Analysis & Comment

Martina Devlin: 'We have Sláintecare, now we need Climatecare. Ireland is a small country but we can set an example and others may follow in efforts to end global warming'

Here’s the problem. As individuals we can give up our aul’ sins: instead, make greater efforts to recycle, insulate our houses, install solar panels, choose public transport and/or bicycles, stop buying single-use plastics and heavily packaged goods. You know the drill. But such changes in behaviour, necessary though they are, represent a drop in our plastics-infested oceans.

Political action is what’s needed. Political action is what’s missing – interventions at national and international levels. Let’s start with national. Unfortunately, the Irish Government is on Santa’s naughty list because window-dressing alone is not enough.

The Government pays lip service to climate justice but has failed to fulfil its own commitments on increasing carbon tax. If it makes just one resolution for 2019 it should be to prioritise decarbonisation policies.

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What’s happening currently feels like a moment in history that’s being ignored. Superstorms, deadly heat waves, coastal floods and droughts are embedded in weather patterns now. But fingers remain jammed in ears – climate change deniers chanting “la-la-la I can’t hear you” as the tsunami sweeps in.

The global warming genie is out of its bottle and the window of opportunity for dealing with it is growing ever more narrow as countries prevaricate and hesitate. Nations are sitting on their hands – Ireland included. Apocalyptic warnings from scientists are met with shrugs.

Ireland was among countries which signed up to steps curbing global warming as part of 2015’s landmark ‘Paris Rulebook’ agreement. But the situation is escalating and those measures are insufficient to stop carbon pollution reaching critical levels. COP24, the recent Poland summit notable for its friction, accepted another set of rules. Almost 200 nations participated, Ireland included once again.

However, some states continue to dispute the latest climate science, primarily the Trump administration which denies that human activity is endangering the planet by contributing to rising seas, crop failures, extinction in the natural world and extreme weather conditions. Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are also resistant to pollution-cutting pledges, treating climate science like a political football.

Boo to those badboys. Oh, wait – we’re not too virtuous here in Ireland. Our October Budget failed to include a carbon tax rise, as recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly, ESRI and Climate Change Advisory Council. Last year, the Government’s own Committee in Budgetary Oversight emphasised use of the fiscal system to support climate change policies. But it’s water off a duck’s back to the present administration.

You’d imagine Ireland wasn’t among a host of developed countries burning ever larger quantities of fossil fuels for more than 200 years, thereby increasing the carbon in Earth’s atmosphere.

It’s reached a point where some commentators are claiming the world has left it too late and the planet is already heading for climate catastrophe. On the other hand, there may still be a sliver of time to mitigate the effects of our formerly heedless and now just plain selfish behaviour.

A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the world has only about 12 years to avoid 1.5 degrees Celsius warming above pre-industrial levels – one of the goals of the Paris Agreement. UN Secretary-General António Guterres describes it as an “ear-splitting wake-up call”.

The IPCC says carbon pollution must be cut almost in half by 2030 and reach net zero by mid-century – which would require a fundamental reworking of global energy and transport systems.

These summits aim to achieve results by consensus building: a peer-pressure approach encouraging countries to abandon dirty energy sources such as coal, oil and natural gas. Which brings me to Moneypoint, Ireland’s largest power station: coal-fired and the State’s biggest single emitter of greenhouse gases. How about if our political masters stop kicking the issue down the road and do something about that in 2019?

In fact, the Government’s best resolution for the coming year would be to set up a cross-party group along the same lines as the excellent Sláintecare.

Call it Climatecare. Its remit should be speedy implementation of procedures that would have a dramatic effect on Ireland’s emissions. These could include: closing down the two peat-burning stations; converting Moneypoint from coal-burning to natural gas; and ceasing any promotion of wood-burning stoves or boilers which are pollutants.

Further, Climatecare should insist all new public transport vehicles are powered by electricity or based on hybrid technology; incentivise owners of trucks, taxis and coaches to do likewise; and hike investment on creating a safer environment for cyclists.

Workers who become redundant as a result of any of the above measures must be compensated. The cost is minor when set against huge fines to be levied by the European Union if we fail to meet our commitments.

But instead of heeding the unequivocal science, developed countries are wasting time trying to evade their responsibilities. They – we – have an obligation to secure a safe world for future generations.

It’s no coincidence COP24 was marked by protests from young people, who have most to lose by leaders’ inaction. Inspired by a Swedish 15-year-old who called for a global school walkout, dozens of Polish students left the classroom and marched into the conference centre with a sign reading: “12 years left.” This young generation will not look kindly on today’s wishy-washy deal-makers.

In Ireland, we can expect flooding to increase, along with coastal erosion, destroying land and buildings. Meanwhile, some in the Irish political system persists in denying human involvement in climate change, while other Flat Earthers around the world question whether it is happening at all.

“If we don’t take climate action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon,” David Attenborough warned COP24 delegates. Compelling, you’d have thought. Yet political momentum for international co-operation is sagging.

To be fair, the Government is engaged in a number of schemes to encourage energy saving: retro-fitting houses, subsidising electric cars, solar panels and so on. But it’s hardly sufficient.

Easy to say, of course, that Ireland is a small country and any action we take would have limited impact. However, if we give a lead perhaps others would follow, as with the smoking ban.

Finally, humankind is a recent arrival on Earth in terms of its history. The world can manage perfectly well without us. But space exploration notwithstanding, we are incapable of managing without the world. Food for thought at the Christmas table this year, perhaps?

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