Climate Justice by Mary Robinson
Former president of Ireland and UN Special Envoy on Climate Change Mary Robinson has compiled a solid new addition to the arsenal of tools with which to discuss the world’s encroaching climate troubles. Climate Justice is not necessarily a plan of attack but a careful reminder of how far-reaching the effects of climate change really are: through personal testimonials and profiles focusing on climate activists from around the world, Robinson delivers a much-needed widening of this important discussion’s scope. She reminds readers that this is more than an economic concern for first-world nations and that there are cultures in Africa, the Pacific Islands and northern North America whose entire livelihood is being rattled by climate change, potentially to the brink of cultural extinction.
Climate Justice is slightly mis-titled and mis-marketed: while the book is presented as a work that broadly address “hope, resilience and the fight for a sustainable future,” Robinson spends the majority of her book profiling activists and presenting their stories as bits of real-life inspiration in the fight against climate change. This is far from An Inconvenient Truth: instead of striking fear and awakening into her audience with numbers, facts and trends, she presents a compendium of stories from people who tried (and in many cases succeeded) to make a difference in the world. Curiously, the majority of these stories revolve around women whose innate selflessness led them to pursue global goodness and kindness in the face of adversary. There is a potent feminist slant to the activism in Climate Justice, from East Biloxi resident Sharon Hanshaw, who was a former salon worker before the lack of post-Katrina support pulled her into politics, to Natalie Isaacs, who started the website 1 Million Women to raise awareness of people’s carbon footprints and make efforts to reduce waste. It’s strange that Bloomsbury chose to subdue this aspect of the book’s presentation. It’s not quite a call to arms but a roll call of allies.
Tonally, Climate Justice is “presidential”: the text feels perfectly fit for scrolling across a teleprompter. Some statements ring out with the glory of a political figure at the top of their game. “To deal with climate change,” Robinson declares at one of many powerful moments, “we must simultaneously address the underlying injustice in our world and work to eradicate poverty, exclusion, and inequality.” But her personal asides often feel like those over-detailed moments in speeches that aim to humanize a political figure. For example, “on December 12, 2003, my thirty-third wedding anniversary,” she recalls getting a phone call:
It was my son-in-law, Robert, breathless with news. My daughter, Tessa, had just given birth to their first child, a boy….I grabbed my coat and stepped out into the brisk winter air. It was a ten-minute walk from Trinity College through the heart of Georgian Dublin to Holles Street and the national maternity hospital where, thirty-one years earlier, I had given birth to my own first child, Tessa.
This kind of language feels strangely distancing, and is stands out alongside the “we’re all in this together” attitude that Robinson’s subjects nobly take on in their profiles. Climate change is a universal adversary, and connecting humanity may be one of the ways in which we can overcome it. But Robinson tries too hard to present herself as one of us. She’s not, and that’s a good thing, as it’s precisely her history and political experience that made Climate Justice into a book. But while Robinson possesses the worldly presence to bring together the many unheard voices that make up the stories of Climate Justice, her own voice ends up being the least remarkable. One can’t help but feel that a similar book, written by one of her subjects, would be more affecting, resonant, and inclusive.