Mick Clifford: Politics strays from the path of science

A reduction in carbon tax was the most popular measure that people selected in a recent poll on how to alleviate the cost of living crisis. If the first reaction is to call a halt to a major plank in the battle against climate change at the first sign of trouble, what hope is there for the rest?
Mick Clifford: Politics strays from the path of science

Protesters gather ing at Grand Parade, Cork, for a ‘Fridays for Future’ climate action and climate justice global protest last year. Science and politics are operating from different planets on climate change. More often than not, politicians’ instincts tell them that there may be an electoral cost to measures that are simply not worth paying.

Can politics keep following the science? For two years during an existential crisis politics in this country followed the science. Now, facing another potentially more catastrophic crisis, a question arises as to whether politics is capable of stomaching the science.

Tackling climate change will require transformative change, major disruption, and a complete rethink about how we live. The extent and pace of change needed have been hugely exacerbated because of inaction over the last decade, or even more. 

But we are where we are. Nobody disputes the depth of the problem, but the week just gone demonstrated that this could be an Augustinian crisis, in which we wish to be pure, but just not yet.

Last weekend, the Sunday Independent conducted a poll about the huge increase in the cost of living. What measures did people want to see taken in order to alleviate the worst of the problem? The most popular measure chosen was the postponement of the carbon tax increase, due next May, which was selected by 32% of respondents. Just 23% opted for a reduction in income tax and 16% for bigger direct transfers from the government.


The carbon tax is to increase by €7.50 a tonne on May 1. This translates as a 20c hike in a bale of briquettes or 89c in a 40kg bag of coal. While any increase in the current environment is undesirable, the impact of such a hike, as the summer weather beckons, is far from critical. 

Yet it is the carbon tax that a third of those polled reached out for first as a means to alleviate the current rise in prices. This, despite repeated polls that suggest a large majority of people recognise that climate change presents huge dangers to the future of the planet.

The carbon tax is not a panacea. Its value is in incentivising people to move away from fossil fuels and there are problems, particularly in rural Ireland, over a lack of alternatives. But it is also the first serious policy instrument being applied to impact our lifestyles in a manner that addresses climate change. 

If the instinctive reaction is to call a halt to it at the first sign of trouble, what hope is there for all the other changes that are pending?

Retrofitting

Another major policy instrument in tackling climate is retrofitting homes to preserve energy and cut down on fossil fuels. This week, the government announced its €8bn plan to retrofit 500,000 homes by 2030. Included in the plan is the awarding of grants for homeowners willing and able to get the job done. These grants of up to €25,000 are designed to cover up to half the cost.

Politically, the announcement was hailed as a victory for the Greens in government as if the climate is a pet project for that party rather than an existential crisis. There are, however, problems with the retrofitting plan. Primarily, it is aimed at those who both own their own homes and are in a position to invest money in the upgrade.

This was pointed out most cogently by Michelle Murphy, policy analyst with Social Justice Ireland. She welcomed the initiation of the scheme but noted that it is a prime example of awarding grants and subsidies only to those who can afford to do the work required.

“As those who need them most often cannot avail of them due to upfront costs, these subsidies are functioning as wealth transfers to households on higher incomes who can avail of them, while the costs, for example, carbon taxes, are paid by everyone,” she said.

Social solidarity was a key component in tackling the pandemic over the last two years. The reaction among the general public when that solidarity appeared to fracture — such as in the Golfgate controversy  — demonstrated how valued the concept was. 

If we’re all in this together, then we better all be in this together.

The retrofitting scheme will make the homes of those who can afford it more climate-friendly and less costly over the long run, but it won’t do much for owners who are strapped, renters, or tenants in public housing. It is definitely a start in the right direction, but a more inclusive plan would need to be formulated pretty quickly if retrofitting is to be seen as a whole-of-society measure and not a lifestyle choice for the better off.

Both the retrofitting programme and attitudes to the carbon tax show just how difficult it’s going to be to do what we are told needs to be done if catastrophic change in the climate is to be avoided. And this is only the start of it.

The science

Meanwhile, the science keeps delivering portents of doom. Last month the Oireachtas Committee on the Environment and Climate Change heard from a succession of scientists that the targets set to reduce emissions between now and 2030 will not meet our international obligations. 

By mid-March, the government is going to announce by how much each sector of the economy will have to cut emissions, but before it even starts it is now being told that it won’t be enough. The scientists’ position was endorsed by the environmental body An Taisce on Wednesday last.

“Hard choices are required in the short term and serious consideration should be given to following the independent scientific advice to significantly tighten the proposed carbon budgets before the allocation among sectors commences,” An Taisce said in a statement.

All of this points to a firmament in which science and politics are operating from different planets on climate change. The problem is not confined to this country and neither is it a question of politicians being out of touch with the electorate, or society in general. 

More often than not, they are just too reluctant to lead in case the electorate doesn’t follow. Their political instinct tells them that there may be an electoral cost to this thing that is simply not worth paying.

During the pandemic — and previously after the economic collapse in 2008 — the body politic showed a willingness to face up to an immediate threat to the safety and stability of the country. In both cases, painful measures were imposed in pursuit of the greater good over the long term. 

In both cases, those least equipped to bear the pain felt it worst. Lessons must be learned from that, but the overall point remains valid. The body politic will do what is required when the science says the threat is immediate. 

The difference with climate change is that the threat is not perceived as being immediate, certainly not in this part of the planet. And while that persists, it would appear that politics will continue to stray from the path of science.

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