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Climate change and human rights

Climate change: Former president of Ireland Mary Robinson on climate justice

The former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on a just approach to climate change action

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Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee
Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee

The cruel irony of climate change is that it disproportionately impacts those who have contributed least to global warming—the world’s poorest and most marginalized groups. Women are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to political, economic, and social obstacles and their dependence on natural resources. 80 percent of people displaced by climate change are women, according to the United Nations.

For Mary Robinson—former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, former UN Special Envoy on Climate Change, and president of the Mary Robinson Foundation–Climate Justice—rectifying these injustices is an essential part of the international effort to address climate change. On this episode of Displaced, Robinson sits down with host Ravi Gurumurthy to discuss the links between climate change-related displacement, human rights, and global equality.

Robinson admits that she rarely considered the effects of climate change while serving as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997-2002. An experience working to promote human rights on the ground in Africa “brought out to me the injustice of climate change—the injustice of the fact that it's the poorest countries and communities, small island states, indigenous communities, even poor communities in rich countries that are disproportionately affected.” Robinson’s foundation has made climate justice—a human-centric approach that prioritizes human rights and equitable, sustainable development—its core mission.

Central to the pursuit of climate justice is a focus on the needs of women and girls. Reflecting on the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Robinson remembered that she was “quite shocked at how male it was, how focused on science and technology and environment—not on people.” One of her first steps toward making gender equality an essential component of climate change action was to support the Troika+, a network of women leaders committed to increasing women’s participation in climate change negotiations. Today, Robinson co-hosts a podcast, Mothers of Invention, that highlights the work of women from all over the world pursuing climate justice in their communities.

“[Climate change-related displacement] “is a human tragedy unfolding for those who are least responsible for the problem.”

Climate change-related displacement, Robinson emphasizes, involves the loss of cultural and physical heritage, livelihood, and access to food, clothing, and shelter. “They're away from their own place, the place where their bodies were buried, the culture, the neighborhoods,” she says of people displaced within and across borders. Tackling displacement and other disruptive impacts of climate requires that we amplify the voices of those most affected—particularly women engaged in grassroots activism in marginalized communities. “There's nothing more compelling than hearing firsthand the story of a woman and her community and what she's been doing,” Robinson argues.

Robinson reflects on the UN’s progress in addressing climate change and calls for stronger political leadership on the issue of climate change-related displacement. Highlighting the need to counter nationalist rhetoric that is hostile to refugees and migrants, Robinson argues for “a kind of narrative that reminds us of our own humanity, reminds us of our history … and recognizes that human mobility has been a fact of human existence.”

Related Resources

Protecting the Rights of Climate Displaced People — Mary Robinson Foundation–Climate Justice

Human Rights Are a Key Tool to Protect the Vulnerable Against Climate Change — Mary Robinson, The Elders

Women’s Crucial Role in Combating Climate Change — New York Times

Women on the Move in a Changing Climate — Sierra Club

Why Captain Planet Should Have Been a Woman — Christina Kwauk, Brookings

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.