By Ludovica Martella
On February 26th, Mary Robinson, former first female (!) president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner of Human Rights and UN Special Envoy on Climate Change, engaged in a conversation about her latest book, Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future, at Company, a space that hosts tech start ups, but also, conversations, like this one. Throughout this conversation, Robinson not only dug into the obstacles that she faced and overcame during her impressive career in human rights, but also gave important advice to individuals, companies and tech start-ups on how to tackle climate change solutions. Climate Justice is a story book about the injustice of climate change. Most often, climate change effects are more severe for women and poor developing countries and communities all over the world (the worst effects are seen in developing countries closer to the equator). The 11 short stories in the book are evidence of these injustices. They tell the stories of women (and men) tackling the conditions of the changing climate they live in which is truly inspirational.
First of all, it’s important to provide a bit of a background on this inspirational woman and her formative years. Mrs. Robinson opened the conversation at Company explaining how she became a human rights expert from a very young age. She grew up West Ireland, which is know to be the poorest part of Ireland, “in a household with four brothers, all younger than me, a very interesting human rights situation” she laughs. “At that time, women were supposed to know their place, EVEN THE CONSTITUTION placed the women in the home. My parents who were both medical doctors ASSURED ME that I had the same opportunities as my brothers”. Apart from the rage that many of us could have by reading the sad reality about discrimination against women embedded in the constitution, I’d like to focus for a second on the fact that Robinson’s parents encouraged her to believe that she was EQUAL, despite the law and despite what the general cultural circumstances of the time were. This is not a detail to undermine. More often than not, people who have a strong support system that includes their parents or the people who raised them, are more likely to survive societal pressures that automatically tries to put them in a box. This happens through a process that is called neuroplasticity, and the work of mirror neurons (because this is not a mental health/psychology post, I will keep it brief but I will link some interesting information about these). How does this work? As author Mark Matousek explains in his amazing book Ethical Wisdom, “the role of mirror neurons is to match up our inner reality with the world around us” aka, our brains’ “plastic” adjusts to the environment around us, continuously, but most strongly in children. This is a mechanism that is at the root of our moral beliefs and attitudes. So, would Mary Robinson not be Mary Robinson today if it weren’t for her parents? It’s honestly hard to tell because, honestly, she is pretty awesome. But neuroplasticity is a real thing. That said, let us continue.
Similarly to what we are experiencing nowadays during this sad part of history, Robinson grew up during a wave of global violence. In 1967 she was a young law student at Harvard. Despite the terrible currents of violence of those times, Robinson recognizes that many of her contemporaries were starting to speak out, of all things, about the immoral Vietnam War. As a result, many of them were killed because of their civil rights work. “In April of that same year, Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated, and just after not long, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.” She claims that “desperate times bring the best out of people. Young people were doing great things, they were taking leadership and making a difference.” As she makes this point, she takes a moment to praise the young students in the US who are mobilizing for climate justice and who are organizing a major walk out of schools around the country on March 15th 2019. Mary was brave herself. After she graduated from Harvard Law School she went back to Ireland and started teaching and practicing law with this new activist wave as her motivating force. Through a combination of things, she ended up getting elected to the senate at the age of 25 (mainly because her elderly professors didn’t want to take the lead and push for radical ideas themselves). Between the many topics she had at hearth, she called for the legalization of family planning because women in Ireland at the time couldn’t use contraceptives unless they had a medical note stating they needed them to regulate their menstrual cycle. Despite getting numerous hate mail and being “barely able to walk down the street,” while having her bill called by the Bishop of Ireland “a curse on the country,” Robinson kept on going because change, in her eyes, was the only option. One of her favorite quotes from former UN Secretary general Kofi Annan is (rest in peace,) “you are never too young to lead, you are never too old to learn”. Amen.
Fast-forward through her presidency and to her role of Human Rights Commissioner of the UN, she realized the incredible connection between human rights and climate justice. This was only after her five-year term had ended. At this stage, she created a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Realizing Rights out of her frustration for the still very apparent lack of human rights around the world. The mission behind this organization was to support the ability of African countries to build capacity to provide basic human rights to their populations. This includes holding governments accountable for providing things such as health, sanitation, food, water, education and shelter. During her time in Africa, in 2002, she kept hearing laments from people there about the climatic conditions worsening. She recalls speaking to a climate-wise woman from a small village in Uganda who said “we thought God was punishing us, and then I learned, no it wasn’t God, it was the lives of rich people.” The greenhouse gasses (GHGs) produced by developed countries for the purpose of industry and luxury were having devastating repercussions on her village. “That brought me to be aware of the injustice of climate change. (Climate change) is disproportionately affecting the poorest countries and the poorest communities” even if it is the richer countries who are majorly contributing to the mess. And obviously, poor communities in climate-delicate areas here in the US are being affected as well.
So, should we conceptualize the issue of climate change as a civil rights issue or keep it purely scientific? “It’s not either or” answered Robinson. “We have to try and make the discourse on climate change and climate justice people centered,” because the decline of our environment has increasing negative repercussions on humans as well. Sometimes people seem to not understand that until they are directly affected by it. Robinson concluded that what we should do is to take the climate problem to a personal level. Whether that means avoiding single use plastic and bringing your reusable bottle or/and mug everywhere (you can save money and even get discounts at some cafes if you ask them to use your bottle) or changing your diet to one with less or no animal products, for starters. (There is a wonderful tool by the BBC where you can track the green house emission of the food we consume, here). Also, she invites individuals to get angry with those who have the power to make change and are not doing their best to take action. For businesses and especially for tech, she invites them to think about the world we envision for ourselves.
Mary Robinson’s book Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future is a fast read and a small book that won’t add significant weight to your bag. I advise you to give it a read since it tells stories from people around the world that can be truly inspirational and give you a wider vision on the realities of climate change and how we can act on them.