Former Irish President on Elon Musk: "If You're Going to Colonise Mars, Why Not Help Kiribati to Have a Future Against Rising Sea Water?"

By James O Malley on at

What’s the next logical career move after being President of Ireland, and then United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights? It turns out that it might be to start a podcast.

Mothers of Invention is a new podcast series that takes a feminist approach to what it calls “climate justice” - the idea that climate change isn’t just some abstract environmental issue, but that it is also an important ethical issue, and is something that will profoundly impact humans too.

The show is co-hosted by Mary Robinson, who was President of the Irish Republic from 1990 until 1997 along with comedian Maeve Higgins, and in each episode they speak to some of the women who are making a big contribution to tackling climate change. Robinson, a self-confessed podcasting newbie, of course, plays the subject matter expert - and Higgins acts both as the voice of the listener, and as what she described at the launch as Robinson’s “cultural attaché” into the world of podcasting.

It makes for fascinating listening - in the first episode, they concentrate on how campaigners are using the courts to force governments around the world to take more action, which is a tactic I hadn’t really thought about before.

At the launch event, I got a chance to have a brief chat with the two hosts to learn more about their approach.

Giz: The premise of the podcast is taking a feminist approach to climate justice. What does that mean in a nutshell?

Mary Robinson: A feminist approach to climate change, in a sense, is the climate justice approach. It means first of all we’re very people-centred. [We’re focused on] the impact on the poorest countries and the poorest communities, because there’s an injustice that they’re not responsible for and yet they’re the most affected.

And even in rich countries the poorer communities, communities of colour, indigenous communities, there’s a gender dimension to climate change, which is huge. It just impacts more on women because they have different social roles, they have different responsibilities. They have to put food on the table, they have to go further for water, and so on.

We have a rampant capitalist system, we have terrible inequality in our world, [and] there’s a crushing of the trade union movement which used to make things fairer in a social compact kind of way. We’ve lost that. And so you know we really want to address how we re-insert those values of solidarity and fairness back into the system.

Maeve Higgins: I think feminism is another word for equality, right? So I think for me it’s been a really helpful way to frame, like, this is one way of dealing with climate change because the reason we’ve gotten into this mess is it’s been patriarchy and it’s been capitalism. That’s what’s gotten us here. So it does make sense to me that it would be a feminist solution.

Robinson: But it doesn’t exclude men. And we’re very keen in future episodes to find our feminist men…

Higgins: And trans people, non-binary... all welcome!

Giz: Is there a particular individual who you think best exemplifies this approach?

Robinson: Well on the litigation for example, Tessa Khan was here and really spoke to me because she has a background a bit like mine. She is a human rights lawyer who came to climate change, and is using her lawyer skills to promote litigation about climate. There are probably as many as a thousand cases now pending in courts all over the world.

There was a successful case in Pakistan. The Human Rights Commission in the Philippines is taking on the government there and fossil fuel companies. So the cases are mainly against governments or fossil fuel companies. [A] court hearing itself [...] can really bring home to people, this is something we have to get serious about.

And the whole motivation as far as I’m concerned is we have limited time in which to change course from the fact that we’re not on course for a safe world for our children and grandchildren, nephews, nieces... and I have six grandchildren, who will be in their 30s and 40s in 2050 and will share the world with nine and a half billion people... go figure!

Higgins: I think the movement that really helped to open my eyes was the Black Lives Matter movement, which is five years old now. I think the history of civil rights and the groundswell of people-power from civil rights movements through the years in the States is really inspirational to me when it comes to climate justice. I think that, you know in the past I kind of thought that “oh, Black Lives Matter is about police brutality”, but it’s very intersectionalist, it’s about ending poverty and it’s about the racialised history of immigration, and it’s about climate justice, you know. So Sarra Tekola was our guest, her work is with Black Lives Matter, and she really is an amazing leader that we can all look to.

Giz: Ideologically I’m completely on board with what you’re saying. I’m all for social justice and tackling climate change, but my worry is that climate change is such an urgent problem that linking the two issues could make them harder to solve. I’m thinking if you look at the Republicans in America who are completely intractable - it seems that reorganising economics is just as difficult as reducing emissions. So my question is, it is possible to have a capitalist system and still tackle climate change, or must social justice and climate change reduction necessarily go hand in hand?

Robinson: Well I kind of work with business, particularly The B Team [a group of business leaders led by Richard Branson], which have committed to being zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and do it the climate justice way. They are also aware that the capitalist system has become broken. That it’s no longer a credible system for so many people.

So they talk about responsible capitalism, well that would at least be better than the rampant, irresponsible capitalism we’re seeing in our world at the moment. But I think the feminist solution, [the] progressive solution, is a necessary part of getting across the message that we need to change course, and why we need to change course, and that there is an injustice in the fact that the impacts are being felt more now by poorer countries and communities, and by poor communities in richer countries. But actually nobody can solve this on their own.

We need that solidarity and we need to create a movement of climate justice by linking all the social movements around the world and by getting the message out in a hopeful and can-do, proactive, energising people way. I hope that people listen to the podcast and say, “Wow, that was fun, and I can get involved there”. That’s what we want.

Giz: What do you think of Elon Musk? With Tesla, he’s creating electric vehicles and pioneering new battery technology that could conceivably help mitigate the impact of climate change… but he’s also a free market libertarian.

Higgins: I think there’s a place for Elon Musk in climate justice, for sure, but I worry that you know so much money is being pumped into solutions to problems that, like, are continuously being created. And I’m talking about say the space race, like trying to colonise Mars or make the moon liveable.. It’s like no, work on the planet here!

Robinson: Yeah, if you’re going to colonise Mars, why not help Kiribati to have a future, against rising sea water? And all the other islands? That would be better for humanity.

And also Musk is moving towards clean energy but I don’t think we’re here to judge people particularly. We certainly need projects for climate justice, for clean energy, that respect human rights.

[There’s] actually a problem of mega-projects for clean energy in developing countries that don’t respect land and water rights and the rights of indigenous peoples. The clean energy industry is a new industry and it’s making a lot of mistakes through not having proper guidelines of how to go about coming into a developing country, and very often the head of state or the President or the Prime Minister just wants the energy, [and] doesn’t care about his people – [he] should, but doesn’t.

Higgins: You know, wealthy people, they’re not who I look to for leadership. For leadership on issues of climate change I look to people who are on the ground working and those people are often indigenous people, they’re often people of colour, and that’s who I’m interested in hearing from when it comes to solutions. I think if [Musk] wants to contribute, great, but that’s not who I’m going to be looking to for leadership.

The first episode of Mothers of Invention is available for download now.