The former Irish President and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, appeared for an interview in UCD’s Sutherland School of Law on the 19th February. This interview is part of an initiative to promote her current book, Climate Justice, which takes its name from the environmental foundation which Robinson also set up in 2010. Dr Suzanne Egan of the Sutherland School organised this event, and she opened the interview by tracing Robinson’s career and her efforts to combat climate change. Dr Andrew Jackson conducted the interview.
Dr Jackson started the interview with a question on what Robinson thought about the finding of the IPCC’s Report in 2018 and how seriously we should take this. Robinson’s response emphasised that the IPCC’s report was significant for two reasons. Firstly, because this was a collaborative effort. The scientists were supported by the several committees and agencies of the IPCC. The second, and perhaps more drastic, the reason was that this report shows there is a chance to mend the effects of climate change. Robinson recounted that the scientists were asked ‘What is the difference between a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees?’ Robinson said that, surprisingly, the difference is quite large. ‘Beyond 1.5, coral reefs start to die and the ice begins to melt,’ she said, ‘but at 1.5 it is possible to manage and even start reducing carbon emissions’. Robinson ended the answer with the affirmation ‘And it is doable. We just need the political will’.
Dr Jackson followed that up with a question of whether we need to act now. Robinson began her response by first recalling a conversation she had with a scientist in Botswana. Whilst discussing the IPCC report, the scientist said that she felt less worried about developing countries. ‘In a way we’re more flexible, but developed nations are more rigid,’. Robinson remarked that it was nice for once to have African scientists pitying us. She then went on to say that the observation was very true, in her opinion. ‘We’re still searching for coal and gas. However, that will soon become a stranded asset, like asbestos. It will be too dangerous to use’.
Another question dealt with what Robinson, as a former barrister and academic, thought the law could do to combat climate change. Robinson said that lawyers need to be alert and aware. She said this was already underway in some parts of the legal profession; the International Bar Association had formed a task force to look into what could be done. She also commended Dr Jackson himself for taking part in the Friends of the Irish Environment case that recently occurred and equally praised all the other cases that had occurred in other countries. She also said that the law had to look at other ways it could create incentives for people to do more about climate change, such as carbon tax.
Robinson also took the time to outline her ‘moonshot’ approach. She first said that for so long climate change has been about haranguing governments and business and trying to show people the devastation we might potentially face. ‘One thing we don’t do is try to imagine this cleaner, better world we want to get to. We won’t get there without solidarity,’. She compared this to JFK’s famous speech promising Americans that they would put a man on the moon before the 1960s were out. She explained ‘And the average age in NASA when they put Neill Armstrong on the moon was 26. That means that all those young people when they heard JFK 8 years ago, were only 18 during that speech. But they were inspired. Well, we need more of that. We need to be more forward-looking’.
Dr Jackson also asked, specifically regarding the book, about Robinson’s storytelling approach to highlighting and solving problems. ‘This seems to be at the fore of your work,’ Jackson said. Robinson responded that this was part of her efforts to redefine climate change, to stop the world from seeing it as a distant issue. Hence, in her book she describes several different lives of women across the globe who were personally affected by climate change: from Constance Okellet having to leave her farm in East Uganda due to drought, to Sharon Hanshaw from Mississippi who protested the US government’s failure to help her community after Hurricane Katrina, to Jannie, a 28 year old Saami woman, who works with the UN to protect her people from global warming. ‘These are voices that need to be heard. They know what’s happening in their communities’.
Robinson also took questions from the audience. One question, posed by Joanna, a Law with Social Justice student, asked what could still be done in this world with Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement and a trend of rising populism. Robinson first responded with ‘We are living in a very bumpy time,’. She then added that this was when we needed to find courage and hope. She recalled an occasion when she was with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and someone asked him how he was such an optimist. Tutu responded that he was not an optimist. ‘I am a prisoner of hope’. Robinson said that she identified with that. ‘To prisoners of hope, the glass may only be so full, but you work with it’.
Finally, she proclaimed that she had hope in young people. She had met and heard of several young people all over the world who were fighting for change. ‘They understand that they need to get moving, it’s their world. I have incredible faith in the next generation’. The interview ended shortly after. Throughout it, Robinson had reiterated that theme of her hope in the generations of tomorrow. In this author’s opinion, it is both humbling and inspiring that a figure of her ability would have faith in my generation to continue and even complete her incredible work.


By Daniel Forde – Law Editor

Photo by Imelda Maher, Sutherland Professor of European Law.