Environmental justice - Mary Robinson

In the first memorial lecture in honour of George Seward – the former Honorary Life President of the IBA – Mary Robinson, formerly President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, takes the opportunity to emphasise the moral imperative to act on climate change.

George Seward led a long life filled with purpose and was very closely identified with the International Bar Association we know today. I’m sure many of you remember him, as I do, with fondness and with deep respect. I want to use George’s great age, 101 when he died in February of this year, to embark on my theme for this lecture, ending with a challenge to the IBA.

George’s life spanned a period of great change, innovation, development and growth. There were world wars, expeditions to the moon, great technological developments, including television, computers and mobile phones, and significant improvements in human well-being, access to education and human rights. While these changes brought benefits to society their distribution has not been even across the world or within societies and the economic growth we have experienced comes at a cost.

Climate change didn’t exist as an issue when George was born. The Industrial Revolution was in its heyday and the effects of burning fossil fuels on the climate were yet to be understood. In George’s lifetime human kind found solutions to all sorts of global problems, from combating diseases such as polio to finding more effective ways to communicate, while at the same time creating a new problem. We will need to use the same kind of ingenuity and resourcefulness to tackle the challenges posed by climate change in the century ahead. Climate change will be one of the defining attributes of the next century, and our ability to deal with this challenge while shaping a world of opportunity for all of humankind is a daunting task.

For these reasons I approach climate change as an issue of justice and human rights. I describe the justice involved as more developmental than legal, although there are a number of interesting court cases on climate-related issues around the world that no doubt some of you will be familiar with. For those of you who would like to know more about climate change and litigation I highly recommend the book Climate Change Liability Transnational Law and Practice, which is a collection of essays and contributions from different parts of the world.

Climate justice links development, human rights and climate change. It’s a human-rights-based approach to combating climate change which seeks equitable outcomes to both protect the vulnerable and provide access to benefits arising from our transition to low-carbon development. Climate justice has a focus on people. It looks at the causes, the impacts and the solutions to the problem from a human perspective. Climate justice is fully informed by science, but it communicates and identifies solutions from the perspective of human needs and rights.

As such, it seeks equity in the way we deal with the negative impacts of climate change. For example, which countries take the lead on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. And equity in accessing benefits, for example access to off-grid renewable energy for communities living without access to electricity.

It’s worth noting that there’s an increasing trend towards linking the international human rights framework with the climate change process. Just over a year ago, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a further resolution on human rights and climate change. It ‘reiterates its concern that climate change poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world and has adverse implications for the full enjoyment of human rights.’ Earlier this year, the Human Rights Council appointed John Knox as UN independent expert on human rights and environment. John Knox will now play a key role in building consensus, both for the global recognition of the right to a healthy environment and for the development of strong substantive content to that right.

Climate change will be one of the defining attributes of the next century, and our ability to deal with this challenge while shaping a world of opportunity for all of humankind is a daunting task

Both of these initiatives respond to the growing body of evidence demonstrating the links between climate change and human rights. Climate change impinges on the right to food, the right to water and the right to health. In doing so it undermines the significant gains we have made in upholding and strengthening these rights across the world in recent decades. As we work towards the internationally agreed millennium development goals we’re making real progress on reducing hunger, maternal and child mortality, access to clean water and sanitation. But, left unchecked, climate change may wipe these gains away.

It’s the recognition of the human rights dimensions of climate change that inspired me to establish the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice. The foundation articulates a vision for a world where global justice and equity underpin a people-centred developmental approach to addressing the impacts of climate change. There’s clearly a role for the legal profession in pursuing this vision because climate change is not just an environmental or economic issue, it’s a human rights issue and therefore it creates a concomitant moral imperative to act. The focus of this action must be on protecting the vulnerable and motivating world leaders to take the action needed to avoid dangerous climate change.

A new window of opportunity opened at the end of the last round of negotiations on climate change in Durban last December, with the decision to have a new global deal on climate by 2015, to come into effect by 2020, which many think is leaving it late, but it is a case of late is better than never. Issues of equity, justice and rights will be central to the discussion between now and then.

Parties to the climate convention are struggling with important questions that I believe the IBA must become involved in considering. Questions such as how can we support the right to development of developing countries by taking meaningful action on emissions reductions? Can we find ways to share the burden of reducing greenhouse gas emissions equitably? Is the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities encouraging us to act or actually holding us back? Are we focused enough on sharing the benefits of low-carbon development equitably?

With these questions centre stage it became clear that the time had come for a climate justice narrative, a narrative that places people at its centre, that is informed by human rights, that strives for equity and that protects the most vulnerable. We need a new set of arguments and moral and ethical imperatives to motivate people and decision makers to act and to bring the urgency and ambition we need to agree a new climate agreement that will avoid dangerous climate change. Until there’s a greater demand from people in all walks of life, for meaningful action on climate change, political leaders will continue to be able to return home from unsuccessful climate conferences with little fear of retribution.

That’s one of the problems now. I’ve been at the recent conferences in Copenhagen, in Cancun and, most recently, in Durban. And the ministers who came were not under any great political pressure; they were more under pressure to hold their cards as if it was a trade agreement and not really agree what is needed going forward, which would require brave and badly needed decisions to be taken. So we need to take the urgency that I feel when I talk to those directly affected by climate change, and I really do feel this when I’m talking, for example, to my friend, Constance Okollet, who lives in Northern Uganda.

When she was growing up in her village they had seasons. They were poor but they had enough food because they knew when to plant and when to harvest. Now that has changed for over a decade and they’re afflicted with long periods of drought and then flash flooding and then more drought. Of course, it’s not all attributable to climate change. There may have been cutting down of trees and bad soil management, but on top of vulnerable climate situations anyway the impact of climate change is, I would say, at this stage, deadly. It is extraordinarily serious.

I saw it when I travelled with one of the other leaders of Bangladesh Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank, who’s a good friend, and who I know addressed you, while there’s also the other wonderful organisation, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), headed by another visionary man, Fazle Abed. And I went with BRAC supporters down to the Bay of Bengal to see the situation for fisherman in Bangladesh and how they’d had to change their way of doing, learning to plant seeds and rice that would withstand the brackish salty water, and the difficulties that they had.


If you take the small island states, my friend Ursula Rakova is busy working out how to transfer 1,500 people from the small Carteret Island where they can no longer live, to Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. She has negotiated for land. She’s trying to make sure that relationships between the 1,500 who are coming to Bougainville and the people resident there will get on well. And she says with great sadness that there’s nothing she can do about the fact that they are leaving the land of the bones of their ancestors. And when an indigenous woman says that, you can feel the pain. There will be a lot of people leaving the land of the bones of their ancestors because of the climate shocks and the climate changes and the rising seawater.

So we need the urgency to motivate those who have responsibility to act. In this way, a climate justice narrative informed by the voices of the most vulnerable can create strong constituencies of demand and the political will needed to solve the climate crisis.

I believe the IBA has a role to play in the climate justice dialogue, which my foundation and the World Resources Institute based in Washington are facilitating. This is a global dialogue that will create safe spaces for different actors to listen and discuss a solid evidence base, informed by regional workshops and commissioned research and it will shape a new climate justice narrative to mobilise political will for an ambitious climate agreement in 2015. I invite the IBA to work with us to expand the concept of justice to include climate justice and to inform the legal aspects of this work. If we’re to reach an agreement in 2015 that puts us on a new course to climate-compatible development we need allies across the world and in all disciplines, working for a common purpose.

So I’d like to be bold and propose that the IBA develop a working group on climate justice or, if you prefer, human rights and climate change to provide leadership over the coming three to four years, which will be critical in shaping our response to climate change. In so doing, the members of the group could interact with the climate justice dialogue by contributing to the evidence base, for example bioresearch papers or a commissioned series in a law journal, as well as helping us to shape and carry the climate justice narrative that the dialogue will articulate. We need many strong voices from all parts of the world to carry this narrative and to make the case for a human-centred and equitable global deal on climate.

There’s clearly a role for the legal profession in pursuing this vision because climate change is not just an environmental or economic issue, it’s a human rights issue and therefore it creates a concomitant moral imperative to act

As George Seward, whom we remember here today, had a life that spanned several generations, the challenge climate change poses to us is intergenerational. George was a father, grandfather and indeed great-grandfather. Hence, his time horizons reached far into the past and way into the future to encapsulate the lifetime of his great-grandchildren. Climate change threatens to be one of the greatest injustices that we inflict on our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Sometimes these days I wake up and think to myself, what will they say about us? What will they reflect on the decisions that were taken in the first 20 years of this century? My fear is that they will say, how could they have been so neglectful, so ignorant, so stupid, so short term?

Our problems now are so much worse because decisions were not taken when they should’ve been. We need to look at the potential impacts of climate change 100 years hence and plan for a world very different to that in which we live today. The world George was born into was very different from the world of 2012. We need to decide what kind of world we want our great-grandchildren to live in in 2100 and to take the steps needed to set them on a safe path to achieving that vision.

So, as I have been saying, I think the IBA has an important role to play in this discourse and I encourage you to take up this challenge. You have a very powerful voice because you are the International Bar Association, so I challenge you to be with us on this journey to bring about greater climate justice.