Alison O’Connor: Cut out the smirking and listen without prejudice to the Greens

Alison O’Connor: Cut out the smirking and listen without prejudice to the Greens

Eamon Ryan knows the Greens have to sugar coat climate change warnings to have some chance of being heard. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos

It was a joyful occasion. A crowd gathered for the turning on of the Christmas lights in our local park last Saturday evening.

There was entertainment, the requisite speech from a local politician and, of course, Santa.

It is still possible to feel grateful for being able to attend events in person. But there was also something distinctly odd about it. It was utterly unseasonal. End of November but no need for gloves or a hat, indeed my short jacket felt much too heavy as we stood waiting for Santa to make his appearance.

Every one of us could recount a similar experience from the last few weeks alone. That weird, balmy, windy weather earlier in November? It felt almost tropical.

There is a real sense of late of a climate rubicon having been passed. Talk to anyone you know living abroad and chances are they will tell you the weather is “weird” where they are too for the time of year. But so many of us are still in a state of almost universal denial. It’s the fingers stuck in the ears syndrome while chanting “la, la, la, la” and keeping up the magical thinking that things will actually start getting better against all the odds and not worse.

Patrick O'Donovan's warning about the threat to life from flooding was frightening
Patrick O'Donovan's warning about the threat to life from flooding was frightening

I know this mode only too well because I’m in it myself a lot of the time. It’s also interesting to observe what does manage to cut through the high level denial. I listened recently to remarks made on the radio by Minister for the Office of Public Works Patrick O’Donovan when he said it is a miracle that people were not drowned in their beds in Cork during periods of intense flooding. It felt frightening.

On the front page of this newspaper, the Fine Gael junior minister warned there is a “profound risk of flooding because of climate change in some parts of the country”.

He predicted people will be forced to leave their homes because of the effects of climate change and that we need to stop treating it as a problem that is in the distant future. The remarks stopped me in my tracks, as much for what was being said, as who was saying it.

It’s ridiculous but if it had been a Green Minister the warning would not have landed anywhere near as hard.

It would have to be fairly sensational to pass through the almost inbuilt anti-Green prejudice held by so many when it comes to facing our ‘planet-is-on-fire’ reality.

In fact, there is also the added tendency, not just to try and ignore what we hear from the smallest party in Government, but to almost subconsciously want to shoot the messenger

Their agenda is seen as highly suspect — trying to rob us of our cars, ruin farmers and, God forbid, let our lawns run wild — all in the name of literally saving us from ourselves. Research from the Economic and Social Research Institute this week shows many young Irish people are willing to give up meat, give up flights, and give their backing to penalising high-emission activities.

The climate support figures from the 16 to 24 year olds are far higher than for older age groups. But even for the youngsters we saw it is all future forward, an intention to change. Just not yet.

Two weeks ago we saw Green Party leader Eamon Ryan asked to speak on behalf of the European Union at COP27 on Loss and Damage, a defining theme of the conference.

But at home it can be the case his comments are greeted with mirth. Remember the reaction when he suggested that motorists should slow down while driving to make the (increasingly expensive) fuel in the tank last longer? 

Despite this being a scientific fact it was greeted largely with derision when he first said it, before others weighed in to confirm that was true.

There is more Green agenda buy-in from the two bigger coalition partners but it’s still a bit of a slog. You hear that, as part of our climate commitments now set down in law, there are climate-related discussions currently going on in official circles regarding removing cars from city centres, congestion charges and raising the price of petrol and diesel. As things stand the North Pole will have fully melted before these would be accepted — no matter how much virtue signalling Irish people do when asked to partake in opinion polls.

We learned recently that almost one quarter of our Climate Action Plan is delayed, with recent completion dates for just under 25% of actions missed.

Even the Government acknowledged in its accompanying statement that it needed to do better, especially given the backdrop of “severe climate change impacts” which we’ve seen in recent times.

Last weekend at the Green Party annual conference, Eamon Ryan said he was “absolutely confident” his party could get the backing of 10% of voters in the next general election. He planned to more than double their number of councillors around the country from 45 to 100.

These were classic, catchy, news lines from a party leader at conference, but many who heard them might have rolled their eyes given that the party usually languishes around 3% to 4% in opinion polls.

On that basis we could actually see them lose seats next time. It is not entirely fanciful that all the Green seats could be lost. Impossible to imagine that, given the seriousness of the climate crisis. But that is where we seem to be at.

Could Ryan and the Greens perform better? Of course they could. But normal political rules do not apply in such a time of crisis. The situation going on all over the world right now means we all need to get moving. We should be cutting them huge leeway and listening without prejudice when they speak. 

Perverse politics

It was interesting after hearing those frightening warnings from Patrick O’Donovan on climate change, to go back on remarks made by the junior minister during the summer when the controversial debate was going on about limiting agricultural emissions.

In keeping with the noises from Fine Gael at that time he stood full square behind the agricultural lobby.

After the deal to reduce greenhouse gases was agreed, with a compromise rate of 25% for agriculture, he rushed to reassure the industry that farmers would not have to make any cuts to their cattle herds as part of emissions targets set out by the government.

“There will be no compulsion — and this is very important from my perspective as a Fine Gael TD — there will be no compulsion,” he told local Limerick station, Live95.

There is something perverse then about all of this. To find yourself paying more attention to a Fine Gael junior minister for instance, who speaks out of both sides of his mouth on the climate issue, while at the same time allowing the white noise filter to descend when you hear a Green senior minister speaking similarly.

The double perversion is the Greens know they have to sugar coat warnings or people will turn off totally from what they are saying.

We so need to start looking at our own prejudices in all of this as we toy with the idea of being able to eat Christmas dinner on the patio.

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