“Climate change isn’t gender-neutral”: Mary Robinson and Maeve Higgins on their positive, feminist vision for climate justice

The comedian and the former president of Ireland talk plastic bag charges, Trump, and why a man-made climate crisis needs a feminist solution
July 28, 2018

When I arrive to interview Mary Robinson and Maeve Higgins, the grass in Soho Square is brown. The workers spread out on the benches could be an art installation designed to showcase different patterns of sunburn. Later that week, the temperature on the Central Line hits 37 degrees. Satellite photographs show a beige archipelago. By the end of the heatwave, the news anchors tell us, the city will have gone six weeks without rain.

We’re here in London because Robinson and Higgins have created a new podcast, Mothers of Invention, to highlight the importance of climate justice.

Robinson, a former president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has been working on climate change for over a decade. Higgins is a comedian—a useful thing to have, she says, in the climate change conversation, where curiosity (and a willingness to ask stupid questions) go a long way.

A feminist approach

As the title suggests, there is a feminist aspect to the podcast, which tells the stories of people—principally women—who are already leading initiatives to fight back against climate change.

“Climate change is a man-made problem and needs a feminist solution,” Robinson says, smiling—although she’s keen to add that men, too, can be “mothers of invention.”

“You don’t have to be a mother,” says Higgins. “I’m not a mother that I know of.” (Robinson interjects, dryly: “I think you would know, Maeve.”)

“It wasn’t a choice we made, to say there’s a feminist solution,” Higgins says.

“Climate change isn’t gender-neutral. It affects women the most and the worst, so it makes sense that it’s women in the global south that are coming up with solutions. They’re the people facing the worst of it.”

“We’re just giving that a platform.”

The big shifts

Both Higgins and Robinson note that, in terms of climate, some of the most significant actions originate outside the global north.

“I spend a lot of time in Africa,” Robinson says, “and women are really on the move there. There’s a minister in Kenya, for instance, who put a very large fine on plastic bags.”

It’s these sorts of actions, made by women who are in positions to affect “big shifts,” which she’s particularly keen to instigate.

“It’s not just individual behaviour—we do focus on that, and the wonderful women who are doing things—but we need the legislative change.”

I worry, however, about the capacity for other countries to instigate that change. Here in the UK, for instance, there is a sense that politics has become sclerotic while Brexit dominates the agenda; elsewhere, the fight against climate change is belittled by “strongman” leaders, who are either disinterested or outright hostile.

Robinson admits that, in this respect, “we’re not in a good place globally.”

“We have to take on climate change, and it doesn’t help that we’re not getting good leadership in that sense.” She cites Trump’s attempts to bring the US out of the Paris Agreement, and the $100bn that is no longer being given to the Green Climate Fund as a result.

Nevertheless, she is optimistic. “We do have the frameworks. 2015 was a great year for the world because it gave us the 2030 agenda, with its commitment that every country in the world must learn to be sustainable. No country at the moment is living sustainably with mother earth. Every country has to do what it has to do.”

“I find that agenda very energizing. It needs solidarity, and it’s a solidarity of self-interest, because no country can solve climate change on its own.”

An intersectional solution

Both women also push back against the suggestion that climate change could, despite its seriousness, be overlooked compared to what can often seem to be more pressing items on the news agenda.

“Climate is one of the top priorities whatever you’re interested in,” Higgins says. “If your concern is migration, and immigrant’s rights, it comes back to climate change: the worse climate change is, the more people are going to be migrating.”

She tells the story of Sarra Tekola, a Black Lives Matter activist who has drawn links between climate activism and anti-racist movements.

“She manages to put climate at the forefront even when she’s talking about police brutality. She talks about how her city has more trees where the white people are than where the black people are.”

Robinson, too, sees climate change as closely linked with other kinds of justice. “Money is far too important in the politics of various countries, and it’s undermining a sense of what democracy’s about.”

“We have a truly shockingly unequal world at the moment. The buying of politics, the lobbying; this is all undermining a sense of our democratic values. And I think climate justice is key to that.”

“We can be very optimistic while also addressing the ways this patriarchal, capitalist system has got out of hand.”


“When you’re working to fix something you have optimism naturally, because why else would you be doing it?” —Maeve Higgins


Another activist—Anne Poelina, an indigenous rights activist in Australia—is the perfect example of that optimism, says Higgins. “She’s a protector of a river there for her tribe, and she’s a midwife and a nurse—”

“And has a couple of doctorates,” Robinson chips in.

“—she’s a real overachiever! But she’s so jolly, and fun, and warm. When you’re working to fix something you have optimism naturally, because why else would you be doing it?”

Robinson agrees. “I happen to be a grandmother of six children, having been a mother of three. And I do think about the world that I see for them. They’ll be in their thirties and forties in 2050, and they’ll share the world with over 9 billion people. That’s a very big increase, in a world where we’re already having climate shocks.”

“At the moment, we’re not on course for a safe world. But if we can see it in terms of what a better world could be—for health, for jobs, for our economic future…” She trails off. Behind her, through the window, I can see the workers leaving the brown grass of Soho Square, brushing the dust off their clothes from where they’ve sat on the dry ground. It will be several days before the storm breaks.

“How can we possibly not care about a safe world for our children and grandchildren? For me, that’s incomprehensible.”

Doc Society’s new podcast series Mothers of Invention is out now with new episodes released until. 17th SeptemberTo listen to the trailer and subscribe click here.