The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: climate change

Refugees: Are Solutions Possible?

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THE FACES OF GOVERNMENTAL LEADERS flashing across our screens from the United Nations in New York in these last few days caused many to think it was just another gathering where prime ministers and presidents, ministers and bureaucratic head honchos were merely networking at the opening of the new UN season. For those listening to the delegations on television, however, it became pretty clear that the world’s nations were coming together to confront perhaps the greatest challenge of the last decade: refugees.

We learned some fascinating new statistics. In 2015 alone, some 20 million documented cases of refugees moving across the planet were posing challenges everywhere. Add up the totals of refugees for the last few years and it comes to 65 million people. We knew the number was many and the solutions few. Escaping persecution and seeking asylum presents so many challenges to the receiving countries, the international response mechanisms, and ultimately to the refugee families themselves. And so the world opted to come together in New York this month for the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants. The media spent a lot of time focusing on the former, but often overlooked was the sheer rise in mobility going on around the world for those migrating in search of opportunity.

The summit learned that by the end of 2015, some 244 million people were living in a country other than where they were born – a total up from 173 million in 2000, according to the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

All of this is saying something, but I’m not sure we fully know what it is. Is the world increasingly on the move because of economic decline or greater economic growth – or both? Is it a sign that the world is coming together, or breaking apart? Could it be that we are becoming more of a world community as a result of all this movement, or is it more likely that there are now tears in the fabric of humanity that reveal millions of individuals and families lurching for security and prosperity in only a few prosperous nations?

All of this likely means that we aren’t prepared and that the UN conference was the first real attempt at assessing and shaping a tidal wave of humanity that might soon redefine how we function as a planet, as individual nations, and as citizens.

And it’s not all challenge and gloom. The conference was informed that in just one year – 2015 – migrants sent home $432 billion to developing countries to help their families with challenges like food security, education, new business ventures, and healthcare. That is a huge amount of money, triple the totals of foreign aid sent through Official Development Assistance.

I watched many of the speeches from the lectern this week and found myself thankful to see the world come together to face the challenge. But many present in the sessions got the impression that this is clearly a work in progress and that we’re only at the beginning of it. And complicating it all is the growing insecurity in places like the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, and the vast border regions around Russia. Should these get more out of hand, it will be inevitable that millions more will be cut loose from their cultural homelands and begin making plans to find peace and prosperity elsewhere.

While acknowledging the increasing scope of the refugee challenge, this week’s meetings decided to take some concrete action in at least attempting to build a coordinated response around the migration problem. Another summit is to be held at the United Nations in 2018 specifically on that issue.

Can there be breakthroughs? Are solutions possible? If we’re talking about assisting countries to accept more refugees and migrants, then perhaps more can be accomplished, but only to a point. If the real problem is the decline of nation states through economic turbulence and regional conflicts, how might the tap of human migration be stopped, or at least lessened? If many of these problems can’t be solved at the source, then just developing broader responses to the outflow of humanity from these regions can only go so far. Some of the problems, like an imploding Syria or an exploding Russia, remain unsolvable at present and keep real solutions from being easily discovered.

We aren’t talking about the fate of millions of people in search of hope, but, ultimately, about the condition and welfare of the planet itself. So many refugees is primarily a clue to all of humanity that something is seriously wrong in our world and unless we apply ourselves to the sources of such conflicts, the sea of desperate human souls will only become more desperate.

The Future Is No Longer A Gift

Contestants compete in an early round during the 6th Annual LG US National Texting Championship August 8, 2012 in New York's Times Square. A 16-year-old boy retained his title as America's fastest texter Wednesday in a duel of the thumbs staged before yelling fans on New York's Times Square. Austin Weirschke took home $50,000 prize money for the second time in two years when he bested 10 other texting demons in feats of thumb speed, memory and fluency in texting shorthand. One round was performed with the remaining contestants blindfolded and having 45 seconds to type the verse: "Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are, up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky." The event, sponsored by LG Electronics and using the company's cell phones, took place on a traffic island in Times Square. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/GettyImages)

STAN HONDA/AFP/GettyImages)

Note:  This post is also available to view on National Newswatch here.

BARACK OBAMA WAS ELECTED ON A GENERATIONAL SEA CHANGE in politics and government. Justin Trudeau, on the other hand, is riding its crest. The American president’s agenda eventually came up against an angry partisan opposition, remaining somewhat unfulfilled. The new Canadian prime minister’s policies have yet to sail through choppy waters.

When the two leaders summited in Washington D.C. last week, there was the unmistakable sense that something new was brewing and that the brief moment in the sun between Obama’s retirement and Trudeau’s arrival was a kind of passing of the torch. But behind each of these men emerged a new social and political force that will make our tomorrow, for better or worse, unlike our present age of democratic underperformance.

For the first time, the abiding and somewhat lackluster political imagination of the Baby Boomers is formidably matched by the Millennial generation – those born from the mid-1980s onwards. We should have noted by now that the key trait of this new political reality is decidedly progressive. Like Trudeau and Obama they view the public estate through a centre to centre-left lens. How else can we explain the massive success of Bernie Sanders with young voters in the American primaries, or Trudeau’s enlistment of over two million new or re-engaged voters in the past federal election? Things are not only changing in both countries, but are transformational in their effect.

Naturally there are many of the younger generation that ascribe to the conservative agenda, but they are the exception, not the rule. Everything else among the Millennials is about a social and economic shifting of gears – the mobilization of the public spirit.

This new force demands transparency over backroom deals, authenticity over authority, social inclusion over historic stereotypes and practices. And unlike their predecessors, who systematically tolerated, even promoted, the shrinking and paucity of the public estate, the Millennials envision a strategic place for government in their collective future. In their own way they are angry, frustrated that two nations that produce more wealth than at any other time in their history would permit so much of it to be frittered away in the pursuit and practice of a narrowing capitalism.

What else should we expect? They face stiffer unemployment than their predecessors, are saddled with unacceptably high student loans, and have watched their wages either stagnate or shrink. They largely played by the rules, went to university or colleges in record numbers in order to secure well-paying jobs to secure their future – the same pattern their parents had employed and enjoyed. Except it didn’t work out for them, or for their respective countries.

And so they are playing the hand they have been dealt with, pressing for environmental renewal, for capitalism with a heart, for a politics that actually includes constituents, and governments that reflect their diverse communities. They shake their heads at a political architecture that still can’t work out wage parity between men and women. They reflect in wonder how countries so resourced and rich can tolerate yawning gaps between the rich and the poor. And they double-down in anger over a political class that has stood by and watched as dignity has been stripped out of hard work.

This new political force has now arrived – revolutionaries, not reactionaries. They want meaning and inclusiveness and they expect their politics and governments to fight for both. They aren’t so much a volatile force as a moral one, and they have the scars to prove it. They are no longer the future we frequently patronize, but the living, breathing present we must now accommodate.

Only months prior to his assassination, Bobby Kennedy made a remarkable observation while addressing a crowd, one that perfectly challenged his generation: “The future is not a gift; it is an achievement.” Fewer observations capture what’s going on right now in politics. Gone are the days when by simply by following a time-honoured agenda that the wealth and individual choices of the future would simply unfold for us. We are living in an era where we must fight back to reclaim the public space, where we get out to vote to change politics itself, and where we link money with meaning again. This is the era which gave us Obama and which propels Justin Trudeau. The recent meetings of the leaders in Washington weren’t so much about the affability of their relationship as this new reality of sacrifice in politics that put them in their lofty positions in the first place. Far from just electing change, this new generation wants to jointly build it.

Canada-U.S. Relations: Rising Tides

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CANADA VISITS THE WHITE HOUSE this week and behind all the glitz and glamour naturally produced by two leaders who effectively know how to work a crowd are issues that will take a lot more than popularity to address. We’ll consider some of these in the next few posts, starting with perhaps our greatest challenge.

Both Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama got lots of press at the Paris climate change summit last November. They got along well and agreed the time had come to raise the game between the two nations regarding climate change. The buzz from the agreement still moved through the streets of the great French city when I was there in January.

But while all this is going on, environmental decline is picking up pace whether or not some kind of effective global response can be worked out. World leaders were reminded of this in Paris when they got a quick briefing on sea-level rise. In a little over a century (1901 – 2010), the level of our oceans climbed roughly seven inches. Things have changed so dramatically that it has become difficult to predict what the next 100 years will look like.

The last time our planet reached the levels of warming it has today – roughly 300,000 years ago – sea levels rose 20-30 feet. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the planet is now reaching similar temperatures by 2100. The Panel concludes that within the next 100 years sea levels will rise 3-4 feet. Unknown is what will transpire when the West Antarctic ice sheet melts. The best guess is that water levels will rise 11 feet if and when that happens.

That’s a small portion of the data, but the real issue will become the human cost. Columbia University professor Maureen Raymo put it bluntly: “I don’t think 10 years ago scientists realized just how quickly the potential for rapid sea level rise was.” The effects on places like the Florida Keys or Chesapeake Bay will be devastating, but the ultimate tragedy will play out in the developing regions of Asia, Africa, Central and South America. The United Nations estimates that some tens of millions of climate change refugees will be the ultimate result of people who can no longer live in their historic coastal homes and who, with precious little resources, will begin to move across borders in search of security and survival.

Every day we have witnessed the pressure placed upon European nations of refugee numbers out of control. Serious as it is, the appearance of millions of Syrian refugees on the world scene is only a harbinger of what will arise once the environmental refugees begin to make their migrations.

In perhaps a sad bit of irony, Trudeau and Obama will enjoy a state dinner and numerous other formal venues at the same time that a significant citizen revolt is underway in both the Democratic and the Republican parties – people have had enough. Canada, while hardly pushed to the political extremes experienced at present by their southern neighbour, nevertheless voted for their own desire for change only a few months ago. But unless the two administrations can move quickly into emergency mode, everything runs the danger of image without substance.

Both political leaders are overseeing a political estate in various levels of turbulence and must confront the economic devastation of global capitalism that is about to be matched by environmental devastation. This is not the time for mere policy discussion between two neighbouring friendly nations who just happen to share the largest unprotected border in the world. If we can’t get it together, all the silverware, photo ops, and political bargaining will come to mean little.

We are facing the greatest challenge of this or any other time, with climate change threatening our very survival. As both capitalism and the environment create such massive fallout, it is time for friends to become compatriots in the task of saving democracy and the planet in these most precious of moments.

No doubt the Obama-Trudeau gatherings will be a photographer’s dream, but something serious, really serious, must go on behind the glitter. Best to follow W. Somerset Maugham’s advice: “When you choose your friends, don’t be short-changed by choosing personality over character.” The time for serious work is upon us.  That’s what friends do in times of seismic challenge.

Christmas and the Art of Making Goodness Attractive

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WE AREN’T FORCED INTO DOING GOOD. Nor are we legislated or coerced into performing a kind act for others. Rather, we are inspired into it. It might be a holiday song wafting through a favourite store, a Salvation Army kettle attended by a citizen, seeing our kids start decorating the tree, watching a favourite holiday movie, or standing silent as a family looking over a manger scene in our local park – all of these moments, and so many more, arc us towards kindness, generosity, to be more accepting, even committed to being a more compassionate people. But somewhere along the journey we encounter others who call out the best in us and we end up being better as a result.

And whether we can explain it or not, we receive more impulses in this direction during the Christmas holidays than at any other time of year. Images and music abound – presents, family, singing, neighbours expressing their best wishes, lights, shopping, giving, and receiving. But back of even all that comes a simple challenge that prompts us to get outside of ourselves and, for a brief time at least, move in a more aspirational direction – “Peace on earth towards those of goodwill.”

Let’s be honest: our world isn’t as we would wish it to be at the moment. All the death, terrorism, flooding, poverty, political division and economic dysfunction have created within us the sense that whatever isn’t right in our world isn’t improving either. None of this do we feel we can control.

We continue to put up with practices that we now believe aren’t helping us – dysfunctional politics, capitalism without jobs, devouring the natural order, the underperformance of institutions. We have kept rationalizing lesser evils, hoping they’ll somehow add up to the greater good. But in the end it’s all just bad math and we know it.  At some point we have to say “no” to all the compromising and just live for the good of others.

Yet into this world comes this irrepressible attractiveness towards that which is good. It remains within us despite a darkened sky and it comes to shine during the holiday season. For reasons not fully known to us we prove willing to see the world through a child’s eyes, and in such moments the potential to see the world as we wish it to be gets easier. Families grow closer, neighbours get friendlier, and communities embrace an extended sense of compassion. Yes, there are the hurts and difficult memories, depression and misgiving, but overall we as a people trend more effectively towards the hopeful.

When the problem’s of the world’s life, huge in their reach and complex in their workings, weigh upon our collective conscience, we nevertheless possess the ability to move out from under such shadows towards hope. Repeatedly, we encounter Canadians who inspire us to sacrifice, to accept something new, to give back, to forgive, and during the Christmas season we see such actions more than any other time of year. It’s not merely magical but motivational, and we become better, even if only for a season.

Across Canada there are people who are upping their game, living lives that extend beyond their normal carefulness.

Faced with her final Christmas, Holocaust victim Anne Frank witnessed evil unlike anything the world had ever endured. Despite that, she looked around her at the remarkable acts of courage and kindness by average people under great strain and wrote in her diary: “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” Her hope didn’t reside in her freedom but in her values and she elevated the world by holding on to her values until the end.

All that is asked of us is that we live for what we believe in and seek to extend it beyond Christmas to the entire year, and beyond our immediate lives to the entire world. Such is the remarkable allure of goodness. Such is the genius of Christmas.

It All Comes Down to Cities

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FOLLOWING EXTENSIVE NEGOTIATIONS a deal emerged among 190 countries regarding climate change and the very future of the planet. Almost immediately opinions pro and con erupted in every venue imaginable. The average citizen can be forgiven for experiencing difficulty as to the truth of the summit’s success in Paris this past week.

Nevertheless, there are some aspects of the climate change response that have been clearly successful, with progressive track records that still spell hope on the file. I speak especially of cities. While the accomplishments on carbon emissions of a number of nations have been mixed, cities around the world opted to act long before the Paris summit. Following the dismal failure of the 2009 Copenhagen summit, municipal leaders took the initiative when others dropped the ball.

All this is important, since as much as a third of carbon budgets will be determined by decisions that municipalities themselves will make. That is no small thing and while sovereign nations now begin the process of deciphering how to meet the loose targets they committed to, many of their key cities have been moving along that path for years, and decades for some.

Increasingly it appears as though cities will be the staging areas for any great global response to climate change. Think of most great challenges before us – immigration, refugees, the renewal of capitalism, citizen engagement, political reform, and many more – and their chief field of operations will be in our civic centres. It makes sense, not only because of their population density but since they provide the majority of the on the ground services required by citizens.

But there’s more. Research from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate reveals that a group comprised of fewer than 500 cities will be responsible for some 60% of global economic growth and 50% of greenhouse gas emission increases in the next 15 years. Cities are already forming the front line in humanity’s struggle with climate change.

It’s now clear what is happening: for nations to develop an effective environmental response, they must undertake the process of following their cities. Again, that makes sense since city mayors have already undertaken over 10,000 climate change actions in recent years.

Yet there is another reason for civic action that is rarely mentioned. Between 2005 and 2013, cities have absorbed the vast majority of refugees. Recent research enforces this reality.

  • Manila (Philippines) presently houses 70,000 refugees.
  • New York city is attempting to support 60,000 – 22,000 of which are children.
  • Mexico City holds 20,000.
  • The cities of India are attempting to resettle some 23 million.
  • San Francisco hosts 10,000 refugees.
  • Rome is challenged by the 70,000 living within its boundaries.

At present, over 100 million people are homeless in our world, the majority of them in our cities. The United Nations estimates that 1.6 billion exist without adequate housing. These are huge numbers and they are increasing, mostly in our municipalities.

In other words, cities have a vested interest in taking the lead in climate change action for the simple reason that they will be absorbing the terrible consequences of failure. “Cities are the greatest creations of humanity,” says author Daniel Libeskind. They could also be the beach upon which we ultimately perish. More than the Paris summit, our hundreds of cities will determine whether we can submit ourselves to the natural order that sustains us.

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