The Problem with Balance

agriculture, breast feeding, climate change, climate justice, environment, pope francis, Uncategorized

Balance is always a good thing. We talk about people being balanced, about approaches being balanced and about having a good work life balance. Balance never seems to be bad. Saying something is unbalanced, or worse, that a person is unbalanced, has negative undertones. If it refers to an issue, it either assumes that something is unfair or biased. If it relates to a person, it usually insinuates that the person is facing some kind of emotional problem, often related to stress – “that person is a bit unbalanced.” It is often used to dismiss their opinion or perspective. But is balance always so good?
Yesterday, after a year of internal wrangling, the European Commission presented its ‘balanced’ proposal on how the EU member states will share the burden of tackling climate change. It outlines all the national targets countries have agreed on, based on criteria of fairness, solidarity and cost-effectiveness. Ireland has come out of this pretty well when it comes to minimising targets – in fact, it has managed to achieve nearly +10% “flexibility” in its already reduced -30% emissions target. Given that Ireland is significantly off track with its 2020 target, this is an added bonus. It is breath-taking. Other countries have already made serious in-roads in their emissions, and are aiming to make further cuts of up to 40% – with no extra flexibility for wriggle room. 
For some, especially those who have long argued for this special status on behalf of Ireland’s agri-food sector, this is a political triumph. The media seems to be presenting it as such. For others, who really know what this means from a climatic perspective and who have deep understanding of the massive political capital expended in the process, it is very disheartening – and that’s putting it mildly. Trócaire called Ireland’s approach it a ‘derogation of global responsibility’, particularly towards the millions of people Ireland claims to be helping through its aid programme centred on alleviating hunger.
At the MacGill Summer School in Donegal, last night, almost by coincidence, a debate on this very issue was held between some of Ireland’s leading lights on this very issue. A balanced debate, you might say. Professor John Sweeney, Ireland’s leading climate scientist, outlined in meticulous detail the extreme urgency of the climate catastrophe. No hyperbole needed – this is an emergency. He demonstrated the impact the nearly 1.5 degree rise in global temperatures is having on the world’s poorest people. He described Ireland’s approach within the EU as “freeloading”, having won a “get out of jail card” to maintain the status quo in our farming sector. Fr. Sean McDonagh, an eco-theologian and close advisor to Pope Francis, then described the deep moral questions raised by humanity’s failure to face up to this issue of existential proportions. 
New Irish Farmers Association President, Joe Healy, then took the floor and presented the perspective of his organisation. Perhaps reading the situation well, he didn’t gloat or present the EC decision as a victory for the hard bargaining of the farmers. He recognised that there are many initiatives that can be undertaken by farmers in order to address emissions – and indeed the IFA is working with other agencies to ensure these are rolled out and that farmers profit from being better stewards of their environment. However, he ignored the fact that this watering down of targets – which we know are already too little, too late – is purely about facilitating the scaling up the beef and dairy industry which already accounts for 47% of our emissions at the expense of everyone else, without so much as a discussion. The recurring theme of his presentation was balance. The balance between the need for the agricultural sector to continue to focus on increasing carbon intensive beef and dairy exports and the moral responsibility of our country to reduce emissions for future generations.
The problem is, when it comes to tackling climate change, balance can actually be a bad thing. Yes, we need to understand winners and losers in the transition to a sustainable future and compensate losses. But we can’t let this transition issue stand in the way of the need to shift toward more ecological food production – changing our consumption habits, and therefore producing and eating less polluting food. But our fixation with balance, level headedness and our misplaced belief that maintaining a good balance will solve this issue is actually leading to the destruction of the planet. It provides cover for those who wish to prolong old perspectives and vested interests which are preventing more transformative change. It starves us of the innovation that comes about through accepting the urgent necessity for change. Isn’t necessity the mother of invention?
We urgently need to become a bit unbalanced. When my house is on fire, the last thing I want is a balanced approach. I don’t want a little bit of water and a bit of petrol mixed in for good measure. I don’t want the 999 call centre to put me on hold or worse, negotiate with me around how much water is available! I want the emergency services to arrive – now. Not tomorrow, not next week. I want them to come immediately. Our planet is burning. That’s the reality which we now face – it is so evident in the long-term data, in what we observe around us, in the experience of the millions now facing starvation across East Africa. Professor Sweeney’s message last night was so stark: the atmosphere does not unfortunately take heed of our balanced approaches. Rather, it betrays a deep disconnect with our physical reality. Yesterday’s EU decision reveals that our political establishment – certainly in Ireland – currently has no intention of shifting tack. They are hell bent on maintaining business as usual, albeit with a little bit of green paint. When will we wake up and smell the coffee?

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"Credibility Costs" – Coherence and Ireland's New Foreign Policy

agriculture, climate change, current affairs, foreign policy

Last week in Dublin, leading academics, policy makers and NGOs gathered at Iveagh House at an event hosted by the Royal Irish Academy to examine how Ireland’s new foreign policy ‘Global Island’ can be translated into practice.
There is a lot good about the new policy. On first glance, many NGOs will be very happy. The themes of inequality, poverty and climate change figure prominently. The values expressed in the first half of the policy are ones which any human rights advocate would welcome, particularly against an international context where human rights are increasingly under attack. Ireland remains committed to core values of fairness, justice, security and sustainability. It commits to standing up for human rights, civil society space and promoting greater gender equality. The country’s enduring commitment to multilateralism, particularly to the UN is re-stated, as is its’ intention to stand for the UN Security Council for 2021-22. Reference is made to the Government’s commitment to the UN target of giving 0.7% of GNI in overseas aid, but unfortunately no timeframe for achieving this forty year old target is included.
On closer reading, however, the striking thing about this new policy is the disconnect between the sections on ‘our values’ and ‘our prosperity’. The sections might well have been written by different people. Whilst the re-statement of values is essential – as it states how we want to be seen in the world – there is a chasm with the main thrust of the document, which relates to economic growth, investment, trade and exports. There is an assumption that these areas somehow stand outside the values framework elaborated previously. The entire focus of the second part of the policy is focused on how invigorated economic diplomacy, including through marketing our national day, can generate prosperity for Ireland.
Within this entire section, there is a complete absence of any reference to values and to the need for policy coherence if we are to address that fact that much of our prosperity is still built on the backs of the poor – and the planet. The section, for example, talks about more integrated and skilled economic diplomacy – but has no mention of human rights and the importance of not compromising principles outlined in the ‘our values’ section in the quest for greater trade and investment.
Three flagship policy areas come into sharp relief in that respect: how Ireland’s corporation tax regime squares with our fairness values; how our expansionist agriculturalist policies around beef and dairy square with our sustainability values; how our trade missions square with our long-standing commitment to engage on human rights issues. Given the increasing influence of transnational finance over international governance structures, the chapter on the removal of barriers to trade, and the absence of values to govern this is extremely concerning. The reference to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership in the policy is very worrying indeed. It is pitched as simply a positive thing, with no reference to serious concerns from civil society, in particular regarding the inclusion of an ISDS mechanism, and implications for human rights and climate change mitigation.
The conclusion one has to draw is that there is perhaps an implicit acceptance of the view expressed by Minister Richard Bruton in his Irish Times article (23rd January 2014) in which he stated that ‘trade missions are not the place to raise human rights’ and that we do human rights in certain multilateral fora such as the UN Human Rights Council. Bilateral trade missions, even with unsavoury regimes, are not the place to argue about human rights. Irish jobs trump every other concern and value.
Values underpinning policy are critical – and the values at the core of this policy are the right ones. However, the litmus test of values, as was said at the President’s ethics initiative, is how they are integrated across policy and applied in the tough choices between policies. Credibility and coherence costs – but there can also be many co-benefits. There need to be clear accountability mechanisms to assess that process of translation. The commitments made on policy coherence for development laid out in the ‘One World, One Future’ development policy in 2013, which would increase transparency and accountability on such issues, have still not been acted on. The OECD highlighted this gap in its review of Irish Aid last year. There are two glimmers of hope in in terms of coherence commitments in the policy. The first is a cross-departmental committee on human rights. This committee has already met once – how the agenda of the committee is shaped and acted on remains to be seen. The second is a consultation around a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. Hopefully these initiatives will deliver.

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