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Climate crisis
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Every sector must help tackle the climate crisis

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At the Women Deliver 2023 conference, Mary Robinson spoke at an 'Advancing feminist climate justice through the rule of law' event, hosted by the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) in partnership with the Generation Equality 'Feminist Action for Climate Justice' Coalition.
In her speech, she underscored the critical need for legal and justice institutions to deliver climate action. In these spaces, she explains, the leadership of women is vital: "When women lead, action follows".

Read Mary Robinson's speech

Friends and fellow climate justice advocates,

I speak to you today in my capacity as Chair of The Elders, the independent group of global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela. I have been glad to be here with my fellow Elders Graça Machel and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

We are more than a third of the way through a critical decade for humanity. The science informs us we have an ever-narrowing window to ensure global warming is kept to the Paris agreed limit of 1.5ºC. But the good news is that this window does remain! 

We must all play our part in doing what we can to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis, this includes all those working in the justice and legal sectors - and it most definitely includes women!

There are already powerful examples of women changing the legal landscape for feminist climate action. From LaDonna Brave Bull Allard who ignited a global movement opposing the construction of Dakota Access Pipeline to the ground-breaking work of international climate change and human rights lawyer Tessa Khan who was behind successful cases in the Netherlands and Ireland that challenged the inadequacy of governments’ emissions reductions plans. From an Indigenous woman in Ecuador, Nemonte Nenquimo, leading a community action lawsuit protecting her people’s land from oil extraction, to the first climate change case in March at the European Court of Human Rights brought by a group of older Swiss women. Angry grannies like me!

There has also been change at an international level creating an enabling environment for gender-just climate action. Legal instruments, such as the recently ratified ‘Right to a Healthy Environment’, stress the importance of integrating gender equality into all laws, plans, budgets, policies, and actions. And, earlier this year, the UN passed a key resolution that means the International Court of Justice will have to advise on what obligations states have under international law to protect the rights of present and future generations against the negative impacts of climate change. This work was led by the vulnerable island state Vanuatu and was spearheaded by a group of students.

I want to briefly offer three thoughts on how I believe legal and justice institutions can further strengthen feminist climate action. 

Firstly, as I am fond of saying; “climate change is a man-made problem that requires a feminist solution.” To be clear, this message does not mean men should not be part of the solution. Men can also be good feminists! Rather it was an acknowledgement that the climate crisis was born out of patriarchal ideas and ideals and that women offer something distinctive when it comes to leading on this crisis. When women lead, action follows! We need more women working at every level in legal and justice institutions.

Secondly, legal and justice institutions need to be quicker at using litigation as a tool for forcing recalcitrant governments and companies into action. While there has been a lot of enthusiasm for using litigation, it is still sometimes considered a last resort. I believe that for a long time we were hoping politicians, financial institutions and big businesses would take the moral imperative and do the right thing. This hasn’t happened at the pace we need it to. Legal and justice institutions have a critical role to play in piling on the pressure to make this happen.

Thirdly we must ensure funding and resources reach those working on the frontlines of fighting for climate justice. I want to recognise the vital contribution environmental human rights defenders around the world make in tackling climate change and protecting natural environments for future generations. We must find ways to strengthen protection arrangements for these brave individuals through measures such as protection grants and funding for rapid response emergency mechanisms. 

Most of all I call on you, the brave and brilliant women leaders here today, to be creative, be courageous, be steadfast in your support for climate action. The law, far from being static, should provide a platform for reform and innovation. We need every person, every set of skills, every insight, and every lived experience at our fingertips so enough action can be taken to avert the worst impacts of climate change. We need our legal and justice professionals to play their part. 

Let me end with some lines from the poet Seamus Heaney, a good friend of mine. These words come from the poem ‘The Cure at Troy’:

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

I look forward to listening to the panel. 

Thank you. 

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