Denial and self-interested delusion on Climate Bill

The prolific US author, Upton Sinclair was a shrewd observer of human nature, as evidenced in his classic retort to vested interests: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” He could have been directly addressing Danny McCoy and Neil Walker of IBEC or IFA president, John Bryan. All three have distinguished themselves with their rhetorical zeal in setting out doom-laden scenarios for the economy and agriculture if, perish the thought, Ireland were to legislate to fulfil its emissions reduction obligations as an EU member state (FoE has a useful summary of what the Bill is actually about here).

Hell no! It’s not a good time. Manana, manana. Let somebody else do it. It’s not out fault. Blame the Brazilians. Or was it the Chinese? Besides, everyone knows that dear old Ireland is too small/poor/rich/flat/green/religious/vegetarian/cold/wet etc. to be expected to shoulder any legal or moral responsibility for our actions. To recap: Ireland accounts for 68 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually – that’s 17.5 tonnes per man, woman or child, or the equivalent of nearly 200 times our own weight produced by way of climate-altering emissions.

But wait! If we try to cut emissions, won’t we be poor and have to murder our livestock and live in caves eating nettles, as John Bryan seems to believe? The IFA has a selective understanding of science. When researching an Irish Times column in August 2008, I discovered that the IFA website completely ignored the reams of government, EU and IPCC publications on this critical issue. Instead, it quoted a solitary sceptic scientist from the University of Alabama who “questions the validity of future global warming trends and climate changes”. This entry has since disappeared.

Bryan believes climate regulations threaten agriculture. The reality is that climate change is the greatest threat now facing agriculture. Russia’s grain output in 2010 was down 30% because of their summer heatwave. Flooding has devastated Pakistan, the Phillipines and now much of Australia. In a similar vein, Seán Fitzpatrick used to bleat endlessly about how regulations were hindering what he used to call ‘wealth creators’ from creating even bigger piles of wealth. A lack of regulatory oversight destroyed the banking sector and much of the Irish economy with it. Globally, the lack of climate regulation is leading to the sure and certain destruction of the shared environmental resources upon which we all depend.

Bryan’s moral defence is one of ignorance – albeit wilful. With breathtaking irony, he even invoked his own children’s future in an interview on Today FM yesterday evening. Danny McCoy certainly can’t deploy Bryan’s self-interested ignorance as a defence. Having served as research associate at the Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment (CSERGE) in London, we can state with confidence that McCoy’s position is one of cynicism, not ignorance. His stint in the right-leaning ESRI as a senior economist clearly hasn’t taught him even a modicum of humility, given that organisation’s abysmal performance in what should be its key competency – economic forecasting.

Consider Sweden. Cold country, physically isolated from the European mainland yet a thriving, prosperous and enlightened social democracy decades ahead of the church-ridden gombeenist refractory political culture that still dominates our own benighted isle. The average Swede accounts for seven tonnes of CO2 emissions, an astonishing 10.5 tonnes lower than his Irish counterpart. Could it be that a low emissions trajectory is actually entirely compatible with a successful, modern economy and society? Absolutely.

By their unprincipled actions, deep cynicism and “moral reservations”, IBEC and the IFA join Fianna Fáil and the Catholic Church in our national Hall of Shame. When the real cost of inaction in the face of devastating climate change hits the fan, doubtless these same individuals will cite the oldest defence of all: “I was only doing my job/following orders”.

Meanwhile, Gavin Harte of the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition penned what he describes as some musings on the current situation. They are worth reflecting on:

“Since its publication before Christmas the Climate Change Response bill 2010 has stirred up quite a considerable amount of resistance from three significant lobbies. IBEC the IFA and the ICMSA are now all cranking up their opposition to the bill.

We all find change difficult. Elisabeth Kubler Ross a Swiss born psychiatrist defined five stages  in the process of change. Denial, Anger, Fear, Bargaining, Acceptance.

As I listen to the concerns raised by IBEC, the IFA and the ICMSA their collective denial, anger, fear and bargaining over the legislation is obvious.  It is clear all three groups are not yet ready for change in a world where our atmosphere is changing faster than they want to admit.

They are in denial. Not once do they point to the rapid warming our planet is experiencing. Not once do they reference the overwhelming scientific evidence and the challenges humanity faces as they carry on business as usual. All three organisations present a veiled indifference centred on self-interest towards the issue. Climate change is somewhat of an inconvenience, an annoying secondary concern that the three organisations just don’t want to deal with.

They are angry. They criticise the government for an “ill timed and badly thought out” piece of legislation. They attack the bill as “lunacy” and brand those that promote it (us) as “people who don’t care or don’t know about its full impacts”

They are fearful. They say that  tackling climate change will wreck the economy, lose jobs and cost €4 billion. Trying to instil fear.

They are bargaining. They suggest that in negotiating our EU position, “Ireland may not necessarily have to meet a 20% reduction target”. And what’s the point in doing anything anyway because Brazil will just continue to produce high carbon beef.

But where is the acceptance? The science of climate change is now unequivocal. If we continue as we are, business as usual, we have the potential to destroy ourselves our economy and our society over the next 100 years!

It is understandable that people and organisations are fearful, angry, bargaining and in denial when it comes to dealing with climate change. But real change only happens when we accept.

Business, agriculture, government – all of us need to change and a robust climate change bill offers a first step to help us in that journey.”

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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14 Responses to Denial and self-interested delusion on Climate Bill

  1. Barry Reilly says:

    For more examples of denial and self-delusion, look at this week’s Irish Times online poll. Its entirely loaded question (“Can recessionary Ireland afford the cost of our climate targets?”). This is so lopsided it sounds like your friend Mr Tol provided the wording! Guess we’ll have to wait a while longer for the question: “Can Ireland afford to continue to refuse to take strong action on climate change?” p.s. The vote was 61-39 in favour.

  2. Thanks for the very timely article John

    It’s so short-sighted that these organisations can’t see the potential areas they could be moving into; away from some of the farming into other landuse activities such as forestry for e.g. I live in a rural area and I think changing the entrenched mindsets in farming here will be in the main very difficult. Such a different story in NZ where I come from and maybe one shouldn’t compare, but the abolition of subsidies there way back in the 80s has meant farmers had to diversify, adopt to new ideas all the time. It’s not easy but it has given them a flexibility in outlook to adapt to change. I suppose for Ireland, this is more evidence of the lost opportunities that have not been realised since the issue has never had proper media coverage and sadly this is the one sector that should have been targeted.

  3. Theresa Carter says:

    It’s a pity that people are so angry. I hope they can accept the need for change in time – very short time, but some time soon hopefully 🙂

    Nice piece John


  4. Michelle Rogers says:

    Thanks so much for doing this work for all of us…

  5. John Gibbons says:

    Feedback appreciated. Like you, I too have rural roots, having grown up on a farm. It’s regrettable that so much of the rural mindset is reactionary and deeply conservative. Rural Ireland’s relationship with the EU, for instance, appears to be one in which the latter’s function is that of a giant ATM, from which subsidies emanate, with as few awkward questions as possible asked.

    Any time the EU seeks to bring environmental regulation to bear (eg. the Nitrates Directive), suddenly it switches from being our benign paymaster to ‘telling us how to run our lives’. And so it goes with climate change. Parochialism of the worst kind is being paraded here by the IFA, IBEC, the ICMSA and assorted politicians. If we don’t want to abide by EU regulations, maybe these same organisations should have the honesty of the lunatic fringe and demand that we leave the EU forthwith.

    You can’t have your environment and eat it too.

    Agree entirely. There’s much to be angry about, but to what end? The vested interests can only ever see as far as the end of their collective nose. Should we be angry about this, when it’s simply human nature to be selfish even when it threatens your own continued existence.

    Feedback also appreciated. Only wish more people would get off the fence and get into the fight. anyone reading this who agrees but does nothing about it is – with respect – also part of the problem. Rise and shine, everyone! All that is needed to ensure the vested interests win the day is that you do nothing.

  6. denis says:

    @John—–have a spare fuse ready when you read Ulick Stafford over on Irish Economy !

  7. John Gibbons says:


    Thanks for the heads-up. is, in places, a festering pit of unreason, peopled by clever neo-liberal economists/ideologues like Tol, as well as being peppered with actual nut jobs delighted to find an ready and receptive audience for their zany anti-science babble among a sub-section of economists whose market fundamentalism has blinded them to the extent that they can’t even accept basic scientific facts, preferring instead the soothing gibberish of their true God, the Marketplace.

    What’s even funnier is that these same fundamentalists are top of the queue to slag off environmentalists en masse as loonie quasi-religious zealots (and there certainly are a few of them within the very broad church of environmentalism, but no more so than among, say, politicians, schoolteachers or nurses).

    For Tol, I suspect his domestic (and now international, via the blogosphere) humiliation arising from the recent ‘Village’ magazine article has probably pushed him even closer to the edge. He recently described (twice) myself, Frank McDonald of the IT and George Monbiot of the Guardian as not understanding climate science and being purveyors of “disinformation”.

    From a disinformation and gobbledygook specialist such as Tol, this is high praise indeed!

  8. Greensleeves says:

    Cracking stuff, John! I really miss your weekly articles from the Irish Times, but glad to see neither your enthusiasm, passion nor caustic wit is in the least diminished. Whenever I feel like throwing in the towel in despair, I log on to Think or swim for 10 or 15 minutes and that usually puts the fight back in my belly 🙂

  9. denis says:

    My objection to the climate bill is not that our climate is not under threat and our habits do not need to be revised, but rather that our thinking is not joined up.
    It makes no sense to me, to restrict the number of cattle living in the country, whilst at the same time trying to attract more tourists to visit the country.
    Tourism is highly dependent on fossil fuel being burnt, by ships, planes, rented cars, hotels, etc, and is inarguably responsible for increasing our emissions output.
    Of course this case only highlights the fact, that every economic activity in our modern world requires the utilisation of fossil fuel, so how do you decide to penalise through taxes or restrictions one economic activity over another ?
    It would seem to me that a far more fair way of cutting emissions would be by the rationing of the use of energy .
    Everyone would receive a basic ration of energy—- petrol, diesel, and electricity, which could be purchased at a market prices, excluding all taxes, or even subsidised maybe in some cases.
    More energy could be purchased without limits, if a person wanted it , but at a much much higher price, maybe on a sliding scale.
    This system would ensure that everyone could have enough affordable energy, to enable them to have a reasonable standard of living, and it would encourage them to make sensible decisions in their choice of cars, houses, holidays, etc.
    At the moment, price is the only consumption moderator on the use of energy, which is quite obviously most unfair to the less well off in our society, and forces anyone who wants to better themselves, to stress the environment in one way or the other to try and extract more money from it by working more, which in turn leads to the consumption of more energy, as money is generated by the processing of energy into goods and services, which may not really be required for the functioning of society, but which have to be produced and then consumed, in order to provide the money flow to purchase the energy that people need to live.
    As we pass peak oil, energy resource allocation will have to be introduced anyway, so we may as well start discussing these issues now, while we still have the freedom to do so.
    A climate change bill has to be much more comprehensive than by just restricting certain economic activities, chosen at what would appear to be at random, through the application of taxes or co2 emission payments
    All our economic activities will have to be evaluated, with regard to the amount of energy used, and the usefulness of the activity to our continued existence.

  10. Neil Walker says:

    @ John Gibbons

    IBEC is on the record as supporting the principle of national climate legislation provided it is designed to help Ireland meet existing or future EU obligations in a cost-effective manner, while reinforcing other key objectives such as promoting green enterprise and sustainable energy.

    If you genuinely want to understand our members’ concerns about the outgoing Government’s Bill, I would be willing meet you in person to explain how and why it utterly failed to meet the above criteria.

  11. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks for dropping by. I note you are wondering if I genuinely want to understand IBEC members’ concern about the now-abandoned Bill (congratulations). My concern is genuine. The question is: how do we reconcile economic activity with the need, as dictated by science, to drastically, urgently and permanently reduce carbon emissions.

    I searched in vain on the IBEC website for any guidance by your organisation to members on the science of climate change. This is, I would suggest, an egregious omission. If you appear uninterested in even defining the ‘problem’, little wonder your members appear uninterested in any ‘solution’ that might impact their bottom lines in the shorter term.

    IBEC is, I accept, a lobby group, and an influential one at that. Your website touts: “Connections – knowledge – influence”. With ‘connections’ obviously the most important of these three. Your job is to strangle climate legislation at birth, as a pressure group, presumably so that your members will agree that you did a good job in lightening their ‘regulatory load’ and so renew their subs next year. All legitimate points.

    Unfortunately for IBEC, your former press officer, More O’Ferrall has laid bare its modus operandi – the regurgitation of what he calls “evidence-less” press statements scare-mongering about the potential jobs cost of just about any legislation or regulation IBEC opposed.

    Wore, O’Ferrall laid out how a supine (or bone lazy) media is content to copy-and-paste what he called IBEC’s “scare tactics” as though they were facts from some independent agency.

    “In my time as a press officer with IBEC, anytime legislation was passed with which it did not agree, the mantra was put out that it would cost jobs. It would simply regurgitate the same arguments any time one of its major subscribers did not agree with it. It was such a scare tactic. And it worked perfectly…when I was an IBEC press officer I would put out a press release and I would read it copied and pasted almost word for word in the press the next day”, O’Ferrall told the Sunday Tribune at the weekend.

    In line with most environmental (and neutral observers), O’Ferrall pointed out that instead of this Draconian set of measures, the proposed Climate Bill had already been practically neutered by vested interests (congrats again) and was “of limited ambition, with huge concessions already made to placate the various lobby groups, but it seems the usual suspects are crying bloody murder in attempt to strip the bill of any meaning.”

    “IBEC is at it again, claiming the proposed climate legislation will cost jobs, without providing any evidence to back this up as usual. The truth is the opposite: this legislation should spur innovation and create jobs in the growing global green economy,”

    These are serious charges, Neil. I note in the Trib. article that an IBEC spokesman declined to comment. That has to be a first. You can doubtless produce statistics and reports to support IBEC’s “do nothing” position. What I’m interested in establishing is whether the science of climate change is actually accepted by your organisation, or, to paraphrase John Bryan of the IFA, does IBEC really think it’s just a big ol’ conspiracy by a bunch of treehuggers to sabotage Ireland’s agriculture/industry?

    Neil, if you can point me to one or more specific instances of clear leadership positions taken by IBEC in recent years in addressing the climate and sustainability crisis, or statements or papers issued by IBEC guiding its membership on the nature and scale of the threats posed to the economy and wider society by these converging crises, I’d be happy to read and republish them here.

    (Personal declaration: without wishing to disappoint, I don’t live up a tree either; by day, I head a company I co-founded 20 years ago, which employs 30+ highly skilled staff. I am however quite keen that there be a habitable world available for my children to inherit and enjoy, and accept, as a businessman, whatever regulatory limits that are necessary to avoid a climate catastrophe that trades profit-taking today for poverty and ruin tomorrow . Yes, even if that impacts my bottom line. That only seems like common sense to me. No point fretting about pensions, funding the kids’ third level education, etc. if in the meanwhile we have collectively crashed the ecological systems upon which we all depend).

  12. Neil Walker says:

    @ John Gibbons

    My offer to brief you on IBEC’s concerns was made in good faith. I feel this would be much more worthwhile and productive than conducting a public ‘slanging match’ across the internet. For the record, I will respond to the various points you have made but I probably won’t be posting anything on this website again. If you want to follow it up further, do please phone the IBEC office and we will meet for coffee. I’ll buy!

    Firstly, as previously mentioned, IBEC is on the record as supporting the idea of sensible climate legislation. We have communicated this message in press releases, in correspondence to policymakers, and at various public events. For example, here is a link to my presentation slides at a recent energy conference in NUIG.

    Secondly, despite our members’ serious concerns about aspects of the outgoing Government’s Climate Change Response Bill, IBEC did not actually ask for that Bill to be withdrawn. Rather, we called for a proper impact analysis and we urged that any targets should be set in line with EU policies and negotiated obligations. In my view, such an outcome does not in any way correspond to a ‘do nothing’ scenario. Ireland already has by far the toughest reduction target in the whole EU27. GIven the magnitude of the existing challenge, it makes obvious sense to have national climate legislation that helps us to achieve our mitigation and adaption goals in a cost-effective manner.

    Thirdly, you appear to believe that IBEC’s objections were motivated purely by selfish considerations. However, we have members who are actively involved in the cleantech and renewable energy sectors, as well as those who are large energy users. Taking account of their divergent interests, we simply aim to promote energy and climate policies that are balanced and economically efficient. One genuine concern that our members have in common is that poorly-designed climate legislation could cause unnecessary harm to the Irish economy, putting jobs at risk and frustrating the future development of green enterprise.

    In order to explain more fully the basis for our members’ concerns about flaws in the now-defunct Climate Change Response Bill, I will need to make several technical points. Apologies if it gets boring, but please bear with me.

    1. The EU has agreed to split responsibility for meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets into two parts. Power generation and large industry are grouped at European level under the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme target. Remaining emissions are divided between member states based on 2005 emissions under the EU’s Effort Sharing Decision with national reduction targets for 2020 that each member state is obliged to meet individually. Ireland’s EU target under this scheme is 37.1 million tonnes CO2e.

    2. However, the outgoing Government’s Climate Change Response Bill (‘the Bill’) sought to combine the EU national target with the expected emissions from the ETS sectors in Ireland, over which Government has no control. In requiring policymakers to address the combined emissions, it creates a real risk that the EU target will not be met. This is particularly the case given that the EPA’s most optimistic scenario predicts that we can only reduce our emissions to 44.8 million tonnes in the sectors for which Government is responsible.

    3. Farming activities in Ireland account for about two-fifths of the emissions covered in our EU target and these cannot be materially reduced by any existing or planned technology. Despite this, we have been given the biggest percentage reduction target (-20%) of any EU country. Many observers believe that, when negotiating Ireland’s reduction target, the Government should have placed more emphasis on resolving concerns in relation to emissions from agriculture, particularly in the wider context of sustainable agriculture and food security.

    4. IBEC members could support an increase in the EU’s aggregate reduction target for 2020, provided this was part of a binding international agreement. However, in those circumstances, the Government should still seek to ensure that any revised national target for Ireland takes proper account of our agricultural emissions and our new economic circumstances.

    5. Nevertheless, IBEC believes that Ireland should aim to meet its existing EU target. This will involve investing in all commercially available low-carbon technologies, but it will also be necessary to offset whatever cannot be achieved in this way by getting credits for:
    – growing Irish forests to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; and
    – helping developing countries to improve their infrastructure through low-carbon technology investment.

    6. In respect of forestry, the EU always intended that member states would be credited for changes in land-use that act as carbon ‘sinks’. The details of how to measure this are being negotiated in Brussels, and an assessment with proposals for legislation is required to be finalised by June 2011. It is important to note that the assessment is also required to consider whether rebalancing of national targets is required, which could result in substantially reducing the benefit of this mechanism for Ireland. In other words, the Commission will shortly be deciding by how much, if at all, the inclusion of these credits will be allowed to reduce the gap to target faced by individual EU countries such as Ireland. Some of the other member states may have already started lobbying in Brussels to ensure they get a favourable outcome. In any case, it would certainly be in Ireland’s economic interest to do so.

    Thanks for bearing with me this far. I can finally set out the reasons why we believe the Climate Change Response Bill was seriously flawed.

    (a) By combining ETS and non-ETS sector emissions in a single national target, and basing policy-making on this construct, Government was seriously undermining Ireland’s ability to meet its EU obligation.

    (b) The EU allows member states who are unable to meet their target to purchase credits that support carbon reductions in other countries. However, the Bill did not allow Ireland to benefit from this. Ireland would be the only country not allowing such credits to count towards meeting a national target.

    (c) IBEC’s analysis assumes that credits that will be allowed from forestry under upcoming EU rule-making can be used to make it easier for Ireland to reach its target. In this case, emissions from the non-ETS sectors can be increased by the amount of credits generated from forestry (projected at 4.8 Mt in 2020) so that the net target equals the EU limit of 37.1 Mt. By contrast, the Bill sought to eliminate the capacity for a contribution from forestry by deducting the savings from sinks in advance. In other words, the Bill in effect reduced the EU target for non-ETS sectors by the projected 4.8 Mt in sinks.

    (d) For Ireland, these restrictions would mean spending more than €800 million instead of €400 million per annum by 2020. Linking the ETS and non-ETS sectors will result in higher electricity and fuel prices than in any other EU country. Even that would not be sufficient to meet the self-imposed target in this Bill. Ultimately, the Bill would require Ireland to consider more drastic measures such as cutting back production in our beef and dairy industry. (And that’s before we consider the much tighter unilateral targets for 2030 and 2050.)

    (e) The unfortunate outcome is that no net environmental benefit would result from Ireland’s solo run, despite the economic damage that it would inflict. The emissions reduction achieved by the European Union as a whole will not change. In effect, other EU countries will be required to do less than they otherwise would, because Ireland has obliged itself to do more.

    An incoming Government therefore needs to focus on trying to agree the right targets in conjunction with our European partners and address the situation of agriculture as a matter of urgent priority. As IBEC has repeatedly stated, business will welcome new legislation that supports sensible, achievable objectives.

    Finally, I would like to mention a personal interest in climate policy, which long predates any involvement with IBEC. My PhD (under the supervision of Professor Frank Convery at UCD) was on the economics of European climate policy, and in particular the problem of ensuring that mitigation efforts are not rendered ineffective through so-called carbon leakage. I subsequently conducted post-doctoral environmental research work funded by the EPA before taking up a post as head of energy modelling within SEAI. So although I am not a climate scientist, I am quite familiar with the excellent work of the IPCC, and in particular its Fourth Assessment Report, as well as the ‘450ppm’ scenario that was developed by the IEA. While working at SEAI , I assisted the DCENR in developing energy efficiency and renewable energy action plans, and I also co-authored a report entitled ‘Ireland’s Low Carbon Opportunity’. That SEAI publication identified lots of abatement potential in the energy sector, but concluded that it would be far more difficult to reduce emissions of methane and nitrous oxide from the agricultural sector. (You may be aware that Teagasc has independently reached quite similar conclusions.)

    During all the years I have worked and researched in this policy area, I have never met anyone (in Europe at least!) who doubts the dire consequences of inaction. These have been predicted, with ever-increasing certainty, by a wide range of climate scientists and modellers. At this stage, there is virtually universal acceptance of the EU’s stated aim of limiting the rise in global temperature to less than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The latest models suggest that this will require at least a 50% reduction in global emissions by 2050, and natural justice requires that the richer countries should take a leading role in this by sttriving for emissions cuts considerably greater than 50%. I sincerely hope, for all our childrens’ sake, that a binding global agreement on this can be achieved at the next UNFCCC COP.

  13. John Gibbons says:


    The very comprehensive and measured response is appreciated. Those more expert in economics than me suggest much of what you say is entirely valid. I should add that I felt it entirely lunatic for the Greens to (a) announce on Nov. 22nd last their intention to quit Govt. in January and (b) then try to ram through a Climate Bill in the ensuing chaos. They dropped the ball big time. Appeasing the anti-blood sport lobby appeared to be a more pressing issue for what the party clearly feels is its ‘base’. Damn shame.

    This in no way takes from the fact that I and others have heard little to nothing from the various lobby groups, including yourselves, the IFA, ICMSA, etc. to suggest anything much at play beyond naked self-interest. Maybe I’m wrong; I’d like to be wrong on this, because it’s far more valuable for everyone if organisations with real political and communications clout like IBEC are prepared to use their good offices to address threats to the common good, as well as simply protecting the (often narrowly defined) interests of members.

    In short, I’ll take you up on that offer of cup of coffee! And if IBEC ever finds itself looking for someone with a business background to talk or debate with its membership about why sustainability is not only good but essential for business as well as serving the common interest, you know where to find me…

  14. Neil Walker says:

    @ John Gibbons

    Thanks John. I’m looking forward to meeting you.

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