Interview with Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and current United Nations Special Envoy on Climate Change, discusses climate justice – the intersection of human rights, development and climate change - in this interview, conducted by the IBA’s Director of Content, James Lewis, at the International Bar Association Annual Conference in Tokyo, 2014. What actions can and should the international community be taking on this crucial issue?

The interview also looks at the IBA’s recent report on climate justice - Achieving Justice and Human Rights in an Era of Climate Disruption.

Mary Robinson was a speaker at the IBA showcase session on climate justice.

JL        James Lewis

MR      Mary Robinson


JL        I’m James Lewis. Joining me today is Mary Robinson. Mary, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

MR      It’s a pleasure.

JL        Now, you’ve been president of Ireland, you’ve been UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and you’re now focussing on climate justice, and you were appointed UN special envoy for climate change earlier in the year. Perhaps you can just start by telling us what we mean when we talk about climate justice?

MR      Climate justice essentially links human rights, development and climate change, and recognises, as does the Human Rights Council, that climate change is having huge negative impacts on human rights, and then we also add in what I would call the opportunity side. Since we’re undermining the livelihoods of the poorest people, their food security, etc, through climate shocks, through the rainy seasons not coming, through long periods of drought and flash flooding, which is happening all over Africa, and other problems in South Asia: rising sea levels, etc, we should prioritise the poorest in access to clean energy, and if they get clean energy, they’ll become productive, they’ll largely bring themselves out of the terrible poverty that we’re making worse.

JL        So, how important is redistribution of wealth in tackling poverty in dealing with climate justice or injustice?

MR      Yes, tackling poverty is essential and I think it’s good for it to be looked at through the prism of justice and injustice because there is such huge injustice in the way that climate change is happening and affecting the poorest countries and communities. It’s our lifestyles that are undermining the very poor life chances of much poorer people who are not responsible, so by linking that, I think, in a sense, of acknowledging that injustice so we need more money for adaptation, more financing for poor countries to be able to cope with the effects of climate change, but also the opportunities of benefitting from renewable energy.

JL        How do we fund that? Is it as simple as a global taxation system; is it reverse into [overtalking] pace?

MR      We can start by funding the Green Climate Fund which has been established and Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNF triple C system, the Framework Convention, has said that the fund should have at least 10 billion, preferably 15 billion by this November, by the conference in Lima in December. There’s a pledging conference in November. At the moment it has US$2.4 billion.

JL        So we’re not doing terribly well on that.

MR      1 billion from Germany, 1 billion from France, which was announced at the climate summit, and 400,000 from others, including countries like Mexico, which takes climate so seriously they’re contributing to the green…so we need to be serious. We need to understand that in justice, apart from anything else, we must capitalise the Green Climate Fund and take the measures that are necessary to help countries to adapt.

JL        I wanted to ask you, really, who’s taking leadership on this, who you’re impressed by? You’ve talked about Germany, France, Mexico: are you disappointed by Australia’s position on this, doing away with a programme that was working, not putting this new agenda for the 220?

MR      Of course, yes, Australia’s very disappointing in getting rid of a carbon tax which was just beginning to work in a country that’s very affected by climate and will be more so, unfortunately. The countries that impressed at the climate summit; it was interesting, those countries that were committing as quickly as possible to go to zero carbon: Samoa, Costa Rica; Ethiopia wanting to be a middle income African country but also reach zero emissions, and they are finding a pathway to doing that. So, I think what we’re realising is that leadership comes from different countries, large and small, but we’re not seeing enough of it yet.

JL        You’re suggesting there’s more of a bottom-up approach these days, which brings me to…

MR      To a certain extent, yes, the reason being that at the bottom they feel it most so they are urgent to get to zero carbon.

JL        But it’s America and China that are really very important. Are you impressed or unimpressed by their efforts? They weren’t [?] covered by Kyoto. Are they bringing in measures?

MR      Both America and China are doing quite a lot. I mean President Obama understands the climate issue and he’s trying to do it through regulation, through the Environment and Protection Agency, largely, and encouraging states within the United States, and cities to do far more. And China is doing a great deal and understands, for Chinese reasons, that it has to move faster and have a peak coal and move away from coal and so on. This still isn’t enough. That’s the problem.

JL        Now you laid down the gauntlet to the IBA back in Dublin a couple of years ago.

MR      I like challenging, you know. It goes with the age and being a woman and everything, you know, you can challenge people and…

JL        Yes, absolutely and the IBA has tried… And hopefully the IBA has risen to the challenge, they’ve produced their report and…

MR      I must say, and I even say it in the foreword to the report, that, you know, this report exceeds my expectations.

JL        Very good.

MR      It was a really serious piece of work. They took the trouble; they were in quite a bit of consultation with my foundation so I knew they were taking the task very seriously.

JL        There’s a lot of you and your foundation in here?

MR      I would say just little shapings but, and in fact, this deals with areas where we would not have the capacity; issues like trade, for example, which I was very glad to see, but more important, I’m very glad that I came here to Tokyo. It’s a long way to come, but I felt I should acknowledge the, you know, the very significant dedicated work that brought about this taskforce, and I’m even more impressed by the commitment to implement a really significant range of recommendations. Some of them will require a special taskforce focus and others will be sent to the various committees and task forces of the IBA to be integrated into their work and it just was impressive, and I was pleased that the outgoing chair was enthusiastic about the presidential taskforce he established.

JL        Michael Reynolds.

MR      Michael Reynolds and the incoming chair, David Rivkin, is equally determined, that during his two-year presidency, that these will be implemented.

JL        So there’ll be continuity there and [overtalking].

MR      Yes, and the timing is really very good because 2014, and even more so, 2015, are such important years for sustainable development and for climate, and we need reports like this to show us how to do it the human rights way.

JL        I'll come on to ask you about Paris and the sustainable development goals, etc, these things that are ahead of us, which may be opportunities. I just wanted to ask about one of the key recommendations in the report, which is to recommend that there be legal recognition of a universal human right to a safe, clean, healthy, sustainable environment. I assume you welcome this but I just wanted to know from you what that means in practice.

MR      Yes, I do very much welcome it. It’s in a number of international instruments in a number of countries have that right but it’s not really part of the old common law system, so most the countries that have inherited common law don’t have reference to, in some measure, a right to a healthy environment, etc, sustainable environment. It can make a huge difference because it captures the reality that climate change is negatively affecting food, and health in particular, and that there need to be remedies, there need to be ways of addressing this or ways of calling attention to it, and if we had that right, it would be very good. The taskforce asks the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights, to, you know, look at what the implications would be, and I think to have a report of my former office, is always a very good step to the Human Rights Council taking in the next step and…

JL        Is that what needs to happen to make it a reality for it to go through the steps of the United Nations?

MR      That’s what needs to happen, yes.

JL        And you feel it’s realistic to achieve that?

MR      I do feel it’s realistic. I think there’s quite a call for it, and the human rights community is once again active on climate change issues. The Human Rights Council passed a resolution last June, focussing on the need for more international attention to the impact of climate change on human rights. There will be two panels next March and my foundation is supporting that and I will be involved in at least one of those panels, and the mandate holders on a whole range of human rights, like rights to food and health and water and etc, 21 of them combined in a very well-crafted letter that they have sent to the delegates in Bonn who, this week, are working to prepare for the Lima conference, and they’ve said they want a human rights language written in, like the language in Cancun, but stronger, which said that, you know, all actions on climate change should respect human rights – that was the Cancun language, more or less – and now they want respect, protect and fulfil human rights, that any action on climate change, and that’s extremely important because some actions on climate change can make things worse. An example given is if you have food crops used for biofuel you drive up the price of food and corn, etc, so you have to be very careful that your climate actions, which in one way seem to be right to have biofuel rather than fossil fuel, don’t have negative impacts on human rights.

JL        If there had been such a right, I’m interested in whether we can make a best guess as to what might have happened in the Chevron Ecuador dispute, for example, some of these really big environmental disasters: would it have been simpler, easier to get a resolution or fulfilment [overtalking].

MR      I’m sure it would have been simpler but whether it would have resulted in concrete practical results, because we have rights to health and safe water, and these are rights that are recognised and have are special rapporteurs and are recognised by the covenant on economic social and cultural rights and the committee on economic, social and cultural rights, but it’s enforcing these and implementing them that’s often the problem, but it certainly would be much better; wouldn’t necessarily guarantee full enforcement.

JL        Would it change the approach to Ebola maybe? Would the response have been swifter?

MR      Well, the response certainly should have been swifter. I have been working on health in Sierra Leone a few years ago to strengthen the health system, and recognised how few doctors and nurses there were, and the doctors and nurses were emigrating to richer countries who simply took them in as being almost doing a favour of letting doctors and nurses work in Europe or America or wherever, without realising they’re depleting the health system and not putting anything else back, and what we were arguing was that any country that takes a doctor or nurse from a poor developing country should pay for the education and training of two, you know, because that would actually be the way to do it, but even in the Ebola crisis there’s very little discussion about migration of health workers, which is part of the problem. But also we were very slow to address the issue as though it was just a problem in poor countries that we didn’t have to worry about it. When the issue became one for richer countries we realised but we should have realised at the beginning, you know.

JL        Obama was talking about it as a security issue rather than as a rights issue, and even if one talks about it as a rights issue, it doesn’t seem to be talked about as a distributive justice issue, as a poverty issue. I’m just wondering what your position is on whether this right to a clean environment would cover it actually?

MR      Yes, I think it’s particularly a poverty issue because it’s a poverty of poor countries that don’t have the capacity and the systems, the health system in this case, in particular, but also it’s worsening situations of poverty because there are food shortages, there are problems of women dying, not from Ebola, but from trying to give birth and not being able to give safe birth anymore because the clinics are all full and, you know, all these terrible problems, so, you know, it’s really sad that in the 21st Century, we have such divides of rich and poor, and north and south still in our world.

JL        Absolutely, yes, yes, and in countries that produce diamonds are the wealthiest in the world.

MR      Well, indeed, yes, I mean the lack of good governance.

JL        Seems to be a major issue.

MR      Thought the interesting thing is that in two of the countries anyway, and more recently to a lesser extent, to some extent in Guinea, you do have leadership, including leadership within the countries on the Ebola issue, but you didn’t have the governance of health systems that were functioning to a capacity that would be adequate.

JL        It’s led to this situation, yes, it points that out, doesn’t it, very sharply. Now climate justice is an inter-generational issue.

MR      Very much so.

JL        I’m interested in your views on how you deliver on rights for those yet to be born.

MR      Well, first of all, it’s something that I’m extremely conscious of, being a happy Irish grandmother. I have five small grandchildren. They’ll be in their 40s in 2050. They will share the world with at least 9 billion other people and I greatly worry, not just about my own grandchildren, but about that world and what they will say about us, because they will look back and they will know that we were the first generation to fully understand the implications of the need to stable 02°C, the implications of being on a pathway towards 4°, which we are now, for them, and if we don’t change course next year, I believe they will be so angry about our failure of leadership, and that’s a really big issue.

I can almost hear their voices. Will they say thank goodness they came together in 2015 in Paris, and before that, in September, with Sustainable Development goals, thank goodness? Or will they say how could they have been so cruel, how could they have been so thoughtless. You know, it’s a terrible thing to be thinking. It’s a very much an inter-generational thing, which is in the convention itself and it’s in the whole idea of sustainable development from the Brundtland Report, that we should look after this world and pass it on to our children in as good a standing as we found it. We’re not doing that. We’re making our world worse and worse with polluting it with greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel. We have to get out of fossil fuel as rapidly as possible.

JL        Isn’t it a fundamental issue, that those yet to be born don’t have a voice in this discussion?

MR      It is. There have been attempts to have a high commissioner for future generations. There are some states: Hungary and a number of other states have provision in their national law for thinking about future generations. I think it would be good if we had an international body or individual who focussed on inter-generation justice.

JL        You’ve referred to a scheme that’s very similar to John Rabie’s protect, respect and fulfil you were talking about. His is protect, respect, remedy, and a lot of the talk in the report is about corporate responsibility. Now, John Rabie’s scheme is very much soft law at the moment. I’m just wondering if you feel it needs to become hard law to get traction.

MR      Well, I’m pleased that the report makes a recommendation which I’ve certainly also spoken about, that the ruggie [?] framework, if we can call it that, the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, the protect, respect and remedy, are ideally suited for companies to do their due diligence, not just on whether they are respecting human rights, but are they respecting climate justice, do you know what I mean?

JL        Impacts on the environment.

MR      Yes, it literally it’s the same kind of questioning, it’s the same effect I think really, so it lends itself, and I believe that if corporations would take their responsibility seriously, that it’s not just a passive do no harm. It’s actually an active due diligence that’s what that’s supposed to be, and I hope that corporations increasingly will be looked to for that analysis of their human rights impact, their climate justice impact as part of their reputation, you know. We know that corporations can have their brand diminished or destroyed in a very short time by child labour, by abusive conditions of labour being revealed in some perhaps small producer but there’s a link in the supply chain to a big company.

JL        Yes. I mean you’re talking there about what they need to do actively but with due diligence it’s not simply a case of do no harm, but that would be a good start, a bit of a Hippocratic oath in a sense there. I wanted to bring the lawyers in. I mean what’s the role of the lawyers and are there things that companies and lawyers should be doing or not doing?

MR      I think the value of this taskforce report is that basically it concludes that our legal systems, as a whole, are not quite fit for purpose now. They’re pre the impact of climate so we need to look at a whole range of things to see how we can make adjustments, work more creatively within existing systems or have new model statutes, and one of the things discussed this morning was the need, perhaps, not only for a statute about more remedies in the area of more, you know, more protection of rights and remedies, but also the need for an international environment court, an international court for the environment so that we can actually have corporations and others brought to court for serious pollution that creates  environmental impacts and undermines the rights of people, their health and their food.

JL        What sort of court would that be? Are you happy that that’s done through an arbitration process? I mean I think that’s what the report talks about. There are issues there about transparency and confidentiality. I’m interested in your position.

MR      I think that’s, in a way, a separate issue, the fact that you can bring things to arbitration but it can sometimes be a not very transparent system. This report doesn’t recommend an international climate, sorry an international environment, an international court for the environment, but in the discussion this morning a case was made quite strongly for it and I think…

JL        You’d be a proponent for that?

MR      I would be, yes. I think it’s down the line but somebody has to start the work.

JL        Yes, and there’s issues about where that would sit geographically, I assume, and all of that, but that can be ironed out. Where do you stand on shale oil and fracking?

MR      I have said myself that fracking is not the solution, meaning that yes, of course, gas is better than, you know, coal and better than oil in the short-term, but a focus on fracking is a focus away from renewable energy, and that, for me, is part of the problem. We need to get rid of all… and indeed, the more I read reports of the methane and the leakages, etc, there are real problems with fracking and you need to open new wells very quickly so you’re doing a lot of fracking and I think there are problems with it. It obviously has enormously helped the US economy in the short-term and other countries are looking at it.

JL        Short-term being the key phrase there?

MR      Yes, short-term being the key phrase and we don’t have much time. We have to get to zero carbon emissions by 2050 or very shortly afterwards, preferably at 2050, to stable 02 degrees Celsius. Fracking produces fossil fuel emissions, not as many as coal, but still so it’s the wrong way to put a lot of investment. We need the investment in the renewables, in battery retention in all the breakthrough technologies that will make such a difference.

JL        Now you’ve answered this in part through the interview but I just want to ask you directly: taking you back to when we spoke to you last in Dublin, you said there was a window of opportunity coming out of Durban in 2011, to get that agreement, that unanimity, if you like, for 2015 on an agreement that would take effect from 2020. I just wanted to ask you now, do you feel there’s been progress on that, are you able to assess progress or is it a case of all eyes on Paris?

MR      I think it is true that there has been quite a lot of progress. The Durban enhance platform has been very helpful. Countries have now committed that by next March, every country will indicate its intended nationally determined commitments on mitigation, adaptation, financing and transfer of technology. Now they may not all be relevant to the poorest developing countries, but every country is supposed to commit, and we’re going to hopefully have a text in Lima of the international agreement.

The French government have, I think, very rightly said, there will be four pillars to what will happen in Paris. The first pillar will be that international legally binding agreement, and that’s where the mandate holders want to have human rights language in there, which I fully agree with. Then there will be the whole band of a nationally determined commitments that we now know about, of every country in the world, and we will realise it’s not enough to keep us below 2°C, so we have to ratchet up the ambition. And then there will another pillar on financing, including financing for the Green Climate Fund, and technology and transfer of technology, which is in the convention.

And then the last one is the mobilisation of the public-private partnerships, the partnerships on bonds, the declaration in New York about forestry, the 8,000 plus cities that are now committed to reducing their carbon and adapting to climate change and the climate-smart agriculture, you name it, to gather all that in, and so my task as UN Special Envoy, is to steward along and mobilise on behalf of the Secretary-General, all of this towards Peru first and then Paris. And that’s good because the negotiators have been, I would say, lost in their own little bubble for too long, where they spend all the time on, you know, sentence x and comma y, you know, just so narrowly focussed. They have to feel that the world is mobilised for real climate action and they have to be prepared to give us a climate agreement that matches that kind of determination and commitment so I am…

JL        So you’re trying to keep them in tune with the real world.

MR      Well, yes, and have the real world at the door, you know, outside the door. We saw 400,000 people in New York. I hope there’ll be a big demonstration in Peru, and even bigger in Paris when we get there, you know, to show that politicians are being watched for what they’re doing on this issue, and on the hopeful side, I like to borrow and have over-borrowed a phrase, but I like it very much, of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s. We were together on a panel in New York a couple of years ago and Archbishop Tutu was his usual enthusiastic self and his arms were waving, etc, and the moderator was a woman journalist and she turned to him, almost sort of sharply, and said Archbishop Tutu, how come you’re so optimistic? And he looked at her and he shook his head and he said oh, no, dearie, I’m not optimistic. I’m a prisoner of hope.

JL        What a great phrase.

MR      It’s a great phrase when you look at all the other issues that are on the international agenda at the moment that distract us from the issue, the overriding incredibly important issue, which is climate change. There is no more important issue, which is why I’m very glad now to have the lawyers on my side from the IBA.

JL        They’re a powerful group. I’ve got just two more questions. I won’t keep you too much longer. It’s very interesting. You’re unlikely to criticise the United Nations – I don’t think you’d be able to, if you wanted to really, given the position you hold – but I just wanted to ask you about major institutions like the IMF and the World Bank and how culpable you feel they are for the climate injustice that we see now, and whether, flowing on from that you feel that those sorts of institutions are just outdated really and need to be either, well, rethought, updated, etc.

MR      I think you could say that both the IMF and the World Bank and their lending policies supported, aggressively, fossil fuel development for a long time. That’s changed completely. The President of the World Bank today, Jim Kim and the President of the International Monetary Fund, both of them, speak out on climate like I do, and with that sense of urgency, and even talk about the injustice of climate so they’re trying to get their rather large institutions to change tack.

Similarly, until recently, the UN under the Secretary-General, didn’t really talk about climate. It was for the UN FCCC in a siloed way, for environmentalists and energy and scientists, and that gave us the wrong impression in these conferences of the parties and nobody knew what was happening. With the initiative taken by the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon two years ago in Doha, to hold a climate summit, and that was very much greeted, it brought it right into the mainstream for heads of state and government. The UN is not perfect. I actually use the way in which Winston Churchill used to describe democracy to describe the United Nations, that it’s the worst system, except for all the others. We don’t have any others.

JL        It’s the best we’ve got, yes, absolutely. Final question then: when you were UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Millennium Development Goals were being written. I think you professed not to have been much of a fan when they were being written but I think you’ve changed your view a little bit. They’re obviously expiring; they’re going to turn into the Sustainable Development Goals. I just wanted to sign off really by asking you to come up with the key goals, perhaps one or two but don’t limit yourself, that really ought to be in there.

MR      I was concerned that the Millennium Development Goals didn’t have human rights language in, even though the Millennium Declaration did. They were taken out under sort of goals for poor countries, and then the eighth goal for rich countries who were supposed to pay out more than we’ve done right up to the 0.7% at least. But they did become global goals and that mattered. Unfortunately, energy wasn’t one of the goals. If clean energy had been one of the goals in the year 2000, we would have made a lot of progress on really tackling poverty. But now we have an opportunity for all countries with Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 goals at the moment. It’s probably a little bit too many but they have been negotiated. One of those goals is climate, climate change and I think that’s important for many reasons.

We cannot have Sustainable Development Goals unless they stay within the climate boundary of bringing us on a pathway to stable 02°C of global warning by pre-industrial standards, and that has to be sort of factored in rigorously into all the indicators, you know, on the different goals on energy, etc, so that we know what we’re talking about. And, secondly, the Sustainable Development Goals come into operation on 1st January, 2016, and hopefully will be reviewed, say, every five years after that. The Climate Agreement will not come into effect until 2020, which is a long time, so we need a complete link between the two processes.

They are a separate processes, to be negotiated separately, and that’s important and fine, but they have to be actually seen as two sides of the same coin, and the Sustainable Development Goals have issues like governance and rule of law, and that’s important because that somehow was a missing link in the Millennium Development Goals which talked about issues like health and education, but not the governance and rule of law issues which are so important for those.

JL        Mary Robinson, thank you very much indeed.

MR      Okay, thank you.