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When Mary Robinson became the first woman president of Ireland in the early 1990s, she embarked on nothing less than a nationwide transformation: decriminalising homosexuality, and ushering in a raft of legislation, including on contraception and divorce, which gave women a more equal footing in Irish society. A subsequent poll by the national broadcaster, RTÉ, named her the most consequential Irish woman of the 20th century.
Robinson, now 79, remains outspoken on issues including war crimes, human rights, gender equality, and the climate crisis. The latter recently brought her to New York to attend the city’s annual “climate week”, held on the fringes of the UN General Assembly.
In an interview with The Independent, she was forthright in her evaluation of how the United States, responsible for the largest share of historic greenhouse gas emissions, is approaching climate action.
“In simple terms, I’d give the United States one out of three,” she said last week.
Legislation like the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act – a law signed by President Joe Biden that has spurred a historic flow of investment into clean energy and projects to help communities adapt to worsening disasters – was “very important and very welcome”.
“The only thing I don’t like about the Inflation Reduction Act is it’s sometimes called the ‘IRA act’, which drives me crazy,” she added. (To many in Ireland and beyond, the acronym more commonly refers to the paramilitary group, one of the key protagonists in the bloody 30-year period known as The Troubles.)
However, the US was “not good” at reducing emissions, Robinson said, pointing to how the Biden administration has created new opportunities for fossil fuel development. “Thirdly, they are not good on climate finance to help developing countries because they have such a divided Congress. It’s such a politicised issue here in the United States,” she added.
Robinson noted the benefit of her position as chair of The Elders, a group of senior statespeople originally brought together by Nelson Mandela to act as a roving moral conscience on global threats.
“We speak truth to power to anyone,” she said.
Case in point: the fossil fuel industry whose lacklustre transition to clean energy even in a year of record profits – and record emissions – has been condemned by a growing number of prominent figures including Robinson, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and former US vice president Al Gore.
The International Energy Agency said this week that global emissions from the energy sector reached a new record high in 2022 – 1 per cent above pre-pandemic levels.
And while emissions from coal, oil and gas are set to peak this decade as a result of booming clean energy, it’s still not nearly enough to remain at the global 1.5C target, beyond which scientists say the likelihood of “abrupt and/or irreversible” changes increase.
“I think we need to remind ourselves that we’re on the cusp of a clean energy world,” Robinson said. “We’ve made a lot of progress but we’re too slow. Part of why we’re too slow is because of the power of the fossil fuel lobby and the money that has been spent messing up the science [and] persuading so many people in so many different ways that fossil fuels are with us forever.”
Robinson hopes that those powerful, dark-money forces can be countered with a “science-based, broad movement”.
Her latest initiative is a collective of world leaders, climate activists, business moguls and celebrities dubbed the “Planetary Guardians” which announced at NY Climate Week plans to carry out an annual “check-up” on the health of Earth, and then deploy those findings to try to influence how the UN and national governments go about safeguarding the world for future generations.
The prognosis is far from rosy. Earth is beyond “safe operating space for humanity” in six of nine key measurements – or “planetary boundaries” – including climate, biodiversity, land, freshwater, and “novel” chemicals (like microplastics and nuclear waste), according to a recent update. To understand what is needed for a safe planet requires looking at the Earth as a complex, mutually dependent whole rather than in isolated parts, the researchers said.
“We need the world to listen to the scientific, holistic advice of what is happening to the broader ecosystems that sustain us,” Robinson said. “We have to get back to a real sense that we are nature, we’re not different from nature.”
The mission is being put into practice with New Zealand, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands figuring out how to apply the boundaries framework to making decisions.
The framework is also acting as a roadmap to “build back green” in Ukraine after intense environmental damage caused by the Russian invasion. Robinson is part of a group working to assess the scale of the damage, including the destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam, and met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv earlier this year.
Ecocide, broadly defined as the destruction of ecosystems and long-term harm to nature, is already a crime in at least 10 countries but Robinson backs continued efforts to have it recognised globally alongside war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
“I do support the steps to have [ecocide] recognised at the level of the International Criminal Court because when you see the level of damage that is being caused by climate shocks – look at poor Libya, Pakistan last year – the destruction is very real,” she said.
These devastating events expose the unfair reality of the climate crisis which not only affects the most vulnerable but often the least responsible. And within those impacted, it is women and girls who suffer disproportionately.
Robinson has been a driving force for climate justice through her own foundation, and “Project Dandelion” which brings together women leaders and educates them on the connections between rising global temperatures and the critical issues of health, domestic violence and education.
The dandelion, a pesky but incredibly useful plant, is a perfect symbol of a “feminist Earthshot”, Robinson says.
“I have a podcast called Mothers of Invention and the byline is that ‘climate change is a man-made problem and requires a feminine solution’. I do explain that manmade is generic and includes everyone, and we hope that more and more men will be good feminists.
“But the truth is we need the balance of women’s leadership at all levels – in every government, business, board and trade union everywhere in order to deal with [climate change]. It’s complex and we need to take in the complexity.
“My advice is women leaders, it’s our time now.”