Mary Robinson Wants You to be a Hero
Updated: May 16
Climate Justice – hope, resilience and the fight for a sustainable future
Mary Robinson with Catríona Palmer
Originally published: 4 September 2018
In the companion piece to Mary Robinson's excellent Mothers of Invention podcast, IFLA! editor Martha Dillon finds a rich collection of stories about people worst affected by climate change - but questions Robinson's conclusions on what to do next.
There is a children’s novel by Irish writer Eoin Colfer in which a young detective discovers the school ‘it’ girls are covertly plotting against their male peers for disrupting their education. Their pink scrunchies are revealed to be a cover for a slick, quasi-criminal operation, with Mary Robinson as their hero [‘April jumped from her podium and tore the pop princess’s poster from the wall. Underneath was a picture of Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland.’] After such an inauspicious introduction it is welcome, in my adulthood, to discover that Mary Robinson is indeed rather an admirable figure.
After a career in law and following a controversial political debut, during which she campaigned heavily for initially unpopular family planning initiatives, Robinson was elected to the seventh presidency of Ireland in 1990. Her seven-year office is widely viewed as a success – even by the later admission of Brian Lenihan, her opponent in the 1990 election – and was the beginning of an illustrious career in UN global advocacy.
Robinson hasn’t just listened to people affected by climate change; she has written a book about them.
Robinson’s book Climate Justice – hope, resilience and the fight for a sustainable future, and her ongoing (even better) podcast Mothers of Invention, provide solid evidence that Robinson understands that her job as an advocate has been to listen. Describing a major conference of grassroots activists she explains that, ‘hearing first-hand the experiences of those suffering from the effects of climate change was a humbling reminder of the power and principle of participation…of how lost climate decision-makers can become in the jargon of “international development-speak”.’ But Robinson hasn’t just listened to people affected by climate change; she has written a book about them.
Climate Justice is a collection of stories about individuals who have seen immense challenges from the impacts of climate change, and who have fought back. These are compelling histories, and a cast rarely assembled on the tables at Waterstones. ‘Resilience’ might be an overused term in environmentalism, but for once it seems appropriate: Robinson’s subjects are, or work with, minority groups; they campaign doggedly and impressively against injustice, inequality and oppression resulting from clumsy political action.
‘If I continue to talk, if we continue to tell our stories, the people in power, the polluters, will realise that we are still here.’
In one early story, we meet Constance Okollet, a fourth-generation Ugandan farmer whose lands were destroyed in heavy rainfall in 2007. Enraged by lack of government support, she starts the Osukuru Women’s Network, originally a place to share knowledge and labour, expanding into a credit union and lobby group. Constance learns about climate change at an Oxfam meeting and quickly realises that her group can transform the way they farm. Now a regular at UN meetings, and an international spokesperson for restorative farming, her will is remarkable. The determination she shows in transforming her local council is one thing (she persuades the council to legislate for the planting of 5 new trees for every single one cut), but the responsibility she takes on within her community is striking: ‘if I continue to talk, if we continue to tell our stories, the people in power, the polluters, will realise that we are still here.’
This idea of testimony is the core thread of Climate Justice, with each character someone Robinson has come across in her work in international climate negotiation. In one particularly moving chapter, Robinson interviews Anote Tong, president of Kiribati, the first country to consider physically moving its sovereign state to escape sea level rise. We hear first-hand about the threats to his country, but also about the dismissal he and leaders of other small nations face from the leaders of developed countries; those most responsible for the annihilation Kiribati faces. The story of the negotiations from his perspective is powerful: ‘I never’, reflects Robinson, ‘had to return home from an international conference and tell the people of Ireland that our land might soon become uninhabitable.’
The stories of those most profoundly affected by a changing climate remain fairly hard to find in western climate activism – though books like Gaia Vince’s Adventures in the Anthropocene, The Guardian’s Defenders campaign, and podcasts like DW’s Living Planet make steps in the right direction. Ken Smith, a miner campaigning to protect workers during energy production transitions, tells Robinson ‘[I’m] a little rough around the edges… I am always amazed when someone wants to hear my opinion.’ That Robinson includes this quote demonstrates her pride in her position as an ally, but, more importantly, it’s an invitation to her readers to be the same.
So far so good – right up to the final sentences. Robinson’s personal manifesto is modest (it only takes up only the last 2-3 pages), but there is something striking about who she ultimately assigns the responsibility for those hardships faced by her subjects:
‘what I have learnt from those who inspired me to tell their stories is that we need to take personal responsibility for our families, our communities and our ecosystems... The responsibility to implement the goals of the Paris Agreement must be taken to a lower level again… The time has come to bring it home to families and communities.’
Whether it is Robinson protecting her position in global political negotiations, or simply an attempt to condense the heart of the book into a clear takeaway, the final pages make for a lacklustre call to arms.
A book that focusses on the successes of individuals naturally might conclude with a call for her readers to follow their lead. It is also not necessary for all texts on climate to deal with blame or detailed system-level analysis. But it is disappointing that, in identifying the high-level failures cascading onto her ensemble of characters, her sign-off so categorically and indelicately tells individuals to do more. After reading 10 chapters about vulnerable communities rising up against environmental devastation wreaked by ‘overpollution from developed countries’, and ‘injustices for urban and minority communities caught in the crosshairs’, her total lack of bite on the bigger drivers of inequality is disappointing. Whether it is Robinson protecting her position in global political negotiations, or simply an attempt to condense the heart of the book into a clear takeaway, the final pages make for a lacklustre call to arms.
Ultimately, Climate Justice is an important contribution to environmental commentary, and an accessible and absorbing reflection by someone who has been at the heart of international climate negotiation for decades. Her subjects are wonderful, and their voices are the resounding takeaway. But I wonder whether they might have more to say about the global systems in which Robinson herself stands.
Reference: Eoin Colfer (2006). Half Moon Investigations. Miramax Books.