In Green Week speech, Mary Robinson implores youth leadership and climate action

Ireland’s first female President discussed youth leadership, climate change, and the prospect of a healthier planet

Former President of Ireland, and current Chair of the Elders, Mary Robinson addressed a packed GMB yesterday morning to celebrate the beginning of Green Week. A transformative figure in Ireland, Robinson was greeted by rapturous applause from all present. She was then described as a “pioneer in the fight for human rights” by Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) President, Shane De Rís, before beginning the panel discussion.

Robinson’s address came following the controversy in relation to her involvement with a member of the royal family of Dubai, Sheikha Latifa. Latifa was photographed with Robinson, despite having disappeared following a supposed failed escape attempt from Dubai. Robinson faced criticism for the meeting, due to the human rights issues at stake in the United Arab Emirates, and her description of Latifa as a “troubled young woman”, who despite her failed escape attempt is now happy in the “loving care of her family”. However, this topic was absent from the agenda, with climate change and youth leadership at the forefront instead. Even so, Robinson herself drew the link between human rights and the environment during her speech.

Both Robinson’s personability and intelligence was immediately apparent, as she articulately described the link between human rights and climate action following a prompt from her fellow panellists. Robinson described herself as a “latecomer” to the battle for climate action, lamenting the fact that in all of her years as President, “I cannot remember making a single speech in relation to climate change and or global warming”. She went on to explain that her activism in this controversial area is catalysed by an understanding that climate change and human rights are inextricably linked.

She encouraged those present to “get angry” about what is happening around them, insisting that it is crucial to realise that climate change is a self-inflicted problem, which requires a self-orientated solution. “It isn’t God that is punishing us here, it is the lives of rich people and the way of the world in general.” Indeed, our wasteful, abusive treatment of our planet becomes a more poignant observation when you take into account its effect on those who we share it with. This was central to Robinson’s engagement with climate orientated issues, as she drew reference to “David Attenborough’s exploration of different ecosystems” and the need to make the world more “people centric”. The pervasive message was indeed to stop valuing money above sustainability, one which resonated with all of those packed into the chamber.

Robinson addressed the fact that climate change can feel like a lost cause; a foregone conclusion where disaster is so imminent that it isn’t even worthy of resistance. She answered such critiques with a personal anecdote, describing the “physical reaction” she had to the birth of her first grandchild. She went on to explain that climate change is worth fighting, not so much for our own sake, but for the sake of the future of the people who we care about and who we love. This was an impactful message and Robinson used this anecdote to encourage those present to make their relationship with climate issues “actively personal”. Within this, she did not leave anyone out of the fight on climate change: “Get angry about it. Businesses, governments, agriculture, all of these sectors need to be put under pressure. We all need to imagine the world we want to live in. The only way of achieving it is through solidarity.”

Although such sentiment was undeniably uplifting, Robinson’s take on the Paris Agreement and scientific research instilled a sense of fear in those present, offering a blunt assessment on what will become of our planet if the obligations accepted by signatories are not fulfilled. She discussed the boredom of ministerial meetings, where everything said was “predictable”. In relation to the goals set in Paris, to stay under two degrees Celsius of warming, she astutely observed that the difficulty of staying under two degrees: “If we don’t, we lose coral reefs, arctic ice, entire species, and diversity.” She also expressed frustration at the “short term” motivations of political parties but praised increasing cooperation from large businesses when it comes to climate change.

An inspirational message which underscored the entirety of this fascinating address was youth leadership, in particular, leadership from young women. Throughout her talk, Robinson referred to a quote from the late Kofi Annan, that “you are never too young to lead”. She astutely observed that all people are relevant when it comes to climate change and that intergenerational leadership is required for what is an intergenerational problem. In this vein, she encouraged those present to be, in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “prisoners of hope”, and to utilise the “power of humour”. Robinson observed that she herself has done the latter, co-presenting a podcast with comedian Maeve Higgins, which she humorously apologised for “plugging throughout this talk”. Although admittedly sceptical at first, Robinson explained how the podcast has opened her mind to different perspectives when it comes to climate change, in particular, an observation made by one of her guests, that climate action is in fact “more difficult for the developed world. The developing world face challenges in their own right when it comes to developing in the right way, but the developed world has to change their entire way of life. I had never heard that argument before, and I found it rather interesting.”

Before the event closed, there was time for some questions from the audience. The most impactful of these came from EnviroSoc Chair, Izzy Jorgensen, who asked Robinson what kind of action students should be taking. The latter responded enthusiastically, challenging students to “take it personally. Start doing things you learnt to do when you were young, but have forgotten. Mend things. Recycle. Use your power to decide whether things are made in the right way, eat the right foods. Make your life more climate-friendly. Engage in a circular economy, and get angry when others do not do the same. Set a goal, and go for it.”

After facing questions from other young leaders in college, including TCDSU Gender Equality Officer, Aoife Grimes, the event’s conclusion came in the form of a standing ovation for an influential Irish figure. The procession then moved to Front Square, where Green Week officially began. The event will have a newfound relevance for all of those who listened to Chancellor Robinson, whose articulated experience is sure to provoke inspiration and action from anyone lucky enough to hear it. Indeed, this Green Week promises to be the most important to date.