Mary Robinson says Australia must abandon fossil fuel-driven growth and contribute to poor countries’ development
Australia has not been a good neighbour to the Pacific islands vulnerable to climate change and needs to get out of fossil fuel-based growth faster, says Mary Robinson, the former Irish president turned climate change campaigner.
Speaking to Guardian Australia, she also urged rich countries to contribute to sustainable development in poor countries and to do so in their own self-interest.
Her former role as UN special envoy for climate change meant she had heard the pleas from developing countries for more action and Australia was urged to do more.
“I listened to the presidents and senior politicians and civil society of these Pacific island countries and I have to say they were very critical of Australia. Genuinely very critical,” she said of her time at the Pacific Island Development Forum in Fiji in 2015.
“I was very struck by the fact that they did not consider that Australia or New Zealand, but more Australia, good leaders.
“Australia was engaged in a fossil-fuel powering of its economy, which was hurting their economies and indeed their future. And it was said over and over again.”
By that time, Australia had dismantled its carbon tax, was reviewing its renewable energy target and had axed or was planning to axe the majority of its government climate change bodies.
“And when your neighbours think that of you – and that was an intimate forum for me to hear that – you need to think about what that means.”
Robinson, who now heads her own organisation called the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, had been invited to Australia by the University of Melbourne, where she delivered a lecture on sustainability on Tuesday night.
She said Australia and other countries needed to work harder to lower emissions and stop climate change and emphasised the role of climate financing – a process whereby rich countries fund low-emissions development in poor countries. But she emphasised that it was not a form of aid.
“It is not aid to developing countries. It is the means by which we secure a safe world for all our children and grandchildren,” she said.
“The vast growth in infrastructure will have to be in developing countries. They have to build up their economies. And if we don’t help them with clean energy they will go the dirty route – they will go with coal – and then we will not have a safe world.”
Robinson, who has also been UN high commissioner for human rights, said it was in the west’s interest to secure climate financing for developing nations.
“It is human solidarity but it is also collective self-interest,” she said. “It’s in our self-interest to ensure that developing countries go clean because if they don’t they will lock in so much fossil fuel that we can’t have a safe world for anyone.
“It’s like the Titanic. When the Titanic hit that iceberg, it wasn’t just those in steerage that went down, it was the first-class as well.
“There is a real sense of interdependence and a need for human solidarity to realise we are all in this together.”
When it comes to helping developing nations with the effects of climate change, that ship had already sailed, Robinson said.
“[Fiji] was hit by this awful cyclone Winston. Luckily not so many people were killed but it devastated their economy.
“We can’t have this being the reality for very poor coutnries. We must ensure we move to a new pattern.
“The reality is that we’re running out of time. Everyone is shocked by what is happening – we had the announcement that in February we had the greatest increase in heat, that it jumped more than scientists thought it would.
“We have to be self-preserving and sensible. And, as a grandmother of five who will be in their 40s in 2050 and share the world with 9 billion others … they will criticise us so harshly if we don’t get things right now.
“We just have to get our minds right that we have a responsibility to move in the direction that Paris has given us – well below 2C as far as possible to 1.5C – a world that leaves no one behind. A world that is fair and inclusive … We can do it. And we will have a much better and more equal world if we do.”