Keynote Address by Michael D Higgins at the University of Washington

Keynote Address by Michael D Higgins at the University of Washington

Published: Fri 23rd Oct, 2015 | 20:38

“Re-Defining Development, Taking Responsibility for Climate Change: The Challenge to Science and Technology in New Circumstances”

University of Washington, 23rd September 2015

A Dhaoine Uaisle, A Mhéara Murray, A Bhalla Dáimhe,

Ladies and gentlemen, Mayor Murray,Members of the faculty,

It is a great pleasure to visit this very beautiful part of the West Coast and to have the opportunity to address you today as part of my short visit to Seattle and to the State of Washington.  There are very strong bonds between Seattle and Ireland and I see this visit as an important step in deepening further the very close friendship between our two maritime communities.

It is an additional pleasure to be in a university that shares with some of our third level institutes in Ireland a scientific and a policy interest in the great oceans that links all life on this planet; and the care of which must be at the centre of our future actions in building sustainable connections between economy, ecology, and ethics. Research and responsible science here and in your sister universities can ensure that our oceans can be preserved for future generations.

I should say at the outset that it was very important to me in planning this visit that I would have the opportunity to meet with university staff and students, and to have the opportunity to engage with them on some of the issues of most concern to me as a Head of State – issues that are indeed of great concern to all of humanity at this time. It has been a gift I treasure in my life to have had the opportunity to be a university teacher.

I was the first member of my family to attend university when I studied at Univeristy College Galway in the 1960s, and I also had the opportunity to study in the great public university system of the United States as a post-graduate at Indiana University, and later to teach at Southern Illinois University.  Throughout my life, I have been convinced of the importance of the public university as a cornerstone of democratic society and I am delighted  to have the opportunity to be here today at one of the great institutions of that public university system – the University of Washington.

The theme of my Lecture today is concerned with some of the great contemporary global issues – development and climate change – and the role of science, technology, and access to technology can play in addressing these issues. The application of technology within a model of development is never neutral. An ethical consideration of its delivery requires a consideration of context and consequence.

It is appropriate to address this issue in Washington and at UW, one of the premier research universities in the United States, and also a university with such a strong profile in achieving sustainability on its campus. By having such an ethos, you are not only contributing to the knowledge that will be necessary to address climate change, but you are an exemplar of the type of action and process that all of us must engage in as we manage change, not as passive consumers but as agents and innovators of change – for that is what is required.

As President of Ireland, I would also like to emphasise that the area of scientific research and technological advancement generally is of special interest to our society and to our economy. Investment in science and promotion of science in education is a cornerstone of our economic policy and has played a central role in our economic recovery.  But of course, science and its application through technology has an importance far beyond the economic.

I am well aware that Ireland’s reputation is often more  associated with the fields of literature and the humanities than with science, but I would like to emphasise that we have a rich history of scientific work, that is perhaps not as well known as it might be.

The discoveries of Robert Boyle and William Rowan Hamilton may be well known, but are so many others, such as John Tyndall, who explained why the sky is blue; Nicholas Callan, who invented the induction coil; William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, who built the world’s largest telescope and used it to locate new structures in the heavens; George Gabriel Stokes, who investigated the phenomenon of fluorescence and advanced the wave theory of light; William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, who contributed so much to the transatlantic telegraph project; John Lighton Synge, who pioneered the study of black holes; or George Francis Fitzgerald, whose understanding of the laws of motion provided an essential building block for the Special Theory of Relativity.

Most recently, it was a great pleasure to me to write to congratulate on behalf of the Irish people William Campbell of Ramelton, County Donegal and Trinity College Dublin, as well as of Drew University, on sharing the 2015 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Science is central to every aspect of our contemporary lives. Today I wish to consider, however briefly, the role of science in the context of the current global consideration of sustainable development and the challenge of climate change.

This year, 2015 has been defined as a critical moment in world history. Parallels have been made with the year 1945;  in that this year marks a potential turning point in how mankind deals with some of its most fundamental challenges.  In 1945, the tragedies of two world wars within a half century had shocked the international community, who had been forced to gaze on, not only the carnage of war, but the collapse of the most basic standards of human behaviour.  Now we are faced with persistence of global poverty despite unbounded surplus, deafening inequality, and uncontrolled and unregulated destruction of species and their environments, as well as of the balance between them, on our planet.

The successful agreement of new Sustainable Development Goals by the members of the United Nations in New York in September will hopefully be followed by the positive conclusion of a comprehensive Climate Change Agreement in Paris in December, a Conference that has been described as the last chance for an effective joint response to climate change before irreversible degradation of our environment takes place.

The Sustainable Development Goals which have been agreed in New York set out 17 Goals and 169 Targets aimed at addressing global hunger and poverty over the period to 2030. The Goals speak to governments as primary duty holders and call on them to act in solidarity. They speak to business and capital – and to those institutions that might regulate them - about how they might support sustainable development.  The Goals also speak to us all as citizens on the responsibilities we must assume if we are to change how we live, and our patterns of consumption.

The new Sustainable Development Goals replace a set of Millenium Development Goals that framed the period 2000-2015.  One of the main changes from the preceding text is that, while the Millenium Goals focussed solely on the poorer nations, the new Goals are universal in reach and obligation. They are aimed at all governments and regions of the world.  Achieving sustainable development is now seen as something that carries obligations and duties in every region.

This universal approach is a recognition that in a globalised world, problems and their solutions can be understood only at the global level.  One is left, of course, with the fundamental challenge that elected governments are responsible for an ever decreasing portion of the global economic space. Then too, while accountability can be demanded from states, many dominant multinational corporations are opposed to regulation of the type that is necessary. Bearing in mind that it is estimated that just 90 large companies alone have contributed nearly two thirds of man-made carbon emissions, this important challenge of accountability can be appreciated.

The central global problem addressed in the Goals is that of global poverty, which remains depressingly persistent despite the efforts of governments and development organisations over recent decades. Indeed, the claim of  inequality and of its consequences in terms of deprivation and public health consequences is deafening. In January of this year, the British NGO OXFAM published a research report projecting that by 2016 the wealthiest 1% of the global population (who by 2014 owned 48% of global wealth) would possess as much wealth as the remaining 99% combined. In the same report, OXFAM showed that the richest 80 individuals in the world owned the same value of assets as the bottom 50% of the world’s population – the richest 80 people have the same wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion.  This shocking wealth gap is widening rapidly.

This inequality is made manifest in the most fundamental of human outcomes.  Last year, I visited Malawi, a country where despite the Green Revolution in food production and the wonderful advances in vaccination and public health more generally over the past half century, remains today with a life expectancy of less than 55 years, 16 years less than the global average, 24 years less than the United States or 26 years less than Ireland.

The advances in the lifestyle, living standards, and life expectancy of the wealthy on our planet in the past century are remarkable, but the gap with those in poorer nations in terms of income, however imperfectly that is measured, remains staggering.

In fact, superfluous consumption in the richest and in the expanding economies is exacerbating the disadvantages of the poorest.  Through climate change and depletion of natural resources, populations in the global South are paying the price for the lifestyles and economic models in ascendancy in the North. Desertification, soil degradation, water contamination, increased frequency of storms and other extreme weather events are all caused by climate change resulting from emissions in the industrialised world, and all disproportionately affect the poorest regions.

There is an historical context to climate change and to the level and form of inequality we see in the world today.  In relation to climate change, specific forms of industrialisation in particular regions of the planet have been the main drivers of the process of climate change.  Colonialism, conflict and domination in military, political and economic forms, all form the background to the current distribution of resources.  In the moral sense, we cannot begin our current response from any fictional clean slate. We have legacy issues for acknowledgement and response.

Inequality has specific roots, and if we are to set about addressing it and construct new models of sustainable development, there must be an acceptance of the history and the responsibility of those regions, nations and peoples who find themselves in a position of relative advantage due to historical processes that have in turn had the effect of disadvantaging others. We cannot continue to see all of these challenges in a non-political way.  They are political. Absence of accountability is an exercise of power and such an abuse of power can be brought to bear on state institutions and decisions, but also on foundations and NGOs, which are dependant on private funding in the absence of adequate state support.

There is also a need for us to consider the moral and ethical issues raised by the destruction of the environment in terms of the fundamental interest of future people.  The principles of climate justice requires this generation, knowing that climate change will have devastating effects on future generations, not to violate their interests and to avoid causing them unnecessary suffering.  Just as we owe a debt to those who are the victims of past exploitation, we owe a debt to those who might be future victims of our actions or inactions now.  Informed by such a moral view, we must adjust our life choices accordingly to take into account the requirements of intergenerational justice.

The central moral challenge of both the Sustainable Development Goals and Climate Change, then,  is one of justice. While there is broad scientific agreement over what is necessary in relation to reducing emissions at a global level, how responsibility can be fairly apportioned between states and regions is the subject of much contention. Similarly, while goals and targets to address objectives in the areas of nutrition, healthcare and access to water have been agreed, how these will be resourced remains unclear. Again, these issues are not ones for technocratic resolution – they are political and require political awareness, advocacy and action.

Global inequality is also about more than a failure of policy or restitution of the inherited wealth gap; it is an intellectual crisis and one in need of new ideas and new thinking.  That our existing models of economics and development have not produced the outcomes we hoped for in closing the gap between what are described as “developed” and “developing” nations is irrefutable. We have become trapped in a narrow paradigm of depeopled growth  sourced in an earlier myth of linear “progress” which has prioritised a narrow model of human consumption over the needs of the whole vulnerable planet on which we live.

Increasingly, this model of insatiable consumption is prioritising the wants of the few over the needs of the many, and as a consequence we have a social and political crisis of legitimacy as well as a scientific and environmental crisis.  The dominant economic model of our time, and specifically of the period since the 1990s, is discredited and can no longer be maintained, and solutions proposed within that model are doomed to failure, be it in social terms as far as addressing unemployment or poverty, or in environmental terms as a strategy for addressing climate change.

Central to the model of neo-liberal economics which has become dominant, is also a mythic view of technological advancement as a means of enrichment. In this view, nature and its resources are defined as both unlimited and quantifiable commodities for the production process.   Absent from this model is consideration of the consequences from the production process for the sustainability, or the destruction, of our home on this planet.

Many difficulties have flowed from a confusion, in economics and subsequently in development theory, whereby instruments that are part of mathematical models, as  part of economics, have been presented as method or even as theory. As a result, ethical concerns, including issues of expanding global inequities, are too often ignored.

A false dichotomy is created between what are presented as the “hard” concerns of economic planners and scientists, and the “soft” concerns of those in the social and environmental sciences or the humanities concerned as they are with the human and environment impact of growth, or with the ideological context in which science is taught and practised or the context in which technology is delivered.

I call this a false dichotomy, because of course at all times there have been leading scientists who were concerned with these ethical questions – in areas such as environmental science, metereology and marine biology for example; indeed, in all areas of fundamental research these voices were often marginalised and science came to be seen as instrumental or even as an underlabourer to a narrow version of economy; and thus we became dependent on destructive technologies, including those based on fossil fuels.

At the same time, we are not required to concede to any superficial association of technology with destruction of the environment, or allowing science to be presented as being necessarily antithetical to the concerns of conservation.  Such a view would miss the great potential - both in terms of environmental sustainability and human development – that scientific innovation can provide when harnessed for good.  It is possible to decouple an uncritical use of technology from an obsolete and failed model of development.  We must, I argue, recapture the potential of technology derived from fundamental and applied science as a key form of wealth, harnessed for public good, and allow it to be emancipatory. Technology is a resource that can empower poor nations to meet their development needs and address the threats posed by climate change.

While the focus of the SDG process to date has largely been on financial resources, in both this process and the forthcoming Climate Change talks, poorer nations are also calling for access to technology to allow them to control their own sustainable development. Indeed, models of development which have been weighted too heavily on financial transfers risk perpetuating asymmetric power between donors and recipients.

Similarly, simplistic arguments that opening up trade between North and South will “raise all boats” ignore the reality of open trade as we know it to date in the context of pronounced power imbalances.  Aid and trade are and will remain important, but empowerment is the key to sustainable and just development.

What we need to support and facilitate in Africa and in other poorer regions is a model of sustainable development that creates employment, develops indigenous industry, builds infrastructure, and addresses the acute needs of the people, all within the context of what are now urgent climate change demands. This is ambitious, but with the tools are available to us through modern technology, we have the capacity to achieve such a model.

Just as with inherited climate debt and the obligations arising from the history of colonisation, the question of historical legacy also applies in the context of technology. The head-start in technological innovation enjoyed by wealthy nations and derived from their development advantage must lead to a equalisation of opportunity in the future rather than to a consolidation of advantage.  The concept of “technology justice” speaks to this legacy and calls for a system of access to technology that is available to all people, an access that will assist them in meeting their need without compromising the ability of others and of future generations to do the same.

This question of access is central. We have a choice: to make available the benefits of science in a spirit of solidarity and under the ethic of sharing the benefits of advances in knowledge and understanding; or to reduce knowledge to a tradable commodity, which becomes another dimension to the imbalance and inequalities we inherit from history.

The British Nobel prize winning pharmacologist James Black addressed this question in terms of the ethics of research:

“In the culture I grew up in you did your work and you did not put your arm around it to stop other people from looking – you took the earliest possible opportunity to make knowledge available.”

What we can see in the developing world is that the best results are produced where the benefits of science and technology are delivered within a citizenship model, rather than a consumer model; where research and technology programmes are conceived and delivered in conjunction with local and state authorities.  It is worth adding that the greatest long-term, paradigm changing advances have come from investment in fundamental scientific research freed from the narrow confines of applied and instrumental research in the service of industry, or of a limited lifespan structured solely around market exploitation.

It is worth considering just two of the areas in which technology is already empowering sustainable development: nutrition and healthcare.

Partly stemming from our own history, Ireland has taken on the role as a global leader in the fight against global hunger and helped found the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement in 2010. This brings together all stakeholders to tackle hunger and under-nutrition: donors and developing partner countries (42 so far), UN and other international organisations and agencies, international financial institutions, civil society and business organisations. Particular attention is paid to maternal, infant and child under-nutrition, and Ireland has also formed a strong partnership with the US, known as the Thousand Days Partnership, on advocating for good nutrition in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life - from pregnancy to the age of two - a critical window for growth and development.

As a key part of that programme, Ireland has scaled up support for research and extension initiatives focussed on boosting the agricultural productivity of poor smallholder farmers, with a particular focus on women farmers. This includes improved seed varieties, but is not dependant on varieties that are protected by monopolised patents, and also focuses on planting materials, improving soil fertility, diversifying crops, linking to markets, and enhancing resilience against climate shocks. Under this programme, Ireland stresses it is essential that research is accessible to, and used by, poor farmers in their fields, helping them to grow foods for their families.

We recognise that the integrity of the product is important, but also that farming is a cultural activity. We prioritise the importance of sustaining the life of the farming community.

In all of these areas, agri-science is being put the service of populations in those countries facing the greatest risk of malnutrition and its associated effects such as stunting of child growth. Access to the necessary scientific knowledge is delivered through state agencies and universities; and this is then combined with local expertise and understanding of cultural and other location-specific contexts to ensure effective results. This source of scientific knowledge differs from unaccountable strategies that can create a new dependence, or indeed even a new form of colonialism.

In the area of healthcare, access to affordable retro-viral medication is but one example of how, empowered with access to the benefits of medicial research in a state-driven and universal health care system, remarkable achievements are possible.  However, the history of struggle in achieving access to this technology in countries like South Africa also demonstrates the potential for conflict between market-driven and universal models of access and delivery.

Again, one might ask is it acceptable to ask Ebola-stricken countries like Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone to give interest payments on debt priority over basic health infrastructure, emergency food systems,or education?

In South Africa, the Treatment Action Campaign, had to fight all the way to the Constitutional Court to secure access to anti-retroviral treatment as a socio-economic right. In doing so they had to confront multi-national pharmaceutical companies who they accused of profiteering by keeping the price of drugs high, arguing this conflicted with the right to life.

This question of access to essential medication raises the wider question of the conflict between technology as commodity and technology as public good; a tension that is often expressed through the prism of intellectual property rights.  Rights – and the use of the concept of rights in this context is contentious on a number of levels – which are held by private corporations in the North, and which are in conflict with the interests of industries and governments in the South seeking to utilise or build on the relevant technology.

At the Third Finance for Development Conference in Addis Ababa in July of this year, which acted as a prelude to the Sustainable Development Summit in New York, this conflict came into the open as a central point of tension between the different regional blocks.

The Addis Ababa Action Agenda – the agreement which emerged from that Conference recognises that the technology divide across a wide range of economic sectors makes it difficult for developing countries to achieve sustainable development. This was a definitive acknowledgement of the righteousness of the claim of technology justice.

As a response, and in order to help facilitate development, transfer and dissemination of technologies relevant for achieving the SDGs, Member States agreed to establish a Technology Facilitation Mechanism, consisting of a United Nations Interagency Task Team, an annual collaborative Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for the SDGs, and an on-line platform.

At first reading these step strike me as inadequate and they are seen by most as modest at best. It remains to be seen how they will interact with agreements in other spheres and emerging from other processes. However these new structures provide a framework in which a new ethic of science must be given expression; one in which the benefits and riches of knowledge and discovery should be available to and usable by all of humanity, and with respect for the welfare of our planet and the species with which we share it.

This question of control and regulation of resources, towards the creation of a global commons of knowledge and technology also can extend to essential natural resources – mineral wealth and the sea, which can be regarded as part of humanity’s common wealth. Indeed, while we need to ensure that states and populations have access to common resources when addressing their development needs, we must also ensure that they can assert control over and maintain their own indigenous resources at the same time. It should be an instrument within the development package that resources small coastal states to vindicate their people’s rights under the Law of the Sea.

The vision of the Sustainable Development Goals is one of common humanity with universal objectives for achieving human dignity for all. An essential steps towards that vision is a science without borders, where discovery and innovation are not bordered by time or sovereignty. The genius of scientific discovery is the glory of humanity.  The benefits of such a genius can be put to the service of aggressive competition between us or, alternatively it can be put to the service of solidarity and cooperation.

The spirit of the public university is the spirit of such solidarity and I urge you all to play your part in advancing the claim that science be put in the service of sustainable development for all. It will enable you, I believe to live the fulfilling life of hope and love that I wish you all.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir agus beirigí libh mo bheannacht ó chroí.