ieBlog

Tick Tock. Tick Tock.

What happens when the climate clock runs out?

The latest word from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in October 2018, was issued in its “Special Report” on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.

The title is a mouth full but the report raised the level of anxiety on whether we can survive the current increase in greenhouse gases (GHGs), and subsequent rise in global temperature and extreme weather events.  The initial takeaway from the IPCC report was that we have just 12 years to make rapid reductions in global carbon dioxide emissions in order to have any realisitc chance of averting catastrophic climate breakdown.

Some now argue that we really have only 14 months to save ourselves.

That short span derives from the fact that the aggressive cuts necessary to stabilize global warming below 2°C must begin now.  “Scientific reality makes clear that the only plausible way to preserve a livable climate — and hence modern civilization — starts with aggressive national and global cuts in carbon pollution by 2030.”

The intriguing challenge here is whether we are at risk of losing a “livable climate” or “modern civilization.” There’s a big difference, with the former sometimes called a “catastrophic loss” and the latter an “existential threat.”

Arguing about whether climate breakdown will kill millions or billions, even all those alive, is, in one respect, an academic exercise, and a waste of time.  Either way, it should be stopped.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But how bad the climate gets, or may get, does make a difference.  What we do, and how much we spend, to stop the climate impacts may be affected by how many people are at risk.  A geo-engineered solution may be uncertain and risky and costly, and not worth the risk unless it might save billions who otherwise would be lost.

What we do, and how much we spend, may also depend on who is at risk.  Often left unsaid in climate breakdown discussions is the issue of wealth and economic inequalities.

Not surprising, rich people tend to take care of themselves and allow poor people to fend for themselves, knowing full well they cannot fend for themselves.  There is no reason why such a course of action will not apply when it comes to climate breakdown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For instance, on a small scale there are instances where rising sea levels can make an established, middle-class neighborhood, like beach-front property in Miamai, no longer sustainable.  The middle-class people then move to less developed areas that are higher in elevation and subject to fewer risks, but still near their precious beaches.  They then gentrify the climate-safe neighborhood.  Such transitions already have been identified in Miami, Florida, including in Little Haiti, a historically lower-income Haitian neighborhood about a mile back from the beach but on higher ground.  In Los Angeles, it is people moving to areas with reduced risks from fires that is contributing to higher real estate prices.”  See “Climate Gentrification.”

On a larger scale floodwaters swamped more than a million acres of forest and farmland in the lower Mississippi Delta six months ago, and it is still above flood stage.  US Fish and Wildlife Service staff refer to it as of “biblical proportion” and “Nothing like this has ever been seen.”  Farming is the linchpin of the local economy and no farming has taken place since the flood.   Some farmers will survive this year from crop insurance; some will not.  All the businesses dependent on farming are on edge and many are concerned that the entire local economy will not survive.   As the floodwaters have not yet receded, the full extent of the damage is unknown.

It does not take much imagination to see these various conditions reoccurring frequently, and affecting wider areas, as climate impacts intensify.

Poor, vulnerable people may be wiped out or extinguished by climate breakdown while rich, well-defended people will likely buy their way to a safe haven.

But if the impacts from climate breakdown spread wide and deep through an economy, then those with more at stake in the economy may have their lives disrupted, perhaps even destroyed.

And while the poor may be left undefended in one space, they will migrate to other spaces and countries looking for their own safe havens.  These environmental or climate refugees will potentially disrupt entire government structures and economies, thereby affecting even the rich.

Until we figure out how to protect vulnerable members of our communities, and vulnerable communities among our nations, from the ravages of climate breakdown, noting is settled, no one can rest.

Sources:

IPCC, Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 ºC
www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

Kelsey Piper, “Is climate change an “existential threat” — or just a catastrophic one?” Vox (28 June 2019). bit.ly/2IJTVUC

Joe Romm, “We don’t have 12 years to save the climate. We have 14 months:  The deadline for protecting our children from a ruined climate is close at hand,” Think Progress (26 July 2019).   bit.ly/2GDCLIl

“Climate Gentrification” in iePEDIA section of irish environment magazine at bit.ly/2ymENIa

Patricia Cohen, “Where Floods of ‘Biblical Proportion’ Drowned Towns and Farms,” The New York Times (30 July 2019).   https://nyti.ms/2YxrNxZ

 

Fossil fuel interests supporting carbon taxes?

Watch for the wolf in sheep’s clothing

Talk, even actual consideration, of carbon taxes has gained currency, aided along in part by the attention paid to Green New Deals sprouting up in different landscapes.  Most would agree that a carbon tax is a sensible, well-established means of moving people away from reliance on fossil fuels, by making it more expensive.  Most would also agree that a carbon tax is not the only, and not always the most useful, carbon pricing mechanism.  Depending on how it is structured it can be regressive, hurting the poor and vulnerable, who would have to pay higher prices for their heat and other energy needs.  As usual, the rich can take care of themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

But carbon taxes can be a crucial step in reducing dependence on fossil fuels.  So no wonder people are surprised, even shocked, to hear certain fossil fuel interests, including major oil companies like ExxonMobil, actually agreeing to, and even pushing for, the imposition of carbon taxes on their assets – coal, oil, gas.

But be very wary of such support for carbon taxes from the rich fossil fuelistas.  They may be the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Their support for carbon taxes is often contingent on getting a law that provides protection for the fossil fuel companies against any lawsuit that claims they might be liable for climate change impacts.  Such claims are not empty threats as we see a host of lawsuits against the oil companies alleging their products — coal, oil, gas — have caused some of the worst adverse effects from climate change.

Here is the danger of any such proposed trade-off.   A law that imposes carbon taxes, and at the same time liability protections for the fossil fuel companies, can be passed with modest carbon taxes to start, with the promise to increase the tax in succeeding years, while the liability exemption is permanent.  Then, lo and behold, a few years later, with a more favorable legislature or authoritarian leader, the carbon tax remains low or is repealed, while the liability protection remains.

Before you think that might be an unlikely scenario, look more closely.

A similar deal was struck in passage of the US Superfund law, known formally as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).  The Superfund law provides for strict and joint liability for anyone who disposed of “hazardous substances” into the environment. It also provides broad Federal authority to respond directly to releases or threatened releases of “hazardous substances” that may endanger public health or the environment.  To pay for these “response” actions, CERCLA created a “superfund” to provide the financial resources for the federal government to identify hazardous waste sites and clean them up with the public funds and then pursue all the responsible parties for reimbursement of the costs of the cleanup.  First the site gets cleaned up, then the responsible parties are pursed for paying the costs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Money for the “superfund” was provided by general appropriations, costs recovered from responsible parties, penalties, and, significantly, from environmental excise taxes on products falling into three general categories– petroleum, petrochemicals and inorganic chemicals.

At the same time, an exception to liability is provided by the “petroleum exclusion” under CERCLA, which holds that “petroleum” is not a hazardous substance, the term on which CERCLA liability hangs.  Since CERCLA was passed in December 1980, before Reagan assumed the presidency in January 1981, it was rushed through and the legislative history is notoriously thin and unclear.  But for whatever reason, or politicking, the petroleum companies got a pass on liability but had to pay their share of the excise tax to support the superfund.

Then in 1995, with the Gingrich-led Republican Congress, the tax on the chemical and petroleum industries was allowed to expire, but the protections against liability remained in place.  So all the affected companies walked away from paying for any “superfund” excise tax and the petroleum industry retreated into its statutory liability exception.

 

 

 

 

 

Eventually the superfund dried up and cleanups were funded only from recovery of federal costs from other companies and some general appropriations.  As a result, further cleanups of hazardous substance sites have been hampered.

You can rest assured that the petroleum and other fossil fuel companies will not forget nor will they ignore the deal they pulled off in the CERCLA legislation when it comes time to structure a so-called climate carbon tax bill, with liability exemptions.

The Aesop fable about the wolf in sheep clothing, who ate a number of sheep through this dissemblance, ended with the shepherd taking a fancy for mutton broth one night.  He came out with a knife and killed the first sheep he came across, which happened to be the wolf in sheepskin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is there some analogous ending for the fossil fuel interests who try to disguise their hunger for a liability exemption by dressing it up as a carbon tax?

We shall see.

 

Sources

E.A. Cruden, “Oil companies slipped a present to themselves into this carbon tax plan:  Fossil fuel corporations would be shielded from climate lawsuits under a proposal several are supporting,” Think Progress (20 May 2019). bit.ly/2IM5HOu

United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Superfund Regulations.   bit.ly/2MSWoBJ

Carol F. Barry, “CERCLA’s Petroleum Exclusion: Whose Burden Is It Anyway?” Environmental Law Reporter ( 26 ELR 10479 – 1996).   https://bit.ly/2x85M9D

Aesop, The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. bit.ly/2RkxgCu

 

 

Climate Change Linguistic Tipping Point

How we talk about climate change is shifting

In past issues we have written about how one can, should, or should not talk about climate change.  A dilemma has always been that if one tries to scare people, one might well frighten them so that they take action on climate change, or one might just frighten them away, because they are immobilized by the threats.   Some lean to softening the linguistic approach on climate change, and some still prefer getting heavy handed.

Some tailor their words to the specific audience.  Supporters of climate change action get the frightening version as they “know” the scary impacts are likely to be true, and this version reinforces their engagement and contributions.  People on the fence — the undecided, the skeptics and deniers —get a slight nudge, hoping they will eventually come around.

© Susan Smith, with permission of the artist

We’re now seeing a shift in the use of words to talk about climate change

The shift, or tipping point, has been unfolding over the past six months or so.  A “tipping point” refers to a moment or space which previously had been in balance, or stasis, but which becomes unbalanced when something is added to cause it to change significantly.  In many instances a tipping point suggests a negative outcome, but it need not be, and positive outcomes can flow from a tipping point.  Here we use the term, almost metaphorically, to refer to a significant consolidation, indeed strengthening, in the language used to support climate change actions after an extended period when there was a semblance of balance between those who softened their language and those who hardened their words.

We suggest this toughening of the language derives in part from the more dramatic predictions on the impacts of climate change that we have begun to hear from even the generally staid scientific community.   In a recent report (October 2018), the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international scientific authority on all things related to global warming, warns that we have only 10 to 20 years to avoid the impacts of intense and more heat waves and hot summers, greater sea level rise, and worse droughts and rainfall extremes. Another recent report (May 2019) for the United Nations demonstrates that humans are putting up to one million plant and animal species at risk of extinction, posing a direct threat to biodiversity across the globe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The reports are dire, in the consequences they document and in the short period of time they tell us we have to avoid these consequences.  The noted environmentalist David Attenborough, not given to exaggeration, spoke at a recent United Nations climate summit in Poland about the possible “collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world.”  See Moyers article below.

These reports in and of themselves might have set the shift in motion but they were prodded along by the engagement of a youth movement that has arisen lately, across many communities.    The movements are called Extinction Rebellion, or Sunrise Movement, or Childrens Trust (climate change lawsuits for youth), or Youth Climate Strike, or Alliance for Climate Education, or Youth Climate Movement, or Greta Thunberg.  They bring a boldness, brashness and directness to the conversations on climate change, and at times some blistering attacks.   Bill McKibben has described what is happening as a result of the youth movements as a “climate moment.”

Yet perhaps the strongest voice to be heard so far is nature itself, which has been delivering floods and droughts and firestorms, seemingly everywhere, sometimes one following the other, sometimes all at once somewhere on the globe.

So now more and more people have declared that “climate warming” is no longer accurate, nor is “climate change.”  The Guardian British newspaper, one of the strongest on environmental issues, has recently announced a change in its style guide “to introduce terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world.”  Instead of “climate change” the preferred terms are now “climate emergency,” or “climate crisis,” or “climate breakdown.”  And “global heating” is chosen over “global warming.” At the same time, The Guardian has also shifted to using “wildlife” instead of “biodiversity,” which was always a rather abstract term.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Others have described the realities of what we are facing as  “climate destruction” or “climate disruption” or as an “existential threat.”

Other media outlets have acknowledged The Guardian’s initiative and are considering making similar changes.  But perhaps it is best to leave the last word to Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who has inspired school strikes for climate around the globe, who said: “It’s 2019. Can we all now call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?”

Sources:

Robert Emmet Hernan, “It’s Time to Scare the Bejesus Out of People about Climate Change” in ieBLOG section of www.irishenvironment.com (April 2014). bit.ly/2YMDj5m

Robert Emmet Hernan, “It’s Time to Scare the Bejesus Out of People about Climate Change (Part 2) – More Bejesus Needed, But for Whom?”  in ieBLOG section of www.irishenvironment.com (April 2017). bit.ly/2Ewl2RZ

“A Tipping Point on Climate Change in Ireland?” in Reports section of www.irishenvironment.com (Jan 2018).  bit.ly/2MHVNSd

Jonathan Watts, “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN,” The Guardian (8 Oct 2018).  bit.ly/2E7MhED

“Even more dire reports from the IPCC about devastating effects of climate change” in ie BLOG section of www.irishenvironment.com (Nov 2018).

Jeff Berardelli, “Youth are changing the game on climate change,” CBS News (13 March 2019). cbsn.ws/2JyFKEM

Bill Moyers, “What if we covered the climate crisis like we did the start of World War II?” The Guardian (22 May 2019).  bit.ly/2QdahIO

Gaia Vince, “The heat is on over the climate crisis. Only radical measures will work,” The Guardian (18 May 2019). bit.ly/2JtKYBX

Oliver Milman, “Climate crisis more politically polarizing than abortion for US voters, study finds,” The Guardian (22 May 2019).  bit.ly/30D12Xp

Bill McKibben, “Notes from a Remarkable Political Moment for Climate Change,” The New Yorker (1 May 2019).  bit.ly/2Wlst5g

Damian Carrington, “Why the Guardian is changing the language it uses about the environment,” The Guardian (17 May 2019). bit.ly/2WMBPY0

Oliver Milman, “Guardian spurs media outlets to consider stronger climate language,” The Guardian (24 May 2019).

bit.ly/2JHGAiO

 

Is abstaining from eating meat on Mondays a mortal sin?

Yes it is, if you follow the church of the Irish Farmers’ Association.

The Environmental Educational Unit of An Taisce (The National Trust for Ireland) runs a Green Schools Programme, which is part of an international movement known as Eco Schools.  Green-Schools is an environmental education programme, environmental management system and award scheme that promotes whole school action towards a sustainable environment through the implementation of a Seven Step methodology.  Green Schools, working with primary and secondary schools, is a long-standing, widely respected, and hugely successful programme.  It also operates a Green Campus programme for colleges.

Recently it published its latest resource for teachers:  a range of lesson plans, presentations, surveys and data on climate change and actions.  Unfortunately it had the audacity to include one climate change action that explored the option of reducing meat and dairy consumption in schools, and it suggested that schools could include vegetarian or vegan potluck tasters or a #Meatless Monday campaign.

The suggestion raised the wrath of the church of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), guardians of meat in Ireland.  The IFA demanded that An Taisce withdraw the teacher resource pack including the suggestion of a possible meatless Monday.  It further demanded that An Taisce’s involvement in the Green Schools Programme should be “reviewed” by the Department of Education and Science, claiming An Taisce was wrongfully giving out dietary/health advice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First, the Greens School Programme is operated by the Environmental Education Unit, which was established in 1993 to ensure environmental education was a priority for the trust and to build on previous education initiatives and projects.   The Unit operates the Green Schools Programme and any complaints would seem more appropriately directed there.  But of course the IFA must believe it resonates politically to attack An Taisce rather than Green Schools.

Second, the health risks from eating meat and dairy products are hardly contested by the health community.  The IFA attack on such a notion is like the tobacco industry denying the risks of smoking, and aggressively attacking anyone who would dare to oppose smoking in schools.

The drinks industry has enough sense not to attack anyone who promotes moderation in drinking.  Indeed, the industry conducts public relation campaigns to warn the public against drinking too much alcohol:  “Drink in moderation” or “Drink responsibly.”  Just imagine the public uproar if the drinks industry aggressively attacked a civic organization for suggesting that drinking and driving might not be a good idea.  And how sensible would it be for the drinks industry to demand the government investigate an organization for supporting not drinking and driving.

Besides the obvious health benefits from a balanced diet (which means less meat than is now consumed by almost every society), the adverse environmental effects from raising beef cows and processing meat is clear.  Ireland is a laggard in large part because it is failing to meet its EU obligations to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  That failure is driven in significant part because of the methane emissions from the agriculture sector that continues to expand.

We do not recall the IFA taking similar umbrage with the Catholic Church’s promotion of meatless Fridays.  Somehow for the IFA not eating meat on Mondays is sacrilegious, while not eating meat on Fridays, or at least certain Fridays, is presumably pious.

The IFA has now been joined by a separate congregation, the Young Fine Gael, which has joined the chorus of castigating An Taisce for trying to combat climate change by advocating less meat in diets.

Is this the future of our youth?  Lucky for us we have the Greens Schools Programme instilling sound, reasoned, responsible actions to fight climate change.  Fine Gael will have to answer for its own children.

The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Richard Bruton, did not take the bait from the IFA and instead defended the Green schools advice to reduce the amount of meat children eat.  And An Taisce is in the good company of former President Mary Robinson who was attacked by the IFA for suggesting that eating less meat and more vegetables might be good for the planet.   As well as for our individual health.

At the end of the day, the IFA and Young Fine Gael embarrassed themselves.

 

Sources

Irish Farmers’ Association, AN TAISCE GREEN SCHOOLS PACK SHOULD BE WITHDRAWN IMMEDIATELY bit.ly/2XuiTxm

See “Meatless Mondays” in iePEDIA section of the current (May 2019) issue of irish environment.

“’We shouldn’t be defensive about debate led by young people’: Bruton defends stance on ‘Meatless Monday’ teaching pack,” The Journal (5 April 2019). bit.ly/2Vj5udZ

“Mary Robinson suggested that eating vegetables instead of meat might be good for the planet: The farming lobby busted an artery in response.  They could have saved their artery by eating less meat and more vegetables.” ieBLOG  in irish environment (1 Nov 2016).  bit.ly/2RS32qa

Does Irish America Have Anything to Offer for Brexit?

Not really

Context

The boring, tedious, frustrating, not to mention suicidal, Brexit process continues. Recently Irish Central, a media company, put together a conference on US-British-Irish relations in the context of Brexit. The “US” focus was really about whether the Irish-American diaspora has any role in or influence over Brexit. The obvious answer is: Why would it since Brexit is a fight over the relations between the UK and EU?

But there are some complications that account for the US disapora concern about Brexit. The premise for an Irish-American role is based on the experience with the Northern Ireland peace process that unfolded from the late 1970s to 1998. At critical moments along that way, Irish-American leaders actively supported the peace process, generally in favor of the nationalist position.    And former Senator George Mitchell, at the urging of the Irish-American community (including Niall O’Dowd of Irish Central) and President Clinton, was instrumental in helping the parties in Northern Ireland (NI), and British and Irish governments, to reach the Good Friday Agreement that ended the period of violence and created a devolved administration for NI.

The interest in Brexit for Irish America is the potential threat to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). Given the UK/NI and the Republic of Ireland membership in the EU, there has been a free flow of goods and services, and EU people, across the border between NI and Ireland. If, or when, the UK leaves the EU, that flow of commerce would be expected to be interrupted rather than free-flowing, with a “hard border” of customs and immigration controls. The argument has been that such a “hard border” would contravene the GFA and threaten a resumption of the violence ended by that Agreement.

The Conference

The conference began with a few remarks by organizers and a speech by the Irish Minister for Justice and Equality, then two panels of government representatives, business and industry leaders, Chamber of Commerce people, journalists from The Financial Times, The Irish Times and The New York Times, and development agencies. The program ended with two short speeches by George Mitchell and Richard Neal, the new Chairman of the important US House Ways and Means Committee.

Given the context, and importance of the “hard border” to the political well-being and safety of the people in NI, one could reasonably have expected to hear from those most affected. Yet there was only one representative from NI and he was from the business community. So it was inevitable that the panels focused almost exclusively on the economic implications of Brexit for business interests in the UK and Ireland, and for US investors. But there were a few moments when wider socio-political issues broke through.

The unsurprising consensus was that Brexit is not going to be good for almost anybody’s economic interests. Yet most were optimistic that they or their constituents would make do. For instance, while Brexit could adversely impact the Irish agriculture sector, the services sector would gain, and already there were 70 companies, with 5,000 jobs, moving to Ireland from the UK because of Brexit.

We heard several expected responses during the conference. Niall O’Dowd got his chance to annoy the British Consul: Why does PM May keep changing her story about the backstop depending on whether she’s talking to the DUP or others? The rhetorical question went unanswered.

We also heard a part-plea and part-demand from a member of the audience for a poll on whether the Irish border should go – not the Brexit hard border everybody else was talking about, but the 1920s border. This seemed to be the 21st Century version of “Brits Out.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was also my favorite: a claim that there are 30 or 40 or 45 million Irish-Americans, with the insinuation that they are all committed to Irish affairs. Most of them are ghosts. This unreal number of Irish Americans is derived from a question on part of the US Census which asks each household to identify which ancestry or ethnic origin the person most closely identifies with. The question does not measure the degree of attachment the person has with any ancestors or ethnic group. An example that has been used by the Census Bureau states: a response of “Irish” might reflect total involvement in an “Irish” community or only a memory of ancestors several generations removed from the individual. Many of those who migrated in the 18th and 19th centuries from the island of Ireland may identify with being Irish, as it is part of their family history, but they may have no connection with Ireland and may indeed not even know where Ireland is. There are more than a few Irish-named families in Appalachia. If you look at the number of subscribers who pay for Irish newspapers, the members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and other large groups, the people attending the 50 or so Irish Festivals in the US, and the number of visitors from the US to Ireland (a good indicator of “connections”), a reasonable, perhaps generous, estimate is that there may be about five million, give or take a few million, Irish Americans “connected” to Ireland or “Irish” affairs, and only a fraction of these would be connected to Northern Ireland.

Similarly, despite the claims that Irish-Americans represent a sizeable group of votes in any election, there is little if any evidence that they vote for political candidates based on the position of the candidate on Irish or Northern Ireland affairs. Of course there are isolated districts with an overwhelming Irish-American constituency where any candidate had better espouse a United Ireland. But they likely are few and far between.

Now and again a speaker at the conference would note, in passing, that we need to make sure that the Brexit talks do not undermine the Good Friday Agreement and/or create conditions that could lead to a resumption of the violence that killed 3,500 people during the “Troubles.” But no one offered any explication of just how the Brexit talks, or even a hard border, would actually lead to a resumption of violence, or how likely that was, or who would resume the violence. Or what specific provisions in the GFA are at risk of being breached by a “hard border.”

Thankfully, George Mitchell saved the conference, at least for this attendee, much as he saved the Northern Ireland peace talks. Rather than pushing any economic dimension, Mitchell focused on the dynamics of the GFA talks and how they were able to create critical institutions and governing structures that have at least kept the violence to a minimum over the past 20 years. Of course these structures have not prevented the two leading parties in NI from gutting the devolved administration, and leaving the people of NI without any local control over what happens to them as a result of the Brexit process.

Mitchell also argued that no one knows if there might be a return to violence, but some will be ready to use the threat of violence to advance their cause or interest. He added that maybe it might be only a few but even a few can create chaos and suffering. Mitchell did not offer any concrete analysis of the prospect of a return to violence with a hard border.

The lack of any analysis of this issue, which is paramount to those living in NI, was surprising.   Perhaps it was lacking because there is actually little likelihood of a return to wide-spread violence. After the Good Friday Agreement, the Independent Monitoring Commission, appointed by the two governments, periodically reviewed whether the paramilitary organizations were complying with the terms of the Agreement. In their various reports, and analysis, and meetings in New York, it was clear that there were increasingly fewer active members of the paramilitary groups and that they did not have the wide community support that existed in the 1970-1990s. A recent article by Patrick Radden Keefe supports such a reading of the situation although Keefe rightfully worries that confrontations at border crossings could escalate.

As we noted, the leaders of the main political parties walked away from each other and the devolved administration, and have refused for over two years to re-establish that administration, leaving the people of NI without a democratically elected governing body. Once again, NI is run by British civil servants. Yet there do not seem to be reports of any uptick in paramilitary violence. A lack of local control over the day-to-day lives of communities in NI would seem a more direct threat to the peace process and the GFA than some form of custom control.

As for getting the US government involved in the impact of Brexit on the people of NI, or appointing a peace envoy as proposed by Taoiseach Varadkar, we need only mention that the President is Donald Trump. But Ted Smyth, moderator of the first panel and a seasoned former Irish diplomat, provided a better answer. He reminded us all that the American government has been actively engaged in Northern Ireland affairs on only three occasions: in 1977 with the Four Horsemen (Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, Daniel Moynihan, and Hugh Carey) organizing the Friends of Ireland to support a peaceful, non-violent resolution to conflict in NI, and getting the support of President Carter; the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 which established the principal of consent for any change in the constitutional position of NI, and which gave Ireland a voice in the peace talks in NI, with support from President Reagan and his relation with PM Thatcher; and President Clinton’s active engagement in granting a visa to Gerry Adams and with the peace talks in the 1990s, ending in the GFA.

Each of these instances grew out of actual and virulent violence and was intended to help resolve that violence. Those conditions do not exist at the moment in NI, at least not to the extent they did in the 1970s through the 1990s, so any engagement by the US government is a faint hope.

Indeed, there is growing concern that the Irish diaspora in the US itself is fading, with fewer Irish emigrating to the US and fewer younger Irish Americans visiting Ireland. In a recent article on this issue by Suzanne Lynch, one of the panelists, O’Dowd noted that, “A diaspora can die.” That would be a sad wake. So perhaps it is time for an intervention to save the diaspora.

 

Note: For a view of how Brexit (and the lack of a devolved administration) threatens to undermine environmental protections in Northern Ireland, see a series of video interviews in the Podcast section of this magazine, irish environment, with leading figures in NI environmental non-government organizations (eNGOS), including: Anne-Marie McDevitt, Project Manager of Nature Matters Northern Ireland (Jan 2019); Dr. Jade Berman, Ulster Wildlife and Nature Matters Northern Ireland (Feb 2019); Sean Kelly, Development Manager, Northern Ireland Environmental Link (April 2019).

Sources:

“Is Ireland the most pro-US voice at the EU table? Brexit conference discusses US-Irish relations,” Irish Central (21 March 2019). bit.ly/2CBOXqT Many photos, and videos of George Mitchell’s and Congressman Richie Neal’s speeches at conference.

Clive Irving, “ST. PATRICK’S REVENGE: Brexit Threatens Ireland’s Age of Peace and Prosperity. The Brits Don’t Give a Damn,” The Daily Beast (16 March 2019). bit.ly/2W4QGfB

Suzanne Lynch, “Irish-American relations at crossroads as Varadkar goes to Washington,” The Irish Times (9 March 2019). bit.ly/2UUg1ce

John Downing: “Face it: no-deal Brexit brings us straight back to Border controls,” Irish Independent (26 March 2019). bit.ly/2FAkwTY

Patrick Radden Keefe, “The Irish Border Is a Scar: Could Brexit reignite the Troubles in Northern Ireland?’ The New York Times (31 march 2019). nyti.ms/2WyIiFB

Author’s Note: The author has been following NI political affairs since the mid-1960s. He organized a group in Philadelphia, Committee for a Dialogue on Northern Ireland (early 1980s to 1988), and put on two public conferences on Northern Ireland, following the New Ireland Forum and the Anglo-Irish Agreement, with speakers representing both Nationalist and Unionist communities. Then he moved to New York City where he organized a private group to follow Northern Ireland affairs. The group met with Northern Ireland politicians (including those from the Unionist community), representatives of NGOs, and leaders of NI Commissions in New York, 1990-2008, again with members of the group from both communities. He now publishes irish environment online magazine, 2009 – present.

From 1988 to 2007, the author served as Assistant Attorney General in the Environmental Protection Bureau of the New York State AG Office, and as Senior Counsel for Commissioner Initiatives in the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, 2007 – 2009.