"I felt bad because I knew that the people in developed countries are our friends. We are the same people; we have the same blood. But these people were enjoying their life while we were suffering. I wanted to know why they were doing this to us. I wanted to know whether the people in developed countries could reduce their emissions so we could have our normal seasons back." - Constance Okollet
I read these lines with my heart sinking into my intestines, as would anyone with a soul. This, and several accounts from underprivileged people from around the world on the front lines of climate breakdown were platformed in this wonderfully optimistic yellow book by the former President of Ireland. There was Anote Tong, who, post-Copenhagen, was forced to tell his people in Kiribati that their island was essentially doomed. Sharon Hanshaw, who became an accidental activist voicing the rights of the Katrina-devastated in Biloxi, near New Orleans. Vu Thi Hien, who left academia to help preserve Vietnam's biodiversity and indigenous communities through reforestation. Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, who, along with her M'bororo community, 3D-mapped the degradation of their native land to show the Chadian government and the world. These are the stories that need to be heard.
Devouring this 150-or-so-page book in an afternoon, outside in wintry London it quickly became dark in a way that the book did not. I wondered when Mary Robinson would dramatically unveil the morbid struggle of Latin America's environmental activists. As the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and author of such a compellingly titled book, surely she wouldn't overlook the fact that nearly 60% of the murders of land and environmental defenders in 2017 took place in Latin America?
She did. As bad as the stories of the community leaders profiled in the book were, she did not mention the endless denial of justice for the protectors of Latin America's indigenous rights and natural wild, or even murder at all. The only Latina mentioned, of course, was Christiana Figueres. A woman I used to admire so much, but now want to shake by the shoulders and scream 'WAKE UP!! Mission 2020 is not happening!'
Mary Robinson seems trapped in this admirable but frustrating optimism that the world order will 'wake up' on hearing the stories of the world's poorest and most vulnerable to climate degradation. Maybe it's fair enough, for someone who felt the wind change at the Paris Agreement. Like many of her generation, she earnestly believes that continuing on the business-friendly path of renewable energy, economic development, and non-binding corporate and government 'commitments' to net-zero emissions, we will make it. That is why she still has hope in Powerpoint conferences and briefcase groups such as her 'B Team' alongside Richard Branson, a man whose interests lie in maintaining his profits, and not structural, systemic overhaul. This is why CO2 emissions rose sharply in 2018, and will continue to do so.
True, we need to listen to the marginalised. But we can't stick our heads in the sand and pretend we can continue to develop without era-defining disruption to civilization as we know it. We need degrowth, right now - a word she does not mention at all. There is not enough time for optimism, and the truly downtrodden know this.
For these reasons, the book seems mistitled. Should we really hold out for, as the front cover suggests, "hope, resilience, and the fight for a sustainable future"? I hope she comes round to reality sooner rather than later, with a sequel: Climate Injustice.