Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and Chair of The Elders, speaks to journalists at the COP27 UN Climate Summit, Nov. 12, 2022.

Ireland’s Mary Robinson says being an 'Elder' is about teaching the next generation, but also listening to them

Mary Robinson was the first female President of Ireland, and has been chair of "The Elders," a group founded by Nelson Mandela. She spoke with The World's host Marco Werman about connecting with young activists on environmental justice.

The World

Mary Robinson was the first female President of Ireland in the 1990s. Later, Robinson became the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In recent years, she’s been chair of "The Elders," a group founded by Nelson Mandela, with a simple mandate: to share wisdom and experience to help solve the world’s toughest problems.

Now Robinson is focused on tackling the climate crisis. She travels the world connecting with young activists about environmental justice.

She spoke with The World's host Marco Werman about what being an Elder means to her.

Marco Werman: The Elders, sharing wisdom and experience so the planet can survive. No pressure there, huh?
Mary Robinson: Well, we were given a serious mandate by Nelson Mandela, but we were also told to be humble. We went anywhere that was a situation of conflict, first of all, to listen and then try to give whatever experience or wisdom we might have.
On a serious note, though, I mean, in this context, it's not just about being an Elder, being old, is it?
Actually, it's our collective wisdom that is our strength, I think, and our moral voice. And of course, if you want to have a moral voice, you've got to live it, which we try to do. So, it's not so easy.
And to build on the literal meaning of The Eders, what is the advantage of age when it comes to the work that you do?
I think the idea is respect, actually. In many cultures, including, I must say, here in Ireland, we greatly respect elders still. In the United States, people don't like to be thought of as old or elders or elderly, but frankly, I always respected my elders when I was growing up. Only, I did it in a different way. I had a grandfather who I really appreciated greatly, because he was a retired lawyer. That's where I got my inner sense of justice. I think he instilled it in me in a very strong way. But we had an intergenerational conversation that went one way only. Now, the elders seek out and really appreciate the intergenerational conversation, which goes two ways, because these young climate activists, young people working on issues, are so informed, so global. They are on social media with people all over the world. They have insights and we learn as much. And we love being in that dialog with the younger people.
You've said one of your regrets from your time at the UN as High Commissioner for Human Rights is that you did not make any speeches about climate change. How has your own thinking about this massive problem shifted in the past 20 years?
I had a huge mandate of human rights, rights of people with disabilities, gender equality, you name it. And I was aware that climate was very serious, but it wasn't my problem until I started working on the ground in African countries on the rights that matter if you don't have them: rights to food, water, health, education, etc. And the penny dropped very quickly, that actually climate change was undermining and exacerbating all of the rights that people were supposed to have and be able to realize. It was really shocking. We weren't talking about climate change even then. You know, in 2003, 2004, 2005, it still wasn't an issue. Now, it's become an issue in the Northern Hemisphere. We see the fires in California, the flooding in Germany, the drought in various parts of Europe. We see it all now. It's a global issue and we understand better. So, we're all evolving in our understanding.
And what you've been hearing as you speak with young climate activists, Mary Robinson, many are rightfully angry about the world. They've inherited a world, to be blunt, my generation and yours and many before have passed on to them. It makes me feel guilty to some degree, but that's not helpful either, is it? How do you think about that?
I do think it's right that young climate activists do feel angry and more that they channel their anger into now and the future. You know, I came out of COP 27 where I was on panels with a number of these wonderful climate activists like Vanessa Nakate of Uganda, who I visited in Uganda before. What really struck me reflecting immediately after the conference was, it's a paradox. We actually are on the cusp of a clean energy world. And yet, I know, sadly, that we're actually heading for a disastrous world. We're heading for a world of 2.4 degrees warming, if every country and every corporation did all that they have now committed to. In other words, fulfilled all their commitments. So, with that far off track, we haven't had the commitments we should have from the big emitters to really bring us down to a world where the limit is 1.5 degrees, which is what the scientists have advised. So, it's a mixture — have we time? We can't just go on the positive side. We've got to cut the emissions and we've got to restore the biodiversity.
Yeah, and 2.4 degrees Celsius points to a very unpleasant future for a lot of people. Go back to what you were talking about earlier, your family. You mentioned your grandfather. Now you're a grandmother. How have your grandchildren changed your thinking about the future?
I think they ground me in the necessity that we have a livable world, not just for them. I feel it's really important for me to think about the future generation of grandchildren, that we think about the world they will live in. I want them to live in this wonderful world that's just around the corner. It's a world we should be imagining more, the clean energy world. Cities will be green with walkways. The air will be sweet. We'll hear the birds singing. And there'll be farms and gardens and cities. The countryside will be rewilded. It'll be restored with biodiversity. We will really understand that we are nature. We're not separate from nature. We are nature, just like what the Indigenous wisdom tells us. These are big, big goals. We're in a transitional time. In some ways it's exciting for young people. In some ways it's acutely frightening. And I know quite a lot of young people are full of anxiety — eco-anxiety, I think they call it.
So, Mary Robinson, today the theme of this edition of our program is Helping in Hard Times. How do you think about what we owe each other as humans on this planet?
Well, I know what Nelson Mandela told us. In tackling difficult issues of peace, human rights, etc. we must bring hope. And I learned also when I was on a panel some years ago with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, we were on a panel in New York called the Global Good Summit. And when Archbishop Tutu was in front of young people, he would throw out his arms and tell them how much he loved them and believed in them. And we had a journalist moderating, who said quite sharply, "Archbishop Tutu, why are you such an optimist?" And he shook his head and he said, "Oh no, I'm not an optimist. I'm a prisoner of hope." And I remember being so affected by that at the time. And I thought about it a lot since then. If you can tell the climate story with hope, then people get excited and they say, "Oh yes, I can see how it's possible to advocate for that clean world and be angry with those who aren't doing enough.
Well, the picture you gave a moment ago of the future: sweet clean air, birds chirping, that certainly gives hope. Speaking of hope, I want to ask you a final question, some advice, perhaps. In the Northern Hemisphere, as you know well, we experience some of the longest nights of the year. On days when you barely see the sun, Mary Robinson, what keeps you hopeful?
I think it's very much that sense of the real possibility of a much fairer world. You know, I'm going to answer in policy terms. We're on the point, I think, of seeing that the international financial system is a bit broken, and we have great inequality in our world. You know, what I'm thinking around the fire in the dark, in an Irish pre-Christmas, it's very much about the real potential, how close we are to this world that is sustainable with nature, that is actually much, much better for us and inevitably will be much more equal.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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