In case you haven’t heard, our current Minister for the Environment is a Labour party TD called Alan Kelly. He is the man who brought us the no-lobbyist-left-behind Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2015, a piece of draft legislation that has been warmly welcomed by the IFA, ICOS, IBEC, etc., i.e. by the folks who have worked tirelessly over the last several years to ensure that no meaningful climate legislation ever found its way onto our statute books. In that regard, the Climate Bill looks like ‘Mission Accomplished’.
Kelly was interviewed by Sean O’Rourke on RTE Radio yesterday. It was, in a sense, revealing. Kelly is “a person of conviction”, we learned. We know this because he told us he was. We also learned that Kelly’s proudest boast is that Ireland has the “highest growth rate in Europe” (again), and that he pursues what he calls a “progressive agenda”. Kelly is also deputy leader of the Labour party, therefore the proverbial heartbeat from being Tánaiste.
To wind him up a bit, O’Rourke played a clip of former minister, Eamon Ryan describing Kelly as “an anti-green Minister for the Environment…he reads the political tea leaves and sees there isn’t a constituency (in tackling climate change)”. Ryan went on to describe Kelly as “our greatest electoral asset, every time he goes out, he saying Labour doesn’t give a damn about that vision of the future”.
It had the desired effect, as Kelly snarled back (not unreasonably) about the Green party’s utter failure, after four years in power, to get a good, bad or indifferent Climate Bill to the floor of the Dáil (the Green Bill got as far as the Seanad in 2010).
Back to Kelly’s Bill. Wearing my An Taisce climate committee hat, I set out at length the many shortcomings of a Climate Bill last month, which we believe was deliberately ‘designed to fail’. The statement concluded: “This Bill only pretends bare compliance with our EU targets and lacks any enforceable sanctions to ensure they are achieved. Failure to act now will mean that in the near future, these EU targets will need to become more, not less, onerous. Time is not on our side. As it stands the Bill does nothing to address the existential threat climate change now poses to every society and economy in the world, and yes, that includes Ireland”.
Maybe these criticisms are harsh. Kelly had an open microphone yesterday to reassure those cynics who may sneakingly suspect he couldn’t give a stuff about climate change or the, um, environment generally. If so, he completely passed up the opportunity.
O’Rourke pointed out the obvious, ie. that the Bill contains no targets whatever. “We have targets, set by the EU, 2020 targets and will have 2030 targets…I’m very happy with what we’re bringing forward, it’s a step in the right direction. We’re committed to adaptation and mitigation plans that every Government will have to sign up and report on every five years”.
Well, that at least is reassuring. Our Climate Bill has no targets, sectoral or otherwise, but no problem, we’ll just go with EU targets…or maybe not. Here’s what Kelly recently said about these wretched interfering EU types and their bothersome targets: “I am on record as stating that the (EU) 2020 targets were unrealistic and unachievable and that did not take into account Ireland’s dependence on agriculture or the fact that we have one of the most climate-friendly agricultural systems in the world.”
So, to recap: while eschewing a solitary target within our national Climate Bill, Kelly is equally determined to pick and choose whatever bits of EU targets the folks over in Farm Centre aren’t too unhappy with.
This, the minister went on to explain in his interview with O’Rourke that it “is absolutely necessary and it will ensure we deal with all the issues that we have from climate change need in this country, but in a structured and formatted way. We have huge issues here in relation to transport, agriculture, the built environment and energy, and we need a framework for doing that”.
As I listened to Kelly talk about frameworks, structure and formats, my mind drifted back to a packed press conference I attended in Leinster House back in October 2009, as the all-party Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change and Energy released their report, ‘The case for a climate change law’. Committee rapporteur was the formidable Labour party TD and then environment spokesperson, Liz McManus. Here’s what I wrote at the time about that conference:
Committee rapporteur, Liz McManus likened the position we now find ourselves in and the scale of what is required to address it as being “like a war effort”. This, from the Opposition, is extremely encouraging. McManus has for the last year or so, given the distinct impression that she realises this is no phoney war. In that regard, she remains in a small minority within Dáil Eireann.
Roll forward a year, to November 2010, and here’s what I wrote about her then: “A climate change bill will finally make its way to the Cabinet next week. Much credit here is due to Labour’s Liz McManus, rapporteur on the Oireachtas Climate Change Committee and tireless campaigner for a strong climate law for years.
“As the threat of global warming grows inexorably the case for a legislative response is compelling”, McManus wrote in the Forward to the committee’s Second Report on Climate Change Law, published last month. The bill provides for aggressive emissions reductions targets, with the meeting of these targets the direct responsibility of the Taoiseach of the day.
Compare and contrast McManus’s direct, urgent language and tenor with Kelly’s detached, world-weary cynicism, as evidenced on numerous recent occasions and again in yesterday’s radio interview. A member of an environmental NGO who was present when Kelly attended a recent briefing described his body language to me as disengaged, to the point of boredom. “He really looked like he just wanted to get up and leave practically from the moment he arrived” was how it was put to me. Which is, I’m told, exactly what he did at the first available opportunity.
McManus would have breezed back into her Dáil seat in the 2011 election, but chose instead to retire, and concentrate on her extra-mural interests, including writing her second novel. With hindsight, her decision has had disastrous consequences.
McManus represented the principled, scientifically informed Labour party stance on the environment, and it was obvious to those of us who knew and dealt with her that she was not only master of her brief, she was also passionate that climate change was the overarching issue of our time, above and beyond politics of the next election. OK, it’s undoubtedly easier to make grand statements from the Opposition benches than when faced with the daily grind of civil servants and lobbyists, but it does help to at least understand that climate change is a huge problem, however difficult it may prove to address in the real world of politics-as-usual.
The vacuum the departing McManus left was filled in the current Government first by the entirely disengaged Phil Hogan. After he took the golden parachute to Brussels, this portfolio finally fell to Labour…and Alan “whatever you do, do nothing” Kelly, a politician whose meteoric rise to senior ministry having only been a TD since 2011 appears to have more to do with a quirk of the scramble for party leadership after Eamon Gilmore stepped down. While Kelly never had a snowball’s chance of actually winning the leadership race, he secured a juicy Cabinet post as his runners’ up medal. That it included the word ‘Environment’ in the title is pure happenstance. Such, in all its glory, is how our democratic system works.
On a more positive note, another altogether more substantial new Labour minister, Alex White, is now in charge at the Dept. of Communications, Energy & Natural Resources. White gave a hint of his mettle on new year’s eve, when issuing a statement to the effect that nuclear power cannot remain ‘off the table’ as his department works on publishing a white paper on Ireland’s future energy needs, challenges and options this summer.
An Irish minister prepared to open and front an honest public discussion about nuclear energy? That’s got to be a first, at least since Des O’Malley tried (and failed) back in the 1970s.
White clearly has a decent grasp of energy systems, but he is also equally clear that they are a subset of a functioning biosphere. While this might sound like a statement of the obvious, there isn’t a shred of evidence that his colleague in the Custom House has troubled himself to be even slightly aware of the existential nature of the gathering climate crisis.
It may be soothing for Kelly to tell us that: “tackling climate change so that future generations of people in Tipperary can live in a safer, cleaner environment is a critical issue”, but remind me again how that differs from the waffle emanating from Enda Kenny at the UN in New York last September (“The hand of the future beckons, the clock ticks and we have no time to waste”), or, for that matter, the utter tripe his predecessor, Brian Cowen read from the autocue at the same venue in 2009 (failure to immediately tackle global warming would “put at risk the survival of the planet”).
Come back, Liz McManus – your country needs you!