Kyran Fitzgerald: An Irish ‘Green New Deal’ needs common sense and robust debate

The idea of restructuring an economy with the aim of developing a more environmentally-friendly society isn't new, but is doable in Ireland, writes Kyran Fitzgerald.

Kyran Fitzgerald: An Irish ‘Green New Deal’ needs common sense and robust debate

The idea of restructuring an economy with the aim of developing a more environmentally-friendly society isn't new, but is doable in Ireland, writes Kyran Fitzgerald.

The idea of restructuring an economy with the aim of developing a more environmentally friendly society isn’t new, but is doable in Ireland, according to Kyran Fitzgerald

Last week, a conference was held under the auspices of economic think-tank the Nevin Economic Research Institute (Neri), to consider the idea of an Irish ‘Green New Deal’.

The Green New Deal is a concept that was developed just over a decade ago by left-leaning thinkers such as Ann Pettifor, a British economist who made her name as a proponent of third world debt write-offs.

The Green New Deal draws inspiration from Franklyn Delano Roosevelt’s US New Deal of the 1930s. The core idea is that our economy and society will have to be restructured so that the worst impacts of the gathering climate and broader environmental crisis can be dealt with in the context of a wider broader reorganisation of society.

A group of left-leaning Democratic politicians in the US, led by high-profile Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Senator Ed Markey began pushing the idea of a US Green New Deal around two years ago. Since then, the project has gathered momentum — and some criticism, much of it from the producer lobby and their political friends.

At last Friday’s Neri conference, the general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, - or ICTU - Patricia King, endorsed the idea. The ICTU is backing a ‘Just Transition’ plan aimed at ensuring that workers displaced by measures aimed at curbing carbon emissions are put in a position through reskilling where they can secure alternative high-paid jobs.

Ms King suggested that the handling of the closures, or downsizing, of power plants in the midlands presents an important “litmus test”. She insisted that the adaptation measures proposed by the Government — including lump-sum transfers and money for the retrofitting of homes — will not, in itself, suffice.

She has proposed that the local educational institution, Athlone Institute of Technology, be developed into a centre of excellence aimed at equipping people to do “decent work”.

“At the moment, the model [of adaptation] does not look great,” she said.

“I am adamant that the workers in the energy sector should not sacrifice their livelihoods for the greater good,” she added before having a cut at the “established classes”.

The Irish left — in common with its British and US counterparts — has definitely spotted an opening in the political gap. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party — unveiling an election manifesto which has certainly startled the horses — has proposed a £50bn (€58bn) climate action package, that is around £1,000 per UK adult.

Lorna Gold, an academic based at Maynooth University, delivered the keynote address at the conference. Ms Gold served for 15 years as head of policy with the aid organisation Trócaire.

As she pointed out, the idea of a Green New Deal is not new. She paid tribute to the work of economists such as Richard Douthwaite.

She referred to the American New Deal pushed ahead by President Roosevelt against fierce opposition from Republicans in Congress, as well as from leading industrialists and from leading judges.

“We must remember that in the face of crisis, we did something radically different. But the precedent we really need to think about is that of World War Two. Given the urgency of the challenge, we need to be waging war on emissions. It is not about recovery or coming out of a crisis,” she said.

During the war, people came together. Experts joined forces to create an atmosphere of great creativity. Innovations poured out. The alternative, in the event of failure to act, could be the breakdown of society.

“The ruins of previous civilisations are strewn about the place,” said Ms Gold.

“Very few societies have managed to square the circle of upward economic development and that of a declining ecological footprint.”

The current trajectory is unsustainable, she contends.

“50% of our emissions are caused by the top 10%. We are exporting the idea of private luxury as an ultimate goal.”

Ms Gold proposes a “reworking of the idea of economic development” with a system for dealing with environmental and social impacts.

She talks in general terms about “remaking consumption” so that it becomes more collaborative. The vision is utopian, but can it be put in place quickly enough.

To take this wartime analogy on a bit, one has to conclude — given the global nature of the problem — that a global response, one involving all leading financial institutions, will be required.

Environmentalists are correct in arguing for local solutions and for restraints on consumption, but given the urgency of the situation, global capitalism will have to be brought on board.

Earlier this year, Ann Pettifor came to the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) in Dublin to address the topic ‘Financing the Green New Deal’.

“A big transfer of resources has to happen if we are to get down to zero net carbon emissions by 2050 — if we want human life to survive,” she said.

According to the Global Commission on Economy and the Climate, the cost over a 10-11 year period could be $90trn. That, as they say, is real money.

International think-tank the OECD has come up with a figure of $6.3trn a year for the transition from 2016 to 2030 as an estimate for the funding of a switch to renewables. What we are faced with is a unique ‘use it or lose it’ moment.

To succumb to the inertia fostered by the carbon lobby is to agree to a far greater bill of cost, however. The looming impacts are already apparent in the form of flooding, fires, and huge storm events.

Ann Pettifor’s key point is the task of financing the transition is “entirely doable”. There is no need to tax people to the hilt. Instead, society can draw on the vast resources contained in the global financial system.

“Central banks and governments should act together — not unilaterally,” she has said.

She quotes estimates from the OECD that suggest there is $40trn held by the global pension funds industry. Shadow banking assets are estimated to be worth at $185trn.

States and international organisations can join together as guarantors — let’s face it, if they don’t act, the clean-up costs from a runaway climate change disaster will be far higher. FundsMoney would be available to fund the reskilling of displaced workers, young adults, and the many across the world deemed surplus to requirements. We will need these skills to build the new projects that will be needed. Wars require much manpower.

FDR’s New Deal ensured that the US could fight in, and help win, World War Two — but it was the war whichabsorbed America’s surplus labour and set the economy on the road back to prosperity.

Ireland should be well-placed to participate in this global response, but a local response, involving a big change in mindsets, is also required.

We do, indeed, need to overhaul the way we plan our infrastructure and locate our people. The taxpayer cannot be expected to continue to fund the scattering of settlements — a fact certainly not recognised in the pricy new broadband plan.

As we transition, we must also respect voices of questioning and dissent. As Una Duggan of Birdwatch Ireland points out, not all climate actions are good.

She has warned of the impact of the widespread planting of Sitka spruce — favoured by some in positions of authority — on bird species.

As Lorna Gold suggests, we need to “join the dots” by involving micro-finance institutions — including credit unions — moving from global to local.

We must pose and answer important questions, urgently.

Should we be investing in more roads to accommodate electric vehicles, or favour communal transport? Uniting behind the science on the climate and wider environment will also be necessary.

What is needed is robust debate on a new social ecology contract.

And the State, too, must play a key role in alerting people to the need to change their behaviour, says Donal de Buitleir, the former secretary of the 1980s Commission on Taxation.

This will involve both a public information campaign and a focus on the needs of those who are most vulnerable.

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