Sunday, October 30, 2022

COP 27 must ensure firm action

Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, COP 27 conference venue

The United Nations COP 27 climate conference, which starts at the end of this week, could be of pivotal importance to the entire planet and of special significance to Portugal.

Portugal is doing all the right things to limit global warming, but it remains highly vulnerable because of what much bigger nations are not doing.

The United States, China and India, the countries creating the highest levels of ruinous greenhouse gas emissions, are not honouring their pledges at past UN climate conferences. This year, China even pulled out of co-operative talks with the US about how to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

Former Portuguese Prime Minister and currently serving his second term as Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, has said: “We are in a life-or-death struggle for our own safety today and our survival tomorrow.” 

He added that COP 27 must ensure sufficient action and not be just “another dead-end discussion.”

Attention on global warming has been distracted in many countries by the COVID pandemic, Russia’s war in Ukraine and crises centred on the cost of energy, food and maintaining health services. In Africa, it has been distracted by internal conflicts, poverty and starvation.

Some scientists believe it is already too late to stop global temperatures rising above the crucial 1.5°C or even 2°C levels to avoid catastrophe. Some are predicting that levels may rise by more than 4°C by the end of the century.

The whole subject will be debated again at the 27th UN climate conference, which begins in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, next Sunday, November 6. It will continue for 12 days.

The many heads of state and government ministers, along with mayors, CEOs, climate scientists and activists attending, will not include Britain’s King Charles III or Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. They have opted out. Greta Thunberg says she will not be attending either, presumably because she doesn’t want to hear more blah, blah, blah.

Many young people from around the world, however, will be present and a special pavilion is being set up for them at the conference centre. For the first time, the European Union will also have its own pavilion at a COP meeting.

Europe is becoming hotter faster than almost any other region in the world. This year Portugal has experienced its hottest temperatures ever. They reached 46°C in a number of places and a record 47.5°C in the north-eastern Alentejo. There had been so little rain by late May that most of Portugal, north to south, suffered severe or extreme droughts. 

More is sure to come. Indeed, the next few years could to be much worse, meaning longer and increasingly intensive heat waves, wildfires, droughts, and flooding due to rising sea levels.  If so, the economic impact will be profound, particularly on the tourism and agriculture sectors.

The wildfire environmental and wildlife  destruction is worsened by low precipitation, which is predicted to drop by as much as 50% in summers, with temperatures topping 40°C becoming the norm. Sea levels will continue to rise along Portugal’s entire coastline, threatening some coastal cities, towns, villages and beaches with submersion.

The worrying health risks include a rising mortality rate among children and the elderly due to unbearable lengthy heat waves. The temperatures could also promote tropical diseases such as malaria.

Portugal is striving as best it can to help bring global warming under control, especially by increasing its use of hydroelectric, wind and solar power, thus reducing the need for fossil fuels. It is one of the leaders in Europe on this.

Hopefully, the COP 27 conference will successfully urge the world’s major nations to spend less time on hateful political wrangling and concentrate far more on the future of planet Earth.



Monday, October 24, 2022

British expats bewildered by chaos

Britain's new Prime Minister, 42-year-old Rishi Sunak

Many British expats in Portugal have been understandably angered and embarrassed by last week’s political and economic anarchy back home.

Respect for Britain’s government has plummeted across Europe, in the United States and elsewhere around the world, with people aghast at the frenzied turmoil within the UK’s ruling Conservative Party.

Some found the recent events to be farcical, even funny. But no, they were deadly serious and fully factual.

 Liz Truss was forced out of office as prime minister by her own party just 44 days after being enthusiastically voted in.

The damage was self-inflicted as she had made a total shambles of things by complicating an already dire financial situation in one of the world’s biggest economies.

The friend Truss chose as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, released a mini-budget that included the biggest tax cuts in half a century, which would have mainly benefitted the wealthier segments of British society.

Truss sacked him as the financial markets reacted. The pound nosedived in value, leading borrowing costs to shoot up.

Soaring interest rates threatened higher mortgage payments for millions of British citizens.

It took the International Monetary Fund to urgently point out that the planned tax cuts might stoke inflation.

The Bank of England felt obliged to take drastic measures, including buying an unlimited quantity of government bonds to protect the UK economy from crashing further.

Truss sacked her friend after he had been in the job for just 38 days and appointed a new chancellor, Jeremy Hunt.

As the fourth chancellor in four months, Hunt calmed the markets somewhat by completely overturning the planned tax cuts of his predecessor, which the PM had supported.

Having just claimed in the House of Commons that she was “a fighter not a quitter”, Truss quit and became by far the shortest serving prime minister in British history.

Aged just 47, Truss is now entitled to an annual public payment of £115,000. Many British pensioners feel outraged because of concerns about their own more modest public payments amid the cost of living crisis that has forced many working people into poverty.

Truss’ predecessor, Boris Johnson, who led Britain out of the European Union, was forced to resign in early July after a series of ‘Partygate’ scandals.

It beggared belief that  many Conservatives wanted Boris back after Truss resigned.

He flew home from a holiday in the Caribbean in the hope of regaining his position, despite being an obvious liar who is soon to be investigated for misleading members of parliament.  He declined to enter the leadership race just the night before this Monday’s deadline.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party, which is holding a big majority of support according to all opinion polls, demanded a general election giving the country, not just the Conservatives, the opportunity to choose the next prime minister. The muddled government ruled that out.

In the absence of any other viable contender as leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister, Rishi Sunak will now have to sort out the mess, including a £40 billion black hole in the economy, while the population are facing a booming recession at home plus a great loss to Britain’s reputation internationally.

British expats, for their own futures and those of family and friends here and in their homeland, are hoping for a rapid end to the current tumultuous uncertainly and a return to stability.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

New air defence shield welcome

Although one of the least vulnerable countries in Europe to missile attacks from Russia, Portugal will be all the safer thanks to a new defence system initiated by Germany.

Fifteen countries have joined the proposed “European Sky Shield” that is to be set up using a common procurement of defence equipment. The system will enable the interception of any Russian cruise or ballistic missiles armed with conventional or nuclear warheads.

The co-operative arrangement comes at a time when the war in Ukraine is escalating and President Putin has made thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons against Europe and the United States.

The countries participating in the new shield project are Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the United Kingdom. All are NATO members except Finland, which is still in the process of joining.

Defence ministers signed a letter of intent in Brussels last Thursday to provide what has been described as “a fully interoperable and seamlessly integrated system that will significantly improve NATO’s ability to defend against all air and missile threats.”

Furthermore, it will offer a multinational and multifaceted” approach, which will offer “a flexible and scalable” way for European countries to strengthen their defence in an efficient and cost-effective manner, according to a NATO statement. The system is expected to make use of a combination of Israeli, US and German missile interception equipment.

So far, neither Portugal nor Spain has been formally requested to participate in the project, presumably because of their relatively distant location, but Spain has said it would certainly consider doing so if asked. Portugal might do so too as it is well known to be an enthusiastically committed founder member of NATO. France and Poland have opted out as they have their own individual missile defence systems.

While less vulnerable than the countries on Europe’s eastern flank, Portugal will welcome the boost to European missile protection because of the potential threat to its Atlantic ports, or even a possible spread of nuclear fallout from the east.

Putin’s has said he is not bluffing in making his threats to go nuclear. His ability to do so with long-range missiles are being taken very seriously by all defence ministers and specialist think tanks in the West. The need for the shield comes at a time of growing desperation in the Kremlin, which is facing increasing gains by the Ukrainian forces and increasing anti-war protests at home. A concern is that Putin is being backed into a corner that may provoke extreme and maybe even  illogical panic action. That said, the West has made it absolutely clear that it is ready to make any appropriate response necessary.

Russia has already unleashed thousands of missiles against Ukraine. Last week in yet another alleged war crime, many rained down on civilian targets and critical energy infrastructures in cities across Ukraine.

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Fatima miracle: fact or fiction?

A crowd, said to have numbered as many as 70,000, witnessed the so-called Miracle of the Sun above the village of Fatima in central Portugal on 13th October 1917. But was it really a divine miracle, or is it all a bizarre myth?

The event occurred during the Second World War and just a few years before Russia formed the Soviet Union. The latter is of special relevance to the Fatima faithful because of Russia’s present war in Ukraine. The 1917 crowd gathered in response to a prophesy aired by three local shepherd children who claimed to have been in contact over the previous five months with the Virgin Mary, whom they referred to as Our Lady of Fatima or Our Lady of the Rosary. They said she had told them to pray for peace and that she would perform a miracle that October.

On a stormy, wet afternoon, many in the crowd (pictured below) said that for a period of about ten minutes the sun resembled a silver disc. It appeared to tremble, dance and zigzag down towards the Earth amid a vivid range of colours.

Scientists have always dismissed the notion that there was any unnatural solar activity. Noting that there were inconsistent and contradictory comments among the crowd, sceptics have suggested that believers had deceived themselves with wishful expectations.

The Catholic Church itself harboured doubts and it was not until 1930 that it was officially declared a miracle “worthy of belief.”

By that time Church and State in Portugal had been separated by a constitutional decree. It was during Portugal’s First Republic, which ran from 5th October 1910 to May 1926. The State was fiercely critical of the Catholic Church, which had been the national religion with a huge following since the founding of the nation on 5th October 1143. Governments during the First Republic would like to have eliminated it, but the Church found solace and strengthened resistance in the ever-increasing public following of the apparitions reported by the three shepherd children on the 13th of each month, May to October, 1917.

The separation of Church and State was further cemented into Portugal’s constitution in 1976, two years after the ‘Carnation Revolution’. The two have enjoyed a trouble-free relationship ever since. Modern governments have appreciated the economic contribution to tourism by the Sanctuary of Fatima, which each year attracts millions of pilgrims from around the world. The figure for the centenary year, 2017, reached 9.4 million from about 100 countries who came to the Sanctuary for prayer and to express adulation.   

As all pilgrims are aware, the Blessed Virgin is said to have entrusted the visionary children with three “secrets” one of which warned that communist Russia would “spread its errors” unless it was “consecrated to my immaculate heart.”

The eldest of the children, Lucia Santos, (pictured left below) said the request was repeated to her by the Virgin Mary in an appearance in 1929. Why a matter of such geopolitical importance had been revealed in the first place only to unschooled children, indoctrinated with Catholic dogma by their peasant mothers in the remote Portuguese countryside, may not bother Catholics, but Humanists put it all down to delusion.

The act of consecration became a highly controversial subject, especially among traditionalist Catholics who consider all the popes since the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican in the 1960s to be heretics. Three of these popes carried out consecrations without naming Russia. Only in March this year was the consecration carried out with the specific mention of Russia by Pope Francis. At the same time, the pontiff named Ukraine against which the Russians had launched their invasion one month earlier.

If the Miracle of the Sun and the Blessed Virgin’s wishes are not merely mythical, peace may at long last soon envelope the world, however unlikely that currently seems.

The Sanctuary of Fatima

Saturday, October 1, 2022

The Catholic Church in disgrace



With the approach of the 105th anniversary of The Miracle of the Sun at Fatima in central Portugal, Catholics have been shocked by yet another revelation about the sexual abuse of children within the church.

The Vatican has at long last acknowledged that in 2020 a Nobel Peace Prize-winning Catholic bishop received “disciplinary restrictions” and was banned from “contact with minors” because of allegations that he raped and abused teenage boys.

Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo is accused of carrying out these crimes decades ago in the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. The Vatican first became involved in the case in 2019 if not before, but information about its disciplinary action only came last week, a day after a Dutch magazine, De Groene Amsterdammer, published the accusations in explicit accounts by two of the priest’s alleged victims.

Bishop Belo, 74, shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with his friend José Ramos-Horta for their efforts in bringing peace and independence to East Timor after years of war with neighbouring Indonesia that killed hundreds of thousands of citizens. Since learning of the Vatican’s secret sanctioning of Belo, East Timor citizens have rallied to his side.

The leader of an East Timor youth organisation said at the weekend: “We will still stand with Bishop Belo because we realise, as a human being, Belo has weaknesses or mistakes like others. If he does wrongdoing, it’s his individual fault, nothing to do with the religion.” Not all, even in East Timor, would agree.

In 2002, the same year East Timor gained independence; Pope John Paul II accepted Bishop Belo’s resignation as head of the church in the East Timor capital, Dili. The following year, Belo came to Portugal for cancer treatment. It is thought he settled here and still lives in this country.

Earlier this year the former pope Benedict XVl admitted giving false information to a German inquiry into sexual abuse by Catholic clerics there. Plenty of accurate information has been pouring out from investigations into abuse scandals that have been going on for decades globally.

Pope Francis has declared “zero tolerance” for Catholic sexual abuse, saying he will take personal responsibility for ending it.

An independent inquiry into child abuse within the Catholic Church in Portugal is on-going. It is being carried out by a six-member committee, which includes psychiatrists and a former Supreme Court judge. Hundreds of people have come forward from across the country to give personal evidence with the promise of anonymity. The investigation was officially launched on January 1. The committee is expected to report to the Portuguese Bishops’ Conference at the end of this year.

An earlier independent inquiry in France concluded that there had been about 216,000 victims of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy between 1950 and 2020. It is estimated that many thousands more occurred in the decades before that.

In Australia it was found that in some dioceses more than 15% of priests had perpetuated sexual crimes against 4,444 children between 1950 and 2010. Most of the abuse took part in churches, but was ignored by the church authorities.

In Ireland, about 15,000 children were abused within Catholic institutions between 1970 and 1990 alone. An investigation showed that priests and nuns had terrorised boys and girls with beatings and rape in Church-run orphanages and schools that were places of fear, neglect, humiliation and endemic sexual abuse.

Crimes of a similar nature have been going on in just about every country with a Catholic presence. In the United States, hundreds of millions of dollars have been paid to Catholic abuse victims in out of court settlements.  In Canada, the church has apologised for the abuse of indigenous children in residential schools. The Catholic Church in Poland for many years covered up the crimes being committed by members of the clergy. The story is the same in New Zealand as well as countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

A big majority of Portuguese people say they are Roman Catholics, but the numbers who regularly attend Mass is dwindling. And yet hundreds of thousands of pilgrims continue to make their way to the Sanctuary of Fatima to pray on the 13th of each month from May to October in hope of healings and a better life.