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Former Irish President, Climate Justice Advocate Mary Robinson Urges Divestment of Fossil Fuel Firms

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As the New York region marks the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, hurricane-strength winds are battering northern Europe today. At least a dozen people have already been killed across Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and France. Amidst an increase in extreme weather and storms, we discuss the movement to confront climate change with Mary Robinson, former Irish president and U.N. high commissioner for human rights. She now heads the Mary Robinson Foundation–Climate Justice, where her efforts include campaigning for the divestment from fossil fuels. “We can no longer invest in companies that are part of the problem of the climate shocks we’re suffering from,” Robinson says. “To me it’s a little bit like the energy behind the anti-apartheid movement when I was a student. We were involved because we saw the injustice of it. There’s an injustice in continuing to invest in fossil fuel companies that are part of the problem.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today marks the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy hitting the East Coast, becoming one of the most destructive storms in the nation’s history. After first pummeling Cuba, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast, devastating parts of New York and New Jersey. The storm ultimately killed 159 people, damaged more than 650,000 homes. Thousands of people remain displaced.

As the New York region marks the first anniversary of Sandy, hurricane-strength winds are battering northern Europe today. At least a dozen people have been killed across Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and France.

Later in the show, we’ll look at the Superstorm Sandy recovery effort and speak to a woman who is still displaced from her home. But we begin today’s show with former Irish President Mary Robinson. She served as president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997 and U.N. high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002. She now heads the Mary Robinson Foundation–Climate Justice. I recently sat down with her in New Orleans at a meeting of environmental grant makers. I began by asking her to describe climate justice.

MARY ROBINSON: Climate justice starts with the injustice of the fact that climate shocks are affecting the very poorest already—poor communities and poor countries, and poor parts of the United States, like Louisiana. Parts of Louisiana are still recovering from Katrina. They’ve been least responsible for what we now know is causing climate change. There was this very important IPCC report last week in New York showing that 95 percent of the scientists are now satisfied and firmly believe that this is human-caused. I know there are deniers, and there’s money supporting these deniers to try to confuse us, but we can’t be confused anymore, because actually the impacts of climate are undermining human rights all over the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Where’s the money coming from for the denial movement?

MARY ROBINSON: I think a lot it is coming from those who benefit at the moment from selling fossil fuel, so the coal and oil communities. It reminds me a little bit of the tobacco problem, and it’s somewhat similar because it’s causing denial of an issue that we should be taking so seriously and working together on. All countries in the world, large and small, should be unequivocal in working to have a transformative leadership to a low-carbon economy.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of the whole movement around divesting from fossil fuel companies?

MARY ROBINSON: I’m glad that young people and colleges and others are seeing the need to bring home: We can no longer invest in companies that are part of the problem of the climate shocks that we’re suffering from. And so, I speak openly and encourage students and colleges to be part of that. It’s, to me, a little bit like the energy that was behind the anti-apartheid movement when I was a student. We were all involved because we saw the injustice of it. There’s an injustice in continuing to invest in fossil fuel companies that are part of the problem.

My foundation has joined with the World Resources Institute in a declaration on climate justice. We say unequivocally what the International Energy Agency says and the Carbon Tracker calculation of the carbon budget, that two-thirds of the fossil fuel reserves known now must stay in the ground. And there’s no point in going into the Arctic and looking for new fossil reserves and disturbing that wonderful environment.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting. I just gave the commencement address at Hampshire College, which is one of the centers of this issue of divestment. Jonathan Lash—you mentioned the World Resources Institute—former president of World Resources Institute, now president of Hampshire College.

MARY ROBINSON: Yes, I know Jonathan Lash, and I’m aware that he’s organizing a conference next year on the divestment issue. I think it’s great that somebody who’s so knowledgeable, as he is, is prepared to take a certain amount of political flak. It’s not easy as a president of a college to stand up. And I think he’s aware that he has to give that leadership, and he’s giving it.

AMY GOODMAN: President Robinson, you were active in the divestment movement against apartheid South Africa in Ireland. I mean, young people today maybe came of age when it was President Mandela of South Africa, may not even know what the strategies were, what this divestment issue at the time was all about.

MARY ROBINSON: There was a recognition that it was going to be difficult to get change in South Africa, although the majority of the people, the black and colored South Africans were discriminated against, were imprisoned, including Nelson Mandela himself and his colleagues, and that there should be a real move to stop companies from investing in South Africa and perpetrating that apartheid system. And so, in Ireland, we had a very active, very strong movement. Even we had a kind of mini situation where women workers in one of the stores would not allow—would not handle South African goods. And they were sacked. And there was a big movement—

AMY GOODMAN: They were fired.

MARY ROBINSON: They were fired because they had taken that stand. And they were actually reinstated because there was such an outcry about it. And when Nelson Mandela came to Ireland as president many years later, he referred to these women. And, you know, they knew about the sacrifice of ordinary women, because they believe in justice.

We need young people and women and others to stand up now against the way in which the corporate sector that is engaged in fossil fuel is buying bad science, is spreading wrong information and trying to prevent us from addressing what we really need to address, which is transformational leadership to low-carbon growth.

AMY GOODMAN: What would divestment lead to?

MARY ROBINSON: Well, I think it really would lead to a recognition that we’re talking about stranded assets. And “stranded assets” is a term that many people aren’t yet fully aware of. But I think of asbestos as, you know, a clear stranded asset. We know it’s dangerous, so people won’t use it. And we have to get to the same situation. Now, we’re not going to do it overnight, and we actually need to recognize that developing countries need more time to adapt. So, I would like to see Europe and the United States and Korea and other parts and Japan moving more quickly, as Germany is doing, to renewables, because we have the responsibility. It’s our fossil-fuel-led growth that has caused the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by “renewables”? I think a lot of people in the United States would have no idea.

MARY ROBINSON: The huge potential of solar, of wind, of wave power, the—of various forms of renewable energy, where we can actually have good lives. And I think that the science and—we need these new technologies, the organic solar technology that’s coming on stream, to be free to developing countries, because that will help them to adapt, and they need that support. And we can have very good lifestyles. It can also mean that those who haven’t had access to electricity—and there are many of them, 1.3 billion, who have no light in the home, of electricity; they just have dangerous kerosene or candles—we can have that technology to help those communities who are very affected already by climate shocks.

AMY GOODMAN: As the former president of Ireland, you mingle with heads of state around the world, with heads of corporations. I mean, do you have any sense that these heads of corporations, like ExxonMobil, like BP, like Chevron, are changing?

MARY ROBINSON: One of the positive factors now is that I mingle a lot with forward-looking business leaders. There are two types of business leaders in this context: those who are profiting from fossil-fuel-developed profits and want to keep it that way and a very significant number of thoughtful business leaders who know very well that we have to move to a low-carbon economy, that we have to address this issue, because otherwise we will have social unrest and displacement—very bad for business. And a lot of good business leaders are interested in getting away from the short-term quarterly returns to real sustainability. We’ve been talking about sustainability since the Rio conference. And that means economic sustainability, environmental sustainability and social sustainability. And I think that corporations now know they need a triple bottom line, and I’m very much encouraging that.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned social unrest and displacement as the real effects of climate change. What do you mean?

MARY ROBINSON: It’s all ready happening that many people are having to leave their places where they were living. We heard from the panel this morning here in Louisiana, in New Orleans, about people who can no longer be in certain places. It’s happening worldwide, but we’re not seeing the full scale of it yet. The prediction is we may have up to 200 million climate-displaced people by 2050, which is only 36 years ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: “Climate-displaced” means?

MARY ROBINSON: Means that it was climate that forced them to leave. We don’t have a good title for it. We can’t call them “climate refugees,” like we have other refugees, because there’s no convention. We do need to think about that, and there are people, including in the United Nations, thinking seriously about some way now of ensuring that there will be a safe movement elsewhere. But at the moment, that’s not the case. People move in a very unsafe and insecure way.

AMY GOODMAN: President Robinson, you’re the former U.N. high commissioner for human rights. What’s the connection between human rights and climate justice, climate change?

MARY ROBINSON: I came to the climate issue from a human rights perspective. I’m not a climate scientist, though Climate Justice, my foundation, very much relies on and keeps true to the science. But, for me, the shocks of climate change are going to be, and are already becoming, the worst and most serious human rights issue, because it’s actually about the future of the world. We have to understand that if we go to 4 degrees Celsius, and many people think that’s where we’re heading—

AMY GOODMAN: Translate that to Fahrenheit.

MARY ROBINSON: Seven-point-five degrees Fahrenheit. That will be catastrophic. That will be, you know, Sandys in every country in such a way—and affecting, again, those with least resources to cope. So, I found in our work—after my work as high commissioner for human rights had finished, I went to—actually to New York and had colleagues in Washington and Geneva, focusing on African countries’ right to health and decent work and women, peace and security. But all I heard was: “Things are so much worse because of climate change. We no longer have predictable rainy seasons. Our village, we used to grow—we used to have enough food, but now we have drought and flash flooding.” And that brought home to me, this is essentially a human rights issue.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the connection between poverty, nutrition and climate change?

MARY ROBINSON: Very, very much. My foundation hosted with the Irish government last April a very good conference during the Irish EU presidency. So we had EU commissioners and ministers from different European countries, with the Irish deputy prime minister and others, listening to those who had come from different communities around the world—from Mongolia, from the Arctic, from parts of Africa—all of them very clear about what the problem was and that they were coping, but they needed more support. And they needed understanding that they actually had the knowledge. They were in charge, if you like. And that was very empowering for them and very important to be listening, because we make mistakes if we try to do from the outside what communities themselves know best, as we heard this morning.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the U.N. climate summits. Democracy Now! has been at Copenhagen, Cancún, Doha, Durban. We were even at the People’s Summit in Bolivia. Now the next one is in Warsaw, Poland—Poland a major polluter, coal polluter in the world. Many saw President Obama flying into Copenhagen and really being the one to collapse any kind of binding agreement on climate change. What should be the role of the U.S. And also, what about the fact that it is Poland this year?

MARY ROBINSON: Well, I have followed these summits very closely with my colleagues, and I think we are building towards what we need, which is a fair, equitable, ambitious climate agreement by the end of 2015 to match the post-2015 development agenda. We’re not there yet. We don’t have the leadership for it. The secretary-general has called a summit of heads of state for next September. The United States is going to have to be in there with the right—with the leadership that is needed. The plan of action that President Obama has drawn up for this country is quite innovative. Secretary of State John Kerry absolutely knows the issues, as I think does President Obama. The problem, I think, is a political problem in this country of your Congress. But we need to get over that, because we have no other option. We have to find the political will together and move forward and get that climate agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: The argument against dealing with climate change is it means losing jobs in a troubled economy.

MARY ROBINSON: And that, again, is a false juxtaposition, because I think it’s very clear that as we move to low carbon, it will actually be job creating. I gave the figures that it has been job creating in the United States. There are more green jobs being created than in other sectors. So, we have to recognize it’s very important that it’s a just tradition. We work closely with the trade union movement. Sharan Burrow is on our climate leadership group. And they’re looking to pension funds to invest in futures that are good for everybody, the renewable energies and others. So we need a kind of real sense that this is not them or us, this is all of us together.

When you think of the intergenerational justice—I mean, I often, as I did this morning, talk about being a grandmother with grandchildren who will be in their forties in 2050. What will they say to us? I’ve said this often enough that I can almost hear the echoes of their voices. And at the moment, I hear them accusing us: “How could they be so selfish? How could they be so uncaring?” But we can redress that by what we do by the end of 2015.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Irish President Mary Robinson, she now heads the Mary Robinson Foundation–Climate Justice. As the New York region marks the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, hurricane-strength winds are battering northern Europe today. At least a dozen people have been killed across Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and France. We’ll have more on this first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy in a minute.

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1 Year Later, Superstorm Sandy Strengthens Resolve for Community Solutions in Recovery, Rebuilding

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