The role of stupidity in local and global politics

Stupidity. I am going to write this month about the role of stupidity in local and global politics. Some of this comes from having read a number of books over the summer in which such stupidity played a central role. The first was a superb history by William Dalrymple of the first Afghan War in 1839-1842, where the British Raj’s terror of Russia and colossal errors by top Indian civil servants (led by Ulsterman Sir William Macnaghten) led to Britain’s worst military defeat of the 19th century.¹

Then there were the leaders of Europe in the paranoid and self-deluding months on the eve of the First World War.”The protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing,  haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world”, concludes Cambridge historian Christopher Clark in his magisterial study The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914.

Then there was the idiocy of the so-called clever men who ran Britain’s monetary policy in the run-up to the post 2008 Great Recession through their membership of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, and who failed utterly to see it coming. David Blanchflower, the eminent Ivy League economics professor (no relation to the great Northern Irish footballer), who was the lone voice on that committee warning that the country was falling into deep recession, called it “absolute abject incompetence…they missed the biggest event in macroeconomics for 100 years.”²

A (very brief) mention of the obscure province that is my home place: Northern Ireland. Here, for a change, the stupidity which led to the current political crisis was not the fault of the unionists, but of those two usually far smarter organisations: the Police Service of Northern Ireland and Sinn Fein. What possessed the most politically-conscious police force in Western Europe to put out a carefully choreographed series of statements that the IRA was involved in the revenge killing of a notorious former IRA hit man (Kevin McGuigan) if they didn’t have any hard evidence to back these up? Did they not foresee the implications for the stability of the institutions and thus the whole peace process? And what possessed the Sinn Fein leadership to allow the former IRA Belfast commander and Northern Sinn Fein chairman, Bobby Storey – a legendary hard man who has been close to Gerry Adams for 40 years – to become involved in the killing (if he was – the police certainly believe he was)? Did they not see the implications for both the peace process and for their electoral support in the South, which has gone down significantly for the first time for years as a result?

Which brings me to the Great Stupidity of our age: the inability of world governments to agree on anything which will start to tackle the imminent catastrophe of climate change. Following the chaos of the last UN climate change summit in Copenhagen six years ago, the world’s leaders will meet in Paris at the end of November to try again to achieve a legally binding worldwide agreement on how to tackle this gigantic problem. As is now universally known, such an agreement will aim to keep global warming under 2° Celsius above pre-industrial era temperatures.

The latest (2014) report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – representing the overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue – concluded that climate change was already having large-scale effects: melting sea ice and thawing permafrost in the Arctic, killing off coral reefs in the oceans, and leading to heat waves, heavy rains and mega-disasters. They warned that the worst is yet to come, with climate change posing a threat to global food stocks and to human security.

“Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,” said IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri. And the extreme weather events being forecast will take a disproportionate toll on the poor, the weak and the elderly. The IPCC scientists said governments did not have systems in place to protect those populations. “This would really be a severe challenge for some of the poorest communities and poorest countries in the world,” said one of the report’s authors, Maggie Opondo of the University of Nairobi.

Until this summer the Irish government’s draft climate change legislation was pathetic. When a weak Climate Change Bill finally emerged – three years late – last January it seemed that Labour Environment Minister Alan Kelly was not much more engaged than his predecessor Phil Hogan, whose Fine Gael party advisor on the environment was a climate change sceptic (Dublin Institute of Technology academic Conor Skehan).

There was sharp criticism of the absence of any specific target for greenhouse gas emissions reductions in the draft legislation (and, of course, no mention at all of our main source of emissions: agriculture). Kelly was accused of ignoring some of the key recommendations made by the Oireachtas Committee on the Environment.

These included basic things like providing a definition of low carbon; guaranteeing the independence of the proposed Expert Advisory Council, as was the case in the financial area (taken a thousand times more seriously by the government) with the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council; and referring to the need for ‘climate justice’ – assisting developing countries in their struggle to modernise without producing the huge amounts of carbon emitted by the developed countries.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan charged that the Bill had neither targets nor ambition. “The Bill contains nothing but vague aspirations,” he said, adding that the first emissions reduction plan would not be prepared in the lifetime of the Government. “Fine Gael and Labour have no ambition when it comes to tackling climate change . . . they don’t give a damn.”

In July Kelly responded to strong lobbying by environmental groups and added amendments to cover some of these objections: a long-term and non-binding commitment was made to reduce carbon emissions by 2050 by 80% from 1990 levels; the Climate Change Advisory Council was given the same independent status as the Fiscal Advisory Council; and a reference was inserted on the need for climate justice – sharing the burden of cutting emissions fairly between developed and developing countries.

We will have to wait until mid-December to find out if agreement can be reached in Paris to keep temperatures below 2°. I am hoping against hope that Naomi Klein’s belief (in her brilliant book This Changes Everything) that the massively powerful multinational fossil fuel companies – the real villains of this piece – will not be too concerned about what happens in Paris will be proved wrong. The omens are not good. In March 2014 ExxonMobil explained to shareholders that new restrictive climate policies were “highly unlikely” and, based on this analysis, there was no need for them to worry that the company’s oil and gas reserves would become “stranded” (i.e. lose their value) in the future.

P.S. For those interested in this all-important issue, the Dublin Unitarian Church on St Stephen’s Green will be holding five lunchtime public talks (1-2 pm) on climate change in the run-up to the Paris summit. On Thursday 15 October Eamon Ryan will talk about climate change solutions; on 22 October one of the world’s leading environmental theologians, Father Sean McDonagh, will talk about the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si; on 29 October Ireland’s top climatologist, Professor John Sweeney, will talk about climate science; on 5 November Lorna Gold, Head of Policy and Advocacy at the Catholic aid agency Trocaire, will talk about climate justice; and on 12 November environmental journalist Frank McDonald will talk about the negotiation process from Kyoto to Paris.

 1. Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple. Bloomsbury 2013.

2. The Establishment – and how they get away with it by Owen Jones. Penguin 2014.

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