Former president of Ireland: ‘We have exploited our Earth’

Mary Robinson is urging divestment from fossil fuels and reinvestment in renewable energy

As global temperatures and sea levels rise, there could be as many as 200 million climate-displaced people by the end of this century. That very real human impact is what inspires Ireland’s former President Mary Robinson to call for drastic action from the global community. Robinson has spent much of her life advocating for the rights of others — as a public servant, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights and most recently the U.N.’s special envoy for climate change.

Robinson says environmental justice is a human rights issue — and minimizing injustice is everyone’s responsibility. She founded the environmental NGO Climate Justice and regularly speaks out in favor of divestment from fossil fuels and investment in renewable energy.

For Robinson, the key is global cooperation. While some leaders like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Pope Francis and French President François Hollande have spoken out strongly about climate change, she says more nations must step up and take action. 

Sheila MacVicar: What’s the need for justice in climate?

Mary Robinson: The human rights dimensions, and in particular, the injustice in the fact that the climate impacts are being felt by the poorest countries and the poorest communities. Those in the poorest parts of the country are least responsible because they haven’t been using the oil, gas and coal. They have not been omitting, and yet, they are on the front line. It is very much a human rights issue; it is a gender issue; it is a moral issue; it is a political issue and it is a development issue.

More and more, developing countries have to develop without omissions. They have to develop with renewables, and that’s never been done before. It’s getting easier because renewables are coming down, but it’s still hard.

When you look at the Pacific islands, what do you see?

I see communities faced every day with the erosions of their gardens, of their walls. It’s quite incredible that families are faced with a real threat to their existence, in some cases, and certainly to their food production.

As a human rights person, I think about Eleanor Roosevelt and her commission, who drew up what the General Assembly adopted in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They never envisioned that human-induced climate change would cause such devastation to poor communities, and maybe put whole countries like Kiribati, the Republic of Kiribati, out of existence in a few years’ time. The president of Kiribati has bought land in Fiji as an insurance policy because if we go above 1.5 degrees of warming, then his island is finished.

But at the moment, the global goal is 2 degrees of warming.

The global goal is to stay below 2 degrees, and we need to be that much further below that in order to save Kiribati.

Is the international community close to that goal?

Not close and [it’s] really worrying. Scientists tell me that we are on course for a 4-degree-or- more world. And I know what that looks like because the World Bank did a report called “Turn Down the Heat.”

What does a 4-degree-warmer world look like?

It looks catastrophic. It is cyclones beyond belief. It is whole cities like Miami going underwater. And we’re facing that.

If our planet is not able to stay below a 2-degree Celsius rise, how many people will lose their homes?

The prediction is we could have as many as 200 million climate-displaced people before the end of this century, and if we are not careful, by 2050.

And we are not just talking about the Pacific islands?

No, we are talking about the fact that an awful lot of people live on the coast in part of cities will be underwater if sea levels rise by even a fairly moderate amount. And the prediction with the 4-degree world will be three times that.

We know this is coming. Is there a plan?

Unfortunately, there’s not a plan. There’s not a framework. I am actually ashamed as a European that lives are being lost in the Mediterranean, currently. It really is shameful. We are a village, a global village. It cannot be tolerated that the policies of Europe are causing people to cram into boats with awful traffickers, and then lose their lives.

We have to think not just in terms of the fact that we will have to absorb more. We also need to make sure the places that they are coming from are livable. We have to address the issues of conflict. We have to build up these economies of North Africa so that people are happy to stay where they are.

‘It is very important that we have what is called a just transition – a transition away from bad forms of producing energy to forms producing clean energy.’

Mary Robinson

former president of Ireland

The response we are seeing from Europe today is not very welcoming to migrants. If we are, as a globe, facing the prospect of 200 million people losing their homes due to rising seal levels, what do we do?

Well, first of all, we do the prevention. We understand the needs to cut emissions much more than what we are doing — both by energy efficiency, and then by moving to renewables. Secondly, we do need a framework within which to deal with the fact that people will be displaced by the climate. That’s going to happen. Hopefully, we can avoid the 200 million [mark], if we take the right steps now.

What happens if we do not? What is the alternative?

Well, what we need to avoid is this catastrophic 4-degree world, a world where people are displaced by climate. This is an important year of sustainable development goals for all countries, which will make us think more about what it is to live sustainably in our world. To use the resources of the world in such a way in which we pass them on at least as well as we found them to the next generation.

There’s an indigenous saying that your decisions should be made with the seventh generation in mind. We haven’t lived like that. We have exploited our Earth. We have used up fossil fuels — and if I can put it in a particular way — we are hurting Mother Earth. And she is hurting [us] back by climate disruption that is happening. We are hurting the ecosystems that are a part of what we need to live with equilibrium a socially sustainable world. The sustainable goals are very important and the climate agreement.

What do you say to those in the United States who believe climate change exists and needs to be solved, but argue jobs in coal, dirty energy, oil, and gas are more important because they run the American economy?  

California is stunningly the opposite. It is going to cut its emissions faster than anywhere else in the United States and it’s growing faster. It has actually illustrated that the way to do it is to go as much into renewables as the jobs of the future. We should not be burning any more coal. The International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have said that about two-thirds of the known fossil fuel that is coal, gas, and oil, in the world today cannot be used. They need to stay in the ground. And coal is the first to be written off. These are going to become what is known as “stranded assets.”

It is very important that we have what is called a just transition — a transition away from bad forms of producing energy to forms producing clean energy.

In the midst of the United States’ current presidential cycle, there is only one Republican candidate, so far, that is willing to say that perhaps there is something more to the science of climate change. How can you ask politicians to make a political commitment to environmental reform when their voters do not accept the science?

I think that that tide is really turning. The realities of climate change have hit the United States with Katrina, Sandy, with the drought in California — an unprecedented drought — and more wildfires than there have ever been. Insurance companies are looking at the fact that you have had damages of $10 billion plus in extreme events, more than you’ve ever had. I don’t think that people are stupid about noting reality. So, I would encourage politicians of every persuasion in this country to be on the side of reality, of climate change, because they will be more conceiving of people at the end of the day. And we need climate action in all states. We need other states to follow the successful example of California.

When you look forward to the Paris summit in December, what do you want the outcome to be?

The French have decided that the agreement will be in four pillars. The most important pillar is the legal agreement. I want a legally-binding agreement that will keep us on a safe pathway to below 2 degree Celsius. That means we probably need a goal at the end that says when we have finished with fossil fuels. I would like that to be 2050. It may startle some people when I say I would like zero carbon emission by 2050. That’s 35 years from now. Because then I would know, we will have that safe world. We might even save Kiribati. And it’s doable. It is really doable, that’s the important thing.

Secondly, the next pillar is all of the commitments that the governments are making. They won’t be enough. So we have to have a review every five years and increase the ambition as we go on.

And then, there is the finance and technology. We are going to be requesting developing countries to develop without emissions, which means, they must have huge investments in solar and wind and other geothermal etc. [Prime] Minister Modi of India has announced a huge solar project. He should be encouraged to double that. It’s in the world’s interest that India go solar and not coal.

The oil and gas industry are very wealthy and powerful. They make no secret about their opposition to these plans. How do you persuade them that this is ultimately in their best interest?

I think that there are some, a few, that are really beginning to think that they need to go into renewables. There is a growing divestment movement. I actually want it to be called “divestment and reinvestment.” I think it shouldn’t be just divesting out of fossil fuel, it should be investing in the energy we need. We need energy.

I’m a grandmother, with five grandchildren; a happy Irish grandmother. They range from 11 to 21 in age. So, the youngest will be 35 in 2050. The others will be in their 40s. What kind of world will they have? They will share it with 9 billion other people. How will they be secure in food? Will they have enough water? These are the things that go through my mind as a grandmother.

Unless we take really good decisions this year to set us on this course for a move much more rapidly than what we are doing with renewable world with job, which California proves and other places. And the future is good. But we have to change course and head in the right direction.

There has to be a sense of immediate danger. You, I know, feel there is an immediate sense of danger.

I do believe, among the negotiators — and I am with them quite a bit — that there is a realization that they have to get an agreement in Paris. I think that what’s more important is that all of us have to realize that it’s time for a behavioral change. It’s time that we thought about how we conserve energy, how we use it. We all have a part to play in this. But the new economy report makes it very clear that the future is very bright. We just have to make a commitment to get there.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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