Another Fine (Gael) mess on climate change

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has in the last week or so taken political recklessness and cynicism to new lows. History may judge that he did more than any other politician of his generation to destroy the future of Irish agriculture. In attempting to dodge Ireland’s responsibility for dealing with climate change, An Taoiseach is also flying in the face of the scientific evidence that confirms that the greatest threat to Irish agriculture is not the regulations dealing with climate change, but climate change itself, to which agriculture is almost uniquely vulnerable.

A 2013 report, authored by Dr Stephen Flood of NUI Maynooth (‘Projected Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Irish Agriculture’ – this report was formally launched by Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney) states:

“Agriculture is one of the most climate-sensitive industries in Ireland, as its primarily outdoor production processes depend on particular levels of temperature and rainfall. The report projects the total economic costs of climate change in the region of €1-2 billion per annum by mid-century. This figure represents 8.2% of the current contribution of the agricultural sector to the national economy annually, and at the upper level is greater than the Harvest 2020 targeted increase of €1.5 billion in primary output”.

Enda Kenny over the last week expended valuable diplomatic capital in Europe attempting to argue why Ireland should be exempted from shouldering its fair share of the burden of the rapid and immediate decarbonisation that science says is now critical if the most severe impacts of climate destabilisation are to be avoided.

Barely four weeks ago, the same Mr Kenny, addressing the UN Climate Summit in New York, demanded that world leaders show “conviction, clarity, courage and consistency” in responding to climate change. Given the extreme urgency of the crisis, Mr Kenny added solemnly: “The hand of the future beckons, the clock ticks and we have no time to waste…Global warming is a stark reality that can only be dealt with by a collective global response. We are all interdependent and interconnected … we share a common humanity… and each of us must play our part.”

In less than a month, Mr Kenny appears to have suffered the political equivalent of a lobotomy – in September, climate change is the world’s greatest crisis, and “courage and consistency” is needed in dealing with this “stark reality”. And in October, the same Mr Kenny warned that Ireland would be “screwed” if it attempted to comply with emissions reductions targets it has already signed up to.

It’s a surprisingly short journey from demanding conviction, clarity, courage and consistency to espousing cowardice, cynicism, cute hoorism and chicanery.

According to the October version of An Taoiseach: “It would not be feasible to have targets set that are completely impractical for a country like Ireland. Targets, indeed, that were set and that were agreed by the administration before this one, for 2020, were based on different variations of information that does not stand up…but I don’t want whatever administration or whatever government is in office in Ireland from 2020 to 2030 to be completely screwed by virtue of a wrong base upon which targets were set originally for 2020.”

Mr Kenny’s conversion to the IFA position on climate change appears to follow closely the path taken by his cabinet colleague, agriculture minister, Simon Coveney. When in opposition, Coveney spoke passionately in public about the need for binding, no-excuses climate legislation, stating publicly that what he had read about the science of climate change “sent shivers down my spine”. Back in 2008, Coveney described climate change as “Ireland’s challenge – and we need to meet it”. More recently, Minister Coveney said that the EU’s climate change policy, the very policy he championed in 2008, “makes no sense to me, no sense on any level”.

It is easy to understand why public trust in politicians and the political process is now at such a low ebb. Given the scale and gravity of the global ecological and climate crisis, it has never been more vital that we our politicians break free from the lobbyists and spin doctors and exercise principled leadership guided by scientific evidence, not polling data. (for a quick recap on what FG, pre-election, said they would do on climate change, click here).

During his inauguration speech in 1961, as the world teetered on the edge of a nuclear conflagration, president John F. Kennedy said: “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Hilariously, Enda Kenny had the temerity to quote JKF in his New York speech, when saying: “President Kennedy reminded us over 50 years ago that we all live on the same planet, we all breathe the same air, and we are all mortal. These words are still true.” If JFK were alive today, he might well wonder what planet Kenny et al do in fact inhabit.

Today, the stakes are every bit as high as in the darkest days of the Cold War, yet all Ireland’s political leaders can offer are weasel words in public while doing highly damaging deals with powerful vested interests like the IFA in private.

Politicians like Mr Kenny and Mr Coveney appear to be prepared to put the safety and security of every citizen of Ireland at grave risk while also jeopardising the future of Irish agriculture in pursuit of a quick buck from ‘Harvest 2020’ – gains that, as the NUIM study confirms, will be quickly reversed as climate destabilisation yields the bitterest of harvests.

Mr Kenny is right: the clock is ticking. He and his government are on the wrong side of science and the wrong side of history and are engaged in a monumentally misguided and foolish policy. As the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) put it: “We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts. The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do. Waiting to take action will inevitably increase costs, escalate risk, and foreclose options to address the risk”.

Dithering and further delaying action displays just how profoundly out of touch the Irish government is with the state of science on climate change, and calls into question the calibre of scientific advice it is receiving – or responding to. Kenny and Coveney appear to believe Ireland can free-load on the efforts of other countries to address runaway climate disruption, while we continue a policy of ratcheting up our emissions from agriculture and transport in particular in pursuit of growth-led prosperity.

Environment Minister, Alan Kelly is clearly fully on board with this policy. In a press release last week, he bragged: “Having met two weeks ago with outgoing climate change Commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, I made it clear that Ireland would not be signing up to any future targets that would be unachievable”. And in a paragraph that reads like it was drafted in Farm Centre, Kelly added: “I am on record as stating that the 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.”

The Irish government’s disavowal of its sovereign responsibility to step up to the mark on addressing climate change, despite the overwhelming evidence that this is a vital strategic national interest, is a grossly immoral and inequitable position, and one that does untold damage to Ireland’s reputation as a good faith actor in international negotiations.

I honestly thought the electoral obliteration of Fianna Fail in 2011 must signal an end to the gombeen era in Irish politics, and would usher in a new phase of more responsible, accountable and transparent leadership, and a lowering of public tolerance for sleevenism. More fool me.

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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18 Responses to Another Fine (Gael) mess on climate change

  1. MP says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more John. Very, very depressing.

  2. canada57 says:

    Excellent article, but very disturbing. We need to think very carefully about who we elect in the next election – let’s hope there are some responsible politicians out there who actually get the seriousness of climate change and realise that every country and every individual has to bite the bullet when it comes to issues like reducing carbon emissions.

  3. johngibbons says:

    Thanks for the feedback. I’m racking my brain as to who among the current crop of TDs and parties in the current and likely next Dāil not alone understands the implications of climate change, but actually has the backbone to do something about it, especially when their constituents (ie. the general public) seem so apathetic and when the media is so disengaged. But, since failure here is not an option, we have to keep on trying, however unpromising the odds right now. JG

  4. johngibbons says:

    Sadly yes, but I feel we need to demand much, much more of our politicians than what is currently on show. In this information age, there is no possible excuse that they are unaware of what they are doing; therefore, they have simply shut it out of their minds, in the (entirely forlorn) hope it’ll all just go away somehow. JG

  5. Paul Price says:

    Well said. If Enda Kenny had any intention at all of following up on his solemn New York promises then he would now be committing to a programme of radical emission reduction and in the run up to Paris 201 5 demanding that others be as honest. Instead Fine Gael are happily increasing Ireland’s emissions and the EPA project that will continue to 2030 and beyond.

    FG could just be straight and admit that they are saying “feck the climate, we’re not going to bother doing our share”, but no, Enda Kenny and co would rather engage in continuing hypocrisy. On climate policy, say one thing, do another is Standard Operating Practice for Irish politicians. It is blatantly dishonest.

    And who in the media outside this blog are calling them on it. Was there any other critique of Kenny’s about-face? If so guess I missed it.

  6. CoilinMacLochlainn says:

    I also agree with every word in your piece, John. After the last three years of inaction, obfuscation, bluster, hypocrisy, stalling and deceit on climate change, Fine Gael need a good drubbing at the polls.

  7. johngibbons says:

    Understand your frustration Coilin, but am unsure who else on the ballot paper is going to do any better than FG this time? Climate change and the survival of our species is simply not an issue that has any traction with the Labour movement or Labour party, sadly. FF did OK in the last coalition, but only because they didn’t care one way or the other and they were humouring the (now extinct) Greens. As for SF and the rag-bag of Independents, think Ming “Burn the Bogs” Flanagan for a taster of what that group have to offer.

  8. johngibbons says:

    Thanks Paul, Enda & friends can pull a stunt of this stunning hypocrisy precisely because no one in the media is calling them out on it. If they attempted the same thing in relation to bunging buddies onto state boards, there would be a furore (as we saw recently) or feathering the nests of a new semi-state quango, there would be consequences too.

    But when it comes screwing over the environment, betraying the public and destroying the future, meh, who cares? JG

  9. CoilinMacLochlainn says:

    Yes, I am ashamed to be Irish when the likes of Ming is giving grief to Brussels for all the wrong reasons, showing the world just how backward we are, and with sleeveens and omadauns lining up for election in every constituency.

  10. Richard D says:

    Sound analysis, well argued. I continue to be astonished at how the mainstream media ignores this story as though it weren’t that important. A schoolchild with a junior cert education in geography could work out that the world is on a course for disaster, yet this basic 2+2=4 reasoning seems to be beyond our political or media classes. Very sad, very tragic too.

  11. CoilinMacLochlainn says:

    John, further to the above… Despite the Greens’ failure to address climate change while in government with Fianna Fáil, I still believe they are the party most likely to deliver on climate change mitigation, as well as other environmental matters, given the chance. Climate change legislation was the single biggest item on their programme for government wish list. Their mistake was to tackle all their minor concerns first, such as stag hunting in the Ward, Co Meath, which only served to convince a sceptical public that green issues were trivial. They procrastinated on climate change, leaving it until last and then abandoning it altogether as the government descended into chaos.

    The lesson to be learned from this is to move on the big ticket items first, no matter how challenging, and not waste time sweating the small stuff.

    Obama has been the same: he did nothing on climate change in his first term as president, despite pre-election promises, and he only started moving on it halfway through his second term. No doubt when he leaves office he will say how disappointed he was not to have achieved more on climate change but he ‘ran out of time.’

    While the Greens have the strongest policy position on global warming of any of the political parties, in other areas their policies can be a lighter shade of green. Until the end, Eamon Ryan, who was minister for communications, energy and natural resources from 2007-11, was pushing hard for Metro North, an energy-intensive project that would have produced the carbon emissions of a small city during construction. Frank MacDonald of The Irish Times also repeatedly pointed out that dedicated bus lanes would achieve the same traffic alleviation as the Metro North, which was expected to cost between 2.5 and 5 billion euro. You’d think the Green Party would prefer to see that kind of money spent on renewable energies infrastructure and not squandered on an unnecessary tunnel that would take a big lump out of St Stephen’s Green.

    Of course now that Eamon Ryan is no longer in government and has unfortunately lost his Dáil seat, his speeches are a much deeper shade of green; he is attempting to win back the substantial Green vote that was out there and is still there, biding its time, waiting for an issue that will make voting Green a popular choice again. The independents and socialists seem to be mopping up those votes at the moment, but things can change quickly; the Greens need to be ready for takeoff when the opportunity presents itself. I wouldn’t agree that they are a spent force, John.

  12. CoilinMacLochlainn says:

    I forgot to mention Pat Rabbitte (Lab), who was doing a great job as minister for communications, energy and natural resources as he rolled out windfarms at an unprecedented rate and was putting in place the pylon networks necessary to bring this kind of distributed energy onto the national grid. it was not his fault that Great Britain decided to abandon a lucrative wind energy contract with Ireland; that happened because of Cameron’s antipathy to green initiatives and his preference for the fracking and nuclear energy options. Though hopefully when sense prevails England will come back to us for wind energy later.

    The angry comments from Pat Rabbitte when Joan Burton decided to dispense with the old Labour guard at cabinet were perfectly understandable. Neither Joan Burton nor Alex White saw fit to mention climate change or any other environmental issue in their race for the leadership of the Labour Party, whereas Pat Rabbitte had been making good progress on this crucial issue, both economically and environmentally. Pat Rabbitte had vast experience of cabinet and had many good years left in him. I think Burton made a very serious error in dropping him. Certainly none of the new Labour people are showing anything like his talent or vision or commitment to a sustainable economic future.

  13. johngibbons says:

    Well Richard, if you’ve been following the release of the synthesis report of the IPCC’s AR5 in the last 24 hours, you’ll be even more astonished….the story has been swept off the news radar even before it got any traction – you have to go to p.32 in today’s Indo or p.4 in the Times before it even gets a mention – and neither of our major ‘quality’ dailies even bothered to editorialise on the findings of the largest scientific collaborative effort the world has ever seen. Mind boggling. We’ll have to leave this to the social scientists to explain!

  14. Just to add to the mix, Electric Ireland has stopped buying electricity from microgenerators, which stalls the solar PV industry. Solar PV has fallen in price, and many householders were happy to export their surplus to the grid for 9c per KwHr – half the retail price and roughly the same price as is paid for gas fired power. That scheme is closed to new entrants from 1st Jan next 🙁 – totally insane and against the tide of what is happening everywhere else.

  15. johngibbons says:

    That is absolutely shocking, Quentin. At the very time that PV is proving itself to be a genuine game-changer, Electric Ireland pulls the plug on feed-in tarrifs? Totally bonkers, but not that surprising.

    I will attempt to take this up with Alex White as Energy Minister. I’ve met him and he comes across as a smart, clued in politician who “gets” climate change (unlike Kenny, Coveney, Kelly etc) so I’d like to think he would be aghast at the monumental folly you’ve flagged above. If I can’t reach White, will do my best to flag it in any upcoming media appearances. It is truly nuts. JG

  16. johngibbons says:

    Coilin, I’d love to see the Greens back in Dāil Eireann; environmental issues desperately need strong, committed advocates, even if only that other parties then “steal their clothes”, as FF undoubtedly did with many GP policies. But that, in a sense, is what winning is about. In different time, the PDs may have failed as a political party, but they were very successful as ideological warriors, shifting politics in Ireland to the right and making absolutely every debate or discussion wholly about jobs/growth/economy etc.

    I utterly disagree with their policies, by the way, but you have to admire their success.

  17. Thanks. There is more info on this at and a Sunday Times article on it at . The decision by Elect Ireland was rational enough in that none of its competitors, including Airtricity, were offering to participate. It needed to be obligatory on all.

    But overall, government policy on renewables seems to be stepping sideways or backwards on a number of fronts.

  18. johngibbons says:

    Thanks for linking article above, very informative. To see the price for totally clean, 100% Irish-produced electricity plummet first from 19 cent to 9 cent and shortly to zero at the very time the world is crying out for drastic steps towards a zero emissions pathway is astonishing, but sadly, unsurprising.

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