Climate change and Brexit...what a time to be alive

Where do you start when the whole world is burning?

Climate activist Greta Thunberg during her speech this week at the UN.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg during her speech this week at the UN.

What a time to be alive. The window for action on climate change is rapidly closing; democratic politics are under threat from a resurgent far-right in many of the world's most influential countries; and there are few obvious reasons for hope or optimism.

Insider has been cheered recently by the example of Greta Thunberg, and the global movement of youth activists that her example has inspired - a reminder that many people want to exert positive change in the world, but frequently lack an obvious entry point. Where do you start when the whole world is burning?

Scholars like Manuel Castells have explored the changing balance of power and politics, with titles like 'Networks of Outrage and Hope' that point to the importance of decentralised activist networks, which draw on the power of tools like the internet to support collaboration between autonomous, loosely organised, often leaderless, groups. As Insider joined hundreds of other Galwegians - and millions around the globe - at last week's climate action protests [pictured below], the persistent shadow of the closing carbon envelope was swept aside, at least momentarily, by that radiant hope, that change (as Thunberg noted in her speech to the UN General Assembly ) is happening, "whether you like it or not".

Yet outrage and hope - while powerful agents of change - only get us so far. Zeynep Tufekci, another leading voice in studying contemporary movements, has noted that her own optimism, after witnessing the grassroots revolutions of the Arab Spring, and activism in her native Turkey, was tempered by the later setbacks, as powerful institutional actors pushed back, and movements often proved unable to quickly adapt tactics to changing circumstances.

Systemic change, then, cannot rely only on voluntary individual action, or even the loose bonds of protest and social movements. The energy of those activists can create a momentum for change, but the energy must be transferred into the creation of structures to safeguard that change. Again, as Thunberg notes, it is the job of our politicians to create and implement policy - that is something beyond the competence of individual citizens.

The fantasies of the Brexiteers...

boris johnson II

Speaking of beyond competence...the rolling debacle that is Brexit would be comical if the stakes were not so high, the potential consequences so dire. We now have a supposedly parliamentary democracy in which the government - precisely to stymie the sort of debate and considered policy development referred to above - has rid itself (temporarily ) of parliament. Or, at least, it thought it had until the Supreme Court ruled this week that Prime Minister Johnson had acted unlawfully in advising the British Queen to prorogue Parliament, and that Parliament was not, actually prorogued.

The collective incompetence and venality of the British - and particularly the English - political class has been breath-taking to behold. Johnson, with his affectation of bumbling incompetence, turns out (in a narrative master stroke ) to actually be just that incompetent, rather than the Machiavellian character his admirers (and many detractors ) would have us believe.

The dithering of Corbyn on Brexit - pushing through, just this week, a policy of not having a policy on Brexit until after winning the 'Brexit election' that is fast approaching - defies belief. It is unclear why he thinks the EU would engage in negotiating a new agreement with someone whose stance is "I will decide whether to back the agreement I negotiate after another referendum". Delicate politics of Brexit aside, that defies the basic principles of how negotiation works. And then there is the jockeying for position of the Lib Dems and others, looking for partisan advantage, rather than securing what they recognise as the national interest of actually avoiding Brexit.

'The fantasies of the Brexiteers about Ireland as a 'home nation', temporarily alienated from Mother England, are ahistorical and grounded in imperialistic hubris'

Insider is old enough to remember the slow disintegration of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. To see another former world power rend itself asunder in real time is fascinating - but will have real consequences for us here in Ireland.

The fantasies of the Brexiteers about Ireland as a 'home nation', temporarily alienated from Mother England, are obviously ahistorical and grounded in imperialistic hubris. They also miss the rapid changes in Ireland over the past few decades. We have travelled quite some way from de Valera's disastrous trade wars of the 1930s, not just culturally but also economically.

In 1973 - the year we joined the then EEC - 45 per cent of our exports were to Britain, and a further nine per cent to Northern Ireland. Only 21 per cent of exports were to other parts of (what is now ) the EU. By 2003, the UK made up only 18 per cent of exports, with 43 per cent to the EU. By 2016, the UK had fallen to 13 per cent of exports, with the EU making up another 40 per cent. Belgium is now a bigger export market than Great Britain.

Perhaps as significantly, our exports are 20 times, in real terms, what they were in 1975. Where Ireland was a poor country, underdeveloped compared to its neighbours, it is now in a much different situation, with a more heterogenous economic base, both geographically and in terms of goods produced - more than half of our exports now are chemicals and related goods, while food and animals make up less than 10 per cent.

Brexit has moved Irish unification closer

It is not all rosy, of course. Anyone who has been paying attention has been reminded of the complexity of the Border. The simple difficulty in managing intertwined social and economic systems, with commuting routes that pass over the Border, people who live on one side and work on the other, and goods that criss-cross the Border throughout the production process. Devising an administrative model just to manage this would be complicated enough - dealing with it in a 'no deal' scenario absurd.

'The Brexit debate - no matter the outcome - has moved unification closer. Whatever one's thoughts on this, it would be a complicated process to equal that of Brexit'

We also have the complication of the 'land bridge'. A total of 23 per cent of our imports are from Britain, and additional goods transit through the UK en route to Ireland. There simply is not the capacity to divert around Britain - and even if there were, it would upset the 'just in time' distribution networks so many rely on now. We should expect to see significant disruption in the short term, if Brexit does happen, as distribution networks need to be redesigned in real time.

And this is to say nothing of the 'national' question. The Brexit debate - no matter the outcome - has probably moved unification closer. Whatever one's thoughts on the viability or desirability of this, it would be a complicated process to equal that of Brexit, with a merging of government systems on both sides, from health and education, to broadcasting and trade. It would probably involve a new constitution in the Republic, and new institutions and systems - a project, in short, that will absorb energy and attention for a significant period of time. In the meantime, the wilful ignorance of Tory politicians around Northern Ireland continues, and their lack of interest or care may well tip us over the edge back to violence.

And here we are, six weeks from the deadline (again ), with no idea of what lies ahead. Will the EU offer another extension? Probably, if asked, but the conditions will be more strenuous, and leaders like Macron are losing patience for continually kicking the can down the road, with no sense of even a plan for progress. What if Johnson wins an election? What if no one does? What a time to be alive.

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