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?

After Brexit: Life in the New Normal

Brexit, climate change, climate justice, current affairs, foreign affairs, Uncategorized

I’m trying to make sense of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Words have escaped me, as they escaped me so often recently… after the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels,  when I saw the body of that little boy on the beach, or heard of the tragic loss of Jo Cox MP – a shining star in a rising sea of darkness.
The difference between this tragedy and these other tragedies that have periodically pierced our bubble of normality over the past year is that this one is self inflicted. But these tragedies are all connected. The sense of losing control, of encroaching threat, of fear knocking on our doors has been steadily rising. Until yesterday – in the UK at least – the reaction to this growing fear was an outburst, an emotional reaction to what were seen as external events. Give it a few days, the media moved on and normality or sorts returned. But the fear continued to simmer. Yesterday, however, this reaction morphed into an internalisation of the destructive force of that fear. It has become the new normal. It is inescapable now because the repercussions of this self-inflicted wound are so far-reaching.
I spent the first day of a post-Brexit world trying to understand my citizenship options as a non-resident UK citizen living in another EU country. Many others I’m sure will have done the same. I am an EU citizen and I can’t just “un-become” one. My life, my family depends on being part of the EU. It has shaped my life in so many ways. The implications of this sense of ‘un-becoming’ for so many
will only grow over time as the deep community connections, the family bonds created and sustained on the basis of being one EU, trading relationships carved out, are now fundamentally altered. Many funding arrangements now need to be rethought. Such is the depth of our inter-dependence, which has sustained peace and stability for several generations, the challenges of extricating us from what is an essential part of who we are is a mammoth task. It massively time consuming,  expensive and deeply divisive.
What’s more, the whole exercise in many respects is the most extraordinary, dangerous waste of time and distraction from the most urgent challenges we face today. The stark reality is that this decade is the last chance we have to address climate change – a global threat that requires a political mindset based on interdependence and deep collaboration across borders. The EU’s leadership role, whilst far from perfect, in this has been critical, as it has in so many global issues. As a friend put it “Brexit is like shifting teacups around whilst the world is burning”.  The political momentum required to tackle that and other massive global problems has just been dealt a significant blow.
 For however massive this political earthquake is, it also generates a unique moment of opportunity.  In fact, people have suddenly been awoken from a slumber – from a false sense of security about the forward path of progress – and more will awaken in the coming weeks as they realise what they perhaps unwittingly voted for. Young people in particular have sooken up. Whilst Brexit gives the illusion that casual racism, xenophobia and bigotry have become a mainstream view, I don’t believe this true. At least not yet. Many were motivated to vote out not by hatred, but by a false hope that this was a good, honourable and reasonable choice for their country. For others, disengaged and excluded from mainstream politics for years, this was a stand against the status quo. Whilst many will stand by their choice, as reality dawns, many others will be sickened and perhaps ashamed by what this actually means and the deceit it is based on.
That sense of political engagement now needs to be harnessed. But it can’t be harnessed by the same political forces that caused this mess. A new force is now needed – one made up of ordinary people who actively reach out and demonstrate with their actions and their voices, that they want a new politics based on a shared humanity – and everything that goes with that… mutual respect, tolerance, dialogue, kindness, equality, compassion, mercy. Those values are not a given now, but need to be re-affirmed, and above all lived out in public life. It is about changing mindsets rathet than minds. In many respects it is the internationalist vision that Jo Cox MP and many many others live and indeed die for. This force cannot remain silent or invisible. It needs to actively reject and resist the hate, intolerance and division which could now permeate society. We now need many more Jos who speak and act with courage and integrity and face down the complacency, fear and anger which exists inside us all.
Yesterday the angry thunderstorm clouds in the skies all over Europe seemed to reflect perfectly the political storm now engulfing us. More than a faint, haunting echo of the words of David Lloyd George and even Churchill came to mind. How unprepared we are for a divided Europe, a Brexit future. Moving forward, as Lloyd George famously said will take ‘all the wisdom, all the calm, all the judgement of the mariners who are guiding the ship.’ In fact, it will take far more than that. It will take new mariners – and we have a choice over who they are. It may even require a new ship. Only a popular movement which affirms in a million words and deeds that we have ‘more in common’ can save us now from ourselves. Europe has come so far. Going back is unthinkable.

A Miracle of Unity at COP21

climate change, climate justice, current affairs, foreign policy, integral ecology, international development, Uncategorized

Something important happened in Paris this weekend which could change the course of history. For the first time, the entire world, all 195 countries – literally everyone – came together to agree to take united action on climate change. They agreed to make this legally binding and took a step together to save our planet. It was the result of many years’ negotiations, tireless campaigning, many prayers and many false starts. But they finally did it.
This sense of history was evident in the speeches made and in the emotion that pervaded the normally reserved conference halls. On Saturday, there were extraordinary scenes of big smiles, warm hugs, kisses, tears, singing, cheering. It was a triumph of unity over division, global solidarity over national interests, hope over despair. Witnessing those scenes of euphoria, you could not fail to get swept up in the emotion and believe in the power of what was happening. History weighed heavily in the air and the spirit of Nelson Mandela in particular seemed to hover: “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great – you can be that generation.” He urged us all, “Let your greatness blossom”. It was a rare, sweet moment of global celebration and he would have been smiling.
Some will call me naïve for lauding the Paris Agreement. Many are already decrying its failure to deliver, saying it is a fraud and that any attempts to talk it up are propaganda. I disagree. The world desperately needed this moment. It goes beyond the fine detail of the agreement itself. The agreement is nowhere near perfect. In fact, it falls down on many key aspects which would ensure that the world is saved from the worst impacts of climate change, especially the poorest countries. But those dismissing it as hype miss the bigger picture: its very existence is little short of a miracle. In fact, just last week I was deeply doubtful myself whether a meaningful agreement could be reached. And yet we now have a universal, equitable (of sorts) and legally binding agreement which is the outcome of a peaceful, negotiated political process. It is the result of the most complex and protracted negotiation in history.
www_delegfrance-unesco_org_Just imagine the alternative. Imagine we woke up on Sunday to a repeat of Copenhagen in 2009, where the talks collapsed amid bitter rancour, back room deals and profound mis-trust. Who would have been the victors? The only victors would have been those who deny climate change  and use their mischief to manipulate the media. Those who have most to benefit by delaying action would have been delighted. It may have spelt the death knell for multilateralism with UN at its’ heart. It would have set back any climate action momentum by years, perhaps indefinitely. Given the turbulent global context moreover, the long shadow of political failure would have deepened divisions and conflicts. It would have spelt disaster, or in Pope Francis words “collective suicide”.
The Agreement has many flaws. It is long on vision and ambition –  stating the need to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees – but it is short on action. The words “fossil fuels” don’t even appear once! Human rights are absent in the legal text. Many things are still pushed into the long grass. Mechanisms for financing are still to be worked out. However, it sets in train a transparent process of raising ambition. This requires all countries, even the oil producers, to make increasing commitments to reduce emissions over the coming years.


La Seine Hall where the Paris Agreement was agreed

Tackling climate change is going to be a long road and will require global collaboration – a commodity which has been sorely lacking in multilateralism in recent years. National self-interest has dominated. Overcoming this short-sighted, narrow-minded political world view has been the biggest obstacle and led the world to the cliff. Like a person trying to wean themselves off a lifetime of addiction, shifting this has required a determination and a commitment to change direction, to see the bigger picture. The COP experience of forging collaboration and unity, which required immense skill and patience, has a value in itself. Nothing is more infectious than the taste of success. The fact that Paris sends a signal to the world that success = caring for our planet can only be a good thing. It has the power to change the global zeitgeist: the terms of the debate will never be the same.
Photo COp.jpg

Some of the Irish NGOs waiting for the final session to start

There is absolutely no doubt that the hard work really starts now. No stroke of a pen, no single agreement, no one action can get us out of the hole of climate change which we have dug for ourselves. At least now we have a ladder. As Pope Francis reminds us, the change we need will not come from only one direction. It requires the convergence of many different perspectives and different viewpoints. It requires us to see that the “whole is bigger than the sum of the parts” and believe in our collective action. In Paris, we glimpsed that whole. The signal has been sent out that the world is determined to tackle climate change – now the challenge is to implement it and build on the momentum in the coming years. In a world so dogged by sadness, division and conflict, in many ways it is a miracle.

Taking the Leap: who will jump first?

climate change, climate justice, ecology, international politics, multilateralism, Uncategorized

The heat is on now at the climate negotiations here in Paris. It has been an interesting two days. I arrived yesterday and was surprised to find everyone in good spirits.  After nearly two weeks of negotiations the mood was calm, almost buoyant. These negotiations can be depressing affairs but the French have done well to keep everyone in good spirits. Compared to other places, the working conditions (including comfy sofa beds!) are great.
The mood changed somewhat last night, however, when we received the draft agreement text. Even to the veteran COP goers like Professor John Sweeney,  the bewildering array of square brackets and options to agree was confusing.  It was hard to tell where things were at. “You need to be a lawyer to understand this” John told me. Things which we had imagined were put to bed by now – like whether we should aim for a ‘1.5 degree C’ or ‘2 degree C’ rise in global temperatures, whether the level of ambition should be towards a ‘net’ carbon free world or an actual ‘carbon free world’ and by when – all seem to be within square brackets. A square bracket means they are part of the final bargaining.
A coalition of leading NGOS – the so called C8 (which includes Trócaire via CIDSE) concluded that the current draft is inadequate and lacks the ambition we need. Key safeguards to protect the most vulnerable countries and ensure the access of small farmers to livelihoods are all weak or undecided. The mechanisms for financing the key measures are unclear. Negotiations went on long into the night as governments tried to carve a deal. Every process has their villains, and everyone is pointing the finger at Saudi Arabia and Argentina for blocking or delaying progress.
Such concerns are predictable, but what is more concerning is the role the EU is playing in the negotiations and whether it is prepared to use some or indeed any of its political capital to help the poorest countries. The EU has traditionally been a vocal champion of human rights and food security – both of which protect the poorest – but has been eerily quiet on these issues. It has bigger interests to protect. If they don’t back them, it is doubtful they will be in the final agreement.
The reality is, however, that nobody really knows what is happening and the final outcome hangs in the balance. It is a strange place to hang out with so much at stake. I met Professor van Ypersele,  vice – chair of the IPCC, one the world’s most eminent climate scientists in the corridor. He is a veteran of these processes. He told me that all the conditions are still here for agreement.  The science is accepted.  The spirit of collaboration in the negotiations is strong. Virtually nobody wants to leave without a deal. The question is who will jump first. Taking the necessary leap means everyone letting go of old positions. Everyone has to lose something. That letting go is costly, and the politics of transition are now staring governments in the face. How it happens, and at what speed, is the big question.
What is crystal clear to all is that what seem like the technical details are now decisions about real people and indeed entire nations, not to mention the world. There are entire nations here who will disappear if the level of ambition in the agreement is not high enough. Given the wild weather across the world in the past year, few are in denial that nature is rebelling. The momentum towards a final deal is strong and expectations are high. History will surely be on the side of those who take the first leap. Crunch time has finally arrived.

Journeying through Paris – Between Despair and Hope

climate change, climate justice, current affairs, ecology, environment, Uncategorized

Today I’m off to Paris for the final few days of the climate talks. I have to say from what I hear from colleagues in Paris, there is a lot of work still to do. It seems we may once again to be seriously disappointed with the outcome of the negotiations. Miracles can happen, and God knows we’ve all been praying for one, but it is unlikely we’ll see the divine intervention to deliver on the kind of agreement we need to keep the world safe from the worst impacts of climate change. Powerful vested interests, with their insidious control over governments – in the North and South – have prevailed. They are even sponsoring the conference and trying to censor public protest. Their behind the scenes lobbying to protect their interests has been exposed.
Despite the more cooperative atmosphere compared to 2009, most powerful governments have taken a calculated bet that their electorate prefer incremental action for now. They seem to be opting to protect short-term comforts, special interests and lifestyles, whilst pushing more serious change down the road. Whilst the wild weather this week from Ireland to India has not been lost on them, it will not be enough to change the course of this COP. The dynamic of negotiations does not follow the weather or emotional outbursts. It is depressingly familiar and reflects the same pattern which has dogged inaction for a generation now. Whilst the science has finally been accepted, and there is even talk of a new target of 1.5°c being in the text, the will to move beyond business as usual is still lacking. Targets only mean something if commitment to action follows.
On nearly all five of the measures which Trócaire set out as benchmarks, the current draft text is sorely lacking. The 1.5°c is the main positive. Overall, the current draft is very weak and civil society is now locked out of the real negotiations when the gloves come off. It all happens behind closed doors. Worryingly, wikileaks revelations also emerged this week about secret talks which have been happening in parallel with the COP in relation to EU trade interests at the WTO and with TTIP. On the one hand EU governments are seeking to carve out a deal in Paris to reduce emissions – whilst on the other still privileging the position of the fossil fuel industry and instructing negotiators not to accept a deal which damages international trade. This double-speak is utterly despicable and shows the sham of international negotiations whether at the UN Sustainable Development Goals in September, and potentiality again here in Paris.
For those involved in the climate movement, preparing for this depressing outcome is really important. All year climate leaders have been focused on Paris, but also saying that Paris would not deliver and that the most important thing is not to become demoralised by it. The first two major global summits this year – in Addis Ababa in July and New York in September – were clear indications that governments are playing a game of spinning rhetoric for one audience whilst failing to honour existing commitments and sign up to new ones. The omens for Paris were not good.
The emotional toll of failure, however, will still be great. Just like preparing for the loss of a loved one, however, it is one thing rationalising it in advance, it is another thing experiencing it. Nothing can actually prepare you for the loss and despair. We are all going to feel it like we did in Copenhagen in 2009. So much effort, so much frustration, so much anger. So much love. That emotion needs to be translated into re-doubled action.
The big difference between Copenhagen and now is that the movement is much stronger, much broader, much more technically able, better organised and resourced, and above all has strong leadership. The climate movement is no longer seen as an environmental movement. It comprises faith groups, unions, universities, NGOs, businesses, mothers, fathers, youth, children. It has strong and articulate leaders like Pope Francis, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, Kumi Naidoo, Mary Robinson, and unlikely heros like the Raging Grannies and the Grandparents for a Safe Earth, who are prepared to pay for this cause at great personal sacrifice. The 785,000 people who marched on the 29th of November are now a force to be reckoned with. They have found their voice. They have a new focus in the fossil fuel divestment campaign. The movement has truth on its side. Despite the expected failure in Paris, the mood amongst activists is buoyant – even full of hope. If 2015 was billed as a big year for big global policies, 2016 will be the year of activism in every corner of the earth.
The challenge for the climate movement is now one of unity. It is about building a counter-force and becoming the future we want to see – following in Ghandi’s footsteps: ‘be the change you want to see’. It is what Brazilian theologian Dom Helder Camara called ‘third force wisdom’ – a future coming into being:
“Don’t waste time with oppositional energy. In the short run, you will have to hold unresolvable tensions, symbolized by the crossbeams on which Jesus was crucified. In the long run, you will usher in something entirely new and healing. This is “third force” wisdom.”
With it, perhaps in this Jubilee year of Mercy, which Pope Francis has launched today, the change will come.