In 1847, while Ireland was in the midst of the Famine, the Choctaw tribe met in Oklahoma to commemorate a decade of banishment from their tribal lands. Made Aware that strangers were starving on the far side of the Atlantic, the tribe sent $4,500 in today's money to Ireland for the relief of Famine victims. In Mary Robinson's new book, Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience and the Fight for a Sustainable Future, she cites the Choctaw tribe's compassion for the Irish as "proof that help can come from unexpected places and that geography does not have to be a barrier to empathy".
Robinson aims to instil similar empathy in her readers through the stories of a dozen individuals, mainly women, suffering the effects of climate change first hand. From a farmer in eastern Uganda growing food amid flash floods and droughts to a cosmetologist-turned-activist rebuilding Mississippi after hurricane Katrina, Robinson amplifies the voices of those whose stories would not normally reach us and hopes our empathy for them will inspire action on climate change.
Robinson fails to emphasise the need for system-wide politically-driven changes, particularly in her home country
Following her tenure as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Robinson established the global initiative, Realizing Rights, but found climate change “kept getting in the way” of her work to promote African countries’ development. The former president of Ireland returned home to focus exclusively on securing justice for the people most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, establishing the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice in 2010. While the foundation recently announced its intention to scale back their activities, Robinson’s book showcases the foundation’s legacy, enabling stories from the first victims of climate change to reach a global audience.
The term climate justice has become a buzz phrase among environmentalists and commentators in the past decade, used to frame climate change as an ethical and political issue rather than purely scientific in nature. Irish NGOs such as Trócaire have championed climate justice as a reason to act, arguing those least responsible for climate change suffer the gravest consequences. However, it is debatable whether climate justice inspires enough action to solve the problem. Perhaps the Choctaw tribe empathised with Irish Famine victims because of their own suffering in the decade prior. Today however, the stories of a handful of individuals struggling to survive in a changing climate may not galvanise such altruism. The humanitarian group Dara’s Climate Vulnerability Monitor estimated five million deaths were related to climate change and fossil fuels in 2010; 83 per cent of which occurred in developing countries. While climate change is therefore one of the leading causes of death worldwide, this fact has not spurred us toward the action worthy of such a crisis.
While Robinson’s humility and compassion resonates through her story-telling, her book fails to emphasise the need for system-wide politically-driven changes, particularly in her home country. For instance, she neglects to mention Ireland’s continued burning of peat and coal, intensification of livestock farming or car-focused transport policies, to name a few of our carbon-emitting sins. In reality, political efforts to systemically change government policy are essential to solve climate change. Instead, Robinson emphasises individual change – applauding efforts to build community gardens or reduce household waste and energy use, along with her own aspiration to lower her carbon footprint.
Although we can sense Robinson’s frustration with US president Donald Trump’s climate policies, she otherwise idealises the international climate policy arena. Robinson deems the Paris Climate Agreement a success for acknowledging the rights of indigenous people and its aim to hold planetary warming below 1.5 degrees. This ignores the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent scientific assessment that staying below 1.5 degrees is no longer possible without the ability to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in vast quantities (an as yet mythical technology). Robinson heralds the Paris Agreement for potentially saving South Pacific islands such as Kiribati from disappearing due to sea level rise, without acknowledging our actions to date have likely sealed their fate. It is difficult to reconcile Robinson’s optimism while her home country ranks worst in Europe on climate action, one of only a few EU countries in which greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb.
While contending that a former president should not intervene in Irish government policy, Robinson has consistently avoided comment on Ireland's response to climate change. One could hardly blame her after the lambasting she received from the Irish agricultural sector for merely mentioning the need to reduce meat consumption. However, another former president, Mary McAleese, was recently applauded for campaigning on the marriage equality referendum, and current President Michael D Higgins has previously raised concerns about Irish policies on housing, refugees, and arts funding, even going so far as to call for an investigation into the death of Savita Halappanavar. As president herself, Robinson was known for reshaping the office for more meaningful purposes. It is therefore disappointing that Climate Justice lost an opportunity to acknowledge the need for profound system change both in Ireland and abroad.
Notwithstanding this and the unlikelihood of climate justice stories to prompt action, Robinson’s book still inspires through its portrayals of resilience. None of the individuals featured in her book would call themselves victims as they bravely and resolutely face severe hardship. It is through a “dignified migration” that the president of Kiribati plans the relocation of his people as their country disappears beneath the sea. A Canadian tar sands miner helps fellow workers leave fossil fuel jobs for careers in cleaner technology. In Vietnam, a grandmother who remembers the horror of napalm leaves her academic career to encourage local communities to reforest their country. As long as we fail to acknowledge the need for system-wide cultural, educational, political and economic change, the climate will continue to change at our expense and, like those in Robinson’s book, we will have no choice but try to adapt. Robinson’s stories provide a window into our own future, and her legacy on climate justice is a point of light in Ireland’s otherwise dark record on climate change.
Dr Cara Augustenborg is a senior teaching fellow in University College Dublin's environmental policy programme and cohost of the Down to Earth slot on Newstalk FM's The Hard Shoulder with Ivan Yates. Her blog, The Verdant Yank, was selected as the best Irish political and current affairs blog in 2016