Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, connected the fight against climate change to human rights in her Wednesday Lowell Series lecture.
Boston College professor Tara Gareau began the night with an overview of Robinson’s career in promoting human rights: Robinson served as the first female president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997 and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights for the subsequent five years. As president, she became the first head of state to visit Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. In 2007, she became an inaugural member of the Elders, a human rights group formed by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
Robinson began by discussing the growing collection of scientific evidence that shows that the climate is rapidly changing—including her recent expedition to Greenland, which found that the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the world as a whole. The rising temperatures have led to the loss of land ice and an increase in sea level, she said.
“Very strange sitting in the sunshine, and knowing that this particular place here had retreated more in 10 years than [in] the previous hundred years,” Robinson said. ”It’s not climate change anymore. It’s a climate crisis, a climate emergency.”
Robinson also highlighted the disparate impact climate change has on different demographics. She mentioned that younger people will inherit a world that could see the worst effects of climate change, despite the fact that they have not contributed as significantly to the problem and are not in positions to directly change policy.
She struck a note of hope by pointing out the growing number of younger voices—sometimes manifested in the form of strikes—in the climate justice fight. She praised the new generation of activism as very powerful because it has made the effects of climate change very personal for people.
Robinson also said that climate change disproportionately affects small countries—which are oftentimes the least responsible. She specifically mentioned the effect of climate change on Kiribati, a group of small islands in the Pacific Ocean. Rising sea levels have left Kiribati vulnerable, so much so that Robinson raised the possibility of the islands disappearing completely.
“That human behavior—our generating these fossil fuels emissions—would cause whole countries to disappear,” she said. “But that may be the future for some small island states.”
Robinson laid out three steps that she encourages people to follow in their lives to avoid “climate anxiety”: make it personal, get angry and take action, and imagine a world without the threat of climate change.
She put these rules into action in her novel Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future, which features stories of people who made climate change personal and took action in their communities. She mentioned one woman who, after losing her home and salon in Hurricane Katrina, went on to attend climate conferences around the world as an “accidental activist.”
Robinson also spoke about “1 Million Women,” an app for people to track and reduce their carbon footprint and learn ways to reduce it in their everyday lives.
Although most of the people featured in her novel are women—-Robinson shared her belief that there is a “feminist solution” to climate change—she emphasized that all people, men and women, need to take action because this problem affects all people.
Robinson ended her lecture on a message of hope about the fight for climate justice.
“It is easy to lose hope of change,” she said, “But it is important to focus on and build off the progress already made and to remain a ‘prisoner of hope.’ If you have hope, what you do is you say, ‘The glass may not be half full but there is something there important in the glass, I will work with that. I will do whatever it takes, but more important than anything else, I will have hope.”
Feautured Image by Celine Lim/Heights Editor