Mary Robinson spoke of the movement to divest from fossil fuels and how the wealthy fossil fuel industry had learnt ‘a lot of bad tricks’, writes Alison O'Connor.
It is a cliché to say that someone had an audience in their palm of their hand, but this is exactly what happened when former president Mary Robinson spoke recently before an audience in Cork on the issue of climate change.
The interview on her book Climate Justice took place in the Vibes and Scribes bookshop on Lavitt’s Quay before an audience of well over 200 people.
Such was the demand for tickets that a number of young people sat on mats on the floor at the front, some of whom were about to head off to the COP25 environment conference in Madrid, due to begin the next week. Mrs Robinson was also due to attend.
In fact one young man left just after he got to ask his question because he was making the trip to Spain by ferry and overland.
It wasn’t the first time I had conducted a public interview with Mrs Robinson. The previous occasion was at the West Cork Literary festival in 2013 when she spoke about her memoir Everybody Matters. On that occasion there was also a large and appreciative audience.
But this time, somehow, there was a higher level of engagement as she shared her message on the urgency we need to apply to the issue of climate change, at a global, national, local and personal level.
For all of Mrs Robinson’s incredible achievements and extraordinary ability to keep going, apparently tirelessly, at the age of 73, no one ever commended her skills or apparent ease at small talk or banter.
But in a funny way she would seem, at a superficial glance anyway, to be a bit more chilled, even if that appears contradictory to the urgency of the message that she has to communicate.
It may even be related to a realisation that this is the best way to get her message across to people. Another manifestation of this would appear to be her podcast Mothers of Invention which she co-hosts with comedian Maeve Higgins, now based in New York. Take a listen. They’re good.
There is banter — now there is a sentence you’d never have have imagined writing in relation to Mary Robinson.
On the evening of the interview she had arrived in Cork by train and walked to her Lavitt’s Quay destination, meeting with the young climate activists beforehand.
She wore a multi coloured brooch which she told the audience symbolises the UN’s sustainable development goals, a subject she returns to on a number of occasions. She spoke of how she is now vegetarian, in fact if memory serves me she said she is pescatarian, and while she may miss meat, she made light of the sacrifice.
In the run up to the interview a friendly email from her PA said she would be very happy to discuss climate justice and general issues relating to climate change including, human rights and women’s leadership, but that as a former president she does not discuss current government and their policies, so specific questions on Ireland would be out.
No great surprise there, it’s a fairly usual approach for former presidents to take. Except I decided to chance one question, to do with the issue at hand, and I made clear that her deciding not to respond would be understandable.
It related to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s remarks in October that climate change had “pluses and minuses” with warmer winters meaning using less energy, and fewer deaths because of the cold weather.
Afterwards I was left with the impression that on the issue of climate change Mrs Robinson may now believe the former presidential convention of not commenting on current policy or making remarks, is outweighed by the seriousness of the environmental situation we face. She was happy to take the question and her response to the Taoiseach’s apparent climate change ambiguity left no one in any doubt as to her own attitude.
“Madness,” was the word she used in her response.
The Taoiseach did subsequently clarify that what he said had been an observation, not a policy statement, and he saw how it might have been open to misinterpretation.
The really powerful part of the evening was the question and answer session which began with questions from those young climate activists.
It was interesting to hear her respond to one young woman who worried about taking flights for journeys that involved climate activism. Mrs Robinson told her she faced the same dilemma herself but told the questioner she had to weigh up the damage caused by the flight by the good work that she would be doing at her destination, such as the conference in Madrid, which ultimately had such a disappointing outcome.
She also spoke of carbon offsetting her flights.
Mrs Robinson spoke of the science which says we have just a decade to halve emissions and stop irreversible effects of global heating brought about by humans and the changes that are needed to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5C, how even half a degree could significantly worsen the risk of extreme heat, poverty, floods and drought for millions of people worldwide.
She spoke of the movement to divest from fossil fuels but also how the powerful and wealthy fossil fuel industry had learnt “a lot of bad tricks from the tobacco industry” and it was shocking to see the money they spent on lobbying for their cause.
She told an amusing story of the concerns of Pope Francis about the behaviour of the fossil fuel industry and how at a conference at the Vatican he was so unimpressed by the lack of progress he refused to stand in for photographs with industry representatives — who would no doubt have loved to post the virtue-signalling snaps.
It’s no surprise to hear she is a big fan of Greta Thunberg but not of Donald Trump. She’d like to see people becoming more familiar with those 17 UN Sustainable Development goals, how they are inter connected. She would like to see them taught in schools.
Goal 13 states that urgent action is needed to combat climate change and its impact, but amongst other goals are gender equality, education and economic growth.
She mentioned on a few occasions how great it would be if the Today Towns competition, which gets such incredible involvement all over the country, and brings such community pride, introduced a climate element to the competition.
But she also seemed exceptionally taken with an idea mentioned by Vibes and Scribes proprietor Joan Lucey to do with the Cork City Customer Service Charter, launched earlier this year (2019) and apparently the only one of its kind in Europe.
Among its “City Principles” is to “develop a city that is socially, economically and environmentally sustainable”.
The initiative is being led by the Cork City Centre Forum, a collaboration between Cork Chamber of Commerce, Cork Business Association, Cork City Council, An Garda Síochána, the retail, hospitality and service industry.
It’s impossible how anyone who heard Robinson that night did not come away with a far better understanding of what we are facing in the world, but with a sense that whether as a government, industry, city, business or individual we can and must urgently take action.