During the Opening Ceremony of the World Library and Information Congress (WLIC) 2022, Mary Robinson, Former President of Ireland, Chair of The Elders and Adjunct Professor of Climate Justice, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, delivered a stirring keynote address on the Challenge of the Climate Crisis.

Drawing on the theme of WLIC 2022, inspire, engage, enable, and connect, she challenged the global library field to step up efforts to face the injustices of the climate crisis and spark conversations on radical change. In this, she called on librarians to be prisoners of hope, and to allow hope to turn into energy.

She stressed that this seemingly impossible task can only be achieved through collaboration, and requires every sector of society to take part.

Watch the Keynote Address

Transcript: The Challenge of the Climate Crisis

Good morning, bonjour, buenos dias, bon dia, jambo, dia dhuit!

I really like the way you value the diversity of languages at this Congress, and it is an honour to address the IFLA World Library and Information Congress 2022 on the challenge of climate change – the challenge of the climate crisis rather.

I also want to extend my own warm céad míle fáilte. It was great to see the flash mob yesterday in the front square of Trinity College and the reading of Ulysses in different languages. We really like visitors like you. Welcome, welcome, 100,000 welcomes!

I intend to challenge you. Because we’re in a world of different crises – the worst of which is the climate crisis.

But first, I want to evoke the spirit and personality of a dear friend who encouraged me to love libraries.  Vartan Gregorian, who sadly passed away last year, but had, of course, revived the New York Public Library and was head of the Carnegie Foundation. He supported libraries around the world, following the example of Andrew Carnegie, with whom he identified very closely.

Vartan also supported the Trinity College Library, and one of his last public events was a great conversation with its librarian, Helen Shenton. I often heard him speak of libraries as gateways to knowledge and culture. He would explain that the resources and services they offer create opportunities for learning, as the Armenian church’s library in Iran did for him as a 12-year-old boy.

There’s a particular phrase of Vartan’s that I love: generosity has no expiry date.  I’m glad to salute Vartan again on this special occasion.

In preparing to challenge you all, I googled the role of libraries in the 21st century. I liked this answer:

The libraries of the 21st century provide a welcoming common space that encourages exploration, creation and collaboration between students, teachers and a broader community. They bring together the best of the physical and digital to create learning hubs.

It was encouraging, in fact, to see that the evolving role of libraries and librarians in the 21st century is quite a hot topic – as it should be. And that’s why I want to challenge you.

Last week at a climate conference in Berlin, António Guterres, Secretary General of the UN, warned that half of humanity is in the danger zone from floods, droughts, extreme storms, and wildfires. No nation is immune, yet we continue to feed our fossil fuel addiction. We have a choice: collective action or collective suicide. It is in our hands.

I’ll come back to this question of choice, as I assume naturally, that librarians are on the side of collective action. First, I want to emphasise that the climate crisis has not happened any other way. It is human induced, and within that there are serious injustices. I’ve identified at least five layers of injustice.

Firstly, the injustice that the climate crisis has hit both earlier and more ferociously the poorest countries and the poorest communities. The small island states, the indigenous peoples, and of course, they are largely the black and brown and indigenous people of our world, so this is also a racial injustice.

Secondly, within that is gender injustice. Women have different social roles, have less power, sometimes have less rights, like land rights. Yet, they have to put food on the table, go further in drought for water, make their communities resilient. So, this is a gender injustice.

Thirdly, the intergenerational injustice, and thankfully, young climate activists have been calling us out on this. They are emphasising the burden that they are going to have because we are not fulfilling our responsibility. They cannot do it, they are not in power, and they are calling on us and to address this inter-generational injustice.

Fourthly, and this is subtle but important, is the injustice of the different pathways to development in different regions of the world. Industrialised countries built our economies on fossil fuel. Our responsibility is to be grateful to the workers in coal, oil, gas, and in [Ireland], peat, who helped us to become modern industrialised countries. [Our responsibility] is to make sure that we have a just transition away from fossil fuel as quickly as possible, while not leaving behind the communities and the workers who helped us to build our economies. That is the importance of just transition.

But what about developing countries? I remember because I was the Special Envoy of the Secretary General before the Paris Climate Agreement, the way that so many developing countries in their nationally determined contributions said they wanted to go as green as possible as quickly as possible with clean energy.

But we didn’t help with the investment, with the transfer of technology, with the skills, with the possibilities for developing countries to go green more quickly. And therefore, they are caught in these many crises at the moment – the COVID crisis, the debt crisis – and the fact that they have suffered for much longer than the northern hemisphere from the climate crisis.

And the fifth injustice is the injustice to nature herself. The terrible loss of biodiversity, the extinction of species, the reports that are coming out that we are not addressing the fact that we are possibly turning nature into an enemy – nature being our greatest friend. The forests being [carbon] sinks, the ocean being a huge sink, and yet we are destroying their capacity to help us in our own survival.

Being aware of these injustices encourages what I call a climate justice approach and strengthens the moral case for collective action. Climate scientists worldwide, including the IPCC (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), have warned of how perilous the situation now is. We have to reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and reach zero carbon by 2050. At present, we are on course for a 2.7 degrees Celsius warming above pre-industrial standards, which would be catastrophic. 2030 is seven years away. Next January, the time for gradual, incremental change is gone.

We need to step up totally. I’m involved with various networks of women leaders and young climate activists in planning, with an urgent moon-shot mentality, to build a climate justice movement for transformative action on climate.

Now here’s my challenge to you all. I know many of you are already taking some action, but we all need to step up tenfold. What are the ways librarians can rise to the challenge and be part of the collective action that the Secretary General was calling for to secure a sustainable future for people and planet?

Interestingly, a leading climate scientist, Katharine Hayhoe, has identified a key problem. We don’t talk about the climate crisis. We don’t talk about it in our homes. We don’t talk about it in our communities. We don’t talk about it in our workplaces. We don’t talk about it with our colleagues.

In her book, Saving Us, she puts it this way, “I’m convinced that the single most important thing that anyone, not just me, but literally anyone can do to bring people together is, ironically, the very thing we fear most – talk about it”. Why are people not talking about something that matters to them so much?

And actually, her book, Saving Us, is a very good example of how to have that conversation, because Katharine Hayhoe, who is Canadian, is based at a Texas university. I call it an oxymoron, I think, to be a Canadian based in Texas. But anyway, she does it very deliberately because she’s talking to those who tend to be the deniers, who tend to not want to talk about it, and she has found the way to do it. Her book, Saving Us, is a great example of how to open up that conversation.

This is my challenge to libraries and librarians: help us encourage people to talk to each other more and more about the climate crisis.

Your theme for this year seems perfect for this: Inspire, engage, enable, and connect. You know better than me how proactive you can be. How can you create an enabling environment to start this vital conversation? How can you inspire young people to be innovative? How can you use knowledge to motivate people? How can you encourage collective action for change?

I’m very aware, as Chair of the Elders, that I fill quite heavy shoes. The first chair was my beloved friend Archbishop Tutu, who died on Christmas Eve last year, and he was a wonderful voice for truth and hope. We have to bring hope into our world on this. I often tell the story of being with Arch, as he encouraged us to call him, at a conference in New York of young people called the Social Good Conference. They were all on their iPads and their phones, and this was about 15 years ago, and we were being moderated by an American journalist.

And of course, when Arch gets in front of young people, he would throw up his arms, tell them how much he loved them, believed in them. And the moderator said quite sharply, Archbishop Tutu, why are you such an optimist? And he looked at her and he shook his head and he said, “oh, no, I’m not an optimist. I’m a prisoner of hope”.

In many ways, we all have to be now prisoners of hope in this very difficult world we find ourselves in. Because hope brings energy.

If you talk about the climate crisis in a way, which it is possible to do – that is, in a sense part of what the secretary general was saying, about how serious it is. “Are we going to choose collective suicide?”, he even said. We can make that very negative, or we can choose to be prisoners of hope and find the energy to be resilient.

The word resilience has been used quite a bit, and that is, I think, what we really need in order to work together and to do the impossible. The task may seem impossible, but it will work if every sector, every sector, of society steps up in this way.

And as Chair of the Elders, I’d like to conclude with a succinct phrase of our founder, Nelson Mandela, “it always seems impossible until it is done”.

It always seems impossible until it is done.

Go raibh maith agat, thank you very much.