Workshop on the Environment and the Society of Jesus

December 16, 2010 Leave a comment

By the Jesuit Scholastics in Padua

During COP 16, we, the Jesuits students of Istituto Filosofico Aloisianum in Padua, participated in a three-day workshop “Environment and the mission of the Society of Jesus” as a learning community lead by Jacques Haers SJ (University of Leuven), and José Ignacio Garcia SJ (OCIPE). We are particularly grateful to all of them for having made us reflect on the environment as a fundamental and indivisible part of our mission as Jesuits of the XXI century.

The workshop, which followed an Ignatian approach, was structured in three main steps: seeing –  judging – acting. At the end of this process the following aspects emerged:

1.      The necessity to grow in consciousness that God gave us to be in the nature as its stewards (Gen 1:28);

2.      Talking about the environment, the urgency for the whole Church and The Society of Jesus to see itself as a learning community:

a.       called on to listen and ponder its own “presupponendum” (cfr. EE 22), ready to enlarge its vision, with a style capable of seeing, correlating and reconciling the plurality of forces in play. In other words, to be willing “to go to the frontiers”, those places you only know by experience, visiting and becoming part of them.

b.      called on to embody the principle of subsidiarity, that is to take responsibility. In this context it was important to consider justice, understood as “giving to the others what belongs to them” and charity as “giving to the others what belongs to me” both. For us, as part of the Church, it is fundamental to assume responsibilities both on the level of justice (Mt 6:33) and also on the level of charity (Mr 10:21).

3.      The need of a better shared apostolic discernment, that leads us to be concrete before this emergency and to act with hope and creativity, without being paralyzed by our own process of discernment;

4.      The certainty that any discourse in favour of the environment can’t be expressed and held without a profound spiritual conversion that changes our everyday lifestyle. To be more attentive to what’s around us could be a first step in this spirit (for example, do we consider the trash in the streets of Naples something “usual” or do we have something to say about?).

Very grateful for this workshop, we ask our Lord to continue to learn to discern in these days (καιρός) the signs of the times and act in His name.

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Reflections on Cancun

December 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Follows a final contribution by Sean McDonagh, SSC.

At 4.30 am on the morning of December 11, 2010, the participants at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) broke into a long applause and by acclamation ratified what has become known as the Cancun Agreement. Bolivia held out to the end and refused to ratify the agreement. Two of his close allies, Cuba and Venezuela did ratify the agreement.

No one in the hall was claiming that the Cancun Agreement was a historic moment in effectively dealing with climate change. Even those most favorably disposed to the 147 paragraphs in the Cancun Agreement, did not claim that it offers any ground breaking ways of dealing with climate change and its effects. In fact, many intractable problems were kicked to touch or just fudged. But there was genuine relief that the multilateral negotiating process within in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC ) actually did finally succeed. If the Cancun Conference had been as frustrating an experience for developing countries as the Conference in Copenhagen was in December 2009, multilateralism may not have survived.

One of the reasons why it did succeed was due to the patient, professional diplomatic work of the Mexican government during 2010 and, especially, the skillful handling of the negotiations by the Mexican Foreign, Minister Patricia Espinosa. During the midnight plenary on December 10, 2010, the Zambian negotiator spoke for almost everyone in the room when he addressed the chair, Minister Spinoza and said, “thank you for lifting our spirits from the depression of Copenhagen, you have restored our trust in multilateralism.” There was also praise for Luis Alfonso d’Alba, who was the chief negotiator for Mexico. The modest success at Cancun has ensured that the UNFCCC will be the primary home for climate decisions, and not organizations such as the World Bank or G20 which is favored by a number of rich countries.

What gains were made at Cancun? The U.S. was happy that there was some progress on measuring, reporting and verifying methodologies (MRV). This means that domestic climate change efforts which might otherwise be unsubstantiated can now be registered, monitored and verified. The developing countries and China had earlier set their faces against any such monitoring and verification.

Developing countries were happy with the decision to set up a Green Climate Fund. This money will be used for climate mitigation and adaptation programs in developing countries. According to paragraph 16, this fund is “accountable to and functions under the guidance of the Conference of the Parties (COP).” For the next three years, the World Bank will be the interim trustee of this bank. This particular bone of contention has been around for years. The U.S. and other rich countries want any financial entity tasked with addressing climate change be located at the World Bank, where it has considerable control. At least, so this argument goes, there will be less corruption in disbursing the money. Most Developing countries, on the other hand, have had a long, negative experience of working with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) during the Third World Debt crisis in the 1980s, 1990s and right up to the present. Many participants from poor counties saw these multilateral lending agencies as merely debt collectors for northern banks and northern governments. Developing countries want the Green Fund to be under the control of the Conference of the Parties (COP), where they have greater representation. It is hoped that €100 billion will be available annually for the Fund by 2020. Much of this money will come from carbon levies of utilities, energy-intensive industries and the aviation and shipping industries.

There were other gains in Cancun on what is called REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation). Under this initiative, countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Zaire and other developing countries which have  forests can receive aid for keeping their forests intact, so that they act as carbon sinks. Anyone who has been involved in issues surrounding tropical forests knows how difficult it is to monitor projects. This was my own experience during my years in Mindanao. For a number of years, I have been encouraging Catholic Development agencies to get involved with REDD projects. Such projects could deliver significant economic benefits to poor people who live in the vicinity of tropical forests. By securing the forest they could have a constant stream of income based on sustainable forest products and also ensure the protection of biodiversity. But, of course, these Development Agencies, which in the past have specialized in areas such as education, health care and livelihood projects, would need to develop a competence in this area. This should not be difficult as there is quite a bit of money there for capacity building. REDD also leaves the door open for big business to get involved in using forestry project in the carbon offsetting market. Many community groups would be opposed to this development.

There was also some movement on clean technologies. According to Michael Jacobs writing in The Guardian, “After Cancún the global race to produce clean technologies is back on. Business and investor confidence (in these technologies) has a chance of being restored.”[1]

Before the Conference began, Japan stated that they would not sign up to a second Kyoto commitment. They were joined by Russia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. During the first week, this demand seemed almost poised to wreck the negotiations. The reason for Japan’s jaundiced view of Kyoto, is that it commits the signatories to making binding cuts, where other countries such as the U.S. are only making voluntary cuts. Developing countries see the binding commitments under the Kyoto Protocol (KP) as a good example of the “common but differentiated” approach to climate change and cutting greenhouses gases. Developing countries point to the fact that the prosperity, which rich countries have enjoyed for more than 100 years, is directly related to their use of fossil fuels. Enormous pressure came on Japan during Cancun. It is reported that many world leaders telephoned the Japanese Prime Minister , Naoto Kan, in order to get Japan to soften its position on KP. The issue was fudged rather than solved at Cancun. It is still part of the negotiations, and developing countries are now more confident that richer nations will support the second commitment period. Professor John Sweeney of National University of Ireland (NUI) Maynooth points out that an over concentration on the Kyoto Protocol would miss the point that “only 25% of global greenhouse  gas (GHG) emissions come from countries within the KP.”

With all the various sub plots it is easy to forget that the whole point of these negotiations is to reduce GHG and thus forestall very disruptive climate changes. In the run up to the Cancun Conference, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) had carried out a study called, The Emissions Gap Report. This made it crystal clear that, when one added the voluntary pledges under the Copenhagen Accord and the reductions under the Kyoto Protocol, there was a gap of 5 gigatonnes of GHG in the atmosphere if the stated goal was to reduce GHG emissions so that the average global temperature would not rise above 2o C. Many scientists are now saying that even a 2o C rise would lead to disruptive climate changes and that we should be aiming instead for 1.5o C. This would mean reducing the parts per million of GHG in the atmosphere to 350ppm. Currently, it is 389ppm and rising at about 2ppm every year. Given this new scientific knowledge, it is imperative that much higher mitigation targets need to be made before the next Conference of the Parties (COP 17) in Durban, South Africa next December.

Not everyone shared the euphoria in the room on December 11, 2010. Meena Raman of the Third World Network was depressed by the outcome of the Cancun Conference. She claimed that the Kyoto Protocol was being eroded away and that rich countries made greater gains at Cancun than poorer countries. Others may not be as pessimistic as Raman, but they realize that a lot of the hard decisions have been kicked down the road to Durban. A lot of hard work will need to be done during 2011, if a far, ambitious and legally binding agreement is going to emerge from Durban in December 2011.

[1] Michael Jacobs, “Why Cancun gives us hope,” The Guardian, December 15, 2010, page 32.

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Acuerdo inesperado en la Conferencia de Cancún

December 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Las semanas anteriores a la Conferencia del Cambio Climático celebrada en Cancún los comentarios eran mayoritariamente pesimistas sobre su resultado. Por eso hay que reconocer que el acuerdo alcanzado en la noche del 10 de diciembre por  193 representantes de las Partes en la Conferencia es una sorpresa muy agradable, un soplo de aire fresco en medio del ambiente pesimista que rodeaba las conversaciones previas sobre el cambio climático.

El primer resultado, y desde luego no pequeño, es el regreso de las negociaciones a la senda del multilateralismo. Desde 1992 la Convención del Cambio Climático se ha regido por la regla del consenso. Pero durante la última conferencia en Copenhague (diciembre 2009) se rompió con este modo de proceder. La desastrosa gestión de la Conferencia, en primer lugar cuando se prepararon textos alternativos para ser discutidos sin seguir los procedimientos de consulta que garantizan la trasparencia; y finalmente, cuando se permitió el lamentable espectáculo de líderes mundiales reunidos en salas improvisadas sin seguir ningún tipo de procedimiento, todo esto llevó a la ruptura de la confianza básica que es indispensable en este tipo de negociaciones. Esta vez la presidencia mejicana ha jugado un papel decisivo para alcanzar el éxito. Como la Secretaria Ejecutiva de la Convención, Christina Figueres, declaró: “Cancún ha cumplido su misión. Se ha reabierto la esperanza y se ha restaurado la confianza de que el  proceso multilateral para tratar el cambio climático puede dar resultados, las naciones han demostrado que pueden trabajar juntas bajo el mismo techo para llegar a consensos en una causa común. Han demostrado que el consenso, mediante un proceso transparente e inclusivo, puede generar oportunidades para todos”. Sólo Bolivia rechazó firmar el acuerdo, pero este rechazo se consideró, por parte de la asamblea, como una intención de veto inaceptable.

El segundo resultado es el mismo Acuerdo de Cancún, que comienza con una sección titulada: “Visión compartida para una acción conjunta a largo plazo”, que contiene los elementos esenciales de acuerdo sobre cambio climático: el principio de una responsabilidad común pero diferenciada, teniendo además en cuentas las capacidades y las diferentes circunstancias de los países. Se reconocen los pilares fundamentales sobre los que actuar conjuntamente: mitigación, adaptación, financiamiento, innovación y transferencia tecnológica, y capacitar a los agentes que intervienen, especialmente a los estados más pobres. Esta sección reconoce también el origen humano del aumento observado en la concentración de gases de efecto invernadero, tal y como ha documentado el IPCC, y la necesidad de lograr importantes reducciones en estas emisiones de gases para mantener el aumento global de la temperatura del planeta por debajo de los 20 C desde los niveles pre-industriales. Se afirma que este objetivo puede ser revisado para lograr incrementos menores a 1,50 C.

El Acuerdo establece un Comité para la Adaptación que promoverá la implementación coherente de las “acciones que se emprendan”. De esta manera la Convención se dota de un cuerpo técnico que reforzará su papel en futuras negociaciones. Sobre mitigación, el Acuerdo de Cancún, reconoce la responsabilidad diferenciada entre países desarrollados y en vías de desarrollo. Para los primeros, se pone el énfasis en el establecimiento de objetivos ambiciosos, transparencia e información; para los países en desarrollo la mitigación debe ser consistente con el desarrollo económico y la erradicación de la pobreza. También es muy importante que el Acuerdo haya decidido apoyar financieramente los esfuerzos para proteger las zonas forestales de los países en desarrollo, lo que se conoce como programa REDD+.

Cancún ha establecido un Fondo Verde para el Clima, con una financiación de partida de 30 mil millones de dólares entre el 2010 y el 2012, cifra que debería aumentar hasta los 100 mil millones en el 2020. El Fondo estará supervisado por un Consejo de 24 países elegidos con criterio de amplia representatividad, el Fondo será gestionado por el Banco Mundial por un periodo de tres años, y luego revisada esta gestión.

Todavía faltan muchas cosas para que este Acuerdo sea realmente obligatorio. La cuestión del futuro del Protocolo de Kioto se ha incorporado a las negociaciones al reclamar Japón que las principales economías, tales como los EUA, China o India, debieran incluirse entre los estados obligados para reducir emisiones, y no sólo los que están actualmente sometidos por el Anexo I del Protocolo de Kioto. La perspectiva de un único acuerdo obligatorio, aunque con compromisos diferenciados, sería la solución más justa. Obviamente esto requerirá que se garantice el suficiente crecimiento económico para los países en desarrollo como reconoce el mismo Acuerdo. De cualquier modo el futuro de la Convención del Cambio Climático debe conservar el multilateralismo como marco político para el diálogo, así como asegurar la ambición y la energía necesaria para afrontar las amenazas planetarias que afrontamos. Cancún ha traído un poco de esperanza a este proceso. Y en este tiempo de profunda crisis económica la esperanza es mucho más necesaria.

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Cancun Conference reaches unexpected agreement

December 16, 2010 Leave a comment

During the weeks previous to the Cancun Conference on Climate Change, commentators were far from hopeful about the outcome. But it should be recognised that the agreement reached late on the night of 10th December by the representatives of the 193 Parties to the Conference is a pleasing surprise, a breath of fresh air in the midst of the previous pessimism about debates on climate change.

The first result, by no means minor, is the reversion of negotiations to the a multilateral track.  Since 1992 the Convention on Climate Change had been governed by the rule of consensus. Unfortunately the last Conference in Copenhagen (December, 2009) broke with this way of proceeding. The disastrous management of the Conference, first preparing alternative texts for discussion without a transparent consultation process, and  finally allowing the shameful spectacle of different leaders meeting in improvised accommodation seeking agreement outside any agreed procedural framework, lead to a painful break in the mutual trust that was needed. This time the Mexican presidency played a decisive role for the good. As Convention’s Executive Secretary Christina Figueres said: “Cancun has done its job. The beacon of hope has been reignited and faith in the multilateral climate change process to deliver results has been restored, nations have shown they can work together under a common roof, to reach consensus on a common cause. They have shown that consensus in a transparent and inclusive process can create opportunity for all”. Only Bolivia refused to sign the agreement, but this refusal was seen by the assembly as an unacceptable veto.

The second result is the Cancun Agreement, which begins with a section entitled “A shared vision for long-term cooperative action”, containing the fundamental; climate change agreement on : the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, now taking account of the respective capabilities and the different circumstances of the Parties. There were also agreed the major pillars for cooperative action: mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology development and transfer, and capacity-building. This section recognizes the anthropogenic cause of the observed increase in greenhouse gas concentrations as assessed by the IPCC and the need to achieve deep cuts in these gas emissions so as to hold the increase in global average temperature below 20 C above pre-industrial levels. There is retained the possibility of revising this target to a global average temperature rise of 1,50 C.

The Agreement establishes an Adaptation Committee to promote the coherent implementation of ‘enhanced action’. Thus the Convention equips itself with technical bodies that will strengthen its future role. On mitigation, the Cancun Agreement recognizes the differentiated responsibilities between developed and developing countries. For the former, the emphasis is laid on ambitious targets, accountability and reporting; for developing countries, mitigation has to be consistent with economic development and poverty eradication. Very important, also, is the agreement to support, financially, the efforts to protect forests in the developing countries, a measure known as the ‘REDD+ Initiative’.

Cancun has established a Green Climate Fund, with a fast start-up finance of USD 30 billion for 2010 and 2012, a figure that should rise to 100 billion by 2020. The Fund will be supervised by a Board of 24 countries elected by criteria including breadth of representation; the Fund will be managed by the World Bank for a period of three years, and then reviewed.

Many things remain, especially if this Agreement is to become binding. The politics of the post-Kyoto period has been brought into when, for example, Japan claims that the major economies, namely USA, China, and India, should also be included among the states obliged to cut emissions, not only those states already included in the Annex I of the Kyoto Protocol. Probably the perspective of one single binding Agreement, though with differentiated commitments, is the fairest solution. Obviously this will require that the possibility of sufficient economic growth for the developing countries as stated in the Cancun Agreement must be guaranteed. In any case the future of the Climate Change Convention should preserve multilateralism as the political framework for discussion, so as to assure the ambition and energy to confront the many planetary threats facing us. Cancun has brought some hope to this continuing process. At this time of widespread economic crisis, hope is much needed.

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Consolation in the Midst of Difficult Times …

December 10, 2010 Leave a comment

Although there is still a day to go at COP 16 – that means that still a lot can happen –, a real politically and legally binding agreement on a planetary scale seems far away. Even a sequel to the Kyoto Protocol, which seems to me to be the bare minimum if we want to address worldwide climate change, seems far away. I still hear some optimistic voices, but that is because I am looking for them as a medical doctor tracks the life pulse with a stethoscope. In the meantime, with a small team of OCIPE (José Ignacio García, Thorsten Philip and myself), we are involved in a workshop on the Church, the Jesuits and the environmental issues, given for the young Jesuit philosophy students in Padua, Italy. Today we made them see the “facts” and face the situation using biblical contrast texts. At the end of the day, while I was aware that it is easy for us all to feel powerless and desolate in view of the challenge that calls for our engagement, I asked these young people to put on paper the consolations they may have experienced today by piercing through the wall of discouragement and fear we all experience in the face of these complex global threats. I still have to read the students’ reflections – they are arriving in my mailbox around this time – but I want to share some of the sources of my own consolations. They may be helpful to some of us.

In my list of consolations, the young people come first. They are committed to the world that will be theirs tomorrow and they know that they will have to change lifestyles and societal structures, if they want to inhabit a planet that will still support enjoyable life for all human beings. I met these young people at COP 15 in Copenhagen, I met them in a workshop in Paris, and then also here in Padua. I meet them amongst my theology students in Leuven. They still have the courage and freshness that allows them not to be easily imprisoned by destructive thought frames or structures of greed and oppression. They are also eager to explore their spiritual resources as they connect to their research or very concrete praxes. When I see them smile and engage, I feel the flow of their energies.

Other faces that come to me are those of victims of climate change worldwide. Sometimes, these faces frighten me, as I know that in my lifestyle and thoughts, I am not always faithful to them. Sometimes, I may even attempt to keep them at bay, as I fear that I could come to share their fate. Their presence, their faces and names, shock me into reality over and over again. We share a same planet, we are all human beings … Nevertheless, we seem to be worlds apart, separated by borders of injustice and exploitation. This is the shaky ground, where I learn to love my brothers and sisters. This is where I start to question many things that seem self-evident to me, this is also where I am forced into transdisciplinary research, this is where I discover that even in my attempts to answer the challenge of injustice, I discover that I am using worldviews that are part of the problem. I need to learn to see things differently, precisely there where up until now I felt most secure … I need to learn to think “queer,” as some theologians would say. I am grateful for authors as Tim Jackson or Herman Daly, who give me a fresh look at economics, for example. I am grateful to many theologians as Denis Edwards, Celia Deane-Drummond, Ivone Gebara, Marcelo Barros, Seán McDonagh, and so many others, who help me to re-think theological frames and to re-discover the beautiful creational strength of many theological concepts. I am grateful also to a mystic as Egied Van Broeckhoven, who ever more deeply draws me into the mystery of a God who enters into creation interweaving and connecting it more intimately in the myriads of encounters that constitute creation – an idea that I have termed “trincarnation”.

This week, on Dec 6, I was deeply happy when reading that the Brazilian bishop Erwin Kräutler had received the Right Livelihood Award for “a lifetime of work for the human and environmental rights of indigenous people and for his tireless efforts to save the Amazon forest from destruction.” Small events as these, little sniplets of news that easily escape our notice, are so full of life and strength … and they shed light on the deeper meaning of challenges as COP 16. I hope this has not gone unnoticed in Cancún …

A short vacation in Ireland gave me the opportunity to rediscover the beauty of nature and of the planet. Since then, I am on the lookout for the smallest of animals, that creep away there where we usually don’t see them. Little creatures, sometimes dangerous, but always so beautifully intricate and complex parts of an environment that we need to live. John Feehan taught me to always ask that simple question: “hey there, who are you?”, and to treat nature as a conversation partner, not as some useful tool at my disposal. The focus on the issues of biodiversity and the concept of Gaia, as developed by Jim Lovelock, has helped me to see how nature, how our planet, builds a whole, of which I am a part, to which I belong, in which all elements and living beings are jointly at stake. I find these comforting and stimulating thoughts confirmed in the work of people as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry and Michel Serres.

I feel also strengthened by being a Jesuit. Not only because I can rely on a spiritual tradition that provides me with tremendous tools to address the planetary environmental challenges (e.g., common apostolic discernment and Ignatius Loyola’s vision of the Cardoner, which has found its way into the Spiritual Exercises’ Contemplation to Obtain Love, …), but also because the universal Society of Jesus constitutes a unique, truly planetary network, that is present in the field, and has the resources to do research and education, as well as to advocate the case of people and concerns through the media and with politicians. And the Roman Catholic Church, to which I belong, constitutes a similar and even more complex planetary network. I know that the RCC and the Society of Jesus, for various reasons, are not always using the opportunity that has been given them, but at least there are here some platforms that offer possibilities and that can collaborate closely at a planetary level with many others and with many other religions. These networks give me the opportunity to meet extraordinary people from all over the world, who are engaged in this service of God’s people and creation. Here, I find people, organizations and initiatives that give me the support of critically challenging me, even when in desolation. I review their faces this evening, just out of gratitude.

These are but a few examples of deep consolations, even when a lot around me seems to drive me to anger and despair, to fear and discouragement. We need these consolations more than ever, to keep us going and to participate wholeheartedly in what I consider as God’s deep work in creation.

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Eureka Moments at Various COPs …

December 9, 2010 1 comment

This is a contribution by Seán McDonagh SSC, who is present at Cancún.



This is my fifth time at the COP meetings – the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNDFCC) and the Conference of the Parties of the Kyoto Protocol (KP). These meetings are always very exciting, but there are a number of things which make it difficult to follow what is going on. The first is the constant use of acronyms in both official and unofficial discussions and texts. One could listen to a ten minute conversation in English on the floor of the COP or in one of the many restaurants and not have an idea of what was being discussed. It is like learning a new language. And the number of acronyms keeps increasing at each COP. It is like going back to language school for a refresher course to be told by your teacher that a lot more new words have appeared in the intervening year. The only place I could find a Glossary of Terms was at the stall of the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association. I wouldn’t like one of my environmental friends to see me browsing at that particular stall. I would be seen to be supping with the Devil and would probably be immediately excommunicated from the environmental community!!

Keeping many balls in the air

The second difficulty is that there are so many different discussions taking place simultaneously. These focus around the topics such as the Common Vision, Mitigation, Clean technologies, Adaptation, Financial Arrangements, to mention just a few. It is almost impossible to keep abreast of even a single set of discussions and negotiations. To add to the complexity, the texts for negotiation have often more brackets than free texts. The bracketed texts have not been agreed on and, therefore, need to be negotiated. The negotiators have to bear in mind that a change in one set of texts may have implications for other texts. It can take an hour or longer to remove one or two of these brackets, so that a text can move up along a supply line to officials at a higher level. Eventually, the Ministers will agree to accept or reject the wording. Newcomers find this exacerbating. I was chatting with a delegate for Malawi on my way to the Cancun Messe on December 8, 2010. He is an agriculturalist by profession and therefore a practical man who likes to see things completed. He was finding the semantic tug-of-war between, for example, “will” and “shall” difficult to stomach, given the seriousness of climate change.

Inclusive processes are valuable, but not easy

On the positive side, an inclusive, multilateral negotiation process gives each nation an equal voice, no matter how small in size, population or wealth. Furthermore, it is one of the few areas where bodies from the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) can have an input into the discussions, especially during the first week. Many of these people have huge expertise, so their contributions are very valuable. There are also stalls or booths where various Scientific and CSO groups share their research or work with anyone who is willing to drop by. Some of these groups are well known charities, or environmental organisations such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Caritas Internationalis or the Tyndall Institute.

One thing is certain, at COP, there is an abundance of information. Some might say there is even too much. But without good information from the physical sciences on their current understanding of climate change, to how governments or charities are responding to it in the field, good decisions could not be made. Decisions based on bad data will exacerbate rather than solve a problem. One day, I attended a side event organised by the government of Pakistan on the devastating floods in August 2009. I had followed this appalling tragedy in the media and also through contacts with Columban colleagues. Still, I got a good first hand account of the floods which inundated one fifth of the country, destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of arable land and displaced 20 million people. Many of these are still living in makeshift shacks away from their homes.

Can Nation States deal with complex global problems?

This is the kind of background against which countries are trying to work out some way of reducing the release of greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere and also designing institutions to help and support people who are, even now, experiencing the effects of climate change. One of the major problems is that climate change is a global challenge, but the only instrument we have to address it is through negotiations between nation states – political structures which emerged in the 18th century, but are poorly designed to deal with global issues. Naturally, countries with similar profiles or interests often join together in negotiating blocks. The difficulty is that they negotiate to protect their own national interest, instead of working from the perspective that climate change will affect everyone. Of course, the poor, who have done least to cause the problem, will suffer most.

In the midst of all of these swirls of meetings and frenetic activity, I often find that a particular moment, happening or encounter gives me an insight into what is happening, which is different from what I glean from the considerable body of information available in books, pamphlets, website or DVDs.

My eureka moments

The word eureka comes from the Greek word eureka, meaning: I have found something. Tradition has it that the famous Greek mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse uttered these words when he discovered the principle of buoyancy, which is called the Archimedes Principle. At the Nairobi COP, my eureka moment came after attending a seminar on carbon markets, which were being promoted as a way to get the private sector to engage in alleviating climate change. Afterwards, one of the people who had been making the presentation for a global financial corporation, approached me and asked whether I had any money to invest, because I could make a killing on the carbon markets. The goal of reducing carbon emissions had somehow slipped out of view, to be replaced by another mechanism to make easy money.

Cancun is not sustainable

In Cancun, three things struck me that put the negotiations in context. First of all, Cancun is a resort city on the Gulf of Mexico. There is a lot of talk here about carbon sinks, especially forests. In 1974, before the World Bank began to fund the tourist development here at Cancun, the area was inhabited by a number of small communities, fishing villages, mangroves forests and flourishing coral reefs. Fast forward 36 years and there are now 500 major hotels here and 80,000 hotel rooms.

The ecological cost has been horrendous. Iglesias-Prieto, a marine eco-physicist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Puerto Morelos, estimates that in the state of Quintana Roo which includes Cancun, mangrove forests are being lost at about 4% per annum. That means a loss of 150,000 hectares each year. With the mangroves removed, the beaches are regularly devastated by yearly storm surges. In 2009, Cancun spent $20 million shipping sand to refurbish its beaches.

The human cost of this tourist explosion may only be beginning. In early November 2010, an explosion in one of the hotels killed five Canadian tourists and injured 20 more. Though the investigation into the cause of the accident has not been completed, many people are saying that it was probably the result of gases released by decaying mangroves on which the hotel was hastily built. If this proves to be true, many more explosions can be expected in the near future. According to Barbara Bramble an adviser to the National Wildlife Federation in Washington DC, when the building boom began in Cancun in the mid-1980s, “mangroves covered all the coastal area. They have just been paved over. This is the star example of how not to build a mass tourist mecca. It is an ecological mistake that should never have happened.”1

There is a lot of talk at the negotiations about the vulnerability of low lying islands or coastal areas. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), is making a very good case for immediate support, because, in some cases, they are already being negatively impacted by climate change. Even a one metre rise would endanger many of them. But, I heard no one in Cancun saying that this tourist city will probably share that fate and become a ghostly submerged testimony to the ecological madness of a different era.

The second insight also focuses on Cancun. On Monday, I attended a series of lectures on Ethics and Climate Change. The venue was Hotel Riu Cancun. I took a bus from Cancun Messe, where the CSO groups and stalls are located, down the coastal strip where all the hotels are built one after another. Many of the 500 hotels have familiar names such as Hyatt Regency Cancun, Holiday Inn Cancun and others in local ownership. Some of the facades are pretty garish, but to be fair that’s probably a question of taste. However, everything that is used in the hotels – from the food to the water – has to be brought in from outside. On the way down, I saw sprinklers dampening lawn after lawn, even though I am told that water is becoming a major problem, because so much is been drawn from the lake and local aquifer.

I felt uncomfortable chilly in the room during the seminar because the air conditioner was turned up so high. I asked about it and was told that’s how the guests like it. So, from an ecological perspective the Cancun tourist strip is a disaster. Without huge amounts of fossil fuel it could not function at all.

But that is only part of the damage. Iglesias-Prieto points out that pollution from pig farms, golf courses, new roads and the destruction of the mangroves is seriously degrading the water quality.2 Nearly all the human waste water is “deep injected” below the drinking water aquifer. This might have seemed a good idea 25 years ago, the problem now is that this waste water is seeping up through the rocks and making its way into the aquifer. In terms of the vision or paradigm which the COP is attempting to shape, Cancun and hundreds of others like it across the world are dinosaurs. By the way, I found the discussion at the Ethic Forum very stimulating. Their key objective was how to get ethical language into the negotiation documents, which is one of the reasons I am here.

There is a growing consensus that the average global temperature should not be allowed to rise above 1.5o C. This would involve reducing the current amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from 389 parts per mission (ppm), to something like 350ppm. Such a move would mean reducing carbon emissions by more than 30% for rich countries by 2020. This, in turn, would demand a much less affluent life style for the majority of people in Northern countries. The expectation of spending a week or so each year in a resort such as Cancun would not be on the cards. So, while participants here discuss different climate scenarios, no one is saying that the low-carbon world we are striving to create will not be an affluent one.

Huge Ecological Footprint

I remember that, during the height of the Celtic Tiger in Ireland, there were numerous seminars in Dublin hotels encouraging ordinary people to buy a second home in Spain, Portugal, Latvia, Hungry and even as far away as Turkey or Thailand. People were told that the property was cheap, Ryan Air would be flying into an airport close by, and the bank manager would advance the money. We will not be able to enjoy that kind of lavish living in a post-carbon world, where the demands of equity will dictate that poor countries have a moral right to use their fair share of carbon in order to move people out of poverty. I have never heard anyone at any COP say that, in low-carbon-based economy, affluence is doomed. In fact, one often hears the opposite, namely that a move to a green economy will promote economic growth and a new kind of affluence.

This is a new and strange kind of alchemy. If, as ecologists tell us, our ecological footprint at the moment is once-and-half what the planet can support with only 6.7 billion people, how will the planet cope with a population of 9 billion affluent people by 2050? As I walked back through the tourist city, I was convinced that it, and many more similar tourist cities around the world, are facing extinction. There is also the social apartheid – most of the workers are Mexican, while the tourists are from the U.S., Canada, Japan and Brazil. But that discussion is for another day.

I have often been critical of the Holy See’s lack of engagement with ecological issues. A case in point is that the Holy See, while here in Cancun with observer status, is not issuing a statement, though one could be helpful in breaking the deadlock on a number of fronts. I am reliably informed that this decision was made in Rome, presumably by the Secretariat of State. If the meeting would have been on divorce, abortion, same-sex marriages, I am sure the Holy See would make a contribution. Still, the Catholic Church is one of the few organisations which has understood what the lifestyle demands of a new sustainable world will be. In Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All Creation, the late Pope John Paul II wrote: “modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its life style. In many parts of the world society is given to instant gratification and consumerism while remaining indifferent to the damage which this causes … Simplicity, moderation and discipline as well as a spirit of sacrifice, must become a part of everyday life, lest all suffer the negative consequences of the careless hubris of a few.”

Pope Benedict, in a document published on January 1, 2010, entitled, If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation, repeats the same message. In No. 11 he writes, “it is becoming more and more evident that the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our life-styles and the prevailing models of consumption and production, which are often unsustainable from a social, environmental and even economic point of view. We can no longer do without a real change of outlook which will result in new life-styles, in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investment.”

The third eureka moment happened in a very different space. At both the Cancun Messe and the Moon Palace there are meditation rooms. I spend most of my time at this COP at Cancun Messe and have popped into the mediation room at least once each day. During none of my visits have I seen another person in the room. I remember after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro talking to the Brazilian economist Marcos Arruda. Marcos felt that there would have been a much better outcome, if more philosophers and less economists and politicians had been present at the meeting. At least philosophers, in the style of Socrates, would ask the questions which everyone else fears and avoids.

There is no doubt in my mind that people here at Cancun, government parties, members of the CSO organisations and scientists, are working very hard around the clock trying to tease out viable solutions to climate change. Their effort is huge and I salute them, however, one cannot help wondering whether it might be somewhat easier if they took 30 minutes a day to settle down and meditate. Maybe some of the solutions might emerge from silence rather than a frenzy of activity.

There was another aspect of the meditation room which intrigued me. There were no chairs. It would appear that those who arranged the meditation room believed that meditation is primarily for the Asian religious traditions, where people can squat in lotus-like postures on the ground for long periods of time. Almost 30 years ago, I spent six weeks in an Ashram in Southern India and had no problem sitting on the ground as I had been used to that position during the Eucharist at the small chapel in Mindanao State University in Marawi City where I was assigned at the time. But time has taken its toll on my lower back and hips which means even the half-lotus position is no longer possible. Now any meditating I do is sitting upright in a chair. So, I felt discriminated again by those who organised the mediation room. Yes, in terms of ideas, it is very good one, but in terms of getting it right for every potential user, I would reluctantly have to fail them. Maybe this is a metaphor for the whole COP.

As I write on Thursday morning, December 9, 2010, the mood here at Cancun has changed from quiet optimism to brooding pessimism, given the slow progress of the negotiations. The Japanese have come under huge pressure to soften their stand on a second Kyoto commitment period, but they are sticking to their guns. Many feel that with only two days left for the negotiations, little will be achieve. Most difficult issues will be kicked to touch to be decided in South Africa in 2011. But COPs have a bad habit of kicking to touch, but never throwing the ball back in again to resume play.

Some are hoping that there might be an agreement on issues such as REDDs so that, at least, there is some tangible result from all the work and effort here at Cancun.


1 See: http://www.




2 Ibid.

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The plunderers are poised to win

December 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Follows a contribution by Seán McDonagh in Cancún.


The old cliché says that a week is a long time in politics. It is also a long time in environment circles.

Last week I wrote about the success of the Brazilian government in reducing Amazon deforestation, from over 27,000 km2 in 2004 to below 6,500 km2 in 2010. This was a huge victory when one recalls the media coverage of the annual burning of the Amazon rainforest in the 1980s and 1990s to clear land for cattle ranching and agri-business. For example, between May 2002 and May 2003, Brazil lost more than 24,000 km2 of forest – an area larger than Israel. People from around the world felt helpless as they watched those massive forest fires on TV each year. That is why there was such rejoicing when people learned that Brazil had cut its deforestation so dramatically.

I did add a proviso last week. I wrote that: The forces that killed Sister Dorothy Stang and Chico Mendes and hundreds of others like them are still active in Brazil. At this moment there is a major struggle under way in the Brazilian Congress with loggers and ranchers doing everything possible to oppose the Forest Code which has contributed so much to reducing deforestation.

It now appears that the Brazilian House of Representatives is about to approve a new forest code that will roll back all those gains and open up a much larger area of the Brazilian forest to exploiters. The bill, which is supported by 370 out of a total of 513 lawmakers, provides amnesty to those who been involved in illegal deforestation and degradation. It reduces the preservation areas along rivers and eliminates the need for legal reserves for rural properties of a certain size.

A study coordinated by a group of respected CSO environment organizations in Brazil, including Fundacao Boticario, WWF-Brazil, TNC-Brazil, IMAZON and Conservation International, shows that two of the many changes in the proposed forest code will dramatically increase Brazil’s total national emissions as well as reduce its carbon storage capacity. So, in the international environment community within the space of one week Brazil has moved from being a beacon of hope to other countries on how to reduce deforestation, to a country that is pandering to vested interests against the well being of people and the forest. These same environmental organizations claim that there was very little consultation with the scientific community in drawing up the legislation. WWF-Brazil has opposed the bill from the very beginning. It claims that the bill will completely undermine important requirements for environmental and sustainable production reserves on private land. These reserves and other components of the Forest Law are a major reason why the Amazon was spared so much in the past few years.

According to the WWF Report, “If the amendments are signed into law, effective control of deforestation will pass from strong Federal legislative control to a piecemeal state by state approach. Under this scenario, a strong upsurge in deforestation is expected, raising the spectre of ‘the Amazon is burning,’ which became a celebrated cause internationally and helped form the basis of a structure of international environmental conventions and institutions.”1

Brazil is a land of great beauty and unsurpassed biological diversity. For this reason, deforestation in the Amazon is especially troubling. While environmental losses and degradation of the rainforests have yet to reach the point of collapse, the continuing disappearance of pristine forests and loss of its species is deeply troubling. Biodiversity is crucial to the survival of all life on planet earth. The destruction of the Amazon Rainforest, which is the greatest centre of biodiversity on planet Earth is a loss, not just for Brazil, but for the entire Earth. If humans continue to push other species over the precipice of extinction, we too may follow since we depend on other species for our food, medicine, clothing and multiple other needs.

Biodiversity will recover after humanity is gone, but in the meantime, the continuing loss of our fellow species will make Earth a less beautiful and fruitful place.

Scientists who have studied other extinction moments, such as the mass extinction at the end of the Mesozoic (Middle Life Period), estimate that it takes at least 5 million years to restore biodiversity to the level equal to that prior to the extinction event. Actions taken today will determine whether Earth will be biologically impoverished for all the creatures which will live here in the future.

This is this why opposing this new legislation is so important. When all the greedy, cattle ranchers, soya agri-business and loggers have vanished from the face of the earth – their legacy of pain, destruction and death will unfortunately remain.


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