By Éamonn Meehan
If recent events in Europe have highlighted anything it is the all-too-often slow response of political systems to structural crises. It is perhaps the nature of democracy that tough decisions are delayed and unpopular measures long-fingered until such a time as the elephant in the room has morphed into a stampeding herd.
Sadly, this approach has characterised the response of the global political system to the two dominant themes driving global poverty today: conflict and climate change.
Efforts to tackle extreme poverty have made very significant headway since the turn of the century. A coordinated global aid effort, under the banner of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), has saved millions of lives and lifted many more out of extreme poverty. School enrolment rates have risen significantly, childhood and maternal mortality rates have halved, and progress has been made in reducing the threats from diseases such as HIV, malaria and tuberculosis. There have been many success stories as a result of a focused aid effort.
Unfortunately, however, while the top line statistics paint a positive picture, the canvas on which we are painting is tearing at the seams.
The spread of conflict and the impact of severe weather patterns on food production are undoing many of the gains that have been made. Efforts to combat extreme poverty are being out-paced by these two dominant features of modern life.
Around the world, 59.5 million people have fled their homes as a result of conflict, almost the combined population of 15 EU states. The global displacement figure has not been this high since the world was engulfed in the chaos of World War II.
War in Syria has contributed greatly to this stark statistic. International political structures failed to engage with the Syria war during the early years, leaving Syria now in its fifth year of killing and destruction. It has taken the arrival of tens of thousands of Syrians on our shores for Europe to engage with the issue, but even then the response has been dismal. The EU has failed to agree on how to offer new homes to just 60,000 asylum seekers, a tiny percentage of the number of Syrians who have fled their homes. Nobody can seriously claim the EU does not have the capacity to fulfil its legal obligation to offer security to such a small number of people relative to the EU’s 500 million population.
As President Higgins rightly observed earlier this week, it is appalling to portray this as a challenge when taking the situation these people are fleeing into account.
Syrian refugees Ahmad and Madallakh with their grandsons Mohammed and Abdelrahman living in an unfinished apartment block in Lebanon's Bekka Valley. There are 59.5 million people around the world displaced as a result of conflict - the combined population of 15 EU states.
Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia are by some distance the world’s three largest sources of refugees. The ongoing conflicts that have dogged these countries, in some cases for over two decades, have plunged millions of people into extreme poverty. Without tackling the political factors behind those conflicts, there can be no improvements to the lives of people in those countries nor any stop to the flow of people attempting to seek security elsewhere.
Migration is almost certain to rise over the coming years as climate change continues to erode people’s ability to live in their home environment. Globally, temperatures have risen by 0.85 degrees Celsius over the last 150 years. This has contributed significantly to migration by reducing people’s ability to grow food, not to mention the increased frequency and intensity of storms and floods as sea levels rise and weather systems alter.
Climate change is picking up such pace that temperatures may rise by anything between a further one and five degrees over the coming decades. Just imagine the chaos this will cause as huge swaths of rural land become essentially uninhabitable and entire coastal regions are devoured by the seas.
Rising temperatures are leading to droughts and prolonged spells of hunger as people in regions such as Tharaka in Kenya struggle to grow crops.
There is a growing political consensus – with the notable exception of the American right – that climate change is the biggest threat to humanity and urgently needs addressed. That realisation, however, has not been matched by political moves to actually address the threat.
World leaders meet in Paris in December at the UN Climate Summit but there is little to suggest that they are willing to commit to actions to match their rhetoric.
Through his recent Encyclical, Pope Francis has pleaded with political leaders to take the steps necessary to safeguard the future of the planet. This powerful document clearly aligns the Catholic Church with calls for agreement on a legally-binding framework to decarbonise our societies as a matter of urgency.
The passionate words of President Higgins and former President Mary Robinson at this week’s Summit of the Consciences for the Climate in Paris gives the impression that Ireland is a world leader on this issue, yet Dáil Éireann has failed to match Áras an Uachtaráin’s desire to secure a safe planet for future generations.
When I look at Trócaire’s work around the world, the spread of conflict and the growing reality of a changed natural environment are the two themes that stand out as major obstacles towards poverty reduction.
Never before has a time been characterised on the one hand by such incredible progress and on the other by such enormous challenges.
This article first appeared in The Irish Examiner on July 27th, 2015.