Former president of Ireland Mary Robinson is well known for her policy and advocacy work on climate justice, but has now decided to take the fight to a wholly different arena. In a new podcast, Mothers of Invention, she joins forces with Irish comedian Maeve Higgins to celebrate feminists across the world on the frontline of climate action.
In the first five episodes Robinson and Higgins speak to inspiring women including Kenya’s former environment minister Judy Wakhungu who legislated to ban plastic bags, human rights lawyer Tessa Khan who set up the Climate Litigation Network, and Ugandan campaigner Constance Okolle who is helping her community adapt to climate change.
“We’ve had some really wonderful women from different perspectives,” Robinson tells chinadialogue.
Robinson, a former lawyer, became the first female president of Ireland in 1990 and then took up a post as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. For the past 15 years she has focused her work on climate justice through the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, as one of the Elders group of global human rights leaders and as Ban Ki Moon’s special envoy on climate.
But Robinson still did not feel that enough was being done to tackle climate, so she sought out film production company Doc Society to see what she could do to communicate the problem. Doc Society suggested a podcast and paired Robinson with Higgins, who had already produced a podcast on immigration and writes a column in the New York Times.
Although they might seem a strange pairing, the two women’s skills and experiences complement each other; Robinson has the gravitas and expertise on climate change while Higgins knows how the podcast medium works and brings levity to the discussion.
I’m out of my comfort zone but I think it’s working.
“I was more serious, tending to the preachy at times. I’m out of my comfort zone but I think it’s working,” says Robinson.
Higgins, meanwhile, represents much of the wider public. “Before this I was obviously aware of climate change. But I didn’t know a lot about climate justice and I felt paralysed by the scale of the problem, so I really didn’t know how to act. But listening to these women and hearing them has been enough for me to change my own life a little bit.”
Instead of dwelling on the science or debate around climate change, the podcast examines its political and ethical dimensions and looks at feminist solutions.
“A feminist approach begins by being much more people-centred,” says Robinson. “It recognises the injustice of climate change; that the countries and communities least responsible are disproportionately affected because of where they live and because of the lack of capacity to be more resilient. And yet, despite that, they’re the ones doing most to become more resilient.”
She notes that climate change is not gender neutral. “Women are affected more. They have to go further for water in drought, further for firewood and suffer more when you have terrible hurricanes.”
But Robinson is clear that this means a fair transition for everyone, including people who stand to lose their jobs and livelihoods when fossil fuels are phased out. “They will need support, training and pensions.” And it does not exclude men.
“In our next set of episodes we’d like to talk to feminist men as well who take the progressive, climate justice approach.”
As well as adding more female voices to the climate change conversation, they both believed it was important to have a wider idea of diversity. Higgins notes that climate change is intrinsically linked to other important societal issues such as immigration and race.
“It’s a really good way of building coalitions with others – that’s what Mary’s work has been all about.”
Robinson remains indirectly involved in climate negotiations through her foundation. At the forthcoming UN climate talks in Katowice, Poland, for example, she is pushing for a declaration for a just transition to a clean energy society.
During production of the podcast, one particularly enlightening conversation, she says, was with a young Black Lives Matter activist who had been protesting outside the Paris climate talks while Robinson was working inside.
We were lucky to find these stories that are full of hope.
Both women are full of enthusiasm for the stories they have heard. “So much climate change reporting is gloomy,” says Higgins. “We were lucky to find these stories that are full of hope.”
Despite this, Robinson says there is plenty of work still to be done. She notes the women leaders’ conferences she attends still put climate change low on the agenda. And her own country has a mixed record on the subject.
Ireland has the world’s third highest per capita carbon emissions and earlier this year was described as a “laggard” on climate change by its Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar. But it was also the first country to promise to divest its public money from fossil fuels earlier this year, which Robinson is proud of.
As such, Robinson believes it is a good time to launch such a podcast. “We have lost some momentum after Paris. People are not addressing the issue seriously enough and we can’t afford to lose time.”
The first five podcasts, which began on July 23, examine climate change litigation, divestment, food, plastic and health. The pair now plan to make more because they believe the series could have a genuine impact. “We were very conscious of not preaching,” says Higgins. “But I’ve found myself knowing more and caring more. I feel more connected now. The paralysis has left me.”
“We hope in the end that there could be a movement which emerges,” says Robinson. “The ingredients are there all over the world – young people are central, women are central, feminist men are central. But if we did it in a ‘frighten the world’ way... people would just give up. Doing it this way with inspiring, positive, practical stories and their energy and warmth is much more effective.”
Doc Society’s new podcast series Mothers of Invention runs until 17 September. You can subscribe to the podcast here, and listen to the first episode below.