“The climate crisis is a manmade problem that requires a feminist solution.” Ahead of Earth Day 2023, Mary Robinson sat down with IMAGE to discuss the climate crisis; why women are at the centre of the solution; and how she hopes Project Dandelion will shift the global narrative from one of fear to one of hope.
There is a TEDTalk, given by former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, where she speaks with humility, about how she came to the climate crisis late (Robinson no longer uses the term “climate change,” instead choosing the words “crisis” or “justice”).
Speaking at the TEDWomen Conference in May 2015 in Monterey, California, Robinson (who just this month won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the IMAGE PwC Businesswoman of the Year Awards) gently bows her head, never breaking eye contact with the crowd, and explains that during her time as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002, climate change was never at the front of her mind.
Another part of the UN primarily dealt with that, she said, and she was focused primarily on protecting marginalised citizens, from external sources that shaped and influenced their lives for the worse. It wasn’t until much later, in 2003 and the years that followed, when she began working in African countries on issues of development and human rights that she realised her lapse in judgement.
“I kept hearing the sentence: ‘Oh, but things are so much worse now, things are so much worse.’ And then I explored what was behind that; it was about changes in the climate —climate shocks, changes in the weather. The climate crisis had already hit these countries. This was a human rights issue. And it was affecting the poorest countries, indigenous people and women the worst.”
There are a number of ways in which the accelerating climate crisis is a Rorschach test; each of us responding differently to the inkblot of trauma. There are the steadfast deniers (a mercifully shrinking group) who believe, or indeed convince themselves, that verified science is not real; the softer deniers, who may understand the problem on a cellular level, but choose instead to disengage. Others pivot to panic, fear, or black humour, oftentimes settling somewhere on the spectrum between surrender and nihilism, while more have secured a bunker, pleading for control in an increasingly out-of-control seeming world.
Many, too, metabolise their anxiety into demonstrations, like the youth-led movement Fridays for Future, or into direct-action protests, like the dozens of climate activists arrested after shovelling coal from a train bound for Newcastle. (They are currently awaiting trial.) Robinson’s response, a knowing kind of action, is to break down and unravel the policies that heralded the climate crisis and imagine a system, from the many tried-and-tested systems that already work, that could help us get out of it.
The power of women
To survive the crisis Robinson argues, we will need to harness the unrelenting power of women and girls. “The climate crisis is a manmade problem that requires a feminist solution,” she tells me over Zoom from her home in Dublin. Behind her, books line shelves and the sun creeps into the morning light. “I say that because we need the equivalent of an earthshot, like President Kennedy’s moonshot,” she says, referring to a time when it seemed impossible that man would step on the moon, only for it to be done eight years later.
“That’s a very male, military competitive-with-Russia idea,” she laughs. “So what we wanted was a feminist equivalent of that. And so we gave it a lot of thought, about how women leaders could do their best to reduce global emissions by 2030, to lift us from the course we’re currently on — a rise in global temperature of 2.4 degrees — which is catastrophic.”
It echoes The United Nation’s (UN) Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women — whose landing page is resplendent with teenage girls holding megaphones and silk scarf-wearing dignitaries — beliefs that climate change is not “gender neutral,” a phrase when considered, feels so absurdly obvious that it should be screamed. “Women and girls experience the greatest impacts of climate change, which amplifies existing gender inequalities and poses unique threats to their livelihoods, health, and safety,” Robinson shares.
“Across the world, women depend more on, yet have less access to, natural resources. In our world of 7.2 billion people, about three billion are left behind. 1.3 billion don’t have access to electricity, and they light their homes with kerosene and candles, both of which are dangerous. 2.6 billion people cook on open fires — on coal, wood and animal dung. And this causes about four million deaths a year from indoor smoke inhalation, and of course, most of those who die are women.”
It’s a sentiment she is wont to share, as she sets up Project Dandelion, the global, women-led climate justice campaign with an intent to shift the narrative from fear to hope, to ensure the planet is habitable for everyone. Robinson launched it last month at the Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit at the University of Colorado. “Think of the common dandelion,” her voice urged in ways both soft and resonant. “The dandelion grows on all seven continents, is very difficult to get rid of and spreads by being blown. It’s also very resilient. Have you ever tried to get rid of the damn thing?”
Dandelions have a soft power that women also hold, that challenges the coercive aspects of a life rooted, Robinson continued. A concept harnessed by women since the creation of time, a crude manoeuvre by way of the power afforded to them, one that is still harnessed today.
The dandelion grows on all seven continents, is very difficult to get rid of and spreads by being blown. It’s also very resilient.
“The dandelion spreads its seeds, and indeed information, in these kinds of ways; by children blowing them, on a gust of wind,” Robinson noted. “It’s written about by poets, and it’s in soups and salads. And actually, farmers in Nigeria, gather it to regenerate the soil. It’s a perfect symbol for what we needed to do, which is to spread the idea that women leaders must step up in this crisis, but they must step up with a positive message. In an entirely selfish way too, women suffer far more when it comes to climate change––it’s total self-protection.”
Indeed, a comprehensive report from United Nations Women found that women are disproportionately impacted by most if not all of the challenges highlighted in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); as they are, for example, typically responsible for collecting water in the Global South, a practice becoming more dangerous due to droughts, as well as the impact of gender-based violence, which becomes more prevalent after natural disasters. Further still, decisions made at policy level are designed without women in mind, ignoring them systemically and even actively harming them in implementation.
Much like the gender data gap in medicine, car safety (crash-test dummies were always made to fit the proportion of the ‘average adult male’; it wasn’t until 2011 that the US considered female proportions) or police work (same with bullet and stab-proof vests) this “carbon tunnel vision” causes oftentimes well-meaning leaders to overlook, limit and isolate women and girls to the point of extinction.
Agents of change
The light amidst the darkness is that while women reside within a particularly vulnerable state in this climate crisis, they are also uniquely positioned to act as powerful agents of change. Statistically, women boast more responsible attitudes towards the climate crisis, have smaller carbon footprints and have a greater interest in protecting the earth. Our role models in this field are plenty; the inimitable Greta Thunburg, primatologist Jane Goodall or closer-to-home surfer and Blue Health scientist Easkey Britton and Flossie Donnelly of Flossie and the Beach Cleaners.
Women and girls are already tackling climate justice from the ground up, with several studies implicating that organisations with more female C-Suite and board members have better performances in terms of both climate impact and broad corporate social responsibility goals. Women, too, have been demonstrated to be more effective leaders during times of normality and in crises, and the data suggests this advantage extends to the climate crisis as well.
“The reality is, then there’s a crisis of the family who steps up?” she smiles. “It’s the mother, the grandmother, the aunt, the sister. Yes, we multitask. Yes, we have an unfair burden. But when women respond to a crisis, it’s from the heart. There may be a big business lobby for being on the cusp of a clean energy world, but there’s a much bigger fossil fuel lobby out there with billions to spend. So it’s a David and Goliath sort of fight in many ways, but when women in communities are in trouble, they band together — and that’s what Project Dandelion is all about.”
The reality is, then there’s a crisis of the family who steps up? It’s the mother, the grandmother, the aunt, the sister.
So how, this Earth Day, can women — who have traditionally borne the brunt of domestic issues as well as, more recently, their careers — lead the next phase of the climate justice movement? To engage in a near-total mindset shift and not view their climate responsibility as a burden.
“There is a saying, I first heard when speaking with an indigenous member of our Connected Women Leaders called Jade Begay from her tribe in New Mexico: What if our best times are ahead of us?” Robinson smiled. “It’s an outstanding thought, that we could create so much change in our communities, families, counties and countries, that the best times are yet to come.
The business leaders that I’m linked with say we have to be ten times bolder globally, ten times better in our local communities, and ten times faster overall for things to really change. And how can your average woman do that? I think by using our soft power to communicate and explore. You know, by seeing how everyone on the street could insulate our houses, by checking to see if the electricity you’re using is green, by installing solar panels or pooling together to collect the kids from school. And to teach the children about it. We know that women shoulder the burden of child-rearing, so why not use it to our advantage? People in Ireland are dying from fossil fuels, and women are still routinely left out of the conversation.
Now is the time to come together, to ensure a liveable future for our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. We literally have seven years to make a difference. The time for transformation is now.”