Mary Robinson

On Jan. 25 the former President of Ireland stopped at Western Michigan University to talk about climate change as well as her book, “Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience and the Fight for a Sustainable Future.”

Mary Robinson had a strong sense of justice from an early age. She studied Law at Trinity College in Dublin and Harvard Law School as she saw the law as an instrument for social change. She would go on to practice law and serve in Ireland’s Senate.

When the topic of running for president came up she was initially not very enthusiastic. In Ireland the presidency is a non executive office, but after going back and reading the provisions of the Constitution related to the presidency, she saw potential. She held the position from 1990 to 1997.

After her presidency she went on to serve as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. In her time there she focused on climate change along with other human rights concerns. Robinson believes there are factors poverty, race, and gender that come to play in addressing climate change.

After leaving the UN in 2003, Robinson kept hearing a sentence pop up in discussions about the weather. “Things are so much worse.” People in farming areas could no longer predict when the rainy season or a drought would come, and this made it hard to plan farmwork. Hearing this same complaint echoed by many she knew that climate change was undermining everyday life.  

During her presentation, Robinson shared the story of Sharon Hanshaw of Biloxi, Mississippi. When Hurricane Katrina touched ground, Hanshaw’s home was totally destroyed and she found herself in poverty. After living in a trailer and putting her life together with little help, she slowly became a climate activist.

Robinson also discussed a scientist named Patricia Cochran in Alaska who sees first hand the erosion and sea levels getting higher and the lifestyle changes caused by climate change. In Alaska, small coastal towns and businesses have had to move because of climate change.

In her book “Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience and the Fight for a Sustainable Future,” she talks about eleven people whose lives have been forever affected by climate change. Robinson said that she was impressed with the 2015 Paris agreement, citing its fairness and language regarding human rights. One of the goals of the agreement is to prevent sea level changes that would affect island nations and least developed countries (LDCs) the most.

Despite some blunders along the way Robinson believes that things are getting better as far as public action is concerned. Governments across the world are making serious investments to counteract climate change, she says, and younger generations are making more sustainable choices than previous generations. She believes we are in a time of “extraordinary transition” and that communication is key as the younger generations confront their parents over the environmental consequences of their choices and policies.

Aside from what needs to happen in the political sphere, Robinson also discussed what changes she feels individuals need to make regarding climate change. She told of a women in Australia who, after watching “An Inconvenient Truth,” she started a journey to become more environmentally friendly. She recycled more, watched her power consumption using cold water for her laundry. By doing these things she reduced her carbon emissions.

Robinson addressed the audience asserting that everyone must take the issue of climate change personally, pressuring governments and questioning what they’re doing to deal with this issue.

Dalton Center was nearly sold out with a mix of students, faculty and the general public in attendance with an overflow room across the hall.

One person in attendance was freshman Erin Westrick who says she thinks she will be changing aspects of her daily life after hearing Robinson’s presentation.

“I never thought about how much water I was using and how much paper I was using while at school,” Westrick said.

Dr. Duane Hampton, an associate professor in the geology department also enjoyed what Robinson had to say.

“It was right balance, she talked about things we need to do individually and collectively,” Hampton said. “I intend to be more politically involved because that’s the scale at which this will be solved.”

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