Distant Strangers and the Illusion of Separation

The peoples of the world’s developing nations are far-off, vague and unfamiliar strangers to us in the developed world – a collective group of people whom we feel little or no responsibility towards. So argues leading philosopher, climate change and human rights expert Professor Henry Shue in his recent lecture on climate justice in Trinity College. ‘The illusion of separation’ as proposed by Professor Shue, sets up a model where there is an ‘us’ in the developed world and a ‘them’ in the developing world. This model allows ‘us’ the ability to act immorally and without responsibility for our actions, as the consequences of those actions are not witnessed by us and so we can easily wipe our hands clean of any responsibility.

Pictured at the occaision (l-r): Katarzyna Czaplicka (UNDP), Jonathan Claridge (European Commission), Dr Lorna Gold (Trocaire), Professor Henry Shue, Professor Juliett Hussey (VP for Global Relations Trinity). Soource: Trinity News and Events
Pictured at the occaision (l-r): Katarzyna Czaplicka (UNDP), Jonathan Claridge (European Commission), Dr Lorna Gold (Trocaire), Professor Henry Shue, Professor Juliett Hussey (VP for Global Relations Trinity). Source: Trinity News and Events

The event, organised by the joint TCD/ UCD Masters in Development Practice, the European Commission and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), brought focus to the need to respect the rights of people in the developing world when we make decisions which directly affect their livelihoods both now and into the future – something which we have historically been largely incapable of.

Professor Shue asks the crucial question: “What am I responsible for?” According to Professor Shue this question should be answered not only by reflecting on the consequences of our actions or inactions today, but also the effects of the decisions on those who are most disconnected from us – the generations who will come after us. He argues that “The one group more vulnerable than the poorest living populations today are the poorest in the future.”

Prof. Shue spoke in some detail about the concept of ‘the point of no return’, a serious of cataclysmic singular moments where we have the choice to act to avoid disaster, or turn a blind eye and suffer the consequences, or more accurately pass on the consequences of our collective inaction on future generations. This is a particularly salient point when considered in light of the recent COP 21 climate change summit in Lima. Global leaders converged on Lima for a two-week conference, extended by two days amid intense negotiations which, despite serious fears of collapse, finally came to an agreement. The problem however lies in what type of agreement they actually came to. An international group of NGOs and interested parties issued a joint statement decrying the Lima agreement:

“What we have seen in Lima is another in a series of yearly decisions that weaken international climate rules, failing people and the planet.”

COP Lima. Source: www.cop20lima.org
COP Lima. Source: www.cop20lima.org

According to the views of many, it seems we have already passed a number of points of no return, for example the irreversible melting of the West Antarctic Ice sheet which Professor Shue pointed to, and the Lima agreement sets us on a pathway that allows for temperature rises in excess of the two degrees increase which is seen as the lowest level to avoid global catastrophe. And so we fear, as Prof. Henry Shue mentioned, that we are closer to passing another crucial point of no return at the all-important climate summit in Paris next year, and so resign future generations to bear the brunt of our irresponsibility. Prof. Shue reflected on the fact that emission reduction and serious climate mitigation is physically possible and that we need to make it politically possible, but it seems the latter is out of reach.

Authored by Paul Carr, TCD/ UCD Masters in Development Practice


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