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In dispatches from the front lines of global warming, a former president pushes for humane climate policies

Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future

Mary Robinson
Bloomsbury Publishing
176 pp.
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One of the cruelest ironies of today’s world is that many of the nations least responsible for causing climate change find themselves most affected. Widely fluctuating weather patterns and rising seas caused by melting glaciers are already displacing millions of people, endangering food security, increasing epidemics, and destabilizing political systems in these areas, most of which tend to hug the tropics. But even the Arctic is not safe: Temperatures have been rising in circumpolar regions more rapidly than anywhere, reducing sea ice and turning the polar bear into a poster child for the perils of global warming. Meanwhile, climate summits continue, scientists publish studies, and our collective addiction to fossil fuels goes on.

As the former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson knows about the doublespeak of global diplomacy all too well. Her new book, Climate Justice, is less about grim statistics and stalemates than how we might really address the problems facing our planet.

In her capacity as United Nations special envoy on climate change, a position she held from 2014 to 2015, Robinson attended countless meetings with world leaders. It is another kind of person she encountered, however—including, notably, many women who had never dreamed of becoming activists—who enlivens this book. Through the testimonies of ordinary citizens, we learn about the horrendous toll drought is taking in Chad, the way warmer winters threaten the continued existence of Saami reindeer culture in northern Europe, and the high cultural value the Vietnamese place on local forest products.

Island nations such as Kiribati may have to move their entire populations before rising sea levels cover the land masses they call home. “[B]ecause of its position on the international date line, Kiribati was the first country in the world to welcome in the new millennium,” Robinson writes. “Now, in a tragic twist of fate, it may become the first one lost to the effects of climate change before the dawn of the next century.” Yet in the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, delegates ignored Kiribati’s pleas to substantially reduce CO2 levels. Mitigation, including a proposal to design floating islands, seems to appeal more to decision-makers than does prevention.

In this, as in nearly every other case of crisis management, the cost of “fixing” the problems that will arise as a result of global warming dwarfs that of almost every imaginable measure we could take to stop it from occurring in the first place. But for whatever reason—Robinson does not speculate as to why we prefer to pay for a pound of cure over an ounce of prevention—our climate strategies are stuck in a wait-and-see mindset.

PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Mary Robinson meets with local farmers in Tigray, Ethiopia, during a period of severe drought in 2016.

Approaching climate change as an isolated issue would be wrong, no matter how much foresight we use. Robinson reminds the reader that we must also tackle the “poverty, inequality, and exclusion” that lock much of the world into patterns of destructive behavior. This, along with the recalcitrance of businesses and politicians to break out of age-old modes of thinking, is one reason Robinson looks for inspiration in more traditional forms of knowledge and the reason she advocates for increasing the participation of women and elders in indigenous communities in climate discussions. These individuals tend to be the ones with hands-on experience of natural systems, she argues.

Achieving “climate justice” also entails acknowledging the inevitable human cost of shifting to more ecofriendly systems. The “Just Transition” movement, for example, seeks to compensate workers who face reduced or lost employment as renewable energy sources replace coal, oil, and natural gas.

To Robinson, the 2015 Paris Agreement felt like a step in the right direction. However, in 2017 her worst fears were realized: President Donald Trump pulled the United States—the world’s second-biggest polluter—out of the contract. “It is unconscionable that the United States has simply walked away from its responsibility to people both at home and abroad, in the interest of short-term fossil fuel profits, and abandoned an agreement that was negotiated by more than 190 world leaders, over decades,” she writes.

In the end, however, Robinson is optimistic about our ability to meet the challenges that lie ahead, if pragmatic about what will compel us to do so. “Enlightened self-interest,” she assures readers—in the form of an Alaskan compelled to call her congressperson over fears her house will fall into the sea, or an insurance company pressing for new tailpipe-emission regulations because of skyrocketing claims—can turn the drive for personal survival into help for many others.

About the author

The reviewer is a freelance science writer and culture critic based in Montreal, Québec, Canada.