Below, my article written for Village magazine’s post-election special issue. The election campaign was notable for the fact that environmental issues generally and climate change specifically were completely written out of the political and media script. Twenty, maybe even 10 years ago, this might have been at least understandable. But, in 2016, just weeks after the historic Paris Agreement, and after the hottest year ever recorded, it seems nothing short of delusional.
To say that environmental issues didn’t have much of an impact on Election 2016 would be a bit like observing that feminism hasn’t exactly been the defining feature of Donald Trump’s US presidential run.
The topic was completely ignored in the botched opening Leaders’ Debate on TV3, and again, on RTÉ’s seven-way debate the following week. The Green Party had fallen foul of an internal RTÉ decision to exclude it from a slot among the extended parties.
This ruling was upheld in the High Court, and sure enough, RTÉ’s Claire Byrne steered the seven leaders through two long hours of questions and answers without a mention of anything remotely environmental. Ironically, the same journalist had dramatically dashed in an Air Corps helicopter only a few weeks earlier to interview some of the latest victims of this winter’s extreme flooding event.
This dramatic fare, with long shots of ruined farms and submerged houses, interspersed with heart-rending stories of loss and struggle, is understandably grist for RTÉ’s current affairs mill. It is standard training in journalism to ask the five Ws – who, what, where, when – and why.
We are getting lots of who, what, where and when from our media on flooding disasters and other climate-fuelled events, but precious little time is being devoted to that all important final W: why. And the ‘why’ is of course climate change.
This vast topic made it into the last few minutes of the final leaders’ debate, where just the four main parties were involved. Presenter Miriam O’Callaghan admitted in her introduction to it that it hadn’t featured at all in the campaign up to that point – the media weren’t asking and the politicians sure as hell weren’t going to bring it up spontaneously.
O’Callaghan lobbed the climate grenade into the reluctant lap of outgoing Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, who immediately flubbed his lines. First off, he announced that the EU’s 2020 targets (20% emissions reduction versus 2005) “are targets we cannot reach”. Fair enough. And why, prime minister, would that be? “We have a chance with the abolition of milk quotas to expand greatly the capacity of our national herd…to increase our dairy herd by 50%”.
Having fessed up to the fact that Ireland has chosen not to meet its 2020 targets, Kenny then went on to make the following quite extraordinary statement: “the targets that are set for 2030 are difficult targets, but we will meet them”. The targets he is referring to are for a massive 40% cut in emissions.
Given our inability to hit 20%, which includes lots of easy savings, the idea that we can escalate to an infinitely tougher 40% target in just one more decade suggests, to the cynical, that Kenny knows for certain that he will be long gone before his fantasy 40% emissions cuts by 2030 are exposed as a sham.
So, the world’s greatest existential threat, according to Mr Kenny, is a distant second to pushing the agri-industrial expansionist agenda on behalf of the IFA and the food PLCs it so often appears to speak on behalf of. These same transnational organisations offshore their tax affairs to ensure the Irish Exchequer gets as little as possible.
Glanbia, for example, routed its €40 million profits in 2014 via brass plate companies with no employees in Luxembourg in order to cut its Irish tax bill to a paltry €200,000, or an effective tax rate of 0.5%. These patriotic enterprises represent, in the view of our Taoiseach, so vital a national interest as to set aside all other considerations to ensure their burger and baby milk powder export operations are in no way impacted by binding international emissions targets.
To be fair to Mr Kenny, when asked to choose between agricultural expansion and climate chaos, the three other major party leaders also waffled and equivocated in equal measure, all fearful of riling up the assorted special interest groups that maintain such an effective lock on Irish environmental policy.
Both Michael Martin and Joan Burton did try to point out that the transport sector is on an equally ruinous trajectory, but the clear instruction that O’Callaghan pursued single-mindedly was to pitch climate policy in Ireland as either pro- or anti-farmer.
This obsessive focus on agriculture seems to be a rut that RTÉ’s PrimeTime has dug for itself, as reflected in its paltry two efforts at covering climate change since 2009, which have lurched from cack-handed to catastrophic. Having attracted a slew of written complaints, the BAI will rule in the coming weeks on whether PrimeTime’s most recent ‘climate debate’, in early December, was in breach of broadcasting regulations.
While climate and environmental issues were squeezed to the periphery of both the media and political framing of Election 2016, there was sufficient to be gleaned from the assorted party manifestos to suggest that whatever coalition is eventually assembled to lead the 32nd Dáil might represent a step forward on the hugely underachieving FG/Labour coalition, and the woeful Alan Kelly in particular.
While Labour’s stewardship of the Environment ministry was a huge failure, the loss of outgoing Energy Minister, Alex White is a genuine setback, as he is regarded as one of the few politicians with the brains to truly understand climate change, and the guts to speak publicly on it. Not that it in any way helped his own political cause.
The obliteration of Renua signals that the Irish public is in no mood to return to the binary moral certainties of the 1980s. For the Green Party, turning a 2.8% national share of vote into two seats was an impressive achievement; whether such slender representation can really add a green hue to the new Dáil remains to be seen.
While both Labour and the Green Party have plenty of useful things to say about addressing climate change and moving Ireland towards decarbonisation, given that the two parties combined will account for only 8 or 9 of the 158 seats in the 32nd Dáil, there is little point in analysing policies from such a tiny rump.
As the second largest party, a resurgent Fianna Fail is likely to either be part of the next government, or at least, to remain outside and extract concessions in exchange for its support of a minority government. Its proposal to establish a stand-alone department of Climate Change is perhaps the stand-out proposal from among the assorted manifestos.
They also talk up the role of electric vehicles, but like most other populist parties, flinch at backing wind energy, without which an EV program makes little sense. Fear of being personally targeted (as Alex White was) by small but highly motivated anti-wind groups has made what should be Ireland’s renewable energy bonanza into yet another politically toxic issue. And, of course, Fianna Fail completely funk taking on the agri-expansion lobby.
Sinn Fein, with a haul of 23 seats, are by some distance Ireland’s third largest political party, but there is little in their manifesto to suggest the penny has actually dropped on the climate crisis. Their defence of turbary rights for bog-cutters, for instance, shows yet again the fatal allure of easy populism, when the only ‘victim’ is the common good…and nature doesn’t get to vote. On energy and transport, Sinn Fein are short on vision, leading to the overall impression that environment remains a strategic afterthought for the party.
Fine Gael could perhaps be excused for its dismal performance on this front since 2011, on the grounds that the national finances were in such a parlous state that anything that smelled even vaguely anti-growth was verboten at the Cabinet table.
The party’s election manifesto this time out smacks of having been, if not greenwashed, then certainly given a light eco-rinse, with lots of good intentions but even more opt-outs and caveats. And, of course, Fine Gael again pledges itself to protect at all costs that most sacred of cows we call the beef and dairy industry.
All of the main political parties studiously avoid addressing the financial implications for Ireland of our completely missing our legally binding EU targets. Enda Kenny himself admitted the bill here could, by the mid-2020s, be running to around €500 million a year.
Will the polluters be asked to pay, perhaps through a methane levy on beef and dairy production, or more carbon taxes on transport fuels? Fat chance. Instead, the hapless general taxpayer will again ‘socialise the risk’ while the agri-food PLCs privatise the profits far from the grasp of the Irish taxman.
BACK IN the real world, 2015 was the hottest year ever recorded, smashing all previous records. In all probability, this freak year in turn will be overtaken by even more extreme temperature increases in 2016. Sensitivity to climate forcings is proving to be in many cases greater than projected in the much-maligned climate models.
Ice loss in Greenland and Antarctica, for instance, is trending at least 100 years ahead of projections made in the IPCC’s first three reports. As scientific modelling has been better able to take account of real-world climate system complexity and endless feedback loops, the recalculated estimates are, more often than not, confirming what scientists on the front lines have long feared.
We have a lot less time than previously thought to achieve the radical global decarbonisation that science tells us is the only realistic chance of avoiding catastrophic and irreversible global climate destabilisation.
If the pathways set out in the respective Irish political manifestos for the next five years are mirrored elsewhere across the high-carbon ‘developed world’ then the one projection you can take to the bank is that Ireland and the world will have locked-in a persistent, unending existential calamity unlike anything the human race has collectively encountered or endured since the end of the last Ice Age some 1,200 centuries ago.
To have any chance of staving off the worst ravages of climate change will require a near-term revolution in our attitude to politics, economics and to the non-human world based on stewardship, moderation, equality and an acceptance that the era of unlimited consumption is at an end.
If this sounds like an impossible ask, then consider the alternative: a world shorn of most of its complex life plunged into a hundreds of millennia of extreme weather and ever-rising sea levels– a world, let’s not forget, without humans.