Mary Robinson, Ireland’s First Female President, Talks Climate Justice and 3 Ways You Can Live More Sustainably

Human rights champion Mary Robinson believes the climate crisis is humanity’s greatest challenge. More than leading a global fight against climate change, she’s raising the voices of the world’s most vulnerable people.

The former and first female President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has been recognized for shining a light on human suffering along with solutions for a better future. She heads the Mary Robinson Foundation — Climate Justice, a center for education and advocacy on sustainable and people-centered development in the world’s poorest communities. Through this work and previously serving as the United Nations Special Envoy on Climate Change, she has witnessed firsthand the harsh reality of climate change around the world.

"Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future" by Mary RobinsonIn Robinson’s recent book, “Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future,” she shares inspiring stories of people facing the effects of a warming planet and striving to help their communities adapt. Further expanding awareness, she has teamed up with comedienne Maeve Higgins in the new upbeat podcast, Mothers of Invention. With the tagline “climate change is a man-made problem — with a feminist solution,” they celebrate women making a difference.

The Woman’s Board of Rush University Medical Center is honored to welcome Mary Robinson at their 25th Annual Spring Luncheon on May 7 in Chicago. In anticipation, Make It Better connected with Robinson about her passion for climate justice.

Make It Better: What is climate justice?

Mary Robinson: Climate justice links human rights and development to achieve a human-centered approach, safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable people and sharing the burdens and benefits of climate change and its impacts equitably and fairly. Climate justice is informed by science, responds to science and acknowledges the need for equitable stewardship of the world’s resources

Why have you focused on grassroots level stories?

Grassroots, frontline voices are the experts on coping with the disruption of climate change and building resilience in communities.

We often hear about the opportunities of a clean energy economy. How can we ensure that fossil fuel workers and communities don’t get left behind?

It is very important that there is a just transition out of fossil fuel, to support fossil fuel workers, their families and community to prepare for and be included in a clean energy future. This will require significant resources from countries concerned.

Although the U.S. is the second largest greenhouse gas polluter, Trump has abandoned the Paris climate agreement, which you called the “best chance to avert the most devastating effects of our warming planet.” Why do you remain hopeful?  

My hope is reinforced by the broad coalition of U.S. states, cities, business, communities, universities and young people who are “still in” the Paris Agreement. I saw the energy and ambition at the Global Climate Action Summit in California last September.

What are your thoughts on the young climate activists rising up around the world?

I am very inspired by Greta Thunberg and the schoolchildren who are striking and protesting because their future is not being protected from climate change. They have brought home to the world the inter-generational injustice of climate change.

Last year, Ireland became the world’s first country to divest from fossil fuels, along with the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference and Trinity College (where you serve as Chancellor). How do you think the divestment movement will advance climate justice?

I am proud of the leadership Ireland and Trinity College are giving in divesting from fossil fuels. I also support the idea of switching to investing in renewable energy as far as possible. We need to be much more ambitious, as the IPCC advised in their report last October on ‘1.5°C of global warming’ that we have to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030 in order to be on course for zero emissions by 2050.

You noted the birth of your first grandchild made climate change deeply personal. What are your top tips for living more sustainably?

I have three messages now when I speak to audiences:

1) Climate change is such a serious threat that every one of us has to take it personally and do something. (I have become a pescatarian).

2) Having done something, then get angry that those with power are not doing enough — governments at all levels, fossil fuel companies, agriculture, transport etc. Use your voice and your vote to increase ambition.

3) Help us to imagine the world we need to get to as quickly as possible, which will be much healthier without the air and water pollution, and much more equal as developed countries will have access to clean energy.


Amanda Hanley is the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Hanley Foundation, and has been working to advance sustainable solutions for several decades. She currently serves on the NRDC’s Midwest and Global Leadership Councils, the Academy for Global Citizenship (a green Chicago Public Charter School), the Global Catholic Climate MovementAs You Sow (promoting corporate accountability), North Shore Green Women, and Chicago Women in Green. She helped found and advises the University of Dayton’s Hanley Sustainability Institute and also serves on the advisory board of Loyola University Chicago’s Institute for Environmental Sustainability.