fbpx Mary Robinson on tackling climate change as a human rights, gender, and justice issue | Harvard Kennedy School

At a recent John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, former Irish president and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson discussed the growing dangers of climate change and their impact on issues of human rights, gender, and justice. Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy John Holdren, who served as President Barack Obama’s science advisor and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, moderated the discussion. 

Robinson said that she did not immediately see the connection between climate change and human rights, but came to understand its importance as she traveled around the world, especially to drought-impacted regions of Africa. “I say with all humility that I came late to the issue of climate change,” Robinson admitted, “but as I traveled around the world, I kept hearing this phrase—and it was the same everywhere I went really—‘Things are so much worse now.’”

As scientific evidence mounts on global temperature rise and its environmental and human impacts, Robinson pointed to the need for political will among and within countries, major corporations, and social movements to enact enforceable climate policies. Robinson argued that, as things stand now, individual countries and the international community are headed in the wrong direction on climate change policies:

“We're headed in the wrong direction,” Robinson said. “The important thing is we need the political will. The only way we will get this political will is if we get a broad and connected movement pushing for climate justice, one that connects women's leadership and the children and young people’s movement, the extinction rebellion people and businesses that are non-fossil fuel. It's seeing ambition from governments that are willing to be on the right side of climate change policy and that are willing to put a stake in the ground. Britain is about to proclaim a climate emergency. Scotland's already done it. Sweden has its goal of Net Zero already. We just have to maintain this movement of pressure.”

Robinson pointed to the importance of understanding the connection between climate change and gender, both at international conferences focusing on climate policy and at a grassroots level. “It struck me as being incredible when I went to my first climate conference how male and technical this world was,” she said. “There was nothing about human rights. Nothing about gender. Nothing about what I understood to be the problem. ... [But] once women ministers got involved and said they wanted to have grassroots women indigenous women, young women in their delegations, that made a lot of difference. I saw it happening when you had indigenous women speak truth to the male delegates about the reality of being on the front lines of climate change. They didn't live in a world that was being changed dramatically for the worse—indigenous women live that reality.”

Robinson asked Holdren to comment on the role of governments, given his background as a climate negotiator for the U.S. government. Holdren pointed to the need for both industrial and developing countries to take responsibility and action on climate change. “There's a tremendous historical injustice, but the world has changed in a way that the climate problem can no longer be solved just by either the industrial or the developing countries alone,” he said. “There's a very strong argument on grounds of ethics and justice for the developed countries to provide massive assistance to countries in need for their own clean energy futures and for climate change preparedness, resilience, and adaptation. But there's also an argument for the industrial nations to do those same things.”

In closing, Robinson made an appeal to the students and faculty attending the Forum, urging them to continue the political pressure on governments to take action on climate change: “You’ve got to take the issue of climate change very personally, in your life and in your work. It has to somehow penetrate. Get angry with those who have more responsibility... Use your voice, your vote, your marching, and your teaching. It is the only way we’ll see real change.”