Sunday, February 26, 2012

Pleas of Dr. Robinson

With apologies to Anne Bancroft, Paul Simon, and Art Garfunkel. 
During dinner with Parris Glendening a few years ago, someone asked the former professor and former Maryland governor which title was appropriate. Feigning modesty (as I would probably have done), he replied that he had heard one should use the “higher” title, with the clear implication that “Governor” was therefore preferred to “Doctor” or professor.

I was reminded of this last evening as I sat in rapt attention during a ceremony in which former Irish President (and Dr.) Mary Robinson did my profession the favor of receiving geography’s highest honor, the Atlas Award. Despite the etiquette breach – and how deeply privileged I felt simply to be in the audience – I could not resist the pop-culture reference in the title of this blog post.

President Robinson was the first female president of Ireland and the first head of state to visit post-genocide Rwanda. She then served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She is also a founding member of The Elders and recently received my country's greatest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It was not lost on her that the twenty-first century has opened with geography recognizing the lifelong leadership of two women – her friend Dr. Jane Goodall received the inaugural award in 2010.

President Robinson now leads Mary Robinson Foundation -- Climate Justice, an organization whose very name captures in two simple words the profound message that she brought to the 8,000 geographers assembled in New York City for our annual meeting. (Only a few hundred were in the room, but her words were clear and we can consider ourselves advised of how she sees our role in the world at this critical juncture between humans and the earth we inhabit.) Climate Justice describes a critical intersection between science and ethics. While politicians and pundits in the United States fritter away their time in ever more vitriolic and delusional dismissals of the obvious, physical and human systems are colliding in ways that are both severe and profoundly unjust.

Robinson spoke of Climate Justice in terms of three geographies: the Geography of Vulnerability, the Geography of Responsibility, and the Geography of Politics and Power.

See more on my CLIMATE PAGE
She mentioned, for example, already-growing gaps between those who are harmed by climate change and those who stand to benefit in certain ways. Growing seasons in tropical low latitudes -- where economically underdeveloped countries are concentrated -- are being shortened by drought, in contrast to longer growing seasons in upper-mid latitudes. As if to put a coda on her speech, I saw daffodils flourishing near the hotel the following morning, even though it is still February!

President Robinson argues that the juncture at which we find ourselves requires “in-depth evaluation of what we mean by equity in development.” She is encouraged that at the recent climate summit in Durban the European Union, the Least-Developed States, and the Small-Island States led the way toward a successor to Kyoto, in the form of a $100,000,000,000 annual Green Climate Fund. (See what The Economist, Nature, and my blog had to say at the time.)

Delivering on that commitment is even more important, in her view, than is reaching overall greenhouse gas commitments. That is to say, reaching a target such as 350 ppm carbon dioxide may be necessary, but not sufficient if equity is not forcefully addressed. even if we could reach Kyoto targets, it would be an insufficient response, because of the inequities in the geographies she describes.

At the end of her remarks, President-Doctor Robinson called geographers to account, admonishing us:
You understand how our planet works.

You can now listen to President Robinson's address in its entirety.

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