Robinson: Lack of climate deal ‘will spark civil unrest’

Civil unrest will grow in the coming years unless heads of state and government show political leadership to stop climate change, said Mary Robinson, a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Irish president, in an interview with EURACTIV.

Mary Robinson is a former Irish president and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

She was speaking to Daniela Vincenti-Mitchener

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

You were among the first to show the human face of climate change. You rightly pointed out that climate change triggers human rights violations. Why the silence on human rights, despite hundreds of protests in Copenhagen and elsewhere? 

Many people still don’t understand that human rights struggles are more than just about prisoners of conscience or fighting against torture, that we also must understand the importance of economic and social rights: the right to food, safe water, health and education. 

In our work in African countries in the last 3-4 years, I have seen how climate change has affected negatively these human rights. 

Are the Copenhagen talks too focused on the environmental aspects rather than societal ones of also addressing global poverty? 

Until recently there was not enough focus on the impact of climate change on people. We saw a great focus on science and the environment, and the figure of 2C and the 450 parts per million [concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere]. 

In a way the icon was the melting glacier of the polar bear. Although this is very important, you also need now to be much more people-centered. 

The Global Humanitarian Forum has estimated that climate change impact killed more than 300,000 people last year. Many, many people have either lost their livelihoods or had to cope with very severe conditions. I do think that civil society, or UNICEF in relation to children, are turning the corner on this. 

People see that environmental impacts of climate change are very much linked with increasing poverty. Some warn though that unless a human rights approach is taken during the negotiations, civil unrest will increase in the coming years. 

Are the protests mushrooming across the globe an indication of this social movement? 

I understand the frustration. People use peaceful marches and demonstrations to try to make much more anarchist points. That’s a problem. 

But I understand the concern of the people, who see that the divide in our world is widening – the sense of the very future of our planet is put at risk. 

If there is greater water stress, if there are more floods, if desertification is pushing millions of people to become environmental refugees… yes, it’s more likely that we will face conflicts. 

This is urgent, it is extremely serious. This conference is make or break for the world: it’s not like a trade talk. 

You are pointing out the seriousness of millions of people becoming environmental refugees. Do you see any indication that we are preparing, with the right institutional structures, for this influx of new migrants? 

No. First of all we need to try to prevent it as much as possible. That is why many people believe that keeping temperature increases to 2C is not enough, we need to stay below 1.5C so that those on small island states are not forced out of their islands because of water rises. 

In any case, we need a migration management system that reflects the fact that we must anticipate significant movement of people from parts of Africa that would become too dry. Flooding on low-lying areas displaces people. 

This is why we need very significant adaptation funds. The figures produced by Oxfam of $200 bn a year for the years following 2012, and the urgent, immediate funds of $10bn a year, are very reasonable when you see the money that is immediately pledged to bail-out banks or indeed the defence budget spent by major countries in armament and weapons of death. 

The money is there. It is a question of what is the priority. It is not just about money. 

Are we looking at the right issues in terms of adaptation? Do you see negotiators focusing enough on a migration management system, as you suggest? 

The negotiations, as you said, are very narrowly focused. The huge, peaceful demonstrations of so many thousands of people yesterday and the thousands everywhere in the world are a reminder that people are watching. 

They know that this conference in Copenhagen is extremely urgent for our world. We only have one world. 

I was with Archbishop Desmond Tutu yesterday [12 December] and he reminded us that marching matters, that it was marching that brought down the apartheid in South Africa. 

So marching and civil society drawing attention to the issues that must be on the table in Copenhagen is extremely important, but at the end of the day, I hope that leaders who are coming for the last two days, would appreciate that they need to give political leadership. 

Many of us are calling for the EU to trigger higher figure than the 30% cut of emissions that they have promised if others make concessions. 

Leadership is not waiting for others. It’s going ahead. The same with Japan saying they would go for 25% if others come to the table. We say, ‘no: you come to the table with leadership’. 

What’s needed is real political leadership, because we must have both the decision that put us on the trajectory to staying in a safe world well below 2C by 2050 and 450 ppm and we need the money for adaptation, or we will have such a divided and desperate world that we cannot live in peace together. 

When you are talking about drawing attention to the issue…do you think we will see an increase in the coming years of citizens’ lawsuits against their governments, invoking human rights principles? Will that have more success in drawing attention to the issue? 

Yes. I believe we will see more lawsuits in the future. There have been some cases even if they have not fully succeeded in court, like the case of the Inuit community in Northern Canada that took [a case] against the United States, because emissions from there are destroying their habitat. 

It did not fully succeed as a law case, but it did raise awareness about the values. The fact that the US Environmental Protection Agency has taken an important step in the US means that those that are creating high-level emissions and not taking corrective action might face lawsuits. I think this will be a way to bring home the urgency. 

But the most important thing is that we get the binding agreement here in Copenhagen – a binding political commitment that becomes a fully-legal commitment in the coming months before we reach Mexico next year. 

There is no plan B. We are running out of time. If we don’t hurry up and make these decisions, we will not be able to get on a trajectory that will bring us down to stay below the 2C by 2050. 

You say there is no plan B. But the talks are marred by divisions on targets, funding and even the format of the deal itself: the post-Kyoto Protocol or a single global agreement. Doesn’t this call badly for a Plan B? How can the deadlock be broken? Is there a way out? 

I think it is very clear to those following the negotiations of what needs to happen. 

Again, Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it in very simple words: those who are the most responsible for the mess of the greenhouse gas emissions threatening our world should be the most responsible for cleaning up the mess. 

We need countries to commit to between a 25-40% cut. We need a major fund for adaptation. That needs to be in an agreement that is politically binding here in Copenhagen and that leads to a binding one or two documents –but it needs to be binding before the COP16 in Mexico. 

There is a full awareness of what needs to be achieved. Even though the US is behind in pushing through a bill in Congress, two things have happened. 

One, the EPA has pointed out the legal responsibilities that corporations and others who emit CO2 will have, and secondly, [US President Barack] Obama has committed to come the last day of the conference in a political environment that is absolutely vital to seal a deal. 

The real question is not if it is in one document or two documents, as much as the binding nature of the commitments and the accountability that they will be held to by the eyes of the world and the media, like yourself who is in Copenhagen. 

There is no hiding what needs to be done and if we don’t do it, we will not have a secure world. I look at it rather personally as all should and must. I have to change my lifestyle like everybody else, but more than that I think of my four grandchildren and their cousins, who will be in their 40s in 2050. 

I follow the science as carefully as I can and I do not at the moment see in anyway that they will live in a safe world unless we take the decisions that are necessary in Copenhagen. I understand that we have to do it because time is running out to reach the upper limit of the emissions and start coming down to a trajectory that brings us safely below 2C. 

I follow Project Catalyst. They are analysing this on a daily basis with the commitments that have been made and we are not there yet. But the most important thing that has not come out in these discussions is the human rights dimension of climate change. 

In fact we will not reach that target, post-2030 in particular, unless the poorest part of the world also have a low-carbon development and are part of the solution, that they are not cutting trees to use for cooking. 

That means that part of the challenge is a challenge is that there is a transfer of technology, but not only that companies invest in emerging economies but also in the poorest part of the world where most of the three billion people will be in 2050. 

They must have a right to development too, but it must be a low-carbon development otherwise we will have no safe world. Climate justice, when we look at it holistically, means that we are utterly interdependent. It’s not them and us anymore. 

Otherwise, neither rich or poor countries will survive in this world beyond 2050. It’s ‘we’ now, not ‘them and us’. We should stop looking at the small print and start being political together. 

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