President calls for new thinking on climate change

Michael D Higgins concentrates on ethical issues in first major address in Paris

President Michael D Higgins took a holistic approach to climate change in his first major address on the subject, arguing that the great challenges of our time cannot be dealt with in piecemeal fashion.

Mr Higgins also said the issue should not be addressed under the sway of economic neo-liberalism, which weakens the state and fosters inequality and injustice.

“New thinking,” a “new normative framework” and “reconstructed” economic models are desperately needed, Mr Higgins said. “It will require moral courage.”

The President yesterday addressed the "Summit of Consciences for the Climate" in Paris, at the invitation of French president François Hollande. The fact that both he and the former president Mary Robinson, now UN special envoy for climate change, were prominent speakers created an impression of Irish presidents, past and present, as a moral compass for Ireland and beyond.


Ethical questions

Mr Higgins saluted the complex political and technical decisions to be thrashed out in the international COP 21 climate conference in Paris in December. But he concentrated on the ethical and intellectual questions raised by climate change. Global warming provides “opportunities to construct a new order for humanity and for our planet,” he argued.

Climate change is “grounded in forms of development and industrialisation that were based on the exploitation of fossil fuels, with an assumption of infinite growth,” Mr Higgins noted.

“Individualism manifesting itself as insatiable consumption and accompanied by unconscionable levels of inequality characterises much of what is regarded as the developed part of our planet,” he said. “For some it is an economic model that cannot be contested, like received truth in the days of Galileo.”

In a subsequent interview, Mr Higgins explained how the post-second World War model based on solidarity and human rights was in the 1980s transformed by the influence of the Chicago school of economics, which advocated rolling back the state.

At the same time, investment that could be identified and traced gave way to uncontrolled, “massive free-flowing capital” that created “great fissures of inequality” and was “capable of dislodging the international fiscal system.” The global challenges of climate change and inequality could not be met if governments were not in control of their economies.

Mr Higgins linked the climate conference to UN conferences that are defining the follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals – international targets for addressing issues such as poverty, hunger, and disease.

"The World Bank says we will have to go from billions to trillions to pay for the agendas that will flow from the conferences in 2015," he said. "The issue is: can you do this with a minimised state?"

Mr Higgins added: “People are sleepwalking into the acceptance of the inevitability of a single model in economic theory. People think I am attacking neo-liberalism . . . Yes, I think the neo-liberal model has failed, because of its push to extremism.”

But isn’t neo-liberalism the Irish model? “I wish we had time to look at how it came to be,” the President said. “Of course, as President I don’t ever comment on government policy of the day, but I offer this analysis. The interesting part is I have gathered a lot of allies in the last couple of years.”

In their speeches, Mr Higgins, Mr Hollande and Mrs Robinson linked climate change to broader development issues.

Sustainable model

A planned US$100 billion annual “green climate fund” constitutes “collective global recognition that while today’s rich countries built their prosperity from fossil fuels and unsustainable land use, leaders from the developing world are trying to find a way to a more sustainable model of developing without emissions,” Mrs Robinson said.

In the minds of the speakers, climate change seemed to have replaced nuclear war as the threat looming over the world's future. The former UN secretary general Kofi Annan quoted the late Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev, who said, regarding nuclear war, that "the living would envy the dead."

On a lighter note, Mr Higgins commented on a recent Irish Times report citing French documents that indicate remains buried in Drumcliffe churchyard are unlikely to be those of WB Yeats. Does it matter?

“Not at all,” Mr Higgins said.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor