Parents for the Planet: ‘Government is still very timid in taking action’

Parents for the Planet: ‘Government is still very timid in taking action’
Oisín Coghlan with his wife Morina O’Neill and their children Patrick, 11, and Chloe, 8. Picture: Moya Nolan.

I have wondered why Ireland has, until recently, been such a climate action laggard. I think it’s because we’ve always had this image of ourselves as green. The countryside is green. The flag too.

Apart from six counties in the North-East, we had not had the industrial revolution on a grand scale here. So our historical image of ourselves, which extended somewhat to our low environmental footprint, was to some degree, correct.

Then the 1990s came, and with it the Celtic Tiger. We were finally no longer the poor man of Europe and neither society as a whole nor the politicians, wanted to hear from party-poopers, about climate change, limiting emissions, getting out of peat, or insufficient investment in public transport.

There was a moment in 2006 and 2007 when climate change was very much a zeitgeist issue.

The publication of the Stern Report and Al Gore’s movie played a role. Then, because of the economic crash it more or less disappeared off the radar. Not off the policy agenda, as because of the EU and the UN, we couldn’t ignore it entirely. But to a large degree, it disappeared off the public, political, and media agendas, right up the middle of this decade.

Evidence of unsustainability was there. But because it wasn’t a doorstep issue, politicians of almost all parties and governments, with a few honourable exceptions, actively chose to ignore it. It’s only been in the last three or four years that the Government has been forced to step up the action.

Our Government is still very timid in taking action, still very deferential to vested interests. Even now, they’re scared to ruffle feathers. And this, despite the fact that the ruffling that will go on will be so much greater if we don’t take action and climate change gets even worse as a result.

This Government tends to frame the climate change challenge as one of individual behavioural change, with their role as providing information and incentives to, in the Taoiseach’s words: “Nudge us” to change. This, when it’s crystal clear that people are ready to change, but need support to do it. Support that requires system changes that can only be led by government.

Greta Thunberg is a remarkable prophet. We have to hope we can build a movement around what she has triggered, a movement that’s strong enough to beat the most powerful vested interest the world has ever seen: The fossil fuel industry. That and other vested interests that resist action because it disrupts their short-term profit plan even at the expense of the long-term sustainability of their own industries and society as a whole.

We’re getting very close to the tipping point that would mean drastic climate change is irreversible. That is what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report clearly shows. We’re not yet at that tipping point but suddenly, we’re in a race to build a movement strong enough to get the action we need.

As for whether we’ll ever reach a carbon neutral economy, my opinion on this is evolving. Since the publication of the IPCC report, we know the scale of the change needed is so much greater than we thought.

The Government’s obsession with moving car drivers to electric cars is madness. It doesn’t solve congestion and it would mean mining for the rare minerals the batteries would require. Only 2% of the national transport budget goes on cycling and walking. The UN recommends 20%.

I’ve two children, aged 11 and 8. As a family we try to do what we can, but we’re by no means perfect. We’d like an electric car but there isn’t much affordable choice in that second-hand market. I hope to leap-frog to an electric rather than a hybrid next time around. My wife is mostly vegetarian, while our youngest is a raving carnivore. The kids walk or cycle to school. I cycle to work. We’veinternal insulation, double-glazed windows, and roof panels for heating water. We’d like to get a complete house retrofit and heat pump.

Our youngest has never been on a plane and I haven’t taken one long-haul flight for pleasure this century. But that’s as much about money as it’s about deliberately cutting family flying. Flight cost should reflect its impact on the environment. The changes should impact on business flyers.

Not on those who fly once a year to visit relatives. When I read about what’s happening to the planet, a slight self-protection thing goes on and I try not to feel everything I read.

If I felt the full weight of the threat of climate change everyday when I’m getting the kids ready for school, a threat which is now really stark, I’d burn out very quickly.

As for the climate emergency, I’ve never been more terrified and more hopeful.

The science is truly terrifying, the inadequacy of government action is infuriating and the role of powerful, vested interests is disgusting. But the uprising by young climate-strikers over the last year is inspiring and the resulting upsurge of public concern is heartening. We’re now in a race between tipping points.

On the one hand, our elders and betters are driving us towards irreversible climate breakdown. On the other, the growing climate movement is tipping the scales towards radical action. We can’t know for sure which side will win. We can only choose which side of the scales to put our grains of sand on. For the sake of my children and their generation, I’m choosing action and hope.

- Oisín Coghlan, director of Friends of the Earth Ireland, co-founded the Stop Climate Chaos coalition in 2007 and led the eight-year campaign for a climate change law which culminated in the passing of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act in December 2015.

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