World may have no more than six years to act on climate change, says Mary Robinson

Former president warns of ‘tipping point’ that will make world unliveable for future generations

Mary Robinson: 'If we reach tipping point territory, then we’re making it far more likely that future generations will have an unliveable world.' Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

The world may have no more than six years to act on climate change before it is into a “tipping point” where “nature may turn against us”, former president Mary Robinson has warned.

Global temperature increases have “tipped above 1.5 degrees a few times this year”, she said.

Probably in that six years “the coral reef will disappear. It’s very likely also that the Arctic ice will entirely melt and change the whole system of the Gulf Stream and everything else that’s affecting us because they’re very connected – the Arctic and the Antarctic.

“And the permafrost will melt and throw up both carbon and methane. And methane is more dangerous. And there’s a great deal of methane beneath the permafrost.”

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She said that “if we reach tipping point territory, then we’re making it far more likely that future generations will have an unliveable world. It will start with the poorest countries, and they will move in their millions. It’s predicted that more than a million people may move by 2050.”

Ms Robinson was speaking as she addressed the Seanad, where she had previously served as a senator from 1969 to 1989.

She said “We need to change to a positive narrative” adding that “we are on the cusp of a clean energy, healthier, safer, cleaner, fairer world. We’re actually moving towards it. Millions of us around the world in different ways are moving towards it, but we’re not moving fast enough.”

One of the big impediments however is the fossil fuel lobby which is getting subsidies “to continue providing fuel that is harming the world” including coal, oil, gas or turf.

Big fossil fuel lobbyists also spent $4 billion a year in very clever “miscommunications”, calling on individuals to do more “rather than looking at the baddies, the big emitters, the big companies”.

But scientists have made it clear “that we have not more than six years to radically change course. And if we don’t do so, then nature may turn against us”.

Ms Robinson said her home county local authority, Mayo County Council had published an obligatory climate action plan for 2024 to 2029 and “it looks great, except it’s not funded” and “that’s the problem” and it was the same for every local authority.

She also expressed disappointment that she had not heard any reference during the local election campaign to Ireland only being likely to achieve a reduction in carbon emissions of just 29 per cent rather than 51 per cent, by 2030. People were afraid to mention it “because we need to get re-elected”.

Ms Robinson said it was “rubbish” and “ridiculous” that the State faced multibillion euro fines as a consequence. “Why don’t we realise that we need to spend money to incentivise” people to get things done now.

A number of senators spoke after the former president’s address. Independent Senator Eileen Flynn said she first met Mrs Robinson as president when she was six years old and in a refuge with her mother.

“And I’m here where you used to be and you’re such an inspiration.”

But she said “unless we address poverty in this country we are not going to address climate change”.

Ms Flynn said the main social issues were bigger than climate change. “It’s poverty, people dying of hunger, people living with addiction, trauma that you see in halting sites” were the issues.

She added that they talk about the 17 sustainable goals “but there are still members of the Traveller community living without running water”. She said “many working-class people in this country are still on the edges of society fighting for survival every single day”.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times