COP26: Altruism and self-interest can and should unite
Whether the COP26 conference in Glasgow proves humanity has got a bit of cop on, or continues to cop out, remains to be seen. And it is certainly not over when it’s over; implementation, and buy in by others, is key. And of course there is a sense of deja vu, we have been here numerous times before, but this time there is little or no wriggle room left to avoid planetary disaster – of should we say more correctly, disaster for humanity and current ecosystems on this planet.
Green and ecological issues first started to raise their heads in the 1960s and 1970s, at which time green advocates were looked at askance by the establishment and most people for crying ‘wolf’. The green prophets of that time were regarded as cranks; the ‘wolf’ was seen to be a very long way off. Of course we have now learned that the wolf was already at our door. The wolf is now in our hallway. The lesson is of course that we need to pay more attention to prophets than to profits.
One exception to studied indifference in the Irish situation was the rejection of nuclear power, largely thanks to a phenomenal amount of work by the anti-nuclear power movement in the 1970s (which to some extent transmogrified into the anti-nuclear weapons movement and CND). Unfortunately this was not followed up by a movement for green energy. There are those who advocate nuclear power today as a filler for times when the sun does not shine or the wind blow. This can be appealing to some people but we need to be more creative and green than that; if nuclear power is the answer then someone is asking the wrong question. The issues of nuclear waste and unforeseen circumstances (remember Fukushima) have not gone away.
The world has had a wake up call by many different signs this year, not least the terrible extent of forest fires and record breaking global temperatures. The greatest danger to Ireland is of course the cessation of the Atlantic currents usually called the Gulf Stream. Without that our climate would be substantially colder – Newfoundland on the western edge of Europe. We already have seen increased wind, and increased rain in a substantial part of the country.
But others face being much harder hit. Whole countries and parts of countries will disappear – low lying areas, including a significant part of our cities – would be under water or at continuous risk of flooding. Of course ‘we’, in the rich west, can move, but at what cost? However when your smallholding in coastal Bangladesh gets salinated and floods, you have no choice but to join the impoverished throngs in the cities. And the number of climate refugees, from desertification as well as flooding, could make current refugee issues seem a gentle trickle.
This is where altruism and self-interest should unite. The fastest possible transition from a carbon based economy is needed throughout the world. We are all at risk. We know that humanity cannot achieve what it needs without the complete involvement and buy in of large and polluting countries like the USA, China and India. Our common interest as humans dictates that we act together, collectively, supporting poorer countries (who generally have not caused the problem, or very little of it). Covid-19 should have proved that to us if we still needed teaching. But this still entails governments acting against vested fossil fuel industry interests, a task which is more difficult in some countries than others; while some fossil fuel companies may be keen to get ahead of the posse and transition to green energy so they can continue into the future, others are clearly resisting tooth and nail.
We also have to be aware that climate change is only one part of going green, even if a vital part. Biodiversity, on which our ecosystem depends, could still be irreparably damaged even if climate change is reined in. Our resource use is way over the top of what the planet can sustain. Everything is, however, linked and that includes building peace and justice so that our personal energies can go into positive, sustainable futures rather than survival.
Ireland, Republic and Northern Ireland, has been slow to go green (ironic, as we know, given the national colour). While there are signs that governments are at last getting serious, we have to be continually vigilant to avoid them backsliding and making excuses. For example, allowing the increase of the cattle herd in Ireland is bizarre; maybe there will be a techno-fix or even low-tech fix (such as the feeding of seaweed) for cattle-produced methane but until there is then numbers should be reduced substantially, that is only logical. We cannot expect others to take the pain. But then we have then to support cattle farmers to transition to other types of production, or provide the research to decrease methane levels. Maybe, if there are going to be cattle producing diary products and beef, Ireland with its lush grass should be a centre for cattle production but that should be part of international agreement within the context of an overarching green policy for the world.
And there should be no pain without some concomitant gain or compensation. This obviously applies in the poor world where the contribution to global climate crisis is probably minimal but the effects are massive, and the cost of change exorbitant. The same applies to poorer people in rich countries; they should not be penalised; if green transition is done right then they should gain in the long term through energy efficient homes and reduced expenditure on energy.
But we all have to be up for change and a certain amount of disruption to how things have been done heretofore. The fact that change is necessary is almost universally accepted now. Boris Johnson may be a late convert to being an ecosystem saviour but perhaps he realised as well that his credibility (or lack of it) is on the line as prime ministerial host of COP26. It doesn’t matter who our allies are on this matter; what matters is getting climate change halted.
There are causes for optimism in the seriousness the relevant issues are being treated., but uncertainty too. The alternative, in not doing enough to keep the global increase in temperature well below 2°C, would not be a case of the glass being half full or half empty but, for most people, of there being no water at all, or, when it does come, being part of damaging floods.
COP26 may not be the last chance salon but to use a perhaps slightly anomalous fuel analogy, we are approaching the last service station before the desert. We have a choice before further travel: green energy or fossil fuels. If we still choose the latter then we may not make it through the desert. If we go big time for the former then there is some hope the desert may be coaxed into blooming again and our journey can continue without the risk of destruction.
A history lesson
We fairly recently editorialised on peace movement history (NN 290 https://innatenonviolence.org/wp/category/editorials/ ) but, given the webinars on Irish peace movement history organised by INNATE this month [see News section], we are visiting this area again.
In looking back we have to be honest with ourselves. This means acknowledging failures as well as successes – we probably tend to do neither. But part of it is also showing the amount of work and effort which went into various projects, the very considerable efforts made even when things did not go smoothly, and the courage it took to stick your neck out. To think of history as simply the headlines, such as the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland in 1998, is a bit like the ‘kings and battles’ model of history in the broader sphere, now much derided.
What brought about the Good Friday Agreement? What were the conditions which made it possible? What led to those conditions? How did things build up to that agreement? Clearly the Good Friday Agreement was a great achievement but it also had, and has, flaws, insofar as it copperfastened aspects of division in its consociational elements. The willingness of a very significant proportion of society in Northern Ireland to, for once, support compromise did not come from nowhere; it was hard won and struggled for over decades by different elements of civil society. Obviously some politicians were ready and willing but for others various bits of the jigsaw had to all fall into place, and they needed to feel they would not be damned by their supporters for compromising, and yet others remained outside the tent (even if they later ventured in and occasionally out).
On the international peace front there have, over the years, been significant inputs from people in Ireland to various aspects of disarmament at both state and civil society levels. The anti-nuclear weapons movement was big in the 1980s and had significant presence back in the early 1960s. There was considerable civil society pressure for, and support to the state, in the movements for banning landmines and cluster munitions. A significant number of people have taken the consequences of possibly being found to have broken the law at Shannon Airport to oppose subservience to the USA and its military there. Neutrality remains a popular policy in the Republic even if you would not know this from the way the politicians of most political parties behave, and chip away gradually at the bedrock of that policy.
Building up a picture of what has been done, on Northern Ireland and on international peace issues, over the lifetimes of those still alive, is an enormous task. It is also an important one, not just so ‘the truth’ of people’s struggle is documented, but for the inspiration it can give. Of course we can – and should – be inspired by young people today, particularly climate activists, but we are missing out if we do not recognise what has been done by oldies and not-quite-oldies.
In the Northern context, not to record civil society action to address the Troubles and division is to cede history to paramilitaries and the state, different though their narratives may be. However one commonality in both is the efficacy and necessity of lethal force. We can and should challenge that. And part of that is showing the exploration of, and advocacy for, nonviolent possibilities in the early and darkest days of the Troubles. Just one small example is the conference (and resultant book) coming from Corrymeela and Glencree in 1981 exploring models of political cooperation across borders. https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/12087496276/in/album-72157614893100575/
In the Northern Ireland context there are many different sectors of civil society including women’s groups, community groups, trade unions, churches, peace and reconciliation groups, those focused on community relations, and others. Each of these sectors has a tale to tell in relation to the work done to address the Troubles and explore ways forward both for their sector and society in general. The trade unions, for example, had many different initiatives and the fact that their story has not been told is not their fault (given a detailed Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU funding application which was failed). Of course the fact that churches are, in their nature in a sectarian society, symbols and sometimes bastions of division has also to be acknowledged; but so too should the sometimes personally costly work by some church women and men who pushed out the boat and sought to sail forward.
INNATE’s webinars in November are simply scratching the surface of something which requires detailed study and work. It will consist of people sharing on prominent experiences or events rather than detailed organisational history. A resources list will also be drawn up which can help facilitate further study. Future webinars will likely explore further, including the Quaker contribution to peace, and the story and work of AVP/Alternatives to Violence Project in Ireland.
The extent to which William Faulkner’s quote is true that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” has to be determined; it varies. Not everywhere and everything has the same attachment to partial views of the past as some have in and in relation to Northern Ireland. We can of course journey onwards without attention to the past, and every new situation and time is unique. But being able to identify the basis of success, or failure, and identify trends and ‘which way the wind is blowing’ is important for strategising and building our movements today.
The quote about standing on the shoulders of giants (a phrase which dates back centuries) has fallen into some disuse after being commonly quoted a few years back. But we don’t just stand on the shoulders of giants; perhaps a more appropriate metaphor is that we stand on the ground which has been cultivated and tended by many, many ordinary and extraordinary people in past years – you can call them all ‘giants’ if you want to but that may seem hyperbole. We are a part of collective movements for progress and change which stretch back not just to our grandmothers and grandfathers but their grandfathers and grandmothers, and way on back. No, we are not invincible but ‘we’ will continue that struggle and, in turn, our grandchildren’s grandchildren may acknowledge the work we did and tried to do.