Beyond denial and grief and towards solidarity on climate

This piece ran in the Business Post in late March as my take on the revised – and considerably improved – Climate Bill. Since it was written, it has become clear that the absolute maximum ambition the agri sector is even considering is a 10% emissions cut by 2030, and even that depends on largely untested technologies rather than any constraint on the key source of sectoral emissions – ruminant agriculture. This being the case, all other sectors of Ireland’s economy and society must exceed 70% cuts in the next decade so the net 51% target can be reached. 

SWISS PSYCHIATRIST Elisabeth Kubler-Ross famously developed a five-step model to describe the stages of grief. These are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While originally relating to the psychological processes around dying, her model has come to be applied to other areas where wrenching change is being contemplated.

We humans and our institutions are creatures of inertia. Change is generally resisted until the last possible moment. Ireland’s collective response to the need for drastic action to address climate change has been a textbook study in denial, anger, bargaining and at times, even depression.

This week, perhaps for the first time, we may have begun to move into the fifth and final stage of our faltering journey towards truly accepting the stark reality of a climate-altered future.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin described how Ireland would “begin the journey to net zero, by halving our emissions over the next 10 years.” Tánaiste Leo Varadkar put a positive spin on the new Climate Action Bill, talking up the economic advantages, adding that “the early movers with the most ambition will see the greatest opportunities.” The early movers have in fact long since powered ahead, while we dithered and delayed.

Take Denmark. In recent decades it has from scratch built a domestic industry in wind turbine manufacture and export that is already worth more than Ireland’s entire food and drinks sectors combined. Surging global demand for clean energy means it is future-proofed.

For Green Party leader and Climate minister, Eamon Ryan, this week’s Bill is the culmination of a tortuous 16-year journey since he first introduced a Climate Bill from the Opposition benches in November 2005.

It may have taken the shock to the political system in March 2019 of tens of thousands of climate protestors packing the streets around Leinster House for the message to finally break through. Almost exactly two years later, was the new Climate Action Bill worth the wait and, more importantly, is it fit for purpose?

For context, consider the abject failure of Ireland’s climate policies to date. The EU set us a modest target of reducing emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, versus a benchmark of 2005. What we actually achieved was, at best, around a 1 per cent cut. In a similar period, Scotland managed nearly a 50 per cent emissions reduction.

For two neighbouring countries of similar size, the difference between success and failure is down to political vision, ambition, and the courage to face down special interest groups. Powerful, well financed and media-savvy lobbyists have stymied Irish climate action at every turn, and doubtless are now sharpening their knives in a bid to neuter the new Bill.

An earlier draft of this Bill published last October resembled a colander, pitted with loopholes and fuzzy language. For instance, it stated that the State would “pursue” climate neutrality by mid-century. I may “pursue” fluency in Urdu or a desire to be a concert pianist, but am quite unlikely to achieve either.

This time, the language has been tightened. It now reads “pursue and achieve”. Of course, politicians love signing up to abstract targets set far into the future. That’s why, crucially, the Bill sets out the immediate stepping stones towards carbon neutrality in the form of two Carbon Budgets (2021-2025 and 2026-2030).

In this nine year window, Ireland is legally committing to the herculean task of cutting emissions across the board by an average of 51 per cent. “No country has ever set such an ambitious target,” according to Ryan. The task of setting these budgets is being given to the beefed up Climate Change Advisory Council, a group dominated by economists which has had little impact over the last five years. It is being reformed and expanded to include expertise in climate science and biodiversity.

While government departments will now have carbon budgets, it is less clear what happens if a given minister breaches or ignores these. “It will be politically horrible for a minister to have to say they’re failing,” according to a government source. But will that be enough?

The Bill sees Ireland transitioning to a “climate resilient, biodiversity-rich, environmentally sustainable and climate-neutral economy” by mid-century. This utopian aspiration faces some formidable hurdles, not least of which are Ireland’s dairy and beef sectors, which produce almost one third of total national emissions, while also being largely responsible for recent declines in biodiversity and water quality.

Tackling this means compelling the politically powerful agri-food sector to do their fair share on both climate mitigation and biodiversity protection. This also requires ensuring state agencies such as Teagasc and Coillte align their policies to support, not undermine, climate objectives.

While there are many technical solutions that can help us towards our near and medium-term objectives, we crucially need to inject the same level of urgency and appeal to national solidarity that has surrounded Ireland’s response to the covid crisis.

When, for instance, did you last hear or see a government advert on radio or TV explaining why climate change matters, and how we’re all in it together in the fight for a safer, more just future? Consider also that in the last 20 years, RTÉ the national broadcaster has dedicated one solitary week to the greatest crisis of the 21st century.

The Joint Oireachtas Committee report on climate change recommended that ‘climate quotas’ be imposed on all licensed broadcasters, as is the case for news and current affairs. While this is not on the table, a government source told me a proposal is being examined “to set up a long-term climate communications unit within the department”.

As with Brexit and covid communications, its task would be to drive consistent messaging and advertising to explain and support climate action, and so to help win the battle for the hearts and minds of the Irish public and to challenge misinformation.

Surveys have shown the Irish public now broadly accepts the reality of the climate crisis, yet there is little evidence of a phase-shift in our public communications. The issue is still framed as a political or ideological contest rather than our collective existential crisis.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism

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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