NO PLANET B: THE “CLIMATE EMERGENCY” 1906 CXXXVI

THERE IS NO PLANET B: THE “CLIMATE EMERGENCY”

STOP PRESS! As I write Teresa May has just announced her resignation.  Her successor is likely to   be a much more hard line “Brexiteer,” which does not bode well for Ireland. A hard Brexit threatens. More next time. More also on the European and local election results where early poll indications are that Green candidates are polling well.

This last is hardly surprising. Climate change has gripped the headlines in recent months. And our politicians have not been slow to seize the day – after a fashion. “Ireland becomes Second Country in the World to declare Climate Emergency” proclaimed one headline on May 10. “Government declares Climate Emergency” read another.” “Ireland is Second Country to declare Climate Emergency” was the “take” on RTE, the national broadcaster.

The facts were more prosaic. On May 6 another UN report on the environment caught the headlines – this one on biodiversity suggesting that upwards of one million animal and plant species were threatened with extinction, with the causes laid firmly at humanity’s door.  The report identified five main accelerative causes of species loss: habitat loss through urban expansion, overfishing, burning of fossil fuels, polluting land and water through dumping waste and the proliferation of invasive species. There followed the usual sorrow and anger pronouncements from the climate lobby, which happened to dovetail on this occasion with a May 9 Dail debate on the report of the Parliamentary Climate Change Committee, which included forty recommendations for action .

Cue a Fianna Fail amendment to the consensus report, endorsing the Committee’s report and additionally declaring “a climate and biodiversity emergency. “  Unsurprisingly this was agreed to by all parties without a vote.  The Minister (Richard Bruton) and opposition spokesmen welcomed the amendment, which, however, did not specify what the phrase meant and did not bind the government to taking any action. Indeed only six TDs were present when the amendment was adopted, none from Fianna Fail (the Greens were obliged to move it).

The seriousness and significance of the motion can perhaps best be assessed by the fact that on May 1 Britain became the FIRST country to declare an” environment and climate emergency.”  This when the House of Commons, which remains deadlocked over the most serious issue facing the country since World War Two –Brexit – adopted, without a vote, a motion tabled by no less a luminary than Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn ,who declared its adoption a “huge step forward.” His initiative followed a week of protests mounted by an environmental activist group, Extinction Rebellion, which had seriously disrupted traffic and movement in central London.

There are essentially two ways of considering the latest development here. The sanguine approach is to regard this as another step in sensitising public opinion to the reality of climate change and the urgent need to take whatever action Ireland can to do our bit to save the planet. There have been various pronouncements by successive governments since the Nineties on the need for action and warm endorsement of the EU’s ambitious goals for reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2020 and again by 2030 and beyond. The Citizens’ Assembly – derided initially but which is acknowledged to have played a significant role in clearing the air and clarifying the Abortion issue – has deliberated and made recommendations on Climate Change. And now there is the consensus report and recommendations from the all-party Climate Change Committee. In recent years there has been the successful tax on plastic shopping bags- the “witches’ knickers” of urban legend – and the equally successful smoking ban in pubs and workplaces – proof positive that the Irish public can, when convinced, act for the greater good.

The other approach is to see the resolution as hollow and hypocritical and as epitomising all that is wrong with Irish politics, and, because it is rooted in cynicism, might well damage the prospects for achieving the necessary popular support for the tough measures needed if Ireland is ever to achieve its GHG reduction goals. Stephen Collins, former chief political editor of the Irish Times, in an excellent piece on May 16, described the declaration as “pure guff” and went on to contrast the reality to the fine words being spoken. The article is well worth a read. Google it. In it he raised the additional concern that it would add “to the corrosive cynicism about politics which is fuelling anti-democratic forces across Europe.” Amen to that.

Brexit apart, there is no doubt that the “Climate Challenge” has now become the sexy political topic here and is likely to remain high profile for quite some time. For the Greens it is a lifeline. For the political opposition generally it is heaven sent – a golden political stick with which to beat the government now and for a long time to come. It is simply not going to be possible to meet the ambitious targets proposed without considerable pain where it will hit most, i.e. in the pocket. Already the Minister has flagged that Ireland’s failure to meet its 2020 targets for cuts (20% designated, 1% the expected outcome)  may well  require the government to spend up to €150 million to purchase “ carbon credits” to offset the national failure to meet the 20% target.

And more to come should the country fail to meet the even more ambitious targets for 2030. This is taxpayers’ money that could have been used elsewhere in cash strapped areas of which we have more than enough. Expect the opposition, particularly the left, to make hay on this one. The climate issue was widely aired on the doorsteps in the recent local and European elections, and featured prominently in the televised debates between candidates where it became evident that battle lines were being drawn on the first practical step – the Carbon Tax issue. This, affecting most fossil fuels is generally recognised as the measure most likely to get results in terms of cutting consumption (for results look at the hiking of cigarette prices and the pending minimum unit pricing for alcohol). But, and it’s a big but, Carbon Tax will bear most heavily on those on lower incomes and rural dwellers. Sinn Fein and the left are opposed to any increase, calling for significant and substantial exemptions. But then who would pay? Memories of the water charge debacle are still fresh.

The Government and the mainstream parties have had the wit to see the looming danger, with Leo Varadkar suggesting that the way to proceed is to develop a consensus approach among the politicians, thus “bringing the public along”. With one eye on the protests in France, and mindful of the mini rural revolt here before the last budget, he has also floated the idea that any increase in carbon tax should be funnelled back to the pocket in some way, rather than be subsumed into general taxation. Just how this would work is unclear. Certainly refunding money helped draw a line under the Irish Water mess, but this would be a different animal. Higher fuel costs should curb consumption, but the benefits could be negated if a bookkeeping exercise was all that was needed to get the money back. Let’s watch this one. Big Boys’ Games, Leo.

25/5/19

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