All easy options are now off the table

Irish political leaders have an unfortunate habit of showing up at international climate conferences and delivering eloquent, impassioned speeches that are clearly not meant to be taken in any way seriously. This time out Micheal Martin took the interesting tack of directly addressing public cynicism “if words are not urgently matched by deeds”, as I explored in the Irish Examiner during COP27.

IT WAS BY any standard a passionate, moving speech. The Taoiseach urged world leaders to show “conviction, clarity, courage and consistency” in dealing with the unfolding climate emergency.

“Global warming is a stark reality that can only be dealt with by a collective global response – we share a common humanity and each of us must play our part”.

The Taoiseach in question was Enda Kenny, and these stirring words were delivered at a UN climate summit in New York, in September 2014. By unhappy coincidence, 2014 was also the last year in which Ireland’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were tracking downwards.

Since then, emissions have climbed steadily. Overall, our national greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 11.4% since 1990, with transport emissions more than doubling in this period. Indeed, without the stellar performance of our renewable energy sector, the picture would look far worse.

Consider that in the decade since 2011, agricultural emissions rose by a staggering 19.3%, as a direct result of policies pursued and aggressively promoted by Kenny’s Fine Gael-led government and his ticking clock rhetoric rings hollow.

Perhaps it was against this backdrop of empty words and platitudes that Taoiseach Micheál Martin this week at the Cop27 climate conference in Egypt directly addressed the leadership lacuna.

“As leaders, we must lead. Our citizens will become increasingly cynical, weary, and hopeless if words are not urgently matched by deeds”. Martin is entirely correct when he said that ‘this generation of leaders cannot say that we didn’t know”.

As Martin was en route to the conference, junior agriculture minister, Martin Heydon was stoutly defending the livestock sector’s expansion, making the implausible argument that it in some way contributed to abating world hunger, despite the clear evidence that it is having the exact opposite effect.

In late August, one of the first Ukrainian ships to escape the Russian naval blockade unloaded 33,000t of grain at Foynes Port in Co Limerick. This is to be used exclusively as animal feed. The bulk of the output from Irish livestock will in turn be exported to wealthy countries as luxury foods.

This is happening at a time that, according to the charity, Trócaire, world hunger is worsening at an “unprecedented rate” with more than 800m people worldwide suffering chronic hunger, much of it exacerbated by climate change.

Mr Martin went on to suggest that while the climate situation is urgent, it is not yet hopeless. Here, he is both right and wrong. Right, in that if politicians in wealthy countries like Ireland had the courage to face down lobbyists and act on the climate emergency, much human suffering could yet be avoided.

And he is also profoundly wrong, in that our political class is continuing to indulge the fantasy that we can continue to chase endless economic growth, drive SUVs, take multiple cheap flights, and expand the most ecologically damaging and emissions-intensive form of agriculture – all without lethal consequences.

This, I believe, is the “big lie” in Irish politics, and it extends well beyond the parties in government and includes most of our media as well. For as long as politicians are allowed to peddle it without consequences, there is every reason to take literally the words of UN secretary general, António Guterres, when he warned that humanity is “on a highway to climate hell, with our foot still on the accelerator”.

Listening to RTÉ radio this week, I noted the weather forecast is sponsored by a company advertising oil-fired boilers. For our national broadcaster, under the purview of Green media minister, Catherine Martin, to be profiting from the promotion of fossil fuel infrastructure that locks us into a pathway to disaster underlines the breathtaking society-wide cognitive dissonance at play.

During Covid, the Government spent millions on an advertising blitz to communicate the emergency and give the public advice. Yet on the climate crisis: Total silence.

“We are in the fight of our lives, and we are losing”, Guterres added. Had our politicians been guided by science 30 years ago, we would by now be on a glide path to a safer, healthier, low-carbon future.

Instead, decades of delay mean that all easy options are off the table. We must choose between voluntary austerity now – or widespread system collapse later.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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