15 August 2018

How women are rallying round the cause of climate injustice

From natural disasters to food and water shortages, women are more affected by climate change than men. An inspiring podcast looks at their fightback – starting in court

Mary Robinson and Maeve Higgins
Former Irish president and lawyer Mary Robinson (left) and comedian Maeve Higgins take on the world

Ruth Medjber

Mothers of Invention podcast, available online, produced by the non-profit Doc Society

CALIFORNIA and Portugal are burning, Greece is in ashes and heat-stressed fish are dying in droves in Germany. It is easy to despair as the full force of climate change is felt across the northern hemisphere.

Amid this gloom, Mothers of Invention, a six-part podcast hosted by former Irish president –and lawyer – Mary Robinson and comedian Maeve Higgins, is a beacon of hope. It showcases how women around the world are banding together to fight for solutions and are generating remarkable momentum.


In the first episode, we meet women among the lawyers, activists, university students and children who are bravely suing governments and multinationals over their climate negligence (see Meet the ‘climate kids’ suing the US government over global warming).

“Rabab Ali from Pakistan was only 7 years old when she sued her government in 2016”

Tessa Khan, a Bangladeshi-Australian lawyer, explains that most legal systems contain duties of care that make it incumbent on governments to protect their citizens from harm. These can be interpreted as including climate change.

There have been some spectacular successes. In 2015, for example, Dutch environmental group Urgenda won the first citizen-led climate litigation case against a government. Its legal team successfully argued that the Netherlands was not doing enough to avert dangerous climate change. In response, the court ordered the government to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 25 per cent by 2020.

Marjan Minnesma, the Dutch lawyer who co-founded Urgenda, tells Robinson and Higgins she “did not imagine what it would spark off”. The victory has inspired hundreds of copycat cases and boosted what Dutch-Bolivian film-maker Chihiro Geuzebroek calls our “collective boldness”.

Geuzebroek, who was one of the 886 co-plaintiffs in the Urgenda case, is now one of 10,000 Dutch citizens suing fossil fuel giant Shell. “We’re moving the bar again,” she says.

Climate litigation has particularly been embraced by women, says Robinson, who has become a committed climate campaigner since her presidency. “It really reflects my own experiences travelling the world,” she explains, adding that it is “women in general who are just rolling up their sleeves and getting on with it”.

Khan says this may be because women are disproportionately affected by climate change. She says that research has found that women are more likely than men to die in natural disasters and to experience the effects of food and water shortages due to their traditional caregiving roles.

Girls and young women, who will be impacted by climate change for the longest, have been especially active. Rabab Ali from Pakistan, for example, was only 7 years old when she sued her government in 2016. “In Karachi, the pollution level is very high. It directly affects IQ level of kids,” she tells Robinson and Higgins. Ridhima Pandey, an 11-year-old from India, and Sarah Thomson, a New Zealand law student, have also launched similar cases against their governments.

Robinson and Higgins also speak to Kelsey Juliana and Victoria Barrett, two of the 21 young people who will be entering court in October to argue that the US government is violating their right to life, liberty and property by allowing excessive fossil fuel use. “I genuinely am optimistic that our government will listen to us and hear our demands,” says Juliana.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether this collective action will have any meaningful impact. The outcome of the Urgenda case, for example, remains uncertain after the Dutch government launched an appeal. And many of the subsequent climate litigation cases have also failed, including those seeking to block Australia’s plan to build the country’s biggest-ever coal mine.

Nevertheless, listening to Robinson and Higgins’s podcast is enough to make anyone want to roll up their sleeves. As Thomson tells them: “Courage is contagious, and when you see other people dedicated to fighting for a cause, it’s hard not to be inspired by that.”

In future episodes, the duo will showcase women who are fighting fossil fuels outside the courtroom, for example, by campaigning against plastic and helping to spread solar power in developing countries.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Climate justice, now!”