Mary Robinson: Changing the global climate, one person at a time

The former Irish president on the individual activists who inspire her climate-advocacy work

Mary Robinson, a former UN commissioner for human rights. “Like many 1 Million Women members, I struggle to lower my own carbon footprint one item at a time.” File photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Getty Images

Mary Robinson, a former UN commissioner for human rights. “Like many 1 Million Women members, I struggle to lower my own carbon footprint one item at a time.” File photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Getty Images

 

I’m humbled to admit that I am a relative latecomer to the issue of climate change. When I served as United Nations high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002, safe in the knowledge that the UN already had a dedicated climate-change office, the topic rarely crossed my mind. I don’t remember making a single speech relating to it.

That changed in early 2003 after I had moved to New York to create my own organisation, Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, to advance economic, social and cultural rights, particularly in African countries. I wanted to make human rights matter in small places, and to help developing countries achieve their full economic and social potential. But as I travelled in African countries to promote the right to development, an unexpected issue kept getting in the way: climate change.

Soon after Realizing Rights was formed, I was invited to chair the board of the International Institute for Environment and Development, a think tank based in London to promote sustainable development worldwide. This wonderful institution taught me how important it is to listen to grassroots voices and enable them to be heard.

Towards the end of 2010, I moved back home to Ireland to establish my own charitable foundation on climate justice.

In April 2013, this foundation joined with the Irish government in organising a major climate change conference to coincide with Ireland’s presidency that year of the European Union. Entitled Hunger, Nutrition and Climate Justice, it brought more than 100 grassroots climate-change activists to Dublin.

Grassroots participants

Although the conference welcomed leading dignitaries such as former US vice-president Al Gore and EU commissioners, the promise of hearing from grassroots participants strongly encouraged others to attend. Women from Mongolia hunkered down and shared stories with women from Inuit and Latin American communities, all finding common ground in their climate-change experiences, personal stories and solutions.

Individual grassroots participants, emboldened by their weekend training, confidently took the floor and challenged leaders, including government ministers, on what actions they could take to better effect change. Being around these grassroots participants was a powerful reminder of how lost decision-makers can become in the inaccessible jargon of “international development-speak”.

A participant from Zambia, who had listened intently throughout the conference, finally raised her hand at a senior-level roundtable. “I have been hearing this expression ‘we need to think outside the box’ for the past three days,” she said, reiterating the cliche. “It seems a little strange to me,” the woman continued with bemusement. “In my community, we don’t think in boxes.”

That exchange would be the first of many I would have with extraordinary people who have endured the drastic effects of global warming and are striving to help their communities adapt. Their stories of resilience and hope, and their quest for climate justice, can light the path forward.

My new book celebrates such people, their work and their lives. One of them is Natalie Isaacs, whose story appears here.

*****

Businesswoman and 1 Million Women founder Natalie Isaacs. Photograph: Jenny Kahn
Businesswoman and 1 Million Women founder Natalie Isaacs. Photograph: Jenny Kahn

As a successful businesswoman, Natalie Isaacs thought she knew a lot about climate change, at least enough to hold her own during dinner-party conversations in the well-informed social circles she and her husband navigated in Sydney, Australia.

But with her own skincare and beauty products company to manage, and the busy lives of her four children to run, little space was left in Natalie’s crowded life to get involved in environmental issues, let alone enough time to recycle the family’s paper and plastic waste.

I used to think, ‘Well, what can one individual do anyway? It’s not my problem’

“I could sit around the dinner table and talk about climate change and express horror at what was going on and then just leave and carry on as normal,” Natalie – with abundant curly red hair and a warm, cheerful voice – remembers.

“I didn’t even have recycling sorted. There was a real disconnect between being aware about what was going on, but not actually doing anything about it. I used to think, ‘Well, what can one individual do anyway? It’s not my problem.’ I felt that way for a very long time. Climate change just wasn’t my issue.” Competing in the aggressive skincare industry, much of Natalie’s working life was spent generating plastic waste.

Bushfires

But in 2006, a series of random events forced Natalie to pause and contemplate the changing world around her. That year bushfires – some of the worst that Australia had seen in decades – descended upon Sydney, the flames licking houses at the edge of the city and blocking out the sun with acrid black smoke. Major roads leading north out of Sydney were shut as thousands of firefighters battled to contain the fires.

“The drought, the heat, and the fires seemed the worst they had ever been that year,” Natalie recalled. “That seems like nothing compared to the extreme weather patterns and drought that we are dealing with now.”

That same summer, Natalie watched Al Gore’s landmark documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. She listened as Gore outlined the “moral imperative” of addressing climate change and watched with horror as he displayed graphs crisscrossed with alarming red lines showing increasing rates of carbon dioxide emissions and the corresponding rise in temperatures.

None of this was new to Natalie’s husband, Murray, a former environmental reporter who was now working as a sustainability consultant and writing a book on climate change. Submerged coastlines, receding ice fields and changing weather patterns constituted Murray’s daily bread and butter.

That summer of 2006, Murray worked with an environmental organisation that engaged university student volunteers to install free energy-efficient lightbulbs in people’s homes. The start-up needed some marketing and selling expertise, and they approached Natalie for her help.

Idea ignited

At a party one night in Sydney to celebrate the placing of the millionth lightbulb, an idea ignited in Natalie’s mind: “All of the various messages that I had been receiving about climate change began to add up. Right there and then, I decided that I was going to get my electricity bill down.”

The next day, Natalie decided to replace all of the lightbulbs in her home with more energy-efficient models, and to switch these lights off whenever she left a room or the house. Next, she unplugged any electrical gadgets that were not in use – her washing machine, the television and the stereo – and began to hang clothes out on a line to dry in the summer heat.

Within a short time, her family’s household electricity consumption had decreased by 20 per cent. Holding the electricity bill that came in the wake of her energy-saving efforts, Natalie felt a shiver of excitement. “That was the moment I had an epiphany. I changed forever ... I wanted to do it all.”

I was learning the secret to life: that less is more. It was such freedom. I felt so light

Natalie then turned her attention to her household waste. She began to buy fewer plastic and paper products – plastic wrap, freezer bags, paper towels – and created a diligent recycling regimen. She bought more locally sourced produce and less meat. She avoided foods that came with heavy packaging, created a compost heap and bought a couple of worm farms.

Within a couple of months her household waste was down nearly 80 per cent. The feeling was addictive, emboldening. “When I did one thing and saw the result, that empowered me to do the next thing, and the next, and the next. I was learning the secret to life: that less is more. It was such freedom. I felt so light.”

*****

Extreme weather patterns have become standard in recent decades across Australia, as drought, bushfires, floods and heat waves hamper the economy of a country with one of the highest carbon footprints in the world. Since the 1970s, northern Australia has become wetter, the south drier, and violent bushfires have scorched millions of acres across the country.

In 2016, Australian government scientists released a report that showed that the surface temperature across Australia had increased by 1º Celsius since 1910. Although this rise may seem small, it is enough, scientists say, to shift baseline averages and to destabilise the weather and cause more extreme weather events.

Up to 75 per cent of ocean warming has occurred in the southern hemisphere, which is in the cross hairs of climate change. These warming seas have had a devastating impact on one of Australia’s national treasures, the Great Barrier Reef, which spans 1,400 miles off the northeastern coast of Queensland.

So much devastation

With so much devastation occurring on this island continent, one might assume that Australia would be at the cutting edge of mitigating carbon pollution. But the country remains addicted to coal, the burning of which is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2016, Australia was the world’s leading exporter of coal. That same year, the Australian government gave the go-ahead to the Indian-owned conglomerate Adani to open the single biggest coal mine in the country. The proposed US$12 billion megamine could be in operation for 60 years and create 4.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide over its lifetime, dramatically increasing global carbon emissions.

*****

By 2008, two years into her new energy-saving lifestyle, Natalie Isaacs had begun to think on a larger scale. Reading up on the level of greenhouse gas emissions for the residential and commercial sectors, Natalie discovered that nearly 17 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions were the product of 1.5 billion households around the world.

These household emissions were caused by fossil fuel combustion for heating and cooking needs, electricity consumption, waste management and leaks from refrigerators in homes and businesses.

The apparel industry, generator of the garments and accessories that Natalie loved so much, was the second-largest industrial polluter, behind oil, and accounting for 10 per cent of global carbon emissions.

I thought, ‘Wow, if I could do that just by being a little bit more vigilant around the house, imagine if millions of us were doing that?

As a businesswoman, Natalie understood that women were influential consumers, but could they also be powerful agents of change? How many women would it take to make a difference? A thousand? Ten thousand? One million?

That’s when the idea struck: “I saw that I had saved all this money and helped curb pollution. I thought, ‘Wow, if I could do that just by being a little bit more vigilant around the house, imagine if millions of us were doing that? What would happen if we all cut our meat consumption just by 50 per cent? If somebody just does it on their own, you think, what difference will it make? But if whole communities do it – if the entire population lived differently – it changes the system.”

*****

In 2009, Natalie stepped away from her beauty-products career and started 1 Million Women, an online movement to encourage women to cut back on their carbon emissions. Using a cleverly-designed website, Natalie provided simple tips to help other women lower their household carbon footprint.

Using a simple “dashboard” on the website, 1 Million Women members logged on to record their energy-saving efforts each week – noting how often they had turned off electrical appliances, bought local produce, recycled or hung their laundry out to dry – and then received a readout of their personal carbon footage.

Natalie’s message and website were specifically targeted towards women of affluence living busy lives in consumer-driven cities and suburbs. “If women and children of developing countries are the most vulnerable to climate change, then women from wealthy countries have so much to contribute to the solution through the way we live,” she said.

*****

Natalie struggled for some time to gain momentum with the 1 Million Women movement. What was so easy to accomplish within her own home proved difficult to translate to a wider audience. “I thought if I could just bottle up what had happened to me and share that with every woman that I knew, then everyone would want to change the way that they lived,” she said. “But it didn’t happen quite like that. I thought we would have a million women in six months, but it took a really long time because behaviour change is the elephant in the room.”

As Natalie worked to convey her message, many women complained that they couldn’t possibly fit yet another to-do item into their busy lives. Natalie, who in a short time had progressed from decreasing her electricity bill to starting a global movement, found their criticism hard to take.

“I thought everyone should share my enthusiasm,” she said. “But I now understand that people view looking after the environment as an adjunct activity. It’s always separate from how we live. If you think it is separate, of course you are going to wonder how can you fit it in?”

Natalie began to address, one by one, the lifestyle changes that 1 Million Women members were finding hardest to tackle, and to tailor her website around these needs. “This movement is not meant to make you feel guilty. It is meant to make you feel inspired that we are all doing this together, that we’re just all trying to do our best. You can’t just go into total despair over the effects of climate change. You’ve just got to start and do one thing, and that leads to another, and before you know it, you are just living like that.”

*****

Like many 1 Million Women members, I struggle to lower my own carbon footprint one item at a time

Like many 1 Million Women members, I struggle to lower my own carbon footprint one item at a time. I am aware that air travel, critical for the success of our climate-justice agenda, has a significant carbon footprint. I use too much paper, both at the office and at home. Unlike my youngest child, Aubrey, I am not a vegan. I am slowly taking steps towards becoming a vegetarian and now eat less meat than I used to. I now assess which meetings I can attend by video conference rather than in person.

Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Getty Images
Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Getty Images

Like Natalie Isaacs, and the hundreds of thousands of 1 Million Women members, I learn as I go. But by undertaking this journey to reduce our carbon footprint, we can participate in a global movement that has a real capacity for change. When faced with the enormity of the climate-change problem, it is easy to throw our hands up in the air and admit defeat.

But individual empowerment leads to confidence. “It is so much easier to do nothing, but you’ve got to get over that when it comes to climate change,” said Natalie. “Just get on with it and do something. At 1 Million Women we work on giving women bite-sized chunks with very tangible results. It doesn’t matter what it is. Do one thing, see a result, and that will lead to something else.”

As of mid-2017, Natalie’s movement had grown to more than 600,000 around the world, including a small percentage of men, and is steadily growing.

Climate Justice Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future, by Mary Robinson with Caitríona Palmer, is published by Bloomsbury. Mary Robinson will be at Kennys Bookshop & Art Gallery, Liosbán Retail Park Tuam Road, Galway on Wednesday, October 24th at 4pm, for a book signing and interview

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