirted around for so long suddenly became deeply personal. Holding this tiny baby, I instantly felt the threat that climate change could pose to him — and thereby to all humanity. I would be long gone by 2050, but what could I do to help ensure that Rory, and every other baby born in 2003, would inherit a world fit to live in, and not one on the brink of despair?
* * *
I'm humbled to admit that I am a relative latecomer to the issue of climate change. When I served as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002, safe in the knowledge that the United Nations already had a dedicated climate change office, the topic rarely crossed my mind. I don't remember making a single speech relating to it. That changed in early 2003 after I had moved to New York to create my own organisation, Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, to advance economic, social, and cultural rights, particularly in African countries. As high commissioner, I had watched industrialized nations emphasize the importance of civil and political rights while rarely conceding that the right to food, safe water, health, education, and decent work were equally important. With Realizing Rights, I wanted to change this dynamic, to make human rights matter in small places, and to help developing countries achieve their full economic and social potential. I wanted people in developing countries to know they had inherent human dignity and rights, and that those in power should "realise" those rights by implementing and respecting them.
But from the outset of my Realizing Rights days, as I travelled in African countries to promote the right to development, an unexpected issue kept getting in the way: climate change. No matter where I went, I kept hearing variations on the same phrase: "But things are so much worse now." Farmers in Africa described the erratic nature of their harvests, how they failed to arrive when expected, and how long months of drought would be followed by flash floods that swept away farms and villages. Across the Americas and Asia, people told stories of hurricanes that destroyed homes and hospitals and took out government services, schools, and businesses. In the past, I had seen images of stranded polar bears and the disappearance of ancient glaciers, but these anecdotal stories from the front lines of climate change suddenly began to match the scientific findings I was reading with increasing concern. It seemed that Mother Earth was trying to tell us something — that depleting the earth's resources at an ever-accelerating rate would ultimately lead to our own demise.
Climate change, I realised, was no longer a scientific abstraction but a man-made phenomenon that impacted people — primarily the most vulnerable — all over the world. While industrial nations continued to build their economies on the backs of fossil fuel, the poorest across the world were suffering most from the effects of climate change. Though these communities were the least responsible for the emissions causing climate change, they were disproportionately affected because of their already-vulnerable geographic locations and their lack of climate resilience. The rising sea levels, produced by the melting glaciers I had observed rather passively, were the cause of water surges thousands of miles away in the low-lying islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans that wiped out entire villages and livelihoods. I began to understand that climate change was more than just the sudden violence of a hurricane or flood; gradually changing weather patterns and rising sea levels were slowly and steadily causing greater food shortages, pollution, and poverty, putting decades of development advances at risk. This injustice — that those who had done least to cause the problem were carrying the greatest burden — made clear that to advocate for the rights of the most vulnerable to food, safe water, health, education, and shelter would have no effect without paying attention to our world's changing climate.
* * *
The Industrial Revolution, which began around the middle of the eighteenth century, started global warming by magnifying the release of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Over the subsequent centuries, countries across Europe and in America have transitioned from rural, agrarian societies to industrial, urbanized ones, becoming rich by using fossil fuels, especially coal and oil, to power their economies. As wealth and consumption grew from fossil fuel use, so too did the rate of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, aided by unsustainable land use from poor agricultural practices and deforestation. Christiana Figueres, a brave Costa Rican diplomat who led the UN body tasked with persuading the world's 195 countries to lessen their dependence on fossil fuel, likens this process to pouring dirty, poisonous sludge into a bathtub with a partially opened drain. Carbon dioxide from burning trees and fuels flows into the world's bathtub at a faster rate than it can be drained by the atmosphere, plants, and the ocean. By the second half of the twentieth century, scientists were sounding the alarm that the bathtub was about to flood. The stock of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere was causing a dangerous rise in global temperatures — leading to sea level rises and dramatic changes in weather patterns. Those same scientists made clear what needed to be done: We had to stop pouring filth into the tub and work collectively to drain it.
By the 1990s, some courageous and scientifically minded political leaders had awoken to the seriousness of the threat. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was created to coordinate global efforts to combat climate change and deal with its consequences. This summit in Rio would lay the groundwork for the Kyoto Protocol, an initiative that encouraged rich nations, which had already benefited from industrialization, to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and to do so before developing nations would join in. But the resolve shown at the historic summit in 1992 did not translate into action at the scale or pace needed, and the Kyoto Protocol did not come into force until 2005. The United States, the world's biggest emitter at that time, also failed to ratify the protocol. As is so often the case with a shared international problem, getting everyone to agree that a problem needs to be solved is far easier than getting individual countries to agree on what they themselves will do to solve it.
There is universal agreement that total global warming should be kept below 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) or as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Two degrees of warming has traditionally been considered the threshold beyond which the effects of climate change move from treacherous to catastrophic, but most experts agree that we are already on track to exceed that. To go above 3°C or 4°C, scientists warn, will initiate a "tipping point" in our planetary system from which there will be no turning back.
As of early 2017, Earth had warmed by roughly more than 1°C since 1880, the year when records were first taken on a global scale. Although this figure may seem quite low to the average person, the rise has set off alarm bells within the global scientific community, who warn that continued and unchecked levels of warming could undermine our planet's capacity to support human existence. Already, soaring temperatures around the world are setting records: the month of March 2017 represented the 627th month in a row of warmer than normal temperatures. The five hottest recorded summers in Europe since the late-medieval ages have occurred since 2002.2 In 2015, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf registered record temperatures as high as 73°C or 163°F.
In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN network of leading climate experts, issued a report warning that should the world remain on its present trajectory, we will hit four degrees of warming by the end of this century. Warming of more than 1.5°C above 1880 levels would lead to the loss of 90 percent or more of all coral reefs. An increase of 2°C would almost double current water shortages around the world and lead to a massive drop in wheat and maize harvests. The vicious heat waves that we experience today would become the norm, and the inundation of coastal cities like that of Houston, Texas, in August 2017 would become routine, forcing tens of millions of people to lose their homes. The sci-fi movies depicting giant storms or weather events that threaten our very existence may one day seem less fictional: a 3.6°C rise above preindustrial levels, the IPCC warns, would precipitate an "extensive" extinction of species across the globe, rendering much of the globe uninhabitable.
Soon after Realizing Rights was formed, I was invited to chair the board of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), a think tank based in London to promote sustainable development worldwide. This wonderful institution taught me how important it is to listen to grassroots voices and enable them to be heard. In 2006 I was asked to give a lecture to honour the life and work of the organisation's founder, the English economist and writer Barbara Ward, an eminent intellectual and moral leader, whose legacy was rooted in the belief that the environment and development are fundamentally linked. Human beings, she once wrote, had forgotten how to act as good guests on Earth and to tread lightly on our planet as other creatures do. Several seminal events in 2006 had pushed climate change to the front pages of some leading international newspapers, and public perception of the debate appeared to be changing. Millions of people across the world had flocked to see the eye-opening film An Inconvenient Truth, by former U.S. vice president Al Gore. That same year, widespread heat waves, unlike anything seen before, had killed hundreds across America. In the United Kingdom, an influential report, Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change, authored by Lord Nicholas Stern, had concluded — to wide international coverage — that investing now to limit climate change and to prepare for its effects would cost a fraction of the measures needed if we wait until these adverse impacts make themselves known.
Honouring Barbara Ward, I reminded those present of the words enshrined in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stating our birthright: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." Yet, when it comes to the effects of climate change, there has been nothing but chronic injustice and the corrosion of human rights. "For too long, many countries have denied the evidence, seeking to find excuses for inaction," especially the United States and Australia, which failed to live up to the clear moral obligation of signing the Kyoto Protocol. "We can no longer think about climate change as an issue where the rich give charity to the poor to help them to cope with its adverse impacts." Success would depend on a new spirit of multilateral efforts with rich countries living up to their responsibilities for contributing most to the problem. "If there is a climate change problem, it is in large part a justice problem. Our continued existence on this shared planet demands that we agree to a fairer way of sharing out the burdens and benefits of life on earth, and that in the choices we make, we remember the rights of both today's poor and tomorrow's children."
To deal with climate change we must simultaneously address the underlying injustice in our world and work to eradicate poverty, exclusion, and inequality. That injustice is embodied in the fate of the 1.3 billion people around the world who still have no access to electricity, and the 2.6 billion who still cook on open fires. If we are to properly address climate change, we must do so in tandem with improving the lives of these people, by giving them access to electricity and cookstoves through renewable energy sources, and not fossil fuel. By doing so we can deliver a wave of empowerment in one of the most profound attacks on global poverty and inequality ever to take place — by opening unprecedented opportunities for these billions of people.
Raising awareness about climate justice requires us to marry the standards of human rights with issues of sustainable development and responsibility for climate change. We need to create a "people first" platform for those on the margins suffering the worst effects of climate change, and to amplify their voices to ensure them a seat at the table in any future climate change negotiations. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, climate justice can be a new "narrative of hope."
* * *
Towards the end of 2010, I brought Realizing Rights to a planned end and moved back home to Ireland to establish my own charitable foundation on climate justice. Using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as a scaffold, we pieced together the foundation using the principles of human rights and combining issues of sustainable development with responsibility for climate change.
In November that year, Mexico held the 16th Conference of the Parties, or COP — the annual climate summit meeting of the "supreme body" of the UNFCCC. A year earlier, Denmark had hosted the 15th COP in Copenhagen, a summit marked by disorganisation and frayed tempers when numerous small states were sidelined by the bigger powers and left — literally — outside in the Danish cold. I and many others were anxious about what lay ahead in Cancún, worried that negotiators would not be able to revive the climate talks after the disaster of the previous year. The Mexican organisers, under the leadership of Minister for Foreign Affairs Patricia Espinosa, had spent the difficult year in between reaching out to the 192 countries that would be present at Cancún, trying to smooth the water and make the conference a turning point, an opportunity to get the climate talks back on track.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Climate Justice"
Copyright © 2018 Mary Robinson.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: Marrakech ix
1 Understanding Climate Justice 1
2 Learning from Lived Experience 15
3 The Accidental Activist 27
4 Vanishing Language, Vanishing Lands 45
5 A Seat at the Table 57
6 Small Steps Towards Equality 73
7 Migrating with Dignity 85
8 Taking Responsibility 97
9 Leaving No One Behind 109
10 Paris-the Challenge of Implementing 127