I must admit that I wasn’t always aware of the dire threat that the climate crisis posed to humanity.
I had a general understanding, but my focus was on the wellbeing of people. And as the second U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, I had a particular interest in making sure that the people at the bottom of the pyramid—the 4 billion living in abject poverty—received the protection and justice that they too often lacked.
It was during this and subsequent climate-focused roles for the U.N. that I came to fully appreciate the connection between climate change and human rights. When I was in African countries, on the ground trying to secure the most fundamental of rights for people—rights to food and water, health, and education—I saw how climate change was undermining all of those efforts. That led to an awakening for me as to how climate change has a disproportionately damaging impact on the poorest countries and communities.
The people most negatively affected by climate change tend to be black and brown people, especially women and girls. This struggling cohort is also the most vulnerable to—and the least responsible for—the climate emergency the planet now faces. That is the essence of climate justice.
Once I accepted that climate change was both the biggest threat to human rights and an existential threat to all mankind, climate justice became my North Star. It was a guiding light for the work I championed with my dear friend Christiana Figueres, the Executive Director in 2015 of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change—reflected in that year’s heralded Paris Agreement.
We laid out a global strategy to ensure that humanity had a role in climate diplomacy. Our goal was for the Agreement’s final language to limit the rise of average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius and do it the climate justice way. Our mantra was “1.5 to stay alive! 1.5 to stay alive!”
When the COP21 Paris conference concluded and the ink from the unanimous 196 signatories was dry, that language had indeed been included. Christiana and I hugged in disbelief and relief.
But now eight years later, as another U.N. COP climate conference starts, we face the horrifying trajectory of global warming and the 1.5 degrees goal is quickly disappearing in the rear-view mirror.
Facing a Six-Year Climate Crucible
The decisions we make in the next six years could have implications that last for generations: On the one hand, we are on the cusp of a climate-safe world. But because we are not moving fast enough to cut carbon emissions, we are facing a catastrophic climate and nature crisis.
We need a movement—a unifying campaign that aims to reach beyond the climate community and raise awareness globally of what awaits us if we don’t meet this moment. And that is why I launched Project Dandelion, a woman-led coalition to both sufficiently ring alarm bells, warning us all that we are in very real danger, and to bridge the divides holding us back.
There is no better symbol for this movement than the dandelion, one of nature’s most resilient species, populating the planet everywhere from the tropics to the tundra, and on every continent but Antarctica. And why women? Women embody strength, courage and vulnerability. There’s a nurturing quality in women–a concern for children-future generations–that runs deep.
Look no further than Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, who spearheaded a global movement that culminated in a triumphant adoption of the Loss and Damage Fund at COP27 in Egypt last year. Or Jacinda Ardern, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, who navigated her country through one of the most successful responses to the COVID-19 crisis and has been one of the most vocal global leaders on climate. Or Tsai Ing-wen, President of Taiwan, who also led a vigorous response to COVID-19, as well as focused on green-energy solutions. The list goes on.
Women are not afraid to adapt and transform—and transformation speaks to a crisis.
Which is why I intentionally work across various coalitions: I am the chair of The Elders; a proud member of The B Team, a coalition of progressive business leaders; and recently joined the Planetary Guardians, an initiative formed to promote the nine planetary boundaries that regulate the stability and resilience of life on Earth. In the last 14 years, six of those planetary boundaries have been crossed, greatly increasing risks to people and the ecosystems of which we are a part. What I like about the planetary boundaries approach is that we have to see ourselves in nature, not separate from it.
As this year’s U.N. Climate Conference fast-approaches in Dubai, I challenge business leaders who plan to attend to make their presence matter by showing courageous leadership on the phase-out of fossil fuels and in advancing a just and inclusive transition. And let’s be clear, a just transition requires a comprehensive approach: prioritizing the needs of workers and their communities, adequate funding to facilitate reskilling, attracting new investments, and implementing nature-based solutions. Currently, progress is lacking on both fronts, necessitating significant resources and financial investment.
In the spirit of my B Team colleagues, I call for us all to be ten times bolder in our approach–making clean energy more affordable and accessible, while ensuring the well-being of workers and their communities. COP28 will either be a forgettable footnote in the annals of history or be recalled as a turning point when, against the odds, leaders boldly began the difficult, but necessary, phase-out of fossil fuels.
How will you choose to lead?
Robinson is the former President of Ireland, Chair of The Elders, and a member of The B Team
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