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Robinson backs Extinction Rebellion’s disruption of ‘business as usual’

Former president likens climate change activists to protests over apartheid and slavery

Former president Mary Robinson is pictured in Iveagh House in Dublin where she delivered the Michael Sweetman Memorial Lecture on Friday. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Former president Mary Robinson has defended the Extinction Rebellion campaign of civil disobedience, saying the protesters were correct to disrupt a “business as usual” attitude towards the threat posed by climate change.

Speaking on Friday after making a speech at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Mrs Robinson likened the demonstrators, who are blocking public roads and disrupting flights, to the peaceful protests against apartheid in South Africa and slavery. Extinction Rebellion activists last week sprayed 1,800 litres of blood at the UK treasury building in London.

“What Extinction Rebellion are essentially trying to do is disrupt and the truth is we need disruption,” she said while taking questions after delivering a lecture named in memory of the late economist Michael Sweetman.

Mr Sweetman, who championed EU membership before his death at the age of 36 in the Staines air crash of June 1972.

Mrs Robinson said that after attending a recent meeting in Rome with business figures and investors from the fossil fuel industry she had “no sense that oil and gas companies in any way are in a hurry to get out of oil and gas”.

She said they needed to be forced to change from the “billions” being made from oil and gas to the “millions” to be made from clean energy.

“It will not happen in a business as usual, easy way; it will only happen if there is enough disruption of business as usual and one way of disrupting is Extinction Rebellion,” she said.

Litigation and shareholders speaking out at company meetings were other ways, she added. Companies needed to change their attitude toward oil and gas so they could be considered as bad as the banned product asbestos.

“We cannot get a safe world for our children or grandchildren with business as usual. We have to disrupt that business as usual,” she said.

‘Moved to tears’

The former UN high commissioner for human rights, who later oversaw UN efforts to tackle climate change, said she was “moved to tears” when listening to teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg rebuke world leaders at last month’s UN general assembly.

“Greta is right to be angry. The climate crisis is worse than we think and it is getting worse more quickly than scientists had thought would happen,” Mrs Robinson said during the lecture.

The former president urged people to “get angry and take action” so as to put pressure on political leaders to act on climate change.

Mrs Robinson made her remarks as the Extinction Rebellion protests in Dublin continued. A crowd of around 150 protesters marched from the Extinction Rebellion Ireland camp in Merrion Square to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment on Adelaide Road.

The protesters pasted excerpts from scientific papers about the impact of burning methane gas on to the exterior wall of the department and obstructed the main entrances to the building.

There was no Garda presence at the protest, which was organised to object to the Government’s decision to put the Shannon Liquefied Natural Gas terminal forward for inclusion on a special European list called Projects of Common Interest (PCI). The protesters are concerned that the terminal in the Shannon estuary would be used to import gas fracked in the United States.

Organiser Aisling Wheeler said Minister for Climate Change Richard Bruton was promoting the terminal’s inclusion on the PCI list “despite having no mandate from the parliament”.

“If it gets on that list, it can completely bypass planning. It has priority access to the grid, and if that happens, that means renewable don’t,” she said.