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The Interview

It’s time for a ‘moonshot mentality’ on climate change, says Mary Robinson

23 September 2022 in The Interview

Positive, broad-based leadership will be decisive in determining whether we move towards our best or worst future, says former UN Special Envoy on Climate Change Mary Robinson. ...

Positive, broad-based leadership will be decisive in determining whether we move towards our best or worst future, says former UN Special Envoy on Climate Change Mary Robinson.

After a summer of heatwaves and devastating floods, it feels like the climate catastrophe is already unfolding. But what if our best future is still ahead of us? Mary Robinson, a former Irish president and current chair of the non-governmental organization The Elders, believes the world still has time to move towards a greener and more prosperous future if leaders can harness the momentum and mentality to get there.

“Our best future is still ahead of us. It’s a clean energy world,” she said in an exclusive dialogue with David Bach, IMD Professor of Strategy and Dean of Innovation and Programs. “But we also face a worst, worst world. I think it’s better for people to know that we have a choice between our best world, which we have to hurry to, and our worst, worst world, which is where we are heading. Every report now is very grim because we are heading in the wrong direction, but we can change.”

What will tip the balance between these two extremes, in Robinson’s opinion, is positive leadership between business, the wider civil society, and governments. She believes this will play “more than 50%” of a role in ensuring the world secures a sustainable climate by the middle of the century.

To do this, however, she said leaders will have to “step up by 10 times the intensity of addressing climate change”, and called for “a moonshot approach” in a similar way that US Joe Biden has vowed to cut cancer deaths by half over the next 25 years.

“We actually need a [moonshot] more in climate than in any other area because next January will be seven years from 2030. The scientists have told us unequivocally, we have to halve global emissions more or less by 2030, and yet they’re more or less going up,” she explained.

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.”

I think instinctively, what women try to do is less hierarchical and far more interested in how we find the solutions. I think the world needs that

A just transition

Another female leader Robinson admires is Sharan Burrow, Secretary General of the International Trade Union Congress, who advocates for a just transition to a low carbon economy to ensure that millions of workers don’t get left behind.

“I think it’s really important we begin by valuing those who helped us build our economies because they deserve to be valued,” said Robinson, describing the layoffs of thousands of workers in the US oil and gas industry as “heart breaking”.

Retraining will be vital to ensure the green transition remains politically sustainable. In her own country, Ireland, workers affected by the closure of two peat power plants have been given the opportunity to work in the development of renewable energy assets, and to help rewild the bog which also functions as an important climate sink.

With the world already witnessing some of the devastating effects of climate change, including the recent floods in Pakistan which killed more than 1,500 people and submerged around one third of the country, Robinson urged leaders to step up “by ten times” efforts to address the problem.

“The rich world really has to get real on this. I really mean that,” she said, highlighting the lack of a real pathway still to double climate adaptation finance by 2025 as was promised at the COP26 in Glasgow. “We spend more on emissions globally than we do on adaption, but adaption has now become very serious.”

She highlighted three messages for leaders: firstly, to make personal habit changes, for example by eating less meat, using energy more efficiently, or taking greener forms of transport. Secondly, she asked leaders to get angry about inaction, and finally to keep imagining a bright future so as to stay motivated.

“I think the world has to have a wake-up moment of responsibility now. It’s not a guilt trip. It’s not making accusations to people. It’s saying we have to manage this and manage it well, because our best world is still in front of us. We can get there.”

Watch the full discussion to hear more from Mary Robinson, including on the need to guarantee human rights in the transition to clean energy, and how she hopes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will jolt Europe into speeding up its move away from fossil fuels.


David Bach

David Bach

Dean of Innovation and Programs at IMD

An expert in strategy and political economy, David Bach holds the Rio Tinto Chair in Stakeholder Engagement at IMD. Through his award-winning teaching and writing, Bach helps managers and senior executives develop a strategic lens for the nexus of business and politics.

Mary Robinson

Former President of Ireland

One of the most respected advocates for climate justice and Ireland’s first woman President (1990-1997), Mary Robinson leads the Mary Robinson Foundation—Climate Justice, a center for thought leadership, education and advocacy for the poor and disempowered who are disproportionately threatened by climate change. Her book, Climate Justice, received glowing reviews from former world leaders and the environmental and human rights community. Robinson has also served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Climate Change. She is a founding member and current Chair of The Elders, an independent group of global leaders formed by Nelson Mandela to tackle the world’s most pressing problems.

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