A positive narrative
Robinson, a former UN Special Envoy on Climate Change, wrote movingly in her 2018 manifesto Climate Injustice of how, on holding her first grandchild for the first time in 2003, she was struck by the uncertainty of the world he had been born into. By the time he turns 50, she wrote, there would be more than nine billion people battling for food, water, and shelter in an increasingly volatile climate.
Robinson has since become one of the leading advocates against climate injustice which she breaks down into five layers: racial injustice, gender injustice, intergenerational injustice, injustice to different paths of development, and the injustice to nature itself.
“I think it’s really important that we ground ourselves in the injustices because the climate problem is human made,” she said. “It’s not an accident. It’s not phenomenal. It’s not nature. It’s our doing, the rich world, and therefore, there are levels of injustice.”
In the same way that the climate problem is human-induced, Robinson is optimistic that society can reverse the path, starting by adopting a positive narrative about the future. While the transition to net zero is often depicted in terms of sacrifice and cost, Robinson believes a green transition, if executed correctly, provides an opportunity to elevate standards of living around the world. For rich countries, she explained, this might take the form of greener, more livable cities and the rewilding of rural areas. In Africa, accelerating access to clean energy will provide the opportunity to give more than 600 million people access to electricity for the first time.
Women as agents of change
Robinson, who served as the first female President of Ireland between 1990 and 1997, believes the world has a lot to learn from women leaders, many of whom are on the frontlines of climate change.
In particular, she expressed her admiration for Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, who has vocally criticized global leaders for failing to slow down climate change, and Janet Yellen, the US Treasury Secretary, who has called for the private sector to step up investments into the green transition.
“Women are far more impacted because they often don’t have power,” she explained. “They’re not at the table, they’re not decision making. Take, for example, a terrible flood; women wear long skirts and hold their children, and die in much greater numbers than men since they can’t climb trees as easily to escape. That’s one manifestation, but much more deeply, women are poorer. And any crisis drives girls into early child marriage and out of school, so the gender injustice is very real – but at the same time, women are agents of change.”
She cited the example of Vanessa Nakate, a 25-year-old climate activist from Uganda, who helped bring solar energy into schools to replace traditional cook stoves which, as they burn kerosene, firewood, and charcoal, have damaging health effects.
Nakate has also called out rich nations and financial institutions for providing climate finance in the form of loans to lower-income countries, arguing the growing debt pile only serves to suffocate their ability to protect themselves against the worst effects of climate change. Robinson echoed these concerns, pointing to the European Union’s project to help South Africa speed up its exit from coal which accounted for nearly 90% of the country’s electricity supply in 2020.
“It’s not going as well as it should because not enough of the support is in grant form,” she said. “It’s in loans – and of course, this is a problem even for South Africa.”