— Interviewer: Eoin Hassehy
Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and leader of the Mary Robinson Climate Justice Foundation, was guest on UCC’s very first Plain Speaking Podcast, with interviewer Eoin Hahessy.
Mary spoke about the urgency to act on climate change and Ireland’s role as a leader in this area, which includes addressing the rampant capitalism that underpins society today.
Eoin Hahessy, interviewer: What was your reaction to David Attenborough’s recent comments at the United Nations?
Mary Robinson, guest interviewee: I must say I was extraordinarily impressed by the way that David Attenborough took his seat the first time there was the people’s seat in a UN conference on climate, and took it so well. He’s such a communicator. I think the way he communicated the urgency really resonated with people. It is hard to get that across because people think it’s the future. It’s not, it’s now!
We have to give real attention to the report of the scientists who form the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – 1000 scientists worldwide. They were asked a question out of the Paris Climate Agreement. The Paris Climate Agreement has set a goal that we must stay well below 2°C and work for 1.5°C. It was aspirational.
People thought this was for the small island states and vulnerable countries like Bangladesh which could be flooded if there was a slight sea level rise.
The scientists were asked to look at what is the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C, and how do we stay at 1.5°C. These were basically the two questions that they answered.
What they found was that the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C is really serious, that in that period the coral reefs would go, the arctic ice would go. The permafrost would seriously melt.
Then, we’re maybe back into loopback territory. Scientists are very afraid because they can’t really predict what happens then.
Therefore, the scientists unusually marked our cards and said, “We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% globally between now and 2030” – which is, in fact, 11 years from now.
Eoin: Are you optimistic or pessimistic that we can make those changes in those 11 years?
Mary: The IPCC said it is doable, and I absolutely believe it. I just wish we had more government regulations that would help us.
We need to remove all subsidies on fossil fuel.
We do need a carbon tax, but it must be fair.
We need to pay attention to what happened in Paris, in France, when introducing the carbon tax was the right thing to do but it was done in the wrong way. It was done when the wealth tax had been removed and people perceived a real unfairness and inequity.
We need to incentivize moving to clean energy and then we need to look after the workers in the coal, oil, gas, peat in this country – 400 workers being laid off. We need to make sure that this is done with just transition, with incentives for retraining for those who are young, pensioning off for those who should be pensioned off, etc.
Eoin: Those policy visions that you’re outlining demand, as you state in your book, a new spirit of multilateralism. In the United States, we have a very unilateral president. In Australia – where I’m fresh from – we have a prime minister who, when he was treasurer, brought a lump of coal into the parliament to show his support for the coal industry. Is the future of the world contingent now on a political culture that simply doesn’t exist anymore?
Mary: This is a very bumpy time for the multilateral system. There’s no doubt about that. We’re seeing autocratic leaders in a number of countries. People seem to want a strong leader. You see President Trump, a very unusual leader in the United States, who doesn’t like the multilateral system basically. What I would say is, we have been through bumpy times before. There is no doubt in my mind that we need a strengthened – but perhaps a more listening and a more people-oriented – multilateral system.
The system we have at the moment is underpinned by rampant capitalism. The social contract with people is kind of broken. The unions are being trodden upon, especially in the United States, but also globally to a certain extent. All of that is part of how to address moving forward.
The elders – as you probably know – are giving a lot of thought to the multilateral system. We absolutely believe that it is necessary and never more necessary than when we want to solve the climate problem.
Eoin: Ireland is a small nation on the fringes, on the Atlantic. How can we, with a tiny industrial landscape, make a difference in climate change?
Mary: Ireland is a small nation. We don’t have a huge industrial base, but we have to play our part. Even smaller islands now are ambitiously trying to go clean energy as fast as possible, it’s really remarkable.
Indeed, some of the small islands and the least developed countries are the most ambitious because they are going to be the most affected by what happens elsewhere.
It is not good for our profile, or even I think for our morale, that – as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said in the European Parliament – we’re laggard on climate change. He knows I have quoted him quite often since then.
We need to become a leader on climate change because we were a leader in the world, and still are perceived to be a leader, on hunger. Now, you cannot be a leader in tackling hunger if you are a laggard on climate change, the two don’t fit.
We need young people to see… there’s a lot that can be done. We need to bring the farmers with us, absolutely. And I know that means we have to have much more discussion and debate about it.
Eoin: Just picking up there in terms of the agricultural community which is so central to Ireland, how do you change practices that have been embedded in the farming communities for generations? I’m from a rural area, you’re from a rural area – how do you make these changes within farming communities?
Mary: I do care a lot about the farming community because I remember going out with my father, who was a medical doctor, and all his patients were poor farmers far out at that time because there was only one doctor.
The practices differ a lot. We can have more diversity. As a country is we have decided to put a big bet on beef and milk, and these are not the best from a climate point of view.
We do say, and I think there is some truth in it, that we can do it better than others but still it’s a large part of our missions. We just need a big discussion on this. Tom Arnold, who was on the board of my foundation, has done a lot of thinking about it and so have some others. In fact, in the young scientist exhibition, year after year young people are coming up with conservation agriculture, putting carbon back into the soil, managing the soil better, all of these things. I’m looking towards young people to come up with good solutions.
We still have to feed people, we still have to have farming, but we need to be more diverse, have more conservation agriculture, be more thoughtful.
It’s not just agriculture, it is transport too. We need to go electric as quickly as possible and so on. It’s not an excuse to say we are a small country.
Eoin: Are there countries internationally from which we can learn? Does the Canadian model, where a carbon tax has been brought back, offer a model? Or what kind of model should we be looking at?
Mary: I think a model that we could look at in Europe is Denmark. Denmark has used wind to make it one of the countries that can be completely clean energy at times when the wind is blowing. And presumably, they also have solar energy.
We have a great capacity for potential wind, for potential wave, for more solar, and geothermal, and other forms of energy. We just need to say this is going to be our priority, we need to set a goal. How soon are we going to go clean energy in Ireland? Set a date, keep to it and go there.
Eoin: Policy changes in the theory demand courage, they demand being bold, is that possible? Is courageous policy possible in an environment that is so fixated on the 24-hour news cycle and the sound bite?
Mary: It is difficult because of the short cycle of elected politics anyway, and as you say, the media cycle also affects.
I’m in a quandary at the moment myself because I’m working with business leaders, especially the B team of business leaders, who look much more long term and they are urgently asking governments for goodness sake do more to move in the right direction on climate change. But politically elected representatives are looking to the next election, and it’s very close, and we don’t know when it’s going to be exactly, particularly in this country just at the moment, and who is going to form a government and what combination is going to form a government – and that’s a preoccupation. It’s hard to do the hard thing.
I am more cheered up if I can say that the government and the political parties have realized that we must change and we cannot be a laggard on climate change.
We’ve just had the government announcing the ban on single-use plastics in government buildings. We now see cross-party dialogue on how we will put up the carbon tax, but do it fairly. That’s a very, very important debate. I’m glad that it has to be a cross-party debate. If we can have more of this dialogue and include the farming community, making sure that the peat workers get a fair deal when they are laid off… All of these things are about perception. We mustn’t make mistakes because we can’t afford to.
Eoin: Is it frustrating to see media look for the quick sound bites or the quick headline-grabbing attention when the wider issue gets ignored?
Mary: What I find frustrating is that there isn’t that sense of urgency. We have a lot going for us in this country. I think our morale is in a good place. We’re doing well financially, but we have the shadow of Brexit, we have to be careful.
But Ireland is a good country to open up this debate. One of the good influencers in the debate is the Citizens’ Assembly. They came up with excellent recommendations, which are now being studied by a committee of the Oireachtas. That’s interesting. I think that the Citizens’ Assembly could be maybe brought in again to help us. Now that we know we have to move, this could be one of the ways in which we can do it more quickly and better. I think that could be a solution.
Eoin: My father in law placed a copy of your book in every Christmas stocking in my family. I had a chance to read it and your book highlights a number of courageous women within it. For me, it’s really the role that citizens can play in effecting change that is key. In Ireland, we see a legal opinion with Climate Case Ireland. Is it those kinds of directions – in the power of the citizen to enforce changes – where you see hope for a future for climate change?
Mary: I must say, I wrote my book on climate, justice, hope, resilience, and the fight for a sustainable future, precisely to show how people – who are not, by and large, responsible for the emissions – are coping already with the shocks of climate change. I have this podcast, Mothers of Invention, where we interview women all over the world looking for a feminist solution. A feminist solution doesn’t exclude men. We’ve already had one man on our Mothers of Invention, and we will have more.
What I believe is that we need to get young people, women, women leaders at all levels, and concerned citizens, to be part of the solution. At the moment, governments attending conferences on climate don’t feel the pressure – they really don’t. They may or may not take it seriously themselves in their negotiations, but they don’t feel the pressure on them. Mostly, people don’t even know these conferences are taking place – unless David Attenborough speaks and then we all hear.
What I’m trying to do at the moment – I’ve become a pescetarian myself, which means I only eat fish. I’m not going to go any further. I’m not going to become a vegetarian or vegan. That’d be a step too far for me personally. I’m not saying everybody should give up meat. That’s not the message either. What I’m saying is, I’m doing something hard for me because I like meat. I would like to have lamb from the west of Ireland, yes I would.
I’m doing it so that I’m encouraging people, everybody should now take this personally and do something. Recycle more rigorously, deal with waste better, walk to work or cycle, and do something, eat less meat, whatever it is, and then get cross with government at every level.
Get cross with local authorities – are they wasting money? Have they too many lights on in the streets, whatever. At every level of government that can be a responsibility.
There are cities now doing more on climate than governance because they have the capacity to do it. Many cities are setting goals to be net zero carbon emissions by 2050, 2040, whenever it is. I’d like to see cities in Ireland start doing that and people pressurizing them into it.
Eoin: Do you think we have become divorced from nature, that GDP has become the defining mantra of how we should run our society and our economy?
Mary: I think in talking about climate change, it is important that we get back to nature. It’s important that we reconnect, that we don’t believe our economy must be driven by consumption, consumption. Actually no – we have to reduce our consumption and still live very well.
I’m old enough. When I was growing up, we mended things. We recycled. It was just what you did. You sold. We need to get back into seeing the earth as a wonderful system that supports us, ecosystems that support us. Yet we’re stretching them all. We’re stretching our biodiversity. We’re stretching all of those planetary boundaries.
Mother Earth must not cease to be our friend – which could happen in the present climate context and that is what scientists are afraid of: that there could either be permafrost or the ice might not move off the Gulf Stream which keeps Ireland’s climate temperate. All of these things could happen. I’m not saying they will happen, and we can prevent them happening, but we need to reconnect more with Mother Earth.
I think schools should encourage children to grow things in school and to reconnect in that way. Universities should do that. I have great faith in what universities have already done, including in UCC. You have good sustainability policies, and the students are very much behind those. It’s happened in Trinity. Trinity divested because students insisted. I really have a great faith in young people, which keeps me a prisoner of hope that we are going to get there.
Eoin: An apathy in young people can be evident. How do we stop apathy and imbue young people with a sense that this is something so big that they will want to act to enforce a change?
Mary: Well, young people were very apathetic in Britain about Brexit and not enough of them voted. They know now what it has cost them. I think we need to have young people understand – and I think they are increasingly understanding – that it’s their future, and it’s not at all guaranteed in the way it was when I was growing up. Whatever else, I wasn’t worried about whether I’d have a future in a world that was habitable.
Now, young people are understanding that and are taking cases, getting involved, marching, etc. All of that is legitimate.
I think people are entitled to come out and march on this issue because we need to keep the pressure up. Obviously, it has to be by peaceful means.
I admire those who are taking steps to really try to engage us on what is so necessary if we’re going to have a safe world for our children and grandchildren.
My foundation is trying to get the United Nations system to have a voice in that system for future generations, by which we mean the child born today may have a future, but her children and grandchildren must have a future as well.
Eoin: If we fail to address climate change and if your grandson Rory, whom you mention in your book, is writing the history 50 years from now, what do you think he will write about how we are acting today?
Mary: I do worry and I sometimes use this as an example, what will the generation that will come of age in 2050 think of us if we don’t act more now?
Ban Ki-Moon, before the Paris Agreement, kept saying: “We’re the first generation to understand the full implications of climate change, and the last generation with time to do something about it.”
That’s a big responsibility. I think that history will be very unkind to us if we don’t act now to take all the responsibility we can.
It gets me out of bed in the morning. I think about climate justice at all stages of the day and in every context. It’s going to need all the levers we can think of but in particular, it’s going to need people to make it personal, young people to strongly advocate for their future and put the pressure on politicians, on business, on all the levers that are necessary to change and to have a wonderful world.
Maybe I should just say one thing that was like a light bulb to me. I went to the Venice Biennial on Architecture late last November because two Irish women architects were moderating it, the Grafton Architects. It was a wonderful honour for Ireland. As I walked with Shelley and Yvonne, and they pointed out the exhibits, I saw the future. It’s wonderful.
I saw what architects were proposing in buildings, in materials, in living together more, in transport, travelling together, electric vehicles that will take quite a number of people, not a single person. We need to imagine this healthier existence because we want a pollution free, clean-energy world and then think of all the people in the world who never switch a switch today, more than a billion. They will have clean energy. They will have better lives. They will take themselves out of poverty. I want young people to be excited about the potential of all of this and to help us.