Tag Archives: Paris

Climate change offers no moral high ground


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.

The fear confronting Europe in 2015


“Martyrs for Liberty”

The terrorist attacks in Paris today are a watershed moment. This is not the largest terrorist attack of recent times – Paris has been spared until now the major incidents faced by New York, London, Madrid, Mumbai, Bali or Nairobi for example – but today’s attack will be remembered for the clear message it delivers in relation to international values because it is such an obvious one. I am not one to usually talk about things such as “French values”, given that human rights are now universal and internationally recognized, but there is something specific in historic terms about freedom of expression and democracy in a city such as Paris. It is debated as to whether Voltaire ever actually said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” in 1758 (it might be a summation by Tallentyre much later) but it was clearly Voltaire’s sentiment.

Since 1948 freedom of expression has been an internationally recognised human right and is an essential aspect of life for activists, entrepreneurs, artists, journalists, writers, comedians and politicians across every continent. The fact that this freedom is not an absolute and is denied to the populations of too many countries does not diminish its universality or its essential role in the modern world.

I am not a freedom of expression fundamentalist. I have often argued with colleagues often about why papers in Copenhagen or Paris should go out of their way to be offensive, particularly to minorities who already face considerable racism and marginalisation across Europe. The cartoons did not just offend extremists but many moderate Muslims, in the way Christians, Hindus and Jews have been offended by other publications, works of art, music for decades. For example, the offence of “blasphemy” was only removed from English law in 2008 and this had only protected Christian sentiment.

I would not ban Wagner’s powerful music even though he was clearly anti-semitic, nor any of the movies depicting the death of Jesus Christ or even stop the bookshop at Amman airport from selling copies of Mein Kampf in Arabic and English which I believe it still does (a book still banned in some European countries). So whilst I have never read any copy of Charlie Hebdo and did not agree with the sentiments of some of their cartoons, there is a fundamental value at stake which is much more important.

Democracies cannot function without freedom of expression, freedom and liberty. More than this, as Aung San Suu Kyi wrote under house arrest in 1991, it is also fear that corrupts and fear of terrorism will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression even without specific threats. This of course is the basis of such terrorism. The murdered journalists and editor were very aware of this and undoubtedly pushed the envelope for this very reason – offending many religions and establishment figures over the years in order to push back the boundaries of fear that chill freedom of expression itself. The most invisible type of censorship is self-censorship and newspaper editors must remain brave. Many of us tweeted #jesuischarlie today even if many of us will never read Charlie Hebdo regardless of how good our French might be (or not).

And then there is the other even greater threat to European values, from the bowels of the continent itself and its extreme right. Racists also kill people, from the thousands of racially motivated attacks every year to the specialists such as Anders Breivik who killed 77 fellow Norwegians in 2011 for being young social democrats. But beyond this, like the beating drums of Mordor, looms the ugly face of xenophobia and intolerance which has recently taken the form of the “Pegida” marches in Dresden and other parts of Germany. Pegida or Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (in English: “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West”) would claim to be the counterpoint to Islamic extremism, but actually it has much in common. It is clear that both hate liberalism, both hate journalists and both wish to divide European society based on ideology. The danger now is that the Pegida marches will grow and we will see similar in France led by Marine Le Pen who must fancy her chances to run for the next French Presidency. A fascist in the Elysee Palace, the first since 1945, would warm the hearts of all those wishing harm to the democracies of Europe and our essential values. Those in the UK and other countries debating whether we still need a European Convention on Human Rights or would like to further restrict the sanctuary offered to refugees from the Middle East should reflect carefully as to which side of history they might stand.

I end by re-quoting the Paris-based Imam (via US Secretary of State John Kerry) who today honoured the murdered journalists as “martyrs for liberty”.