After a career as the first female President of Ireland and then as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, you started the Mary Robinson Foundation—Climate Justice. What is climate justice, and why is it an important cause for you?

In the foundation, we define climate justice as follows: climate justice links human rights and development to achieve a human-centered approach, safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable, and sharing the burdens and benefits of climate change and its resolution equitably and fairly.

We begin with the injustice of climate change, which is that human-induced climate change from greenhouse gas emissions is affecting the poorest countries and communities most severely, but the poorest are the least responsible. Therefore, we must address the problem by prioritizing access for the poorest to the benefits of a renewable energy economy. Almost three billion people do not have access to electricity and cook on traditional stoves that have big health dangers, particularly for women and children.

Please tell us more about how climate change disproportionately affects women.

Climate change disproportionately affects women because it undermines livelihoods. It undermines food security, and this impacts the large number of women who are responsible for putting food on the table, who are the farmers in developing countries. Women are also more vulnerable when there are movements because of climate disasters. There is evidence that women are likely to be injured and killed in larger numbers, partly because they try to protect their children.

Shifting the focus to more recent events, how do you evaluate the outcome of the recent climate negotiations in Lima? What do you think this means for Paris?

There was significant momentum created before Lima—at the Climate Summit and particularly by the European Union countries—to agree to a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and to make targets on energy efficiency and renewables. This created a certain optimism for the first day or so in Lima. However, as the negotiations continued, it became clear that it would be difficult to make progress. At the end, not enough progress was made in Lima, particularly on a draft text for Paris, and that is what we need to work on in the next round in Geneva—from the 8th to the 13th of February—so that we have a negotiation text for Paris itself.

There are still a lot of issues that have not been negotiated and decided upon. One of them is climate finance. In total, countries have pledged just over 10 billion dollars to the Green Climate Fund, which was the minimum target set by the UN. We still need to find pathways to the commitment made in Copenhagen, which was one hundred billion US dollars a year by 2020, in public finance or public leveraged finance. That is essential because most climate action will have to take place in developing countries with emerging economies, because they need the infrastructure, the buildings, the roads, et cetera. If they are forced to use fossil fuels in developing, then we have no chance of staying below the warming limit of 2 degrees above pre-industrial standards, which was agreed upon in Cancun.

It is very important that we seek commitment on climate finance in particular, and on the concerns of the poorest countries, to ensure that their voices will be heard.

What are some concrete ways in which we can increase the input of the marginalized in the coming negotiations? Are there any cases from the past?

I think it is important to recognize that the process for a climate agreement involves 193 countries, and all of them can affect the result. The Small Island States, the Least Developed Countries, and the African Group constitute a significant number of countries.

We can learn from the talks in Durban, where countries were seeking to prepare the way for the Paris agreement and to agree on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. In the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, for the first time it was agreed that every country had to do more on climate. This was to say that now, the urgency requires that all countries act, but of course the countries with historical responsibility should act quicker and do more. It was only possible to reach an agreement on this platform through the Durban Alliance, which was a group that wanted a bigger binding agreement in Paris. This group included the European Union, the Small Island States, the Least Developed Countries, and the African Group. When they had about 140 countries, finally all the countries—including China and the United States—accepted this platform. I hope that we can reach a consensus using a similar process on the road to Paris. The smaller countries that are desperate to get a climate agreement can work with the EU and other big groups. That would be a way in which the voices of the marginalized would be heard.

On the topic of developing countries, you’ve said previously that developing countries need “access to energy, not emissions.” What is the difference between the two, and how can we make this transition feasible?

We have a tendency to think about energy in terms of fossil fuels such as oil, gas, or fuel. I think we need to break that connection. Yes, poor developing countries need energy for their development, and they have a right to develop, but it doesn’t have to be fossil fuels. I’m very encouraged by the number of countries that are beginning to commit to the goal of zero carbon by 2050 or even much earlier—some are committing to zero carbon by 2020. The whole world needs to go zero carbon by 2050, and to do it in a fair climate justice way, if we want to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming.

So it’s very important that emerging economies have access to renewable energy, but there are problems such as that of cost, transfer of technology, or lack of investment in green infrastructure. That’s why innovative climate finance is important—it takes the risk out of developing.

Most of the climate action that will give us a safe world will take place in developing countries. They need infrastructure for development, and they will insist on developing with dirty fuels if it is not possible to do it with clean energy. Many heads of state in developing countries have told me that they want to achieve development with renewable energy, but that they need the investment and technology from richer parts of the world in order to do that. So we are interconnected, in effect, we have a human solidarity.

So you think that it’s possible to achieve development and solve the problem of climate change at the same time.

Yes, very much so.

Recently, there has been a lot of action on the ground, as we have seen in events such as the People’s Climate March. It seems that people all over the world are calling for a binding, ambitious climate deal this year in Paris. How can we best translate this action into climate policy?

I very much welcome the increasing mobilization; I myself took part in the Climate March in New York. It was a wonderful moment of human solidarity. In 2015, we need to see a climate movement that is as broad-based as possible. That includes civil society and social movements, progressive business and state-based groups, academics and women, and religion; the Pope is giving very good leadership. We especially need to see the involvement of youth, because there is a key dimension of intergenerational injustice in climate. It is my grandchildren, who will be in their forties in 2050, who may bear the brunt of the fact that my generation is not doing enough. Young people are particularly important.

I know from my own experience, as somebody that has held political office, that politicians respond to broad public pressure. The Climate March in New York did have an impact on discussions in the Climate Summit. If we can mobilize so that the world’s attention is on every climate meeting in 2015—for example on social media—and many people who are insistent on the need for a fair, robust, legally binding agreement in Paris speak up, then we have a much better chance of getting it.

So you’re optimistic?

I always answer that question by saying that I borrow from my friend the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I am a prisoner of hope.

Who are the global leaders that citizens have to look up to at a time of crisis such as this, and what do you think the role of global leadership is?

I think that there’s a moral dimension to this issue. It’s a political issue, it’s a development issue, it’s an environmental issue, but it’s also a moral issue. That’s where I think moral leadership can be important. The group that I belong to brought together by Nelson Mandela, the Elders, has decided to prioritize climate change during 2015, and link it to the post-2015 development agenda. Our chair, Kofi Annan, honorary chair Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Graça Machell, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Lakhdar Brahimi, Fernando Cardoso—we will all be speaking out very loudly on this issue. Al Gore has also been giving very good leadership. There will be very many other voices, and I hope there will be young voices. Malala, using her Nobel Peace Prize as an opportunity, has talked about galvanizing youth, and that’s a good example of leadership.

Speaking of different actors in climate change, how can we push the private sector to take action?

I believe that the private sector is very important, and there are progressive voices in the private sector that completely understand the need for business to give good leadership. The problem is that a component of business is the fossil fuel sector, so there is a divide.

In fact, I am going to Davos tomorrow, and I will be working with a lot of business groups—in particular, I will be working with what’s called the “B Team.” That’s a group of leaders that includes Richard Branson, Mo Ibrahim, and a number of others. The B Team says that business has been responsible for the problem in the past, and now must take responsibility—within each business, but also in talking to politicians and linking with civil society. I will moderate a meeting between business leaders and civil society leaders so that there can be a joint agreement in time. You probably know that that’s quite unusual—civil society and business are not always close. But there is a common ground of realization that we’re running out of time, that we need to work together. A lot of the action will be by investment and the building of infrastructure and technology in developing countries, and that’s the role that business has to play.

Finally, even outside of the realm of climate change, you’ve done a lot of work related to refugees and human rights. What can ordinary citizens do for human rights? What do you encourage readers to do?

I have been focused on the link between climate change and human rights because I have recognized that climate change has a terrible negative impact on human rights.

I would encourage that people first of all just look up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Google, and read it, maybe read it again. It’s a wonderful document; even the first article begins “all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights.” And when I talk about human rights, I often point out that dignity comes before human rights, and dignity is all about that sense of self worth, of being respected, of having a voice. These are all human rights issues.

The focus should be on the local, as human rights are better talked about and fought for on the local level. We can all be good consumers—buy fair trade, refrain from buying goods that are environmentally degrading, and be conscious of our climate footprint. We need to do our part in making the world safe, because it is the biggest human rights challenge of our century.

On bigger human rights issues, we can support organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or locally based organizations. Most of them have local branches and it’s quite easy now to support them. And when people do get involved, they will feel enriched. In a way, that’s what is captured in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.