I wanted a book to remind me that climate change can be tackled, and to inspire me to engage with this massive problem without leaving me doom laden and depressed. This useful book by former Irish President and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson does just that. Taking a rights and justice approach is natural for her. “This injustice – that those who had done least to cause the problem were carrying the greatest burden – made clear that to advocate for the rights of the most vulnerable to food, safe water, health, education, and shelter would have no effect without our paying attention to the world’s changing climate”.
Robinson places the stories of people on the frontline of climate change at the heart of this short book, and sees her job as getting their voices heard. It was the stories of these activists, mainly women, which I found most useful.
Constance Okollet is a small scale farmer from Uganda who has organised women in her community to challenge climate change, has given evidence internationally on the direct impact on her region of extreme weather: “in eastern Uganda, there are no seasons any more”.
Through activism, Okollet met Sharon Hanshaw of Biloxi Mississippi (founder of Coastal Women for Change) and other climate witnesses. Hanshaw, a former beauty salon owner who saw her community devastated by hurricane Katrina, said: “Connecting with women who were facing similar issues across the globe, and standing up and working for solutions, was inspiring. It is women who bear the brunt of climate change”. (Read more of Hanshaw’s story here)
The price some of the activists pay for their work is heavy. Robinson describes a tearful Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim of the Republic of Chad speaking of reporting back to the elders of her region: “I tell them that I will have a solution soon… They think I am finding a solution, but I know how slowly the fight against climate change is going and that a solution is not coming tomorrow. The solution for this problem will not be for them. It will not be for now.”
There has been some criticism of the book for failing to focus sufficiently on failures of states in addressing climate change (see for example Cara Augustenborg in the Irish Times). Others may notice that Robinson does not for example address population control, or the issue of whether nuclear power should be part of the renewable energy that replaces energy from fossil fuels. But the book is not intended as a primer on climate change (though it can be read with no specialist knowledge). It is a call to positive action against despair, and is best summed up by the advice of Hanshaw, citing her civil rights activist father: “pray and believe, and always believe in what you can do instead of can’t do”.