Tag Archives: climate change

Island Get-Away: Heeding the Call of the Climate-Vulnerable, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Sep

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Delays and laziness are the two great gulfs in which multitudes of souls are drowned and perish. John Fox

You cannot prove your worth by bylines and busyness.  Katelyn S. Irons

Nathan thought people needed to wash dishes by hand sometimes. Prepare their own meals more often. And take walks.  Eileen Wilks

We cannot put off living until we are ready….Life is fired at us point-blank. Jose Ortega Y Gasset

If you want to save some money at Christmas, you can say Santa Claus died in a wildfire. Chuck Nice

This year’s high-level week at the UN has come and gone.  Barriers designed to separate those invited and not-invited to this grand political party are coming down as I write and most of the dignitaries (and their entourages) have had their say and boarded planes for home. The time will soon come for the diplomats and other stakeholders who walk the UN’s halls daily to translate some of the promises made into concrete policies, as well as to attempt to soften some of the bravado of heads of state who came to the UN to air their grievances and/or to use their platform to, in some instances, defend the indefensible (as with Brazil) or attempt to undermine the value of multilateralism from multilateralism’s most cherished podium (as with the US).

It was a frenetic scene from early Monday’s opening of the Climate Summit through Friday’s high-level event focused on some of the growing, existential threats posed to small-island states from climate change.  Indeed, some of the most significant take-away messages from this UN week were from those very same events.  The widely-reported, emotional statement uttered to dignitaries by Greta Thunberg (“how dare you”) at the Climate Summit underscored the absurdity of middle-age diplomats of privilege putting “hope” in a teenager who should be home and in school, a teenager who is asking only that leaders listen and respond to the science of climate change and not their own polling numbers.  For her part, Greta might well have been one of the only persons in that Summit (not living within walking distance of the UN) whose mode of transport did not contribute to the problem that the dignitaries had ostensibly gathered to address.  Indeed, the vast environmental “footprint” associated with this event (a fact not lost on some skeptics) should have led less to “hope” in the singular determination of a teenager and more to shame regarding the behavior of political leadership who, in too many instances, still lacks the fortitude to practice what they preach.

Friday’s event focused on the growing climate urgency felt by small-island states couched within a mid-term review of the SAMOA Pathway.  This review highlighted the plight of states staring “point blank” at rising sea levels and ever-angrier storms, and gave rise to frustrations with the limited ability of UN leadership to evoke practical climate commitments from the heads of several large-emissions states. But the event also underscored the degree to which the UN remains highly valuable as a platform to appeal for and garner support for island states which have contributed little to the climate problem but which, in too many instances, suffer from its most severe impacts.  In some ways, this event represented the best (as Sweden’s Foreign Minister referred to the UN) of this “global public good” – passionate, honest, helpful and thoughtful –offering hope to small islanders that big-power interests would not be allowed to deflect responses to the now-existential fears that the economies and cultures of their small-island homes could soon be added to our rapidly-growing list of global extinctions.

There were many important messages emanating from this event that highlighted the urgency of the times and the “lazy delays” that have often characterized our common commitments.  Ireland’s President Michael Higgins spoke well of the dangers of “recurrence” of our collective challenges which he believes can only be prevented through a new ecological-social “compact.”  A native speaker from Hawaii was more graphic, noting that there are more plastic objects in the ocean “than stars in the Milky Way” and highlighting the greed that makes us the only species that “forces disharmony” with the natural order.  Climate problems for one, he noted, soon become “problems for all,” underscoring the hope of UN SG Gutterres that if we can find the courage to solve climate change at its most difficult point, we can solve it at other points more readily.

And in a remarkable SAMOA event statement, Barbados’ Prime Minster wondered aloud how long her taxpayers would continue to authorize trips to New York to continue to say and hear the same things over and over, statements with political value perhaps but also with limited practical impact, statements which merely provide cover for the “arrogance” of too-many leaders and other stakeholders who apparently believe that we are already doing enough to stave off our own extinction when we clearly are not.

Back in the General Assembly, Palestinian President Abbas might well have put the matter before us most succinctly:  “Be careful. Be careful,” he warned, “you must not deprive the people of hope.” The following day, also in the GA, the Prime Minister of Lesotho highlighted the role of the UN in saving people from the “follies” of their leaders, surely including the folly of those who tout “patriotism” and “nationalism” as some “magic-bullet” antidote to the limitations of the multilateral order, an “order” that can clearly still attract a crowd but which its own leadership acknowledges has not yet lived up to its lofty billing. We should be so very grateful for the confidence that people continue to place in these hallways despite evidence that the UN’s signature, high-level segments still care too much about themselves and not enough about the yearnings of global constituents.

In a Lower Manhattan park this week, removed from the traffic jams and crowds of people with credentials trying to push their way into UN conference rooms, a small group of people led by Green Map’s director toured a small and now-threatened area once dominated by drug culture but now an oasis of hopeful possibilities – sculptures and a turtle pond, chickens, recreation areas and gardens full of native plants. The tour highlighted the sustainable development goals and was accompanied by park rangers who know just how far this strip of land has come, how much love and attention it has received from current and former neighbors, how much would be lost if the city’s plans to denude the park ostensibly to make it more “climate resilient” would take effect.

It is an emotional and intellectual challenge, for us and others, to balance the “bylines and busyness” so very much valued in the crowded halls of the UN with the millions of local actions (and actors) struggling to overcome impediments imposed by some of the very same global leaders who should be opening pathways to well-being instead.  These actors, the ones perhaps more likely perhaps to “wash their own dishes and prepare their own meals,” the ones who must find walking destinations to restore and refresh in local contexts, are also the ones who need the promises made by leaders during this high-level week to translate — somehow, someway — into fresh motivation and inspiration for local, climate-related progress.

Greta and her youthful colleagues have laid out before us a science-informed path where practical hope in a healthier and more sustainable future is still feasible.   With all the power and influence at their disposal, global leaders can do better than defending their political and “national” interests and (in some instances) casting dispersions on young actors who have taken into their hands responsibilities for climate changes which too many leaders have neglected for too long and which now threaten virtually every island and coastal community on this fragile planet.

Simply put, we need to see more urgent leading from leaders well in advance of the next UN high-level party in 12 months time.

Youth Group: Passing the Torch on Climate Health, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Sep

strike

You’re learning that you do not inhabit a solid, reliable social structure – that the older people around you are worried, moody, goofy human beings who themselves were little kids only a few days ago.  Kurt Vonnegut

One cannot, without absurdity, indefinitely sacrifice each generation to the following one; human history would then be only an endless succession of negations which would never return to the positive.  Simone de Beauvoir

The last generation’s worst fears become the next one’s B-grade entertainment. Barbara Kingsolver

Respect the young and chastise your elders. It’s about time the world was set aright.  Vera Nazarian

A mistake, committed for a few generations, becomes a tradition.  Nitya Prakash

This past week, the UN Security Council endured a dismal and discouraging session punctuated by an sobering briefing by ASG Ursula Mueller followed by a veritable cat fight among Council members ostensibly committed to easing suffering and reducing levels of threat enduring by the people of Idlib, Syria.  This erstwhile “deconfliction zone” has been the subject of all-too-routine bombing raids by Syria and its allies despite a provisional cease fire, bombing conducted ostensibly to root out terrorist elements and their foreign fighter allies (what Syria referred to as “monsters”) who allegedly have been holed up in schools, hospitals and other civilian infrastructure.

This principled (though not always practiced) concern for protecting civilians and upholding international law by (most) Council members has often run afoul of the concerns of a few to fully prosecute the terror war until all terrorist elements, including foreign military and intelligence capabilities, have been defeated.   In this instance, the disagreements spilled over in a spectacle of competing resolutions on Idlib, one submitted by the “humanitarian penholders” Belgium, Germany and Kuwait, and the other seemingly cobbled together at the last minute by China and Russia and focused more on the necessity of continued, robust counter-terror operations.

Needless to say, neither resolution passed.  Another opportunity to forge a consensus that would spare the people of Idlib from yet another round of violence and displacement was lost.

My own response to this policy carnage was to urge Council members to “burn the tape” of this meeting lest the people of Idlib see for themselves how their urgent interests have been set aside by a body that at times makes more trouble than it resolves – both inside and outside the UN.  Conflicts fester, sometimes for generations, and some of the core lenses that contribute to conflict in our time – especially threats from climate change – have yet to achieve supportive consensus in that body. There is now a “tradition of inaction,” that belies the dignity that still applies within the Council chamber, including the failures to fulfill its own resolutions, hold permanent members to account for acting above the law, and reassure the rest of the international community that Council members are prepared to pull their weight in resolving crises that have sometimes gone on too long and which directly affect prospects for future generations.

Those specific representatives of future generations who have sat with me over the years in the Council chamber have taken note of the political culture which the Council perpetuates and they are by no means reassured.  The clock is ticking while more and more pundits are proclaiming that it might now be “too late” to save ourselves from ourselves. For these young people it is not too late.  It cannot be.

Thankfully reassuring to them has been the recent explosion of climate-related protests, many thousands of people worldwide taking to the streets to “strike” for action and justice, action based on an increasingly firm scientific consensus and justice based on the reality that many who will suffer the most from climate impacts had the least to do with creating the problem in the first place.  Indeed we are now witnessing the scenario of the wealthy trying to buy their way out of the path of severe climate impacts while millions struggle to eke out a living on the margins of rising oceans and expanding deserts.

Inspired by Greta Thunberg and others, there is action on a large (not yet large enough) scale to mitigate climate impacts and redress related imbalances. We do have global policy frameworks to limit emissions and care for climate refugees, though these frameworks are voluntary in nature and thus easily put aside when they allegedly “compromise” the national interest.   We also have a bevy of technologies that have come (and are coming) on line that can promise some relief from excess emissions and other manifestations of our still-excessive environmental footprints. We see every day more corporate and financial interests recognizing that sustainable business requires sometimes dramatic changes in how they “take care of their business.”

And we have seemingly come to grips with the fact that climate mitigation and adaptation can and must be localized, that the challenges people face must be fashioned to context in the form of concrete actions grounded in what we are now missing in too many of these contexts — an abiding commitment to the surroundings that house our ambitions.  In too many instances, we have lost connection with the places we call home, the rhythms of life that we too often take for granted or neglect altogether, the places that demand our immediate and specific attention and get it less and less.   We are a culture full of people who know more about the abstracted feeds on our phones than the habitats and watersheds that surround us daily, the farms and gardens that sustain our bodies and souls in ways that Instagram could never do, the threats to biodiversity (including to essential pollinators) that have sometimes-severe local impacts and that caring and attentive people have the means to address locally.

In pointing this out, I recognize that it is relatively easy for me to examine personal choices and help mitigate climate impacts.   I am not raising children and thus am not bombarded by the desires of children stoked by endless commercial interventions.   I do not need to own a car, or even ride in one, whereas the lives of many others are almost entirely dependent on such vehicles. Indeed, I can walk to markets of all kinds, including places that will gratefully take my copious collection of weekly compost. I can bus or train to work, or even walk if the frustrations of mass transit become too much.

And I can indulge my own amnesia, including with regard to the economic predation characteristic of the most “successful” parts of the city I live in.  I can deceive myself that there is some virtue in growing and producing nothing on my own.  There are few in my life now to remind me of the skepticism and frustration of my earlier years, the energy wasted on investments and behaviors that were sketchy at best and certainly not sustainable in any sense that we now understand that term.

As amnesia is overcome, it becomes a bit easier to accept the skepticism and self-protectiveness of the younger people who allow us to get close to them.  It is easier to forgive the occasional over-indulgence in “first-world problems” and entitlements, the frustration that comes from a life spent in school that, in some ways, produces outcomes just as disappointing as anything the Security Council can muster.  It was interesting that, at Friday’s climate rally in Battery Park, while I was one of the older people present and wearing my “UN costume” of jacket and tie, I was not scolded once, not from the audience and not from the podium.   It was a testiment to the kindness and focus of those strikers that I was able to “escape” so easily.

Indeed, the energy in that park was hopeful, even electric, and the voices of Greta and others were strong, clear and resolute.  Ready or not, it is their turn now, their turn on the playing field, their turn to see if they can overcome their own habituated responses and generational prejudices to effect rescue in a world that is good for them, but also good for those many whom will follow; thereby helping to ensure that their fears and skepticism can be repurposed into actions that will offer more than “B list entertainment” to subsequent generations.

In the shadow of New York’s financial district, Greta reiterated a warning to those who have been made uncomfortable by what they might well interpret as the “bad news” associated with the recent surge in climate activism.  “This is just the beginning.” If we are to preserve our own lives and the “chains of being” on which our lives depend; if we are to eliminate this major contributor to the violence, food insecurity and displacement that now characterize too many global settings; if we are to boldly and urgently mitigate where we can and adapt where we must; then our responsibility is laid out before us, including doing more to ensure that the mistakes of generations past don’t become the “traditions” tying the now-eager and determined hands of the young.

The many voices worldwide insisting on a healthier planet “fit for children” believe, as do we, that this is simply not too much to ask.

Melancholy Moment:  Restoring an Unmanageable World, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Aug

 

Melancholy

I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow.  Edgar Allan Poe

He had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life’s gas-pipe with a lighted candle.  P.G. Wodehouse

As the current answers don’t do, one has to grope for a new one, and the process of discarding the old, when one is by no means certain what to put in their place, is a sad one.  Virginia Woolf

Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.  Dodie Smith

Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.  T.H. White

Here in the northern hemisphere, we are confronting the end of another summer.  The heat and humidity persist but the days shorten, the trees and bushes have lost much of their vitality, and the time sadly wanes in which we might grab just a bit of rest and outdoor recreation, time to be taken up all-too-soon with fall preparations and duties focused on our families and institutions.

Even for me, for whom this current period represents the best time of my life, I now also breathe a bit of an “atmosphere of sadness.”  Like some who feel pangs of melancholy at dusk, I grieve that we might not have what it takes to address current threats from cold and darkness: the shifting climate that impedes any residual semblance of normalcy, the people falling further and further behind; the stresses that seem to come out of nowhere and linger far too long; and of course the search for better “answers” in policy and practice as our current stable of solutions seem too-often akin to searching for “the leak in life’s gas pipe with a lighted candle.”

How the world “wags” now is a mixed blessing at best.  It will take many noble deeds from many sustainable sources, many public displays of service and discernment, many acts of courage and discomfort, if we are to get through this precarious time and heal the emotions that we neither confess nor control, feelings of gloom that dampen enthusiasm for even those activities and relationships that were once reliably joyful.

At breakfast this week with my friend and colleague Wendy Brawer, we discussed a range of sustainability issues and concerns which have been our obsession for many years at Green Map – from pollinators and parklands to bicycles and food security.   When I asked her about issues that have not gotten sufficient treatment, she mentioned “climate grief,” the sense of sadness that comes from knowing that our current trajectory is not at all sustainable and largely absent clear markers regarding how best to bend that arc and what our role in that bending could be.

I experience a bit of that grief despite the policy-privileged position that I find myself in every day – near the center of discussions about which we have some modest impact on strategies for a more peaceful and sustainable world.   Being near the center is accompanied by its own melancholy, of course, wrapped up in the policy compromises that prevent people from having the basic security and prosperity which should by now be our common inheritance. But “having a say,” being one of the “somebodies” that can do something about what collectively ails us, creates its own positive energy.

We at Global Action always have plenty to do, plenty to share (some helpful) on issues which these weeks range from international law to ocean governance, from the dispute over Kashmir to state-sponsored violence in Cameroon.  And yet there is also that nagging sense that we are not doing enough, nor with sufficient wisdom and nobility, to ensure that this time of metaphorical dusk will not descend into a colder, darker time.  As one commentator noted, with respect to climate change, we seem now to be like a passenger in a car speeding towards a cliff that we don’t acknowledge and without a clear strategy for diverting our course.  This metaphor could equally apply to our refugees and our weapons, our biodiversity and our fresh water supply.

For those raising children, for those who are still children themselves, this race-car scenario doensn’t offer much in the way of comfort nor much in the way of a path to transform some of the current melancholia into sustainable action.

Of course, climate grief is tied to other sources of emotional discomfort, from the ofen-bewildering and regularly escalating complexity of our “modern” lives to the self-protective and sometimes vicious manner in which we, formally and informally, engage the rest of the planet.  We defend within our circles what at times we would do better to renounce, and this current iteration of defensiveness seems less about the other and more about coping with the spoiled fruits of our own melancholia, our own fear of personal fraudulence and social impotence.  We know that something is seriously wrong; we know that we are literally being besieged (largely through our hand-held devices) by those desperate to persuade or distract us; but mostly all we seem to know to do in response is to aggressively defend and protect what is closest, to hope that, somehow, the looming and severe storms will magically pass over our self-made havens without us getting thoroughly drenched.

This epoch of high stress and higher anxiety that we are living through inclines us to medicate but not mediate; to demand from others what we neglect to offer ourselves; to cling to policies and practices that have long-lost their flavor in part because we refuse to adjust our speed to the cliff looming just over the horizon and in part because we no longer completely trust the authors of policy to take account of needs and aspirations of more than themselves and their “interests.”

There is simply too-little health in us.

But there remains another path, of simpler living and clearer thinking, of services gratefully offered and received, of governance at all levels compelled to help us release from their bottles only the genies that can inspire our better selves. We haven’t had such inspiration in what seems like quite some time.  This current wave of xenophobia and climate-obscuring narcissism is not entirely a creature of our present but has deep and complex roots.  Save for too-brief periods and circumstances, we have long been encouraged primarily to pursue the interests of self – and then to “shoot” in one form or another anyone who seems to threaten our various domiciles and dominions.

That other inspiration — to the service of others and to policies that might actually save us from ourselves — is not a matter of moral virtue but of common survival.   We know this somewhere deep in the recesses of our being, in the places that we collectively allow to generate more anxiety and fear than determination and empathy.  It is time to own up to and shed light on our legitimate melancholy but also to the still-potent change capacities and aspirations to which those feelings remain tied, and to do so before the often-beautiful light of dusk turns into a deeper and more foreboding darkness.

These are tough times.  They need not be the end of times.

Timber Line: The UN Labors to Encourage Reverence for Forests, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Mar

Forests II=

Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours.  Herman Hesse

When great trees fall in forests, small things recoil into silence, their senses eroded beyond fear.  Maya Angelou

When trees burn, they leave the smell of heartbreak in the air.  Jodi Thomas

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. William Blake

To come in contact with the tree you have to put your hand on it and the word will not help you to touch it.  Jiddu Krishnamurti

And see the peaceful trees extend, their myriad leaves in leisured dance— they bear the weight of sky and cloud upon the fountain of their veins.  Kathleen Raine

The UN took up some important issues this week, including the economic and social benefits of Universal Health Care, the need to fulfill our participation promises from the Women, Peace and Security Agenda, and the implementation challenges of “biometrics” technology in securing national borders and positively identifying “foreign terrorist fighters” and other members of terror movements.

The biometrics event, organized by the ever- thoughtful UN Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate, was particularly instructive as expert after expert wrestled with how to balance the technological benefits with the human rights pitfalls.  How do manage the “secret sharing” of this technology with intelligence and law-enforcement officials across borders while ensuring that rights of privacy and freedom from politicized applications are duly protected.  As is so often the case in such matters, we were left with an unfulfilling formula with many more concrete assurances regarding the counter-terror functionality of biometrics than regarding its own potential for rights abuses.

While some in this policy space would diminish its relevance, this is actually a pervasive problem at the UN.  We can prod and cajole, we can institutionalize our normative concerns and “turn up the heat” on serially-offending states.  But at the end of the day, it remains easier to “sell” governments (and other stakeholders to be sure) on the benefits of technology than on the vigilance required to ensure that such technology is not “repurposed” to political or economic goals inconsistent with Charter obligations to uphold human rights let alone the people-centered promises we have made to global constituents on sustainable development and a healthy environment.

Part of this dilemma is courtesy of a modern mind-set that “trusts” technology more than the motives of governments or even other human beings.  We have certainly adjusted our collective policy work to accommodate the language and thought-processes of technology and, on that basis, assumed that technology will more or less “sell itself” to an audience perhaps much too eager to embrace its benefits without bothering to assess, and then recover, what we might otherwise be in danger of losing.

Some of this disconnect was in evidence at this week’s International Day of Forests event, a precursor to May’s Forum on Forests to be held at UN Headquarters.   We eagerly anticipated this event, in part, based on our understanding of the important role that forests play worldwide in absorbing and storing carbon, but also the degree to which the lack of healthy forests (due to disease or deforestation) is itself a significant contributor to climate risks.  Thanks to UN reports and local agents of change, we know that healthy forests have direct implications for water, soil quality and other quality-of-life issues in rural areas.  Thanks to Green Map and others, we also know of the multiple benefits of trees in urban areas, including energy conservation, CO2 reduction, storm-water capture and pollutant removal, as well as traffic calming and crash reduction, healthier walking and cycling, even “an enhanced sense of well-being and conviviality brought by singing birds and shaded sidewalks.”

Some of these topics were mentioned, mostly in passing, at an event that (even with the presence of eco-engaged children) created little “buzz” among the scarce audience in the ECOSOC chamber. From a purely policy level, there were several missed opportunities to drive this discussion further.  Among those “misses” was a focus on the role of forests in maintaining our dangerously shrinking biodiversity, not only as habitats for individual species but in preserving the symbiotic bonds between species, bonds increasingly threatened by our habituated carbon loading and resource exploitation. Moreover, there was no mention of the rights and implications of respecting “land tenure,” even by the representative from the Food and Agriculture Administration (FAO) which is largely credited with placing land tenure issues squarely on the UN’s agenda in the first place.

Tenure issues are critical to healthy forests, as “insecure tenure rights” courtesy of corrupt government or corporate entities creates conditions conducive to “conflict and environmental degradation.”  The arbitrary separation of people (including indigenous peoples) from their forests and other lands also has grave stewardship implications, inasmuch as the persons “closest” to the land, persons who understand best the rhythms and relations that keep forests and other ecosystems healthy are no longer able to render those sustainable services.   As tenure rights are violated, often with impunity and despite official promises to the contrary, natural resources are more likely to be exploited and promises for eco-protection and restoration are more likely to go by the wayside.

As part of the International Day event, a representative from China’s “Shelterbelt” Program shared an ambitious, forest-focused government program (started in 1978) to protect communities and agriculture from “dusty wind, desertification, water erosion and soil loss.”  As technologically impressive as this project has been, more poignant for me was the testimony of young people who have successfully “localized” the protection and expansion of forests and trees, planting and caring for life forms that might well outlive them, recognizing their many benefits — well beyond the commercial and the technical — for the abundance and health that they (and many millions of others) hope to enjoy.

And in the process, perhaps helping us to revive a bit of the “romance” of the forest as well, a romance well-represented in the quotes at the beginning of this post, odes to trees that inspire awe as well as offer protection from flooding and pollution, trees that offer “long thoughts” as well as long shade, trees that “bear the weight of sky and cloud” as well as the weight of the millions of people and countless species under stress relying on them for sustenance and shelter. To be able to touch the trees that themselves touch the sky, trees which hold secrets long–forgotten or ignored by humans more anxious to use modern tools to exploit the “green thing that stands in our way,” this can be a life-changing, even “romantic” experience that can enrich and sustain forest protection commitments over many years.

I have been so fortunate to touch so many threatened “great trees” – the majestic redwoods on both sides of San Francisco, the Cedars of Lebanon that once fostered mighty ships, the tangled web of vegetation in the Panamanian rain forest, the Black Pines of Japan interspersed with bamboo, the brilliant fall Maples of New Hampshire, the Sycamores of sub-Saharan Africa, the Cypress of Robeson County, North Carolina.  These and other trees inspire awe even as more and more of them are isolated both from their own kind and from the deeper forests which were once their incubators.

It has been said that we have done to the forests what we have done to each other – degrading their inherent dignity and disrespecting connections that are crucial to our common existence.  Through greed and indifference, through careless fires and the endless whining of chain saws, we have caused our share of “heartbreak” among the trees. The promises of technology notwithstanding, we will not survive our current climate threats without millions of local commitments to larger and healthier forests, nor will we end poverty and protect the languages and cultures that remain most directly “in touch” with the canopies on which we all depend.

Let us then be about the urgent business of revering, protecting and above all, planting.

Home Depot: Reliable Spaces to and From Familiar Places, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Dec

A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended. Ian McEwan

He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none. Madeline Miller

One of the most important things you can do on this earth is to let people know they are not alone. Shannon Alder

There can be few situations more fearful than breaking down in darkness on the highway leading to Casablanca. I have rarely felt quite so vulnerable or alone. Tahir Shah

The UN spent the week meeting in far-flung corners on issues that in some key ways would have fit nicely together.  In New York, a special event called to mind the special needs and special potentials of persons with disabilities.  Despite the fact that as many as 1 billion of our species has a recognized (if not always recognizable) disability, we continue to organize the world around those who can demonstrate more than a modicum of mobility, emotional restraint or sensory normalcy.   Even more insidious, we still look upon persons with disability through the lens of that disability, as though they could somehow be reduced to the “thing they don’t have,” as if “normal” was the objective to be aspired to rather than placing the unique set of skills one does possess – sometimes in abundance – into productive use in the world.

The failure to accommodate persons who don’t, through no fault of their own, conform to some arbitrary notion of “normalcy” has implications beyond access to education, employment or social services.   Indeed at two major events “off campus,” the reluctance to factor difference into our planning was on display, specifically our reticence to recognize that our current, severe and common vulnerabilities provide distinct opportunities and challenges for persons who perhaps “can’t keep up” in one sense but can contribute much in another.

These major events – one in Poland (on climate change) and the other in Morocco (on migration) could well have been organized in tandem as the failure to satisfactorily address one crisis directly exacerbates the other.  While there was some attempt to address issue linkages, especially in some of the Poland side events, it isn’t clear that the international community completely grasps the degree to which severe storms and unprecedented drought (not to mention bombs and landmines) drive often dangerous and chaotic migration flows of persons who can no longer make a go of it in the places they call home.  The Global Compact on Migration, which is scheduled to be signed by many high officials as this essay is being posted, is not completely silent on climate and disability challenges, but neither does it recognize the degree to which our planet has become a starting gate of sorts for all kinds of persons racing (if they can) towards borders and makeshift ports in the hope of escaping the effects of lakes turned to sand, schools and hospitals reduced to rubble.

If they can: There is no wheelchair access at the embarkation points.   There is no foam to brace the falls from clumsy ascents of border walls on legs that simply cannot hold the weight.   There is no security for those forced to run from border guards but who cannot see the flimsy trails to freedom or safety.  In every respect the desperate path to the possibility of a better life is made more difficult, more treacherous, more frustrating, more dangerous by “difference.”

And while the Global Compact’s concern is with establishing consensus principles of migration governance (which it does well by the way), it is less focused on persons for whom migration is essentially coerced, driven by circumstance at least as much as by voluntary will.   On one afternoon during an exposure in Marrakesh with Churches Witnessing With Migrants (CWWM), an event on the margins of the Global Compact signing, we sat with a courtyard full of (mostly men) who had fled from violence and economic uncertainty in several African countries, but primarily from the Anglophone regions of Cameroon where I have spent some good time in the past.  The circumstances in the courtyard were dire, but the people themselves were not.   While they waited for blankets and basic provisions with a stoicism that occasionally leaked anger and frustration we talked about the places they had come from, the places they hoped to go, the skills they sought to share, and the myriad of obstacles that seemed to block every point of potential access.

The mood in the courtyard, despite the remarkable efforts of the local church staff, was subdued, even resigned.  Were it not for the few children running around, making up their games, the life energy of these people would have suggested that they were at an impasse – unable to go further and yet unwilling for now to go back.  They all shared scars from violence endured and family support forfeited but the blind and the lame were not among their numbers.  This was not a journey for them to make.  They have little choice but to remain behind with hopefully enough of a safety net to keep them afloat until the political crises abate and the soils regain their fertility.

The people who made it to the courtyard were described as alternately angry and frustrated, in part because they were persons of some honor before their world caved in, persons who likely never imagined they would find themselves in an alleyway waiting for someone to distribute a few provisions so they could make it through another cold Marrakesh night. Even if these people had not been torn from their communities by a state and security establishment that couldn’t leave well enough alone, it is still disconcerting to discover that doors are more often closed than ajar – doors to basic necessities but also to the jobs and dignity they left behind many miles ago.

While some of us in Marrakesh tried to think through our responsibilities to a world increasingly pushed out of homes and livelihoods, the news coming from Poland was little short of grim.  We are not making our collective climate targets.  Indeed, due in part to influential climate skeptics and the millions who continue to live as though massive storms and mass extinctions are mere anomalies, this past year set a dubious and dangerous record for emissions.  Despite all the warnings, despite weather maps that resemble Hollywood-produced alien invasions, we mostly continue on our merry way, keeping our credit lines open and our borders closed.

Our CWWM event had moments of good policy insight though such were sometimes buried in the clear and present responsibility to meet the needs that manifested themselves (in this instance) at the church door, to feed and cover and comfort and refer, and even to make the stories of those on almost unimaginable journeys speak to the unconvinced or merely indifferent, journeys in this age of climate shocks, state-sanctioned violence and discrimination that are only likely to increase in number and dimensions of difficulty.

What most of these journeys have in common is that those making them exhibit limited trust levels, occasionally of the churches and other caregivers, certainly of governments and their multilateral Compacts.  To be fair, this Compact certainly has some wise referrals, including to fulfill our 2030 Development responsibilities so as to minimize the incentives for people to leave their homes as well as an injunction to do more to make a public case that, as with those in the Marrakesh courtyard, most migrants have skills that can contribute much to sustainable development whether in transit, at their intended destination, or back in their preferred communities.

But in this current matrix of mistrust, NGOs and churches are left to do what they so often try to do – fix the broken, bandage the wounded, satisfy some of the empty stomachs and even emptier souls, doing just enough to address the miseries and fill the voids such that government officials and their five-star entourages don’t have to feel too badly about migrant-related agreements that are largely government driven, government negotiated and –when it suits their purposes– government neglected.

Many at our CWWM event have often been in this difficult place, with needs staring us in the face while the responsibilities to make good policy that can impact the many beyond the courtyard also beckon.  We are not so callous that we can step over and around those facing acute need, even with the consequence of enabling governments to care less in the process. But neither can we leave policy entirely to the governments, the same governments who claim a sovereign right to keep internally displaced persons out of the Compact’s protections, the same governments that hesitated to meaningfully integrate special accountability for migrants with disabilities and others facing acute vulnerabilities, the same governments which relegate churches and NGOs to meeting the needs of those in their gaze while state officials grant themselves de facto permission to turn their own gaze towards other “pressing” matters.

The lessons for me this past week are clear:  We must provide care as best we can but not enable other persons and entities to withhold their own.  We must protect the right of movement but also do more to ensure that those wishing to stay in their homes can do so.  We who are able must contribute more to policies of protection and accompaniment for displaced persons remaining within national borders and not only people crossing over.  And we must ensure that persons with disabilities and others facing multiple vulnerabilities are given special attention, that their “right to migrate” is also honored.

We all have our scars; we have all faced metaphorical abandonments on dark and lonely roads.  Moreover all have contributed in some way to a violent, over-heated world where so many need “mending,” need accompaniment, need tangible reminders that they are more than the provisions periodically extended to them. These messes we’ve made; these vulnerabilities we’ve ignored; these will become the tests of our collective character, our collective attentiveness, our collective promise to heal as best we can the wounds of the legion of persons from many cultures and walks of life now on the move.

Missing Ingredients:  Consolidating a Consequential UN Week, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Jul

Contract Image

Peter was, simply, what a person would look like if you boiled down the most raw emotions and filtered them of any social contract. If you hurt, cry. If you rage, strike out. If you hope, get ready for a disappointment.  Jodi Picoult

While prosperity does not trickle down from the most powerful to the rest of us, all too often indifference and even intolerance do.  Hillary Clinton

I am not surprised that the people who want to unravel the social contract start with young adults. Those who are urged to feel afraid, very afraid, have both the greatest sense of independence and the most finely honed skepticism about government.  Ellen Goodman

We may demand that the citizens of each sovereign state view citizens of other states (or even stateless people) with compassion, respect and sympathy, satisfying some requirements of “minimal humanitarianism.” Amartya Sen

This was in several ways one of the more remarkable weeks in recent UN memory, capped off by the historic agreement on the text of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration which will be formerly adopted in Morocco in December.  The document was negotiated under the able stewardship of the co-facilitators (Mexico and Switzerland) and was rightly hailed by Deputy Secretary-General Mohammed, President of the General Assembly Lajčák and Special Representative Arbour as a triumph of multilateralism, a way forward for governments to address and honor the challenges of migration but also the many contributions that the 258 million or so migrants in our world today can make (many already making) to our sustainable development priorities.

In other conference rooms, the UN was alive with delegations and discussions assessing progress (or its lack) on fulfilling our 2030 Development Agenda promises.   From sustainable cities and financing “partnerships,” to the right and access to fresh water, sanitation and sustainable energy, the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) held important discussions that explored gaps and celebrated successes, but also aired frustrations about the lack of progress in implementing several development goals and about the lack of transparency regarding the “partnerships” currently being proposed (few of which involve reductions in military spending) to pay for our 2030 development ambitions.

As a small office with diverse policy interests, we could cover only a few of the HLPF events (most reflecting the current interns’ interests in the right to water, African affairs, environmental care and sustainable cities).  But as is our want we remained intrigued by the “cross-over” events that remind us of the systemic nature of our development promises, the degree to which sustainable development must be pursued at multiple levels and must integrate as fully as possible both the human rights and peace and security pillars of the UN’s policy mandate.  Indeed, presentations by the resplendent UN Climate Envoy Mary Robinson as well as by Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmore and the ocean-focused, former president of the General Assembly Peter Thomson helped give sustainable development a wider lens if not always an optimistic one.

True to form, Gilmore and Thomson were particularly blunt.  Gilmore in fact went so far as to call trickle-down economics a “staggering oxymoron,” noting that the forces in the economy  exacerbating inequalities are not as “inevitable”  as we sometimes make them out to be.   For his part, Thomson underscored the urgent need to “re-establish and respect planetary boundaries.”  No categorical critic of profit (nor are we), Thomson yet wondered aloud about the value of short-and medium-term pursuit of such profit when our longer-term sustainability is under continuous assault, when our “plastic plague” shows too few signs of abating, and when we have been too slow to usher in a “new generation of stewardship” represented by our young people, stewardship that can help our markets and governments respond more urgently to growing inequalities while inspiring our consumer appetites to become less voracious and wasteful.

And as has been the case for the last couple of summers, we eagerly welcomed the release this week of Spotlight on Sustainable Development, a compendium of viewpoints assessing our sustainable development responsibilities, progress and failings produced by the “Civil Society Reflection Group” on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.   The 2018 version of the report contains a diverse array of data and commentary including and beyond the SDGs tagged for assessment at this HLPF.  What the authors (many of whom also presented during the HLPF) seemed most to have in common was a commitment to narrowing what have become almost grotesque social and economic inequalities in many regions of the world, in part through important calls to reverse our recent “privatizing” obsessions and restore more accountable municipal control over water and other essential services.

The Security Council, which at times seems a bit “tone deaf” to developments and achievements elsewhere in the UN system, also had a good week.  Despite some considerable controversy resulting in a razor-thin vote to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan (over the objections of South Sudan itself and the African organizations currently seeking to broker SS peace), Sweden’s presidency was off to a positive and collaborative start with high level discussions on children in armed conflict, on women, peace and security in African states, and on climate as a peace and security issue.

All are worthy of sustained attention by this Council, not so much to control these narratives (a persistent concern of non-Council members and many Council watchers)  but to support efforts taking place elsewhere in the UN system, and indeed in communities around the world.  Regarding climate, while some members remain a tad suspicious (the US never actually uttered the term during its Wednesday remarks) and others (such as Russia) maintain that there is sufficient policy robustness on climate in other UN settings, most agreed with the Netherlands, represented at this meeting by the Prime Minister of Curaçao, that “we are all in the same canoe, and need to collectively paddle faster than the threats that are now overtaking us.”  Such “paddling,” he insisted, must involve greater responsibility for ensuring that all UN agencies with a mandate and/or determination to mitigate climate threats, including the Security Council itself, be about those tasks as though the future of the planet depended on it.

The grandest moment for us of ths particular Council session, perhaps of the entire week, was when indigenous representative Hindou Ibrahim addressed Council members.  For Hindou and the often-vulnerable people with whom she lives and works, climate change is no abstraction.  Its impacts dominate every aspect of their lives, forcing people into adaptations that strain resources, security arrangements and community bonds. “We don’t have a choice,” she noted (raising her finger), “but you do.”  “You choose to sit on this Council.”  You must, she intoned, do more to “give the people hope.”

I caught up with Hindou later in the day and congratulated her for her courageous words, noting how much better balanced the UN system could be if there were more people like her wandering its halls and fewer people like me.  She replied that “everyone has a role to play.”  Everyone, including people with uneven skill sets and financially challenged offices; everyone, including people who have been battered by climate events that have destroyed their homes and ruined their farms; everyone, including those who have never once been invited to make a better world for others; everyone, including those who have already spent too much energy trying to convince themselves that things cannot be so very different from what they have now become.

In a week as momentous as this one at the UN was, in a building that was filled to the brim with talented and creative people, some of the most important takeaways appear to be pretty straightforward:  that those who choose to occupy seats of authority must set a hopeful bar for themselves and others that renounces both indifference to our ever-more unequal world and intolerance to our ever-greater human diversity; that our national and multilateral institutions don’t quite have the precise blend of human ingredients needed to bake some variety of the bread of life to offer to our children and those who come after; and that a mixture of “compassion, respect and sympathy” is a prerequisite for hopeful and sustainable policy, not an afterthought.

We’re getting there.

Hedging Our Bets:  Tepid Responses to Existential Challenges, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Apr

Haiti

With so much evidence of depleting natural resources, toxic waste, climate change, irreparable harm to our food chain and rapidly increasing instances of natural disasters, why do we keep perpetuating the problem? Why do we continue marching at the same alarming beat?  Yehuda Berg

The average person is a conformist, accepting miseries and disasters with the stoicism of a cow standing in the rain. Colin Wilson

Economic disasters or foolish wars are hardly guaranteed to bring about large-scale individual self-examination or renew the appeal of truly participatory democracy. Pankaj Mishra

It’s Easter Sunday and outside in UN Plaza it is likely to reach 85 degrees F today.   This July-like warmth, following a spell of January weather in March and a dramatic cool-down predicted for later this week, is what the climate change models I’ve seen routinely predict:  a lack of predictability and on a growing scale.  At a metaphorical level, we no longer know from one day to the next whether to put on sun-screen or grab the scarf.

But we can draw at least one predictable linkage between the Christian resurrection narrative and our rising global seas:  we tend not to take either seriously enough.

I’ve long maintained that participation in the Easter ritual should result in a greater tangible impact, certainly for Christians whose very faith is premised on a sacred hope.   This hope of resurrection, what Fox News apparently referred to today as “the greatest truth,” should mean more, change more, be more visible in our behavior and discourse, punctuate more of how we prioritize our time and action.  People shouldn’t have to guess if attentiveness, compassion, kindness and respect lie behind our Easter rhetoric and seasonal fashion statements; they shouldn’t have to wonder if our Easter devotion is anything more than simply “hedging a bet” on the possibility that at least some aspects of the resurrection narrative just might be turn out to be true.

And what about climate, another bet resolutely “hedged” by some governments and many global citizens but affirmed by a growing consensus of scientists, religious leaders and government officials?  At a policy level, the jury is still out.  As much as climate change is discussed at the UN and within many of its member states, it too easily gets crowded out of consciousness by more “hard” security concerns, including military confrontations and terrorist acts.

For example: While the failed Security Council resolution this week in response to chemical weapons use in Syria produced its share of sparks and grabbed several of the global headlines, plenty of news space was also reserved for the “mother of all bombs” used in Afghanistan, and even more for the escalating, potential “cloak and dagger” hostilities taking shape in the Korean peninsula.   In this last instance, the unpredictable story line is enhanced due to the erratic personalities in the US and North Korea (DPRK) leadership as well as some in the policy community who seem more concerned about how we’re going to respond to the humanitarian needs stemming from a potential conflict than our responsibility to prevent the conflict’s occurrence in the first place.

As hard as it is to sit in the Security Council and cover statements by members unified in theory over the DPRK’s nuclear ascendency but largely stifled in practice, it must be so much harder to sit in front of television screens and watch a major potential crisis unfold about which one can do virtually nothing.   This in some ways is the great paradox of our time:  more information pertinent to specific global emergencies – mostly security related — in response to which we remain essentially powerless.

But there are clear pathways to meaningful participation on climate health as there are pathways to a more thorough reflection on our responsibilities to the promise of Easter.  At individual and community levels, we do have power to take stock of ourselves, to examine lifestyles and personal choices, to demand less and give more, to renounce old patterns of consumption and march to a simpler beat, to find communities of concern and allow ourselves to “go on record” with our own, to live Easter values such that they become identifiable habits no longer constrained by the rhythms of a spring ritual.

At a policy level we can also do more and better.  At the UN, the Mission of Ukraine was quite visible this week, hosting both a Security Council “Arria Formula” discussion on the multiple interactions of climate and conflict, and another event linking environmental and human health with a focus on oceans.  Both were insightful, though our primary interest was in the discussion examining the multiple ways in which climate change and conflict interact, a growing concern within diverse sectors of the policy community, including notably by Refugees International.  As we now widely recognize, climate change can drive mass human mobility, but also exacerbate tensions over increasingly scarce water and other resources.   We also recognize that climate-inspired incidents such as massive, over-water storms are increasing in number and ferocity, threatening any and all efforts to rebuild state institutions or stabilize populations in vulnerable states already ravaged by poverty, corruption and conflict.

But when it came time this week for the full Security Council to discuss the downsizing of the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), such climate insights were surprisingly scarce.  The new mission (MINUJUSTH) will focus on important outcomes for a country that has been battered by earthquakes, invading forces and patterns of state corruption for so many years:  policing and security sector reform, rule-of-law institution building, and human rights monitoring and reporting.  But as Senegal was almost alone in pointing out, all of this good work presumes stable ground and clear skies – prospects for new earthquakes and ominous storm clouds can foretell massive setbacks for people who have already and often endured the worst.  And there is every science-supported reason to assume new and more dangerous levels of climate assault – for Haiti and for many other island nations.

So on this overly-heated Easter Sunday, we note with urgency the need for reflection in the policy community as well, within but also much beyond the Security Council. We must insist that climate impacts permeate our conflict prevention and resolution strategies.  We must make climate resilience a higher priority within our peacebuilding and migration-related policy planning and implementation.  And we must make full use of all capacities to address our current, urgent climate challenges, identifying and breaking bread with as many stakeholders as possible who demonstrate the will and skills to help heal a natural world under considerable siege.

For many and various reasons, climate health is a bet we cannot afford to hedge.  If we do, and if we lose, there may well be no resurrection narrative sufficient to rescue us from the condemnation and scorn of succeeding generations.