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.

2016 – a year for action!

climate justice, current affairs, environment, ethics, integral ecology, sustainable development goals, Uncategorized

Happy new year to you! Its over a month since I last blogged so this one is rather overdue. I ended 2015 on s high, but quite exhausted and ready for a digital detox. I put away my computer for a few weeks and enjoyed a screen free existence for a while. It has taken me till now to gather my thoughts on 2016. But here I am.
I guess my first blog of the year has to be somewhat reflective… and a bit of looking at the year we are now almost 1/12 of the way through. 2015 was a phenomenal year. It was the hottest year on record. It was a year of unprecedented migration into Europe. A year of seemingly never ending conflict and terrorist attacks. It was a year of major global summits. A year of unprecedented people power with mass demos on TTIP and climate change. It was a year of big big promises and grand political gestures – in Addis, in New York and in Paris. World leaders promised to ‘leave no-one behind’ – to end global poverty by 2030; they promised to keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees C; they promised international partnership with the poorest countries.
These are all significant achievements, and we can’t dismiss them. As I said back in December, the year could have ended very differently with disastrous consequences. Yet the proof of all these promises and agreements will be in what happens next. In reality, getting agreement was actually the easy part. Ensuring that the agreements are followed through and translated into action is the hardest part. The work is only beginning now.
The test of whether rich governments such as our own are really serious about their intentions comes in the next few months as they interpret these agreements and decide what practical measures they are prepared to take to increase the ambition and urgency to translate them into change. Will they, for example, finally agree on a Financial Transaction Tax as a new source of funding which can raise huge resources from the financial sector to fund these essential global issues? Today in Dublin we launched the Irish campaign for a ‘Robin Hood Tax’ – and intend making it an election issue.
Another, perhaps more important, test will be whether governments are prepared to rethink other agreements which now increasingly stand in the way of achieving Sustainable Development Goals, especially climate change. Today I had the chance to address the Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Committee on one such agreement: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP. Behind closed doors, in secret negotiations with large corporations, the EU and USA have been discussing a new ‘free trade’ zone between the EU and US for the past three years. Their plan is to put in place a unprecedented partnership which may result in some benefits for trade, but is profoundly anti-democratic and will lock in climate change for decades. Through setting up a parallel quasi-judicial system only for investors to sue governments (ISDSs), it would effectively facilitate corporations to hold governments to account based on the impact of their policies on profits – rather than the other way round. If a government decides to change its policies to tackle climate change, and that reduces profits (lets say of the oil industry), they can and will sue. It sounds fanciful, but in 2016 the very same governments that signed the Paris Agreement are engaging in this process. We should all be very concerned. If TTIP passes, the Paris Agreement isn’t worth the paper it is written on – nor are the Sustainable Development Goals.
Despite these challenges, I have hope. I feel that in 2016 there is a new energy building across civil society to counter these negative trends. I’ve never been so busy with requests to speak up and down the country, especially in churches. There is a new courage, collaboration and appetite for direct action. The new Oxfam report which highlights the fact that a mere 62 individuals now own the same as the bottom 3.6 billion makes the inequality so clear, so blatant, so disgusting, that people will react. This isn’t about a little bit of financial inequality… this is about structures that facilitate monopoly and oligarchy of powerful groups (who meet up, dine, fly in corporate jets) who are now managing to re-shape the rules of global finance and trade in their image and design. It won’t be sorted by a little bit of aid, philanthropy or charity – but only by a powerful movement which reclaims public space and discourse and releases it from the logic of the market and consumption. The growing movements for tax justice, fossil fuel divestment, stop TTIP, Refugees Welcome! are all examples of where people energy is converging and growing. We all need to become informed and use our power to bring about change. Each of us has power to express our views – as the buddhist group I met outside Leinster House demonstrated today. I joined their street meditation for climate action. There are growing, irrepressible signs that this is happening. It can’t happen fast enough. Bring on 2016!

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.

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.

How deep is your love?

climate change, current affairs, ethics, foreign affairs, pope francis, Uncategorized

I’m sitting in a café on a cold misty Monday morning, on my way into work. For the past few weeks I’ve had writers block – unable to put down on paper the thoughts in my head, whether around climate change or around the state of the world. The Paris terrorist attacks have left me  without words. I know these attacks happen all the time, and we in the West don’t pay enough attention to the violence in other parts of the world. There is a profound inequality in our concern, perpetuated by the media. Still, Paris is a city I know well. Paris is where I got engaged, where I have many friends, where I am due to go in two weeks for the COP climate negotiations. Of course it feels like it could have been me, us. I feel wounded.
Moreover, even my coffee this morning seems different. Suddenly a simple everyday act like taking my morning coffee in peace is not something to be completely taken for granted, as my many friends in Brussels are learning. The pernicious fear which terrorism breeds is game changing – it has to be. We can be defiant, for sure, but it shakes the fundamental security on which all European societies rest: that sense of safety that comes from the knowledge that you respect me enough not to seriously harm me and vice versa. Collectively, it means that for the most part, we can go about our daily lives serenely, without looking over our shoulder or carrying weapons. Of course, all those who have been victims of violent crime know what it is like when this is violated. Those who live in insecure cities right across the world know all too well what fear of random acts of violence breeds.
Listening to the Bee Gees in the café this morning has given me a sudden unexpected spurt of inspiration. Their forty year old song rings as true today as ever – How deep is your love? It is perhaps one of the critical questions today for each of us. Perhaps the question today is not only about how deep, but how big our love is. Who and what does our love embrace? We all think of our love for our families, our friends, our nations, perhaps nature – but does our love have to go beyond that?
It is a big question, and one which has really emerged as key in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Countering hatred with love, violence with peace, intolerance with dialogue  – has become a leitmotif in many responses. It may even seem like a cliché. Yet it echoes Martin Luther King’s famous words that “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” I think it says something important as a response. Faced with the spectre of terrorism, which is consequence of disunity and division, the only long-term response which can counter it are strong communities, where mutual care and even love prevails. The big question today is how we can translate our sense of care, empathy, which we take as a given (if not always lived up to) within families into a renaissance of civic love – that sense of neighbourliness, universal fraternity which knows no borders?
In our bid to speed up our world, it is this sense of empathy, civic love in the community that often suffers most. Ignorance of each other breeds suspicion and division. You cannot be neighbours unless you have time to get to know each other, to build friendship and dialogue. This is a continual process of bridging which requires time, energy and commitment. Only such communities, where there is a strong sense of dialogue, of belonging to one humanity can drive out the profound isolation that breeds such a lack of empathy and distorted ideology. Interestingly the exact same kinds of things are said about the need to build resilient local communities to tackle climate change.
I’m not saying no other measures are necessary. There are immanent, known threats which require urgent measures to protect lives, but in the long-term, it is our capacity to transcend our differences and become communities of respect and love which is the best defence. Justice is required for the victims and perpetrators need to be caught and stopped from committing more atrocities. But as one father movingly said to his young son in the aftermath of the attacks, when asked how they would defend themselves from the bad guys: “our candles and our flowers are our best protection.” Candles and flowers do not offer the protection of a steel cage or razor wire fence, but his words reflected a profound truth: our capacity to empathise protects our common humanity and transcends the most unspeakable evil.
Next weekend, there is a unique opportunity to show we care on a global scale. All over the world, people will march to protect our common home, this planet – and the people who live on it. In marching for climate justice, we will also march for peace and for the people of Paris. If you can, join us.