Changing the zeitgeist – Reflections on climatejustice2015

There is a joke going round Trócaire that I have a hot line to the Vatican. How was it that we managed to time our recent conference on Climate Justice to take place just four days after Pope Francis launched his new encyclical Laudato Si’ on ecology? Without a doubt, the timing was impeccable! I’ll let you in on a secret – there is more than a grain of truth to the idea that we may have influenced the timing. In fact, I suggested the date of 18th June for the Encyclical launch to Cardinal Turkson when he visited Ireland in March this year for the Trócaire Annual Lecture! In any case, the timing of the Encyclical and the #climatejustice2015 conference this week in Maynooth could not have been more perfect.

The dust is still settling on the Conference, which brought together many high powered speakers on climate justice – Mary Robinson (UN Special Envoy on Climate Change), Professor van Ypersele (IPCC vice-chair), and Bill McKibben (co-founder of global climate movement 350.org). Over 500 people participated in the event, which was livestreamed around the world and at one stage was trending globally on twitter. The heads of almost all religions in Ireland were present – as was the humanist association. Senior executives from over 25 companies attended. Many politicians, policy makers, young people, academics, teachers, religious, film makers, poets… And they came from all over the country. Ireland was in the room. The event was free and open to all who wanted to come and learn about the challenge of climate justice. Some prominent journalists found the first day so interesting, they came along on the second “just to learn more.”

The Climate Justice Conference took place in Maynooth University, but the purpose of the conference was far from “academic” – in the sense that we understand the term “purely academic” to mean detached from reality! The main purpose was to inform people about the mounting scientific evidence around climate change, the moral imperative it presents as a justice issue, and to inspire them to action. More than once, the process was described as a journey – a spiritual, moral and intellectual journey. In that sense, it was a profoundly normative initiative, grounded in the perspective that with climate change, we have moved into a new era, where the production of knowledge – and how we choose to use it, is a profoundly political and moral choice.

This idea was crystallized in the inspiring talk given by Bill McKibben entitled “we are all activists now”, positing the view that regardless of our profession or position, now is a time to be taking action. Appealing to the older generations in the audience to engage in direct action (and risk arrest), he said “If you have kept your powder dry till now, waiting for a big cause, your time has come.” Just eight years ago, in fact, he started out with seven students – and formed what is now one of the most powerful global social movements in 350.org and Peoples Climate. The movement is made up of young and old, from every corner of the globe. The inter-generational solidarity in the movement is very strong: the older people are on teh front line in direct action – so the youth will not suffer a criminal record.

Indeed, he used himself as the prime example of an unlikely activist. By character and by preference, he would much rather be at home thinking and writing books… but he came to a realisation that books alone would not change the world. I could really identify with that – having moved out of academia over a decade ago and into public policy and advocacy. He said that collective strategy, embracing evidence, moral arguments and action is required. Tackling climate change is not something one person can do on their own – since nobody can know all of the sides of the story. It requires a group effort, a movement. “If the people with power have money, we have to find a different currency – our currency is in movement building.” He urged us to use our efforts to build collective action here in Ireland. Bill talked of the priority now being about “changing the zeitgeist” rather than focusing on individual initiatives. Yes, we can all live more sustainably, and make a contribution to reducing emissions by an insignificant amount – but the problem is systemic, so systemic responses are needed. We now need a movement on the scale of the anti-aparthied movement in the 1980s, perhaps bigger.

Mary Robinson also talked about her reluctant “journey” from a human rights campaigner to a climate justice campaigner. She realised that it is impossible to talk any more of human rights when the most basic conditions for human survival are being undermined by climate change. She talked of the need to overcome our individualism if we are to build a movement for change. “We need to recover that ancient Irish saying ‘Ar scáth a chéile a mhairimid ‘- we live in each others shadow. A value so akin to the African value of Ubuntu.” Without rediscovering that value, and even celebrating it in music and dance, it is difficult to envisage the shift required to tackle climate change. Making that leap is not something easy, yet it is one required of each of us if we are to make the shift from isolated actions and campaigns with limited impact, to achieving a “paradigm shift” rooted in compassion, justice and love for our planet.

At the end of the Climate Conference I was honored to give the closing remarks. What struck me most was the spirit of hope which underpinned the conference. It was as if the 500 people there embraced the hard scientific and moral truth – looked it straight in the eye – and came out the other side with courage and determination to move forward. In truth, denial is the worst state to live in. It destroys the human spirit. Once you start to face the truth, you realise there are many things which can be done, and many new friends waiting to be made on the journey ahead.

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