Why we must be positive in debate about climate change

AM I part of the problem?

I’ve been volunteering for environmental organisations since the day the penny dropped that the beautiful planet I knew and loved could be scheduled for incineration.

I remember running after an editor at a national newspaper, grabbing him by the sleeve and shouting, “What are you doing about climate change?”

He looked at me as if I were a looper. Was he right? Possibly. I doubt I’ve stopped anyone sending a single particle of carbon into the atmosphere in all those years. Nobody wants to listen to a shrill woman with bug eyes and a tale of doom and destruction. Nobody except the other people with the same bug eyes, that is.

Environmentalists like me have been good at forming little groups of like-minded people who scorn those who don’t think the same way they do. A lot like small religious sects, particularly when it comes to sanctimoniousness.

Are you saved? No? Oh dear. Not like me. I’ve seen the light.

What we’ve succeeded in doing is turning people right off any discussion of climate change. That’s any discussion of how they, their children and children’s children can live prosperous and secure lives on a more crowded planet.

You’d think there couldn’t be a more interesting story. But it’s been told so badly that hardly anyone is listening.

It’s become “white noise” in the words of one US delegate to the weekend’s International Climate Gathering in Ballyvaghan, Co. Clare. The conference was convened to position Ireland as a meeting point for Europeans and Americans to come up with a new narrative to mobilise people against climate change. There was wide agreement on the need to change the record from delegates as diverse as Daniel Schragg, adviser to Barack Obama on climate change, to John Ashton, former climate adviser to the UK foreign secretary, to Erin Taylor, former policy director with Al Gore’s Sustainable Energy for All.

We have left scientists and activists tell the story and it has made no sense to most people. As one US delegate said, the words “climate” and “change” and even “warming” are not words which have any impact at all. “Adaptation” and “mitigation” are gobbledegook.

We need language we can understand, like a “safe and secure future”. It’s time to forget about the polar bears for a moment and talk about our kids.

The most powerful narrative which emerged from the Climate Gathering seemed to be that of protecting our “home”. Home, where most of us find our peace and security, where we raise our children and grow old. Home, which we must protect by using our vast ingenuity to keep this planet safe.

And we are ingenious. The environmental movement worldwide has made the mistake of focusing on what we shouldn’t do, not what we can do. The thrust of the National Economic and Social Forum’s final report, Ireland and the Climate Change Challenge: Connecting “how much?” to “how to?” is to refocus us as a society on “how to?” switch to a carbon-neutral society not “how much?” carbon we must save. It will be presented to Cabinet next Tuesday and what I have seen of it makes so much sense that I hope it will be adopted as policy.

NESC says that action on climate change has to feed economic recovery, build employment, drive competitiveness, foster energy independence and be consistent with public sector reform. We are not talking here about sitting around camp-fires eating foraged roots. We are talking about the kind of future to which most Irish people aspire and for which they will vote.

Tragically, the voice of environmentalism in this country has inadvertently drowned out the voice of business when it comes to climate change. But NESC finds strong evidence of expertise in “How to?” cut emissions in industries all over the country.

WIND energy is described as the main plank of our future energy provision, poised to achieve parity with gas within five years. Could someone please make that point to our national broadcaster? We already have a smart grid, using technology to minimise energy use. We are to the forefront in developing the technology to run electric cars. Enterprise Ireland says export-driven “cleantech” companies employ over 6,000 people. “Origin Green”, Bord Bia’s new standard for food which is sustainably produced, was launched last year and is among many initiatives working to green the face of farming. Even a small company like GoCar Cork is using sophisticated technology to facilitate car-sharing.

All of this put together still doesn’t go far enough to put us on track to a carbon neutral 2050, but it’s a start. And the stark truth is, says NESC’s report, no-one knows exactly how a developed economy can get to carbon neutrality because it’s never been done before.

International emissions targets based on the Kyoto Protocol give the impression someone knows exactly how to do this. But no-one does. We have to try everything. But our excessive focus on those forbidding targets takes the focus away from the question “how?”

Unremitting negativity may have turned a whole generation away from facing the climate challenge. And that’s partly why the strategy is failing so badly. The Kyoto process is 20 years old but emissions are still rising and we could be on track for a four or even six degree temperature rise which would cook the planet.

As I write the tiny Irish environmental movement, led by the Stop Climate Chaos alliance, is fighting valiantly for climate law with enforced targets for emissions reduction as well as an independent climate change commission. This will be discussed by Cabinet with the climate strategy on Tuesday.

We need an emissions target for 2030. But it is oversell to state, as SCC does, that a strong climate law will “make sure these promised cuts (in carbon emissions) actually happen.”

Because in itself, it won’t. The UK’s 2008 Climate Change Law hasn’t cut UK emissions. What has cut Irish emissions has been renewable energy — and the recession. An independent climate change commission is no guarantee of success either, as NESC points out, asking why it would have more expertise to drive innovation than that which is there already in the public and private sectors?

My great fear is that the Government will use a weak law and a weak agency as a fig leaf to cover lack of action when they could do so much now to put this country on the right path.

The property tax is not as positive for the environment as the site value tax, but it could still be tweaked to incentivise green building and retro-fitting. The carbon tax should rise gradually. VRT should remain linked to emissions. The insulation of homes and public buildings should absorb much available capital funding.

Our secure future on this planet is too big an ask to be left to a handful of activists like me. It is even too big to be left to a handful of scientists. As one Climate Gathering delegate said at the weekend, it’s time for environmentalism to grow up and leave home.

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