Why are children left to school us in the facts of climate change?

Swedish 15-year-old girl Greta Thunberg holds a placard reading "School strike for the climate" during a protest against climate change outside the Swedish parliament on November 30, 2018. Pciture: HANNA FRANZEN/AFP/Getty Images

There is something eerily powerful about 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg’s TED Talk about her “School Strike for Climate”. Stern plaits frame her unsmiling face, which twists into a frown when she is making a particularly strong point. She is deadly serious and that is unusual in a TED Talk. Having been diagnosed with autism and selective mutism (she only speaks when it’s really necessary), she says, “Now is one of those moments.”

Her autism means she doesn’t easily change her demeanour to fit in with other peoples’ and it has given her the gift of truth. She has spoken the truth about climate change, and, all over the world, children and young people have listened. Tomorrow, thousands of children and young people all over Ireland will join a school strike outside Leinster House, in Dublin, and at Cork City Hall, in Cork, between 1pm and 2pm, with 19 other smaller demonstrations planned around the country and more still on school grounds. They are echoing Thonberg’s demand for action against climate change now, so they can have a future.

“The one thing we need more than hope is action,” says Thonberg. “Once we act, hope is everywhere. The rules have to be changed. Everything needs to change. And it has to start today.”

Are our politicians ready, today, to act for climate? The devastating facts say they are not. Ireland was recently named the country in the EU with the worst record on tackling climate change. The draft report of the Oireachtas joint committee on tackling climate action says our houses emit 60% more CO2 than average EU houses and 1.5m homes require retrofitting, if they are to stop being climate hazards. The last Fine Gael-led government abolished feedback payments for micro-generators of renewable energy and they seem to have no plans to reinstate them.

While many of the old schools, where our children learn every day, heat the planet more effectively than they do the children, there are still gas boilers being installed in new schools. The Environmental Protection Agency says our transport emissions will increase by 13% by 2035, having already increased 140% between 1990 and 2016. There isn’t a single major public transport project currently being built, nor was there last year, nor, it seems, will there be next year. We are spending about 2% of our transport budget on cycling, when the figure should be at least 20%. There is no major cycling route on-site.

The National Cycle Policy Framework, adopted by government a decade ago, is almost completely unapplied and some cyclists have paid for this with their lives. Most of the children outside the Dail and Cork City Hall tomorrow would not be able to walk or cycle to school safely. Emissions from agriculture have not reduced since 1990 and have been steadily increasing in recent years, by close to 3% a year. Tillage farming has not been supported and there is seemingly no ambition to grow crops for the new school dinners being promised this autumn.

Nor is there any stated ambition to make those dinners consistent with vegetable-based “planetary health diet”. While it is argued that the beef and dairy sectors now produce less greenhouse gas per kilo or litre of product than they used to, the level of production has gone into the stratosphere, with milk production alone climbing 31% between 2012 and 2016. But when our children look through the gates of Leinster House tomorrow, they will see politicians shamelessly defending their own votes, while the climate goes to hell.

Fine Gael, like Fianna Fáil before them, refuse to break ranks with big farming and call a spade a spade, or, rather, cattle, cattle. While any climate-aware government should be capping and reducing the number of cattle in our fields, their Foodwise 2025 plan foresees an 85% increase in agricultural exports, comprising mostly of beef and dairy. We hear climate voodoo from government about Irish cattle being so much better at containing their belches than other cattle that it is our duty to stuff as many of them as possible onto our fields, for fear other countries might supply the same market with their filthy beasts.

The EU analysis that ranks our cattle the least carbon-intense dairy producers in the EU — and the fifth-least carbon-intense producers of beef — is, in fact, open to serious dispute. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation used a different methodology, based on the whole lifecycle of the animal, and recently calculated Ireland as the most carbon-intense producer in the EU per kg of milk protein, at 50% above the EU average. The left has few voters in “big farming” and you do hear them calling out our agriculture policy for wrecking the climate.

What you don’t hear from them is support for changes in taxation, which would nudge people into more climate-resilient habits and provide funding for that change. It was a pathetic fear of a water charges-style reaction that stopped the Government’s plans to increase the carbon tax in last year’s budget. Much as I despise their lack of moral courage, they weren’t wrong about the left’s position on the carbon tax, with Sinn Fein and AAA-PBP refusing to support the necessary increases, even if they are paid back to the general population by way of a cash dividend.

I favour the ringfencing of the tax to provide services, preferably free public transport. Yes, there is work to be done to ensure such a dividend also goes to rural areas, but, surely, that could be achieved with an excellent community bus service? What’s certain, whether you look to the UN’s IPCC or to our own ESRI, is that carbon pricing is essential, if we are to move our economy from its disastrous emissions trajectory. The joint Oireachtas draft report suggests we should move from a carbon price of €20 per tonne to one of €80 per tonne, by slow steps.

This can be a redistributive tax, because high-income people emit more carbon and would pay more tax, while the cash dividend would go to all. A measure such as free public transport could hardly be more socialist. Watch them, though. Watch the left positioning itself and the right defending itself, while our emissions go up and our children’s future goes up in smoke. The Oireachtas committee’s draft report on tackling climate action is substantial, but it will go to a vote on March 27, whether it will support an immediate halt to burning coal and extracting peat to make electricity now, or leave it for a few years, so they can keep their seats warm under their bums.

How can they look in the eyes of Greta Thunberg, and the eyes of the schoolchildren on strike tomorrow, and say they won’t act now? Tomorrow, thousands of children will join a ‘school strike’ at Leinster House and at Cork City Hall.

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