Q&A with Mary Robinson: What is climate justice?

Mary Robinson was the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997), and is a former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002). She has spent most of her life as a human rights advocate and has sought throughout her career to use law as an instrument for social change, arguing landmark cases before the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court in Luxembourg as well as in the Irish courts. A committed European, she also served on expert European Community and Irish parliamentary committees. She has received many honours and awards throughout the world including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. Germana Canzi asked her about the work she is doing on climate change justice through the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, of which she is President.

What is climate justice?

Mary Robinson—Climate justice is a moral argument in two parts. Firstly it compels us to understand the challenges faced by those people and communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Often the people on the front lines of climate change have contributed least to the causes of the climate crisis. This is an injustice which can only be rectified by swift and ambitious climate action, including reducing emissions to zero as rapidly as possible.

Climate justice also informs how we should act to combat climate change. We must ensure that the transition to a zero carbon economy is just and that it enables all people to realise their right to development. This requires that the global community acts in solidarity and ensures that the necessary resources are available to allow all countries and people to make the transition to clean, renewable energy on the same timescale.

Why have you chosen this as the focus for your Foundation?

When I had the honour to serve as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, from 1997 to 2002, climate change was not uppermost in peoples’ minds. It was only afterwards, when I was leading an organisation called ‘Realizing Rights’, that I met many farmers across Africa – mostly women – who would tell me that the seasons were no longer predictable. “It’s not the same anymore,” they would tell me. “We can’t plan when to sow and when to harvest”.
I began to realise that the climate shocks in African countries were making it much harder to achieve food security and were undermining development prospects. What’s more, those suffering the worst impacts were not responsible for the situation they found themselves in – therefore it was a justice issue. So I decided to create an entity which became the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice.

What is the role of climate justice in communicating climate change?

Climate change can be difficult to communicate. It is often seen as distant and highly technical. Climate justice focuses our attention on people, rather than ice-caps and greenhouse gases. I think this makes the threat of climate change more tangible.

Considering the lives already being affected by climate change challenges us to reflect on the devastating harm being done by so-called “business-as-usual ”. Earlier this year, I met with President Anote Tong of Kiribati. The greatest tragedy that is unfolding for the people of Kiribati is that the rising sea levels have forced the administration to consider “migration with dignity” for the people. President Tong has purchased land on Fiji as an insurance policy, should climate change drive his people from their island home.

No world leader should have to plan for evacuation from the land of their ancestors. No leader should have to consider the necessary conditions that would allow the people to retain their dignity as they are displaced from their homeland. And yet President Tong, like many leaders of climate vulnerable countries, is demonstrating tremendous leadership in the face of these enormous challenges.

These are the stories that need to be told. By helping people to understand the human dimensions, and that the impacts of climate change are being felt today, we can change perceptions of the crisis we are facing.

Why is it important to consider human rights in climate policy? What are the risks if this does not happen?

Sooner or later, governments are going to have to take comprehensive action to combat climate change. As the window to act gets smaller, the likelihood that this action will be hastily implemented increases and this, in turn, will increase the very real human rights risks associated with rapid mitigation action. To avoid this, we must begin a global transition to a zero carbon economy immediately, and all countries must be enabled to take part.

We must all be alert to the very real possibility that the most vulnerable people could be left behind as we transition to a low carbon economy. A transition to zero carbon has multiple opportunities for people in developed and developing countries in terms of energy security, job creation and greater resilience but these opportunities will only be realised if that transition is fair, respecting human rights obligations. By considering human rights in planning, designing and implementing climate action, policymakers can avoid harmful unintended consequences while maximising the social benefits of their programmes and projects.

There have already been well documented cases of human rights violations in the name of climate action. One very clear example is the forced displacement of people and communities for the construction of hydro-electric reservoirs. Food prices have also increased dramatically when food crops are used for ethanol, causing hardship in poor communities. Another potential issue could be the damage inflicted on communities currently dependent on carbon intensive sectors like mining. Without a plan for the future of these communities – a plan for a just transition – they will be exposed to poverty traps similar to those experienced by mining communities in the UK during the coal closures of the 1980s.

The Geneva Pledge on Human Rights and Climate Action announced in February looks like a step in the right direction, but what does it mean in practice?

The Geneva Pledge is a welcome initiative conceived by Costa Rica which aims to encourage human rights experts and climate experts to collaborate at the national level in order to better understand how national climate action can be informed by human rights. It is voluntary and, to date, 20 countries have signed up. In practice, this sharing of best practice and expertise helps policymakers demystify what is meant by respecting human rights in climate action and makes clear why considering human rights will make climate action more effective. It can also foster more collaboration within and between countries as more practical examples of best practice emerge.

What is the role of gender in climate change?

Climate change exacerbates existing inequalities, including gender inequalities. As women and men are affected differently by the impacts of climate change, with women likely to bear the greater burden in situations of poverty, climate actions have to be gender sensitive. To realize climate justice, women’s voices must be heard and their priorities supported. In many countries and cultures, women are at the forefront of living with the reality of the injustices caused by climate change. They can play a vital role as agents of change within their communities and must be empowered to do so. My Foundation has been active in bringing women leaders together on climate change, and connecting high-level women leaders with grassroots women leaders.

I recently interviewed Mark Kenber of the Climate Group, on the role of business in climate change policy. Do you see any risks from this focus on economics and markets rather than the human and human rights dimension of climate change?

The two are not diametrically opposed. There has been significant work done on the linkages between business and human rights. In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council adopted Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These principles acknowledge that the responsibility to respect human rights is a global standard of expected conduct for all businesses wherever they operate. Advances in integrating Environmental, Social and Governance criteria into corporate decision making can also ensure that concrete steps are taken to avoid negative impacts on human rights.

Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that market based approaches are not a silver bullet.. Those people in the most vulnerable situations typically live beyond the reach of conventional markets, and so require their needs to be met through other channels that can provide sustained social gains in the long term. For example, much of the necessary adaptation financing required to protect the most vulnerable communities will need to come from public sources.

Some argue that we can’t solve climate change and poverty if we do nothing to stop population growth. What are your thoughts on this?

I think this is too simplistic a take on all three issues. Poverty contributes to population growth because of lack of education, healthcare and family planning and population growth aggravates poverty. The challenge is to end this cycle. By enabling sustainable development, including better education and the empowerment of women – both central to ending poverty – we will reduce population growth. But I think conflating climate change and population growth is somewhat misleading.

Low income countries have the highest birth rates. These countries also have the least responsibility for climate change. In Niger, for example, fertility rates are very high, almost six times higher than in Germany, but each person in Germany emits roughly the same amount of carbon dioxide in a year as one hundred people in Niger. The challenge is to ensure that all people have access to clean, renewable energy sources to power their sustainable development – this would help to overcome all three issues.

Could the current refugee crises in the Mediterranean and elsewhere – which of course have a variety of causes – be looked at as a first test of how governments, particularly in rich countries, will react to future climate related displacement? 

The world is grossly underprepared for a situation where adaptation fails and people are displaced due to climate change.

The first thing developed country governments should do is provide resources for adaptation so that people do not have to leave the homes of their ancestors due to human induced climate change. This will require urgent and unprecedented levels of support – the UNEP Adaptation Gap Report indicates that the global cost of adaptation could be as much as $200 or $300 billion per year by 2050 – but it is right that the rich countries responsible for the problem help to protect the culture, heritage and identity of the most vulnerable communities and countries.

States facing climate-related displacement within their borders require significant financial support and technical expertise to develop solutions that provide for the rights of those affected. The Peninsula Principles provide a normative framework, based on human rights, to address the rights of internally displaced people. For people forced to leave their homeland and flee across a border, there is no protection assured under existing international law. This requires urgent attention.

At COP 16 in Cancun Parties agreed under the Cancun Adaptation Framework to undertake measures to better understand and cooperate on issues related to climate change induced displacement. The Nansen Initiative, launched in 2012, has been working towards a protection agenda for people displaced across borders in the context of climate change, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction also addresses issues of displacement and human mobility. These advances must now be built upon so that there are robust legal measures in place to protect those people on the front lines of climate change

What should EU governments be doing about it? 

EU countries, in particular, should recognise that climate change is already a “push factor” driving people out of some parts of Africa. This problem will get worse, so European leaders need to prepare a structured and humane response which both enables climate displaced people to resettle in European countries and helps their countries of origin to become more resilient to climate change.

Written by . Published on July 29, 2015. Last edited on April 19, 2016.

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