Hardest hit by climate change, but triumphing over it

Former Irish president Mary Robinson uses true protagonists to show why everyone must cling to hope

From the cover of "Climate Justice" by Mary Robinson. Bloomsbury Publishing
29 April 2019

Mary Robinson will speak in a video address and Constance Okollet will speak on the opening plenary of the Global Landscapes Forum Kyoto, on 12 May at 22:00 JST and 13 May at 08:30 JST respectively. Both can be viewed online through the conference’s Digital Edition. (Use this converter to plan for your time zone.)

When Ugandan farmer and grandmother Constance Okollet first heard that the devastating wave of floods and droughts hammering her community was the result of human-induced climate change – and that people in more developed countries were largely responsible – she was horrified and confused. “These people were enjoying their life while we were suffering,” she said. “I wanted to know why they were doing this to us. I wanted to know whether the people in developed countries could reduce their emissions so we could have our normal seasons back.”

At the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, Anote Tong, who was then president of the Republic of Kiribati, swallowed his rage as world leaders explained condescendingly that reducing emissions in line with warming of less than 2 degrees Celsius would be bad for their economies. When Tong returned home, he had to tell his people that their country could be drowned by the end of the century. This was apparently preventable, but the rest of the world didn’t seem to care enough to do it.

Okollet and Tong’s stories, which climate justice campaigner and former Irish president Mary Robinson shares in her 2018 book Climate Justice, are simple and heart-breaking. Part climate-change policy primer, part collection of evocative, emotive stories about people she has met on the frontlines of the crisis, the book drives home the moral imperative of taking responsibility for our own hand in the problem – and in its solutions.

Courtesy of Mary Robinson

TALES FROM THE ROAD

Robinson acknowledges that she is something of a latecomer to the cause – particularly in contrast to many of the Indigenous and rural people featured in her book, who have been well aware that weather patterns are amiss for decades. As U.N. high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002, she thought little of the issue: climate change was under a different department at the U.N., and seemed largely irrelevant to her own work.

But when she created her own organization Realizing Rights in 2003 and traveled the developing world trying to boost economic, social and cultural rights for marginalized people, she found that climate change was continually “getting in the way” of what her organization was hoping to achieve. Farmers told her how erratic their harvests had become; people shared how much more frequently they were experiencing disasters like droughts, floods and hurricanes. Robinson saw then that there was no point in advocating for people’s rights to food, safe water, health, education and shelter without paying attention to what was happening to the climate.

After wrapping up Realizing Rights in 2010, Robinson established her own foundation on climate justice. The former president is obviously comfortable in the echelons of power and has played active roles in most of the big-name climate meetings ever since. However, she remains convinced that the best way to get people to care about climate change is to tell the stories of those most affected. The book represents one of several attempts to do just that.

Climate Justice effectively highlights how uneven – and unfair – the impacts of climate change are. Poor and marginalized people are most affected: and not only in sub-Saharan Africa and the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but also in disadvantaged corners of the richest countries. Sharan Hanshaw, an African-American hairdresser in the U.S. state of Mississippi, became a climate activist after Hurricane Katrina hit her coastal city of East Biloxi. She speaks in the book about having to walk miles in search of clean water after the hurricane and identifying strongly with Okollet’s story of doing the same after Ugandan drought. “Across the globe, it is poor communities of color where the recovery and relief efforts either fail to reach or make our survival harder,” she said.

Most of the stories are from women, elucidating how effects of climate change have been shown to hit women hardest. There are a couple of key reasons for this gendered disparity. First, 70 percent of the world’s poor are women, and poverty makes adaptation and disaster recovery much more difficult. What’s more, many of the tasks for which women are traditionally responsible – gathering and producing food, collecting water, and sourcing fuel for heating and cooking – are increasing in difficulty as weather becomes more unpredictable and resources more scarce.

As the characters in this book draw us into the granular, gritty detail of daily lives, we also begin to see other, often surprising ways that climate change affects women and men unevenly. For instance, Hanshaw tells of women returning to abusive and dangerous relationships after the hurricane in a bid to secure basic necessities like housing and food.

Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

CULTIVATING HOPE

As a climate journalist in New Zealand, I have lately watched as my social media becomes increasingly populated with photos from friends in environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion, staging dinner parties in knee-deep water and pouring sour milk down the steps of the New Zealand Parliament to prompt quicker action from our national government on emissions cuts. Images like these make the crisis felt real and visceral, bringing into my life what many of the book’s storytellers have witnessed and felt for a very long time.

The emotions triggered by climate news on a regular basis aren’t always positive, but Robinson’s words are. The stories she shares are deeply moving, and the narrative she’s crafted is decidedly motivating and hopeful. Clearly, Robinson is  stubbornly optimistic about climate, evidential in how she showcases protagonists responding to their corner of the challenge in inspirational ways.

For instance, after realizing that deforestation was exacerbating the impacts of climate change in her local community, Okollet persuaded her local council to pass a law that for every tree cut down, five more must be planted. “Now, everyone is planting trees,” she says.

Tong continues to tell Kiribati’s story, and with much foresight, he’s also pursuing several advanced alternatives plans for “migration with dignity.” He’s purchased 2,430 hectares of forested land on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu, to which the entire nation could relocate; and, in what sounds like the premise of a sci-fi plot, he’s working with engineering firms creating giant floating islands.

Robinson, for her part, is continuing her campaign for climate justice and is regularly sharing new stories of women climate leaders through a podcast she co-hosts with Irish comedian Maeve Higgins, entitled Mothers of Invention. Its tagline? “Climate change is a man-made problem – with a feminist solution!”


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