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A Conversation with Mary Robinson: Former President of Ireland on Climate Change Luskin Lecture Series features human rights and climate change leader on a sustainable future

By Stan Paul

Mary Robinson started her career with a deep passion for human rights, from economic and social to food, education, women’s rights, security and peace.

It was only later that the former president of Ireland says she saw the link between human rights and climate change, while serving as the United Nations Special Envoy for Climate Change. Her work and travels in Africa made her aware that climate changes were tied to uncertainties of drought and flooding and that “something was happening.” She heard again and again, in countries such as Liberia, that “things were getting so much worse.” In areas where the focus was traditionally on poverty or other issues, there were now areas where the climate — and planting and harvest times — could no longer be predicted.

“We needed to be talking about the injustice of climate change,” which affects the poor and most vulnerable, even the U.S., citing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the poor in the U.S., said Robinson, who served as a U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights until 2002.

Following Robinson’s January 12 Luskin Lecture in UCLA’s Charles E. Young Grand Salon, former Los Angeles Times writer and editor Jim Newton moderated a discussion and Q&A session, asking Robinson about the impact of the recent Paris Climate Agreement.

Robinson, organizer of foundations including Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative and The Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, said she was energized by the talks in Paris, which provided a new way of describing the problem, and that she was encouraged that nearly 200 countries that all agreed on individual contributions to be made toward carbon emission reduction.

“It was actually a fair agreement, not strong but fair — that was extraordinary,” said Robinson.  She said that the Paris Agreement provided a new target for the world. “It put a stake in the ground.”

Even so, Robinson, citing a recent U.N. study, pointed out that if all of the countries realized their commitments to carbon reduction and climate change from the Paris Agreement, the world is still on course for a disastrous temperature increase beyond the oft-citied two-degree climate cliff.

Robinson said that more has to be done for a sustainable future, but the Paris agreement is nevertheless important because many countries would have given up, and that many small countries, island nations, will be “under water with 1.5 degrees.”

Robinson, who attended the climate talks in Paris, praised California, saying that the state was notable for its leadership in climate change and illustrating what can be done.

Prior to her presentation, co-sponsored by the Hilton Foundation and the Global Public Affairs (GPA) program at Luskin, a small group of UCLA Luskin graduate students had the chance to talk one-on-one with Robinson.

Jason Karpman, a second-year Urban Planning graduate student, said he was interested in this opportunity to talk with Robinson because of his interest in climate change, specifically carbon sequestration. “It’s the elephant in the room,” said Karpman, adding that, right now, “there are not a lot of options on the table.”

Robinson stressed to her pre-talk audience of Luskin students from Public Policy, Social Welfare and Urban Planning that the quality of leadership matters. “We need the policy decisions that are the right decisions,” and making policy more “people centered.” She added that the goal of sustainability should be to not leave anyone behind, which is what happened in the industrial revolution. She said that while the world must reduce carbon, at the same time, more than a billion people are energy poor, with no access to electricity and still burning dangerous kerosene in their homes.

“We have the gadgets,” said Robinson referring to LED lights, solar power, etc., and the ability to make payments on mobile phones via cell phone applications. “Most developing countries are interested in clean energy,” she said.

The discussion also included a range of important topics such as reforestation that is economically effective, the use of lighter materials such as carbon fiber in vehicles, technology and migration patterns. Migration patterns caused by politics and climate change are shaping up to be “one of the biggest issues worldwide,” said Robinson. “People have to move.” She said the real issue is how to manage migration in big numbers, pointing out how Syria and other countries have suffered both conflict and ongoing drought as well as the problems faced by countries due to an influx of migrants.

“They will come whether we like it or not,” she said. “We have to have leadership now.”

Robinson also has a very personal interest in the future of the planet — her grandchildren, who will be growing up in an age of severe climate change. She pointed out the intergenerational equity of the problem.

“This is about your children and grandchildren,” she said. “It’s their future.”

To view a video of the Mary Robinson Luskin Lecture, go here

To read coverage in UCLA Newsroom, go here

The Luskin Lecture Series

The UCLA Luskin Lecture Series enhances public discourse on topics relevant to the betterment of society. The series features renowned public intellectuals, bringing scholars as well as national and local leaders to address society’s most pressing problems. Lectures encourage interactive, lively discourse across traditional divides between the worlds of research, policy and practice. The series demonstrates UCLA Luskin’s commitment to encouraging innovative breakthroughs and creative solutions to formidable policy challenges.

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