Michael Clifford: Election is lacking a certain shade of green

Michael Clifford: Election is lacking a certain shade of green
Claire Brennan, from environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion, recites a protest poem outside Fine Gael’s office in Dublin during their protest on Monday. Picture: Cate McCurry/PA

The Boiler House has been rediscovered. It is now a rediscovery centre, in the heart of Ballymun on the northside of Dublin.

The Boiler House is an old building that has been revamped into a green centre, dedicated to the “circular economy” in which waste is cut down or eliminated, or, if you will, rediscovered and put to better use.

The centre is a glimpse into a future that is as yet unwritten. Currently, science tells us that the future is dark, and getting darker all the time unless we act swiftly and decisively. Yet some would appear to be of the belief that science will come up with a Flash Gordon kind of solution to save the planet just as the clock counts down to midnight.

The Green party came to the Rediscovery Centre in the Boiler House last Tuesday to launch its climate action policy paper. There was about a half-dozen reporters present, a few cameras, and a troop of Green candidates and party workers. Prior to the election, it might have been predicted that this would be a major event in the campaign. Local and European elections last year, and a slew of opinion polls all pointed towards this being something of a climate change election.

In May 2019, the Oireachtas declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. Ireland was just the second country to elevate the urgency of the threat to that level. A visitor to the country might have thought we were falling over ourselves to go green.

Yet now, in the midst of a general election, the issue registers below many others.

The Green Party, undisputed standard-bearers for climate action, is polling well in historic terms, but nowhere near as well as pre-campaign predictions would have had the party. Opinion polls put the Greens around the 8% mark, with some now saying this may translate into around 10 seats.

Does the failure to soar, as Sinn Féin has, the failure to capitalise on a country officially mad to go green, reflect on the party’s campaign or simply the priorities of voters?

“I think the Irish people want something done,” Greens Party leader Eamon Ryan said at the launch.

It’s not that they are laggards, it’s Fine Gael who are the laggards.

'I absolutely believe that the Irish people are ready for this and if one in 10 come out and vote for us, that would have a transformative effect. If you think we have an obligation to the next generation, then come out and vote green.”

Ryan’s faith in the people may be misplaced if one is to examine the manifestos of the three bigger parties.

None appear to be addressing climate change with any seriousness. There are vague promises and targets and some old rhetoric about saving the planet here and there, but there is little in the way of solid commitment.

Take two of the big issues, carbon tax and agricultural emissions.

Carbon tax is not a panacea but the bulk of evidence suggests that it shifts behaviour to minimise emissions. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are in favour of an increase in the tax, rising ultimately to €80 per tonne, but neither provides any detail on how such a target can be realistically met. Sinn Féin and People Before Profit both reject the use of carbon tax at all.

Questioned about the Sinn Féin position at the leaders’ debate on Tuesday, Mary Lou McDonald said some scientific opinion disagreed with the majority. This is correct, but one could just as easily suggest there are a few scientists across the globe who dispute that climate change is attributable to human behaviour.

Successfully tackling emissions in agriculture, according to most scientists, would be difficult without reducing the national herd. All of the big three parties refuse to contemplate any reduction. That might be acceptable if a concerted, costed alternative plan was presented but none of the parties has one.

The Greens’ finance spokeswoman, Neasa Hourigan, told Tuesday’s launch that Fine Gael’s approach is completely lacking in ambition.

They have failed to grasp the nettle of reorientating the system towards climate realities.

“This is not about making things difficult (for people). It’s an opportunity.”

Fianna Fáil, said Hourigan, is looking for an 8% annual reduction in emissions but has no plan on how to get there. “It’s phoney logic,” she said.

Her colleague Roderic O’Gorman pointed out that Sinn Féin’s manifesto commits to some things that are already done, such as banning fracking, and its allocation for climate action is completely insufficient to what’s required.

The only other party that appears to be taking the climate change seriously is People Before Profit. It has set ambitious targets and specifics in relation to transport, in particular.

One major weakness is, like Sinn Féin, People Before Profit has decided to give carbon taxes a wide berth.

The Green Party does not have a monopoly on how to tackle climate change.

However, there is a growing chasm between how serious the party is taking the issue and the apparent disregard of three big parties for tackling what is officially designated as an emergency.

What is not clear is whether the lack of ambition in the main parties’ manifestos around climate change is in response to perceived priorities among the public.

In other areas of policy there is a trend among the main parties to tailor their offering to what they consider to be voters preferences.

It might thus be posited that the failure to properly address the emergency is a belief that society at large considers this a St Augustine climate election — Make Us Green, Lord, but just not yet.

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