Tag Archives: climate change

Climate change offers no moral high ground

Climate-Change-And-Poverty

Today, world leaders will be in Paris to mark the opening of the COP21 climate change summit. The world cannot afford another failure, as was witnessed in Copenhagen six years ago. This time, the USA and China seem ready to do a deal and to bring most of the current and future largest carbon emitting nations with them. Yes, it is true that Obama, now approaching his last year in office, cannot bind the US Congress on whatever target he agrees to, and also that China might also struggle to meet its own commitments in the cold light of day. However, the alignment between the stars is much more auspicious than was the case in 2009.

The joker in the pack, and on many environmental and social issues in the G20 these days, is India. It is clear from his opinion piece in the Financial Times (FT) today, that Prime Minister Modi will play the “justice” card over the coming two weeks. This is politically pragmatic for the world’s second largest nation in terms of population (and soon to become its largest). It is a core premise of the climate justice movement that the world’s poor – who are the least responsible for carbon in the atmosphere are also likely to be the most vulnerable when faced by the results of rapid increases in global temperature – from crop failure, unpredictable weather to forced migration. The Pope made a similar point when speaking to the US Congress and United Nations in September.

India has one of the dirtiest energy mixes and is still very reliant on coal for producing much of its electricity. Modi makes the case that even a four-fold increase in coal burning will still not bring the country anywhere near the per capita emissions of most richer countries and so there is plenty of carbon “headroom” before it too needs to converge with the reduction targets essential for other governments to make this week. “The lifestyles of a few must not crowd out opportunities for many still on the first steps of the development ladder”, Modi writes. It is undoubtedly true that two whole generations of global politicians have failed to inject the renewables agenda with the ambition required (a fact in which most voters are also complicit) and that we might indeed have had better options on the table in Paris now if they had. Mary Robinson, and other leaders of the climate justice movement, are right to demand a global agreement on climate change that is not just sound in scientific terms but also socially equitable.

The persuasiveness of this argument comes from its historical perspective. Some in the climate justice movement go further, demanding that the governments of the west, and their companies, have more than a moral duty to change course, they also have a historic debt to be repaid (particularly if evidence of the risks of fossils fuels was suppressed). In such an unequal world, why should the poor of India be denied their own industrial revolution? Most activists will fudge the issue of India’s coal-powered electricity and instead point to the need for much greater investment in renewable energy everywhere, as Bill Gates has also signalled over recent days and Modi himself backs the new “international solar alliance”. There is also much room for greater efficiency within the way power is transmitted within India – the country needs huge amounts of new electrical infrastructure. But Modi will push the question of justice in part to protect the status quo within this own country. Unlike Gandhi (who he likes to quote), he is no revolutionary.

A point not fully acknowledged by Modi in his FT opinion piece is that future generations also have a need for justice. He takes Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship as his moral steer and it is a good one to take – it is the essence of sustainability: making decisions today with future generations in mind. But to do so from the concept of justice, is perhaps the most radical proposition that world leaders must reflect on in Paris this week. If unlike human rights and most existing moral codes that deal only with the living, we must consider the survival of our species itself and the rights of countless generations yet to be born, then the inequalities of the past 300 years are not the only issue of justice at stake and should not be the overriding moral argument. In such a landscape, there is no moral high ground for Modi or anyone else to attempt to occupy and that all world leaders will share in the guilt if a comprehensive agreement is not reached over the next two weeks. True climate justice requires nothing less.

What will the Pope say at the UN tomorrow?

splash-mission

Pope Francis is not the first Pope to visit the United Nations Headquarters in New York, but its significance at a time of growing international tensions should not be underestimated. He is likely to cover key issues such as peace, climate change, human rights, human trafficking, poverty and inequality – but some of the more sensitive issues will be left for another day. 

The first thing to note (as that is will be visible to all those waiting to cheer him) will be the flying of the yellow and white flag of the Holy See. What’s the issue, you might ask, as it is prominent on any Catholic Church anywhere in the world? But the UN would never fly the flag of another religious organisation (or football team for that matter). It is because the Holy See has been part of the UN system since 1964 with its own special status – that of a permanent observer. Those of us used to attending human rights and other meetings within the UN system are used to the active, and often very constructive, involvement of the Holy See. However, since 2012 it has been a club of two – Palestine now also has the same status. Next week, the Palestinian flag will certainly be raised when President Abbas arrives for the United Nations General Assembly and therefore, as a matter of protocol, so should the Papal flag tomorrow.

But what will Pope Francis actually say? He will make some US Republicans (and some member states of the UN for that matter) uncomfortable by being very clear that climate change is one of the world’s greatest challenges and that governments, businesses and consumers are all directly responsible for much of it. More than this, even if he does not use the words “climate justice” this will certainly be the approach he will take. Why is it that it is some of the world’s very poorest people (in low lying countries or dependent on stressed environments) are already the greatest victims of climate change when they are the least responsible for it? Recently a coalition of NGOs petitioned to the Philippines Human Rights Commission that the greatest carbon contributors of recent decades (i.e. some of the world’s largest energy, mining and other companies) should be held accountable for their impacts on communities there (even though many of those companies have no direct connection to the country). Pope Francis will not take such an adversarial approach, but he will challenge all the member states of the UN to work together for a strong commitment at the Paris Climate Summit (COP 21) in December and for governments and businesses still in denial to end any pretence that they have no problem to answer. He might note the growing number of companies that have now embraced the climate change debate (although the beatification of the Blessed Paul Polman or Saint Al Gore might be a while yet! – this is a joke by the way).

Poverty and the 2015-30 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be an essential part of the speech. This is a Pope that has taken the name of St Francis of Assisi and lives his life very modestly, by all accounts, and therefore practices what he preaches in relation to inequality. The UN Secretary General’s motif that the SDGs will “leave no one behind” will be something that the Pope will take at face value. And if you read the SDGs you will see that there is no lack of ambition, not least the $1 trillion needed from the private sector annually by 2020 – the governance of which is vague at best.

Human trafficking is also likely to figure as well as the desperate plight of refugees in the Middle East, crossing the Mediterranean and in Southeast Asia. He might raise the issue of religious freedom within this context (given the atrocities committed by ISIS in relation to Christians, Shia Muslims and other minorities). Europe’s response to the refugee crisis has not been its finest moment, and Pope Francis will not demur from inferring this. The exploitation of migrants and other vulnerable workers has long been a concern of the Vatican and he might subtly push for full ratification of the 2014 Forced Labour Protocol of the International Labour Organization (a UN agency) that updates the original 1930 Convention. An old problem that has not gone away, rather it is re-emerging in some global supply chains.

And yes, the Pope is bound to invoke the concept of “Dignity” (I will jump into the Hudson if he does not). Dignity is now deeply lodged within Catholic teaching as well as sitting right there in Article 1 of the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Pope’s view of dignity is that it is an inalienable core within every human – something that can never be stripped away but must be respected. In this way he aligns very much with the Post-World War Two human rights consensus, the thinking of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant or speeches by Chancellor Merkel of Germany for that matter. He is on safe ground within the United Nations to do so, but it does then raise the issue of two things that are unlikely to be unsaid in his speech tomorrow.

First, the Catholic/Kantian view of human dignity is not the only interpretation of the concept. When the US Supreme Court ruled earlier this year on the issue of Same-Sex Marriages it was not this definition of dignity that prevailed. Rather it was the idea that dignity is also about “freedom and liberty” and the right of free choice (very much part of the American dream). This then leads to the view that the right of free choice should sometimes be central (i.e. anyone should be able to marry in the eyes of the State, or God for that matter) and that the rights of mother (free choice) must sometimes trump the innate dignity of the unborn child. I cannot see the Pope entering into these choppy waters – LGBTI rights, contraception and abortion – other than very obliquely. These after all are very complex issues, too often polarized by the media and populist politicians (some of which have made it to Heads of State).

Finally, the question that some of ministers and ambassadors in the room might be thinking, is what about the internal behavior of the Catholic Church itself. Now that the United Nations has developed “soft law” norms for businesses, and other non-state actors, when we will see religious organizations of all stripes according to universal human rights (i.e. secular) values in their own operations. The Holy See has ratified most UN Human Rights Conventions. This Pope is perhaps the most progressive in a long while on this issue, but I will be back in the Hudson again if he touches any of this.

I am not a Catholic but I remain a great fan of the current Pope.