TRANSFORM exclusive - Mary Robinson’s feminist fight for climate justice
Former Irish president Mary Robinson and comedian Maeve Higgins talk to TRANSFORM about climate justice and women’s role in the battle for human rights.
Climate change is a crisis that disproportionately impacts the world’s poorest countries and communities, with many people unaware it is a human rights issue as much as an environmental one.
Women make up the majority of poor people around the world, yet struggle to have their voices heard as they bear the brunt of droughts, landslides, floods and hurricanes.
In response, former president of Ireland Mary Robinson has teamed up with comedian Maeve Higgins for a ground-breaking podcast series documenting the inspiring stories of women leading the fight for climate justice.
Chris Seekings caught up with the double act to learn more about the podcast and what Robinson describes as the “feminist solution for climate change”.
How aware do you think people are that climate change is a human rights issue?
Robinson: When I started my foundation nine years ago we did an assessment and it was actually a very niche, left-wing concept, I think Bolivia was the only country that recognised it. But I am very glad to say that we have done assessments over the years, and it has become the rallying cry for many. When the heads of states came to Paris, so many of them referenced climate justice, which I thought was really interesting. But I still think we don’t fully recognise the injustice that climate change poses in our divided and unequal world. The impacts are felt so much more heavily by the poorest countries, which are the least responsible. As we move to clean energy, those benefits must get out quickly to those that have been undermined in their development by climate change.
Higgins: I have heard the words climate change so many more times than climate justice, but now that I understand the term, I am far more keen to use it in any discussion about climate, and I think the more people that do so the better. It is a really useful way of thinking about climate change, and seeing a way through and out of this problem – I think people respond to something that is hopeful and useful, rather than just a gloomy ‘look how bad it is’ conversation.
Climate change, the Paris Agreement, Sustainable Development Goals and climate Justice, do you think people are confused by all these terms?
Robinson: I really see it as the one agenda. The Paris goals and commitment to limit warming to 1.5˚C – or at least well below 2˚C – is the underlying discipline behind the SDGs. Once you realise that then the goals make sense, particularly when listening to some of the language, such as ‘leaving no one behind’, and ‘prioritising the furthest behind first’. Unfortunately, we reached a high point in 2015, and since then we have seen the disruption of the global community. With Brexit, and Trump winning the US presidency and pulling the country out of the Paris Agreement, we are in difficult times – all the more reason to have a bottom-up movement for climate justice, because we are running out of time. We have time to make a difference, but if we don’t do it now, over, at the most two decades, the cycles of no ice in the Arctic and sever water shortages in different parts of the world will become intolerable.
What are the best ways to get that message across?
Robinson: Well the value of the podcast, and I am out of my comfort zone on this, but what I am learning is that we not only get to interview these women, but support them and engage with them. It is an opportunity to shine a light on those that are doing incredible work to make their community more resilient. I think people will listen and get engaged – people need to get engaged. I also don’t think you can begin teaching people this stuff early enough. We have very good green schools in Ireland, and I am becoming more hopeful for the under-14-year-olds. I think in schools now there is a real awareness about the need to teach children about these issues so that they can educate their parents! I hear that from a lot of teachers.
Higgins: I also think social media is going to be important for us. There has been amazing coverage from newspapers and documentary films, but for me, I really listen to my peers, and look for leadership on my level, so when I hear people talking on Instagram or on twitter, I pay attention. If it is someone I know or trust I really do pay attention to that, so I think social media is very important in spreading that message.
You say in the podcast that climate change requires a feminist solution. Do you think that term might need rebranding after polls have shown many women don’t identify with it?
Robinson: I think we want to be a little bit provocative, and make it clear that when we say a feminist solution, we don’t exclude men. Just look at Justin Trudeau in Canada, an open feminist. We need a very progressive approach to a broken capitalist system, which is rampant - there are no checks on it now. The trade union movement has been squeezed, there is a deregulation phenomenon, not just in the US, but in different parts of the world. There is a horrible attitude to mother earth, immigration and refugees, all of which runs completely counter to the world that we need to live in. So I think it is necessary to be a bit provocative by saying we need a feminist solution, because that is a solution that will value the quality and equality in people, children, the marginalised and migrants.
Higgins: It is about equality, feminism means equality, and if people have a little push against that word, they should check that in themselves – those are the people it would be really great to reach actually. Identifying as a feminist has been really important for me because it has led me to understand we are in the patriarchal capitalist world, and that is largely what has gotten us into this situation, so the feminist outlook is the way out.
Do you think there is any danger that this idea of social justice and human rights is losing?
Robinson: I think we are in a struggle, and from a human rights point of view, we have struggled before and we will struggle again. This is not the best of times, but nor is it the worst of times. The truth is we were probably a bit complacent about how secure our democratic institutions were, and now we know that we have to fight harder. And I do think we need to refresh our systems in a feminist way, and have a better social order, listening carefully to these female voices. I think we can learn a lot from the fact that there are themes that are common among the women that we have been listening to. So I am quite excited about developing a grassroots bottom-up movement, which links a lot of social movements.
And how important is it to have women in positions of leadership?
Robinson: I have always believed that is important – not that all women leaders are necessarily going to be on the right side of this issue – but there is no doubt that when you have more women in cabinets there is more priority given to health and education issues. Once they are in, they are very eloquent, they know the problems and the issues, and it does make a difference.
You talk in the podcast about a spiritual connection that some of the people you spoke to feel for protecting the environment, is that exclusive to third world countries?
Higgins: It was definitely easier for me as someone that grew up in the West to lose that connection because I am part of this big system where it is consumerist and capitalist, and works against that feeling that we are a part of something, and not the number one priority. Personally, speaking to and hearing from some of the indigenous people we spoke to on this podcast helped us to reconnect, which is a very important connection that I think has been undervalued for a long time.
Robinson: And the fact that indigenous people say they look beyond the seventh generation – which is how they refer to it sometimes – that’s very important in climate terms.
And how do you rate Ireland and the EU’s progress towards delivering the Paris Agreement?
Robinson: Well I don’t normally talk too much about Ireland as a former president, but I can give you two contrasting observations. First of all our current prime minister, our Taoiseach, said in the European parliament recently that Ireland was something of a laggard on climate change – I am glad he said it, so I can then quote him! And secondly, Ireland on 12 July became the first country to say it is divesting public money from fossil fuels. As for Europe, it has sold itself as a climate leader, especially before and even leading up to Paris. Countries are not keeping faith with that enough, including Germany. We need to be more urgent about where countries must take their full responsibility, and I will continue to press as much as possible on that.
Doc Society’s new podcast series MOTHERS OF INVENTION will launch from 24 July until 17 September. To listen to the trailer and subscribe to the ‘Mothers of Invention’ Podcast, visit:
If you would like to support the podcast you can do so at: https://d.rip/mothers-of-invention
Image credit: Ruth Medjber
Chris Seekings is a reporter for TRANSFORM