Science

Mary Robinson recommends the best books on

Climate Justice

The former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and President of Ireland discusses Climate Change. Argues that countries whose economies benefit from emmissions have moral duty to aid the poor and vulnerable

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    1

    Our Common Future
    by World Commission on Environment and Development

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    2

    High Tide
    by Mark Lynas

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    3

    The Ethics of Climate Change
    by James Garvey

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    4

    Human Rights and Climate Change
    by edited by Stephen Humphreys

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    5

    Storms of my Grandchildren
    by James Hanson

Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson is the President of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative and founder of the Foundation for Climate Justice. Mary Robinson was the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997) and is former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002). She is a member of the Elders, co-founder and former Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders and Vice President of the Club of Madrid. She is chair of the GAVI Alliance Board. She chairs the Fund for Global Human Rights and is Honorary President of Oxfam International and Patron of the International Community of Women Living with AIDS (ICW). She is President of the International Commission of Jurists.

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Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson is the President of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative and founder of the Foundation for Climate Justice. Mary Robinson was the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997) and is former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002). She is a member of the Elders, co-founder and former Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders and Vice President of the Club of Madrid. She is chair of the GAVI Alliance Board. She chairs the Fund for Global Human Rights and is Honorary President of Oxfam International and Patron of the International Community of Women Living with AIDS (ICW). She is President of the International Commission of Jurists.

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Tell us a bit about climate justice.

The vast gulf in resources between rich and poor, evident in the gap between countries in the North and South and also within many countries – both North and South – is the deepest injustice of our age. This failure of resource-fairness makes it impossible for billions of humans to lead decent lives, the sort of life opportunities that a commitment to true equality should make an absolute essential.

Climate change both highlights and exacerbates this gulf in equality. It also provides the world with an opportunity. Climate change highlights our true interdependence and must lead to a new and respectful paradigm of development. The benefits and burdens associated with climate change and its resolution must be fairly allocated. Those who have benefited and still benefit from emissions in the form of ongoing economic development and increased wealth, mainly in industrialised countries, have an ethical obligation to share benefits with those who are today suffering from the effects of these emissions, mainly vulnerable people in developing countries.

There have been many publications in recent years that address this issue – I have selected five to give as wide an exposure as possible to the general reader. The first two choices also highlight the potential for women’s leadership on climate change.

Your first book is Our Common Future.

This may seem a rather dated choice but it is a book on which a lot of the thinking behind climate justice is based – Our Common Future by the World Commission on Environment and Development (also known as the Brundtland Report). This seminal 1987 publication was based on the work of the Commission, which included public hearings on five continents over a three-year period. The report defines sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

Today we need to move to the concept of climate change, human rights and development to achieve a human-centred approach, safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable and sharing the burdens of climate change and its resolution equitably and fairly. Gro Brundtland, who chaired the Commission, continues to give leadership on climate issues and now serves on the UN High Level Panel on Global Sustainability.

Next you’ve got High Tide: the Truth About Our Climate Crisis by Mark Lynas.

This was published in 2004 and was, and still is, a fascinating insight into the impact of climate change on real people in their communities. Lynas introduces us to people from places varying from Britain and the Americas to China and islands in the South Pacific and spells out the inter-relationships between the waste-of-energy lifestyles of many in the developed world and the famine and water shortages being experienced by many in the developing world. He also introduces us to climate change refugees – where people have watched their grasslands turn to desert and their fishing lakes disappear as a direct result of the selfish action of others. Also worth mentioning is another one of Lynas’s books – Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, published in 2007.

Now there is an initiative of women leaders, the Climate Wise Women (www.climatewisewomen.org) who tell the story of the impact on their local communities.

Tell us about The Ethics of Climate Change: Right and Wrong in a Warming World by James Garvey.

This was published in 2008 and gives us a philosopher’s viewpoint on climate change and the attendant responsibilities. The author argues that while we must be informed by the economic, social, scientific and political realities of climate change it is largely a moral problem: so that individual, state and multinational responses to climate change are a function of values. The book is a very good and, despite the challenging content, a very easy read. It is comprehensive in that Garvey initially outlines the science and likely impacts behind climate change and explains why the impacts will disproportionately affect the poor – those least responsible for the problem. It is ultimately a book about our choices and our responsibility, and as Garvey has said elsewhere, ‘We broke it. So we own it.’

What about Human Rights and Climate Change?

I was proud to contribute the foreword for Human Rights and Climate Change, edited by Stephen Humphreys and published in 2008. It provided the first major analysis of the impact of climate change on human rights, and in particular on social and economic rights. In the foreword I said, ‘What this collection does for the first time is think through the human rights implications of climate change, and ask how the substantial body of international human rights law and experience relates to that phenomenon.’

This book is not an easy read but it is a very enriching and worthwhile one. The editor identifies that the inter-linkages between human rights and climate change are deep and complex – and that the most negative impacts are likely to be felt by those whose rights protections are already precarious. Simon Caney, Professor of Political Theory in Oxford, inter alia concludes that the adoption of a human rights framework for evaluating the impacts of climate change has implications for our understanding of who should bear the burdens of climate change and what kind of policies are appropriate. It is an imperative for us all to acquire and use to inform our actions.

September 25, 2010

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