Talk given at the Alliance Francais Dublin Debate on Climate Action, 24.2.15
The title of our round table tonight is about moving “towards a positive agenda for climate change”. What do we mean by a positive agenda? It seems like an oxymoron. Is there anything about climate change which is positive? Here I am certainly not talking about the possibility that Ireland will become like the Mediterranean and we will enjoy summers like those in Provence! That would be very nice indeed.
The only agenda for climate change that is positive – the one we need to advance this year – is one which is in line with the science and equity. This means the rapid lowering of emissions (to keep within the 2 C upper limit); support for poorer countries to adapt (the $100 billion per year) and ultimately a universal, fair and binding treaty coming out of the COP21 in Paris. The question is, after 20 years of COP negotiations, which have seen emissions rise by 61%, how to make it possible.
In my remarks, I am not going to speak so much about the technical policy negotiations. I am going to focus more on the broader political picture – and where you and I come in. In particular, I will focus on signs of hope. There is a great need to spend more time in that positive, hopeful space, especially in this critical year of global change.
Three signs of hope
I see at least three signs of hope in the debate on climate change at this juncture in history. Firstly, the era of denial is ending. This is extremely positive. For decades the power of climate deniers has been prevalent in the media and in political circles. Those trying to call for change have been side-lined as hippy alternatives. The science is now pretty much conclusive – 95% certainty – like smoking and lung cancer. This provides a real opportunity which perhaps we have not grasped yet.
Western society, founded on the principles of the modernity, Enlightenment, is based on the idea of scientific reason, rationality based in objective truth. From a rational European tradition, the first step is knowing through scientific method. Once that step is done, we need to rationally respond to that new truth.
What we are facing today is no different to the astronomical revolution of Copernicus in the 16th Century. Even in the face of scientific truth, powerful interests can dominate. Back in Copernicus day, however, there was no social media, no wikileaks to expose those who deny the truth. I believe we are on the cusp of a rapid cognitive shift – and also a greater awareness of the particular power interests that are preventing us from adapting to this new paradigm.
Secondly, we are realising climate change is actually quite simple. We often hear that the issue of climate change is complex. But sometimes we fall into the trap of believing our own rhetoric. As a result, we can make the issue overly complicated. The call to divest in Fossil fuels is drawing attention to the fact that the issue is actually quite simple: we are simply pumping carbon into the atmosphere and in the long term it will destroy us if we don’t stop.
Climate change might be a huge, systemic challenge, the effects of it are very complicated and responding to it is complex, but we have to recognise that the cause is quite simple. We can’t afford to lose sight of that, since human beings ultimately have control over the cause. It is our economic systems which drive fossil fuel production, our diets which drive agro-industrial food systems.
Thirdly, climate change is galvanising local-global action. Since climate change is such a universal threat, it is opening up great potential for cooperation, collaboration, sharing, action across many sectors. Many of the changes which make sense in addressing climate change also make sense in terms of human flourishing – living healthy, productive, fulfilling lives and communities.
Even in the last few weeks I have come into contact with hundreds of people in Ireland who are working to make their communities more sustainable, to counter consumerism, to build local food systems. It is deeply heartening to see people recognise the transformative potential of addressing climate change.
Here, the internet and the new sense of ‘one world’, which can emerge through social media is a really exciting development. I think we are going to see in the next few months a massive shift forward in terms of the capacity of the internet to harness popular concern into coordinated political action. Much of this will be focused on the negotiations in Paris, but I think it is just the beginning of a revolution in democratic accountability.
Climate change is forcing us, as a species to think in new categories which go beyond our nationality. I will talk in a minute about what those new categories might be.
2015 – a critical year
2015, we know, is a critical year. As we look towards Paris in December is whether this collective ‘cognitive leap’ can have any bearing on the key political processes. How can this new awareness be translated into political action at national and regional level? How can it be harnessed to raise the level of ambition in the negotiations?
To be successful, I would argue that what we actually need is a new leadership spirit in international politics – one which the French people really understand. This spirit may sound a bit airy fairy, but the worrying levels of mis-trust which already exist between different blocks will only be overcome if a new spirit of cooperation is somehow reached.
It is not enough for delegates to be personally moved to tears by the words of those who are on the front line of climate inaction, but to allow that same humanity, compassion, solidarity – whatever word you use – to become embedded in national positions and policies.
Moreover, there is an urgent need to see all the major summits in 2015 as being linked. If the COP is to succeed, that same leadership spirit needs to be embedded within all the major global summits, starting with the Development Financing summit in Addis Ababa in July. If there is no commitment to adequate public finance to support international development and adaptation, for example, then it is hard to see how the trust will be there to move to a successful conclusion in New York on the SDGs in September or on Climate Change in Parish in December. A successful COP starts (but doesn’t end) with money on the table – and re-commitments to core agreements like the UN target of 0.7% of GNI going to development aid.
‘liberty, equality, fraternity’
In many ways, what I see in international politics today is an urgent need for a revival of the public values of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ that were at the heart of the French Revolution, and are deeply held by many millions if not billions of people today. Re-interpreting these values for the world we live in today is something the French could provide leadership on. Let me give some brief pointers, and then I will conclude.
On liberty: Climate change is urging all of us to waking up to the ultimate ‘tragedy of the commons’… which, if not addressed, will undermine basic freedoms, our liberty and that of generations to come. Just imagine a world 30 years from now if we haven’t substantially addressed climate change? Our children will not enjoy the freedom to do what we do, go where we go… the world will be far more unsafe, the economy will be more unstable. Safeguarding liberty is central to the question of climate change.
On Equality: This also has a central role to play in building a positive agenda for climate change based on justice. French economist Thomas Picketty has written about the corrosive effect of inequality and the ‘fiscal revolution’ which has to underpin every major social upheaval. Climate change represents a Copernicus revolution for economics and society at large. The term climate justice is all about addressing climate change in a way that embodies equality.
On fraternity: Climate change is making us realise that we need a new sense of global responsibility: what I do here in Ireland has impacts on people far away. My emissions know no boundaries. This is extremely positive – but only if we can harness that awareness and translate it into a new sense of personal and collective responsibility. This has to be rooted in a new global understanding of fraternity which transcends national interests and embraces a belief in being one human family.
The challenges in the year ahead are very great, but the signs of hope are many. Climate change is real, it is simple, and it is galvanising action. As someone who has been out on the climate campaign trail over the past few months, I am excited about the level of engagement I see around me. We need to focus on that hope – as hope is what changes things. In the words of Martin Luther King, the father of another great movement for change: “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.”
 IPCC 5th Assessment Report