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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The past week I have been reflecting on the key recent messages of Pope Francis and the power of Laudato Sí to present a counter-narrative to the Sustainable Development Goals. We need a counter-narrative or a different story because the SDGs are seductive. They draw you into a strange complacency about the really knotty issues the world is facing. I believe the SDGs fail to address those and risk becoming a big distraction, particularly for civil society. Uncontaminated by the inevitable horse trading of international negotiations, these ‘pathways for action’ priorities, or ‘goals’ in Laudato Sí represent what really needs to change to build a more just and sustainable future. Here’s my stab at what Pope Francis says we need to prioritise laid out as a set of alternative goals:
- Prioritise energy transition: phase out fossil fuels and make the transition to renewables: we need to decarbonise our economics. Rich countries have a duty to support clean energy in the South.
- Internationalise environmental costs: Accept burden sharing, and the need to pay our ecological debt based on the concept of universal destination of goods.
- Make international agreements enforceable. Ensure legally enforceable frameworks with clear boundaries, starting with the COP21.Whilst transitional measures are needed, these must be with a view to binding commitments which recognise the need for system change.
- Reform global governance institutions to protect the global commons: Introduce measures to curtail the power of transnational economic and financial sectors, over the political and national. Build a new world political authority with real sanction power.
- Promote local participatory accountability: Local and national policies need to be coherent with international agreements. There is no point signing on to goals when national policies are at odds with those aspirations. Participatory local policy processes are key. Local communities need to be engaged in transition.
- Focus on long-term, generational political perspective: Need to move beyond the myopia of power politics to a far sighted agenda. We must step beyond the reluctance to take public measures which would affect consumption or create risks for FDI. Engage in true state craft and leadership, which always prioritises the importance of continuity over short-term politics.
- Do not base policy choices on how markets might react. Base collective action on the precautionary principle rather than a ‘magical conception of the market’ (186) Profit cannot be the sole criterion as it does not tend to measure what has real value. Environment cannot be safeguarded by market forces.
- Promote diversified forms of community-based production and consumption: Build co-operatives for renewables and self-sufficiency, harness the power of local groups, indigenous peoples. Promote alternative approaches base on community values and ownership. Support and harness the creativity of diversified, innovative forms of environmentally sustainable production and consumption.
- Support development of community-based circular economy: Start with energy conservation and minimising waste, the phase out of less efficient products, improving transport and buildings; modify consumption patterns, including recycling, revamping, reusing.
- Support diversified local agriculture – prioritise investment in local markets rather than globalised, centralised agro-industry.
- Ensure ex ante environmental impact assessments are implemented. These need to be interdisciplinary, transparent and free from pressure. Affected groups in local local population have a special role to play.
- Regulate global finance: Promote the regulation of speculative financial practices and virtual wealth.
- Set limits to growth and consumption: Need to contain growth by setting reasonable limits. Limit and reduce excessive, harmful consumption as one way to pay our ecological debt, reducing harmful consumption.
- Develop a new concept of progress: Recognise that economic growth has diverged from real progress as it has no planetary limits. Another form of progress is needed which in many cases involves “decrease in the pace of production and consumption”, a possible decrease in growth. We need to de-link progress from ever increasing consumption. Life quality and consumption not always linked.
- Account for the real costs of business: Address the mis-conception of modern economics, which fails to truly account for the capital involved in production, particulalry in terms of natural capital. “Businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved.” The key issue is how is how to account for the real costs, particularly the carbon costs.