Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, provided the keynote address for Women Funding Network’s conference, Leadership for a Changing World, held in San Francisco in September. With a message of urgency about our climate crisis combined with a call for more women’s leadership, Robinson brought the audience to their feet with applause for her words.
“Unless women take leadership in dealing with the climate crisis, then all the other issues, and I fully believe in the intersectionality of all the other issues, but all the other issues will actually fade, because we won’t have a livable world for our children and grandchildren,” said Robinson. “It’s as simple as that, and as stark as that, and as real as that, and that’s why it’s so important that women are now taking that leadership.”
Women’s Leadership in Addressing the Climate Crisis
In her work as an international leader, Robinson said that when she meets with women leaders in Asian and African countries, they readily express concern with climate change, because the impacts of climate change are already evident in extreme weather and climate events on these continents.
“I came to climate issues quite late, and I admit that,” said Robinson, acknowledging that as a President of Ireland, climate change advocacy was not part of her agenda. Robinson reviewed her extensive portfolio of leadership that continued since her presidency, but said that these leadership bodies did not address climate change. “I was in a silo, quite a large silo, but that’s the mentality.”
Climate issues began to play a larger role in her leadership, she said, when she was became an advocate for people to have basic rights, such as the right to water. Working in African countries, Robinson became increasingly aware of the injustice of climate change, and the way that it impacts most “those who are least responsible” for the problem. “The poorest countries, the poorest communities,” said Robinson, are bearing the most serious consequences of climate change.
Learning about the impacts of climate change on the world’s poor raised her level of concern about the issue. “I’m now aware that we have a crisis and an emergency,” she said. “We have to recognize that this means that our backs are against the wall.”
Robinson believes it is appropriate that the world is now turning its attention to young female leaders. “In many ways, it’s appropriate that we salute school children,” she said, and quoted Greta Thunberg’s message to the UN. She also spoke about how these young leaders are organizing powerful demonstrations, such as the global climate strike that took place on September 20, as role models who are calling for systemic change to address the climate crisis.
Holding Nations Accountable with Global Agreements
In 2015, when Robinson was special envoy the UN Secretary General on climate change during the Paris Climate Agreement, she witnessed an important step forward for climate issues. “I observed how two important frameworks were being negotiated by 193 member states in September of 2015,” when the 2030 agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals were created. She said these agreements prioritized “the furthest behind first, which I’d never heard in any other UN document.”
“The 2030 package is very well-crafted,” she said, and referenced not only the importance of SDG5 — gender equality — but the integration of all of the goals and the particular attention to prioritizing marginalized populations.
Robinson talked about the importance of framing the issue of climate in order to frame it politically in order to deal with the issue.
“When the negotiations took place, it was quite messy,” said Robinson, but noted that those on the side of saving the planet “worked their hearts out” to set a goal of 1.5 degree increase in global temperature. What’s the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees? Robinson said scientists describe the difference as quite significant. Once you go above 1.5, she said, “the coral reefs will disappear. The arctic ice will disappear. The permafrost will melt and throw up not just carbon, but also methane, which is much more serious as a greenhouse gas.”
Robinson noted that experts say we can do more to address climate change, but we must have the political will to do so, and last year carbon emissions increased, so the political will appears to be lacking. But, she said, “Following the report of the IPCC and the Biodiversity Report, we can no longer afford to regard the 2030 agenda and the Paris climate agreement as voluntary,” she said.
Robinson said governments are picking and choosing what to report on their climate activity. “We have to change that,” said Robinson. “Every country should be reporting in a way that’s accountable and that is a full implementation of the 2030 agenda.” Robinson stressed that it is imperative that we implement these two frameworks, “in full and with more ambition.”
How Do We Get the Political Will?
Robinson sees political will growing out of the the emerging movement for climate justice. “By putting pressure on governments and business,” said Robinson, new standards for clean energy implementation can be achieved.
“There is an increasing business and investment leadership making commitments and calling for more ambition from governments.” Essential to this movement, said Robinson, is that it calls for a “just transition and climate actions that fully respect human rights.” She said this new movement recognizes the need to retrain industry workers in fossil fuel for other purposes. “Workers in coal, oil, and gas won’t be left out,” she said, and the agreements also prioritize helping those who lack access to basic resources.
The needs of the estimated 2.3 billion people (mostly women) who cook with coal” and other that produce indoor pollution, said Robinson, are a key concern of the goals for climate justice. “We have the off-grid lights and mini systems and the clean cookstoves that can transform” the lives of these people.
“Get Angry and Take Action.”
Robinson discussed “making the issue of climate change personal in your life.” She has become a pescatarian, as an example of a dietary choice that help reduce carbon emissions. “I’ve given up meat, and I don’t cheat, even though I loved lamb from the West of Ireland.”
She also encouraged women to lean on governments by “using your voice and your vote,” and by “supporting organizations doing conservation and climate advocacy.” She said doing so often provides a secondary benefit. “It will help to reduce your climate anxiety,” she said.
Next Step: Imagine a Better World and Hurry Toward It
“It will be a much fairer world,” said Robinson. “Rising to the challenge of addressing the threat of climate change can be truly transformative.”
“We’ve entered a new reality where fossil fuel companies are losing their legitimacy and social license to operate,” said Robinson. She said these companies are “trying to string out that time” with bad science and lobbying, but “if governments are to retain their own legitimacy and trust among citizens,” this means they must end all fossil fuel subsidies in all forms, and turn toward investing in clean energy.
Some corporations and governments are making commitments to be carbon neutral, said Robinson, and this should be a signal to other corporations and governments to get on board.
What About the Leadership in Philanthropy?
Here Robinson called on women leaders to “disrupt business as usual in philanthropy,” and “to create a really visible group of women leaders discussing the climate issue.” This group of women leaders needs to be asking the difficult and awkward questions, said Robinson. “I want to stretch you to take charge in the leadership that you are going to exercise.”
“You have a lot of power to give that leadership,” she said. “There are so many ways that you can be disruptive of business as usual. Litigation, divestment, school striking, shareholders questions.”
“Fossil Fuel is Harming Our World.”
“I’m fortunate enough to be a grandmother with 6 grandchildren,” said Robinson, near the end of her 30 minute keynote address. “I’ve thought about their world.” In doing so, said Robinson, she has realized that the world needs women’s leadership now more than ever.
Robinson closed by saying we need to take on climate change with “hope and determination — and women’s leadership taking charge, with no apology to anyone, because we’re doing it on behalf of the future generations.”
Mary Robinson is President of the Mary Robinson Foundation — Climate Justice. Her podcast, Mothers of Invention, discusses feminist solutions to climate change.
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One thought on “Leadership for a Changing World: Mary Robinson at #WomenFunded”
Thanks for this great article, Kiersten. I wanted to note that the wonderful photo at the top of the article is from a dialogue at the Women Funded Event between Mary and Melanie Allen, who is the Co-Director of a new fund to promote climate and gender justice in the US. This fund has taken up Mary’s call to women leaders to “disrupt business as usual in philanthropy,” and “to create a really visible group of women leaders discussing the climate issue,” by directing funding to support the leadership of Black women, Indigenous women, women of color, young women, and women on the frontlines of the climate crisis. A climate movement that excludes or under-values these leaders is a very small and weak movement–and there’s no time for only some hands on deck. Adequately resourcing these leaders is a strategic imperative. We’d love to connect with you about opportunities to highlight some of the work these women are doing.