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Mary Robinson Calls on the World to Move Toward Climate Justice

Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland, gave a lecture titled "Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future" at Boston College on Wednesday. The event, the latest installment of the Lowell Humanities Series, was co-sponsored by the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department and the Environmental Studies program.

In addition to being the first female president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997, Robinson has also served as the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights from the end of her term as president until 2002. 

Robinson was also chosen by Nelson Mandela to be a member of the Elders, a group of global leaders and human rights activists—whose number has included such figures as Archbishop Desmond Tutu—that work together to combat the serious injustices plaguing the world today, a group which Robinson now chairs.

Robinson focused her lecture on the topic of the climate crisis currently threatening the world. She emphasized that it is no longer adequate to solely refers to this threat as climate change, stating that “it’s not climate change anymore, it’s climate crisis, climate emergency.”

Recalling that climate justice activism was once a “niche area,” Robinson believes that “we are at the beginning of what [she hopes] will become a broad climate justice movement.”

As part of her work on the climate crisis, Robinson has also authored a book, Climate Justice, after which this lecture was titled. In the book, Robinson relays the story of climate justice through the lens of a variety of individuals both affected directly by climate change and who have taken on the mantle of organizing the fight against this global crisis. 

Among the figures she focuses on in her book, Robinson includes a woman from New Orleans who became a self-described “accidental activist” after personally experiencing the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.

Additionally, Robinson highlighted the insights she received from discussions with leaders of the Sami, an indigenous people of Scandinavia known for herding reindeer, as well as the president of Kiribati, a small island nation in the Pacific. Potentially threatened with being wiped off the map by rising sea levels, the president of Kiribati is preemptively exploring the feasibility of artificially raising the islands.

One theme which Robinson returned to throughout the lecture, and which these stories illustrate, was that “it is those who are least responsible” who are most at risk. While Kiribati’s carbon footprint is but a drop in the bucket compared to that of the United States or China, as a low lying island nation with limited resources, it stands to face the most damage.

After going over the threat the climate crisis poses, Robinson highlighted a few steps that have to be taken collectively. First, Robinson urged the audience to make this issue personal and take action to reduce consumption or increase sustainability in their own lives. Second, she asked that they get angry and take action to fight climate change.

Finally, she stated that, “we all need to imagine this world we need to be hurrying towards.” It is not enough to simply examine current problems, but rather society must look to the future, so that a “just transition” in which no one is left behind is brought about.

While these steps may not seem overly complicated, Robinson pointed out that there are obstacles that stand in the way. First, she remarked that we currently inhabit a “throwaway culture” in which goods are built not to last. Any attempt to fight climate change must include sustainability initiatives, which cannot succeed until the mindset is removed. 

Robinson also warned the audience about the efforts of some fossil fuel companies at pushing “bad science” that downplays or outright denies the potentially calamitous effects of climate change, techniques which she said were originally perfected by the tobacco industry.

However, Robinson did not point out these obstacles to discourage people. Rather, she emphasized the importance of hope in this important fight. Quoting Desmond Tutu, she said, “I’m not an optimist, I’m a prisoner of hope.” For while apocalyptic messages of the dangers of climate change may catch people’s attention, without hope, nobody will have the will to fight it.

During a Q&A session after the lecture, Robinson was asked a variety of thoughtful questions regarding the climate crisis and other challenges facing the global community, and what steps can be taken to combat them.

In one notable moment which received applause from the audience, Kayla Lawlor, MCAS '20, and a member of Climate Justice at Boston College, asked Robinson if she would directly ask BC to commit to divestment of its endowment from the fossil fuel industry.

Robinson encouraged the administration to “move in that direction as soon as possible,” while also exhorting students to fight for action “beyond divestment, and to invest in clean energy and sustainability” on campus.

Copies of Robinson’s book, Climate Justice, can be found at the bookstore. Additionally, Robinson also hosts a podcast, Mothers of Invention, which she uses as a platform to further discuss the climate crisis and potential solutions.

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