Higgins says rich countries must rebalance the world

‘You go to the UN to offer some very much necessary but perhaps for many unpalatable truths ’

Everything is connected, believes Michael D Higgins. The world currently faces three crises – ecological, economic and social. Each are linked, but none of them can be fixed by old ways or old thoughts.

Speaking at the Áras ahead of an address next week to the UN General Assembly, Mr Higgins argued that there was "deepening inequality" dividing the Southern and Northern Hemispheres.

“We have arrived at the environmental calamity we’re at now because of disconnect and badly thought out ideas. But we can’t be judgmental. It was a hubris of its day.

“So we can’t have any hubris now either; that there is a quick scientific/technological fix to where we are. There isn’t,” he said, although he held out hope in the young.


“The coming generation has never been better informed on finding the best way forward,” he believes, although they will face “overt and covert” opposition as they try to change things.

Praising authors such as Ian Gough and Harmut Rosa, Mr Higgins said humans were threatening the future of the planet, driven by greed, capitalism and an acceptance of inequality.

Worlds leaders have been called to the UN General Assembly this year by its secretary general António Guterres, who has urged them all to show greater ambition. The Guterres call will be backed this Friday by an unprecedented number of protests around the world by young "climate strikers", including large numbers in Ireland.

Heartened by the progress that has taken place, Mr Higgins said “the publics of the world have ran ahead of the decision-makers”, while the position of the US on climate change under Trump was not backed elsewhere.

Nevertheless there was an outstanding need for the US to return to the Paris Agreement table, and for it to adopt a strong supporting role rather than a hindering one

Final negotiation

Four years ago the world saw the final negotiation of the Paris Agreement and the adoption of UN sustainable development goals, which have led debate since.

“The big change now is that one cannot discuss the climate issue and separate it from global hunger,” said Mr Higgins, adding that the conversation must also address human consumption and food production.

Describing migration as “the new propellant”, Mr Higgins said people at the frontline of climate disasters throughout the world would seek to move away from those disasters.

He said the EU has been “badly served” by its migration debate, and “a great deal of ignorance” existed, especially about “the most unreported fact” – 10 to 12 per cent of global GDP is provided by migrants.

Objecting to the attacks that are being made upon multi-lateralism, Mr Higgins will make the case in his UN speech for “more” UN, not less, calling for support for “a reinvigorated UN”.

Politicians must realise that the public will get “wise” to florid moral sentiments expressed on the floor of the General Assembly that collapse “ into a theory of narrow interests” when they rise to the Security Council.

“You don’t go to the UN to have a nice day out in New York. You go to the UN to offer some very much necessary but perhaps for many unpalatable truths. But then you come back with a new resolve to do things differently.”

Once seen as a beacon of hope, he fears the UN is far from that day in the eyes of many, where the “huge growth in unaccountability” threatens “the very notion of democracy itself”.

He blames former US national security adviser John Bolton for the most strident attack ever on multi-laterialism and the UN. Today, he notes, the UN budget is short because the US does not meet its dues.

Collective action

He said collective action by people on climate change would underline the value of multi-lateralism, “but you cannot assume it’s a relationship of equals at the present time”.

Instead there was a need to rebalance the world, economically, socially and technologically. Rich countries would have to pay to restore that balance.

The President said the world faced a choice. Do we live with continuing crises in a “financialised global economy seeking accelerated growth that puts people, environments, communities and cultures at risk, or do we have the courage to say stop?”

Africa would be "the continent of the young" by 2050. What happened to its climate would define everything else, including migration from there to Europe and within African countries.

Expressing confidence that Ireland could make the changes required justly, Mr Higgins said it would do so backed by better science and a greater understanding of the challenges ahead.

Conscious of his own carbon footprint, the President has asked the Office of Public Works and Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland to audit everything the Áras does.

He said everything would be examined – electricity, water usage – “within the confines of the realities of a protected and historically-significant building”.

Each generation of people made a contribution, and much of it quickly faded. “The Queen’s Walk” at the Áras, where Queen Victoria’s children – “she had a very large family” – all planted trees, today showed big gaps.

“Empires come and go, underlining the temporary nature of life, and that reinforces the importance of ideas which people live by. That is what one must say all the time,” said Mr Higgins.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times