Why we find it hard to respond to the climate challenge and how to rise to it
1 Sep 2009
Article by Friends of the Earth Director, Oisin Coghlan, for first issue for Eolas, a new magazine for "Ireland's decision-makers".
Climate change is one of the most difficult issues to communicate and tackle in a modern democracy. It is a threat that requires very significant action now but the consequences of inaction don't hit home for years or even decades to come. "Action now" always means disturbing some vested interests and often the public at large. The 24/7 news cycle and the emergence of talk radio, 4 to 5 year electoral cycles with almost constant fundraising and electioneering and the considerable influence of corporate lobbying are all challenges for politicians and officials tasked with thinking and planning for the long-term.
It is a particularly tricky issue in Ireland. Let's face it, historically we have not been very receptive to environmental concerns. A number of factors explain this, but at bottom I think we have assumed our self-image as the emerald isle includes environmental greenness too. Until recently there was considerable grain of truth to that. We must be one of the few territories in the world where the population is significantly lower than it was 170 years ago. Combined with our relative poverty until the 1990s and our the lack of large scale industrialization it did mean our environmental impact was less than many other Western countries.
Then came the boom. Just as average incomes caught up and surpassed the European average so too did our ecological footprint. Ireland became the sixth most climate-polluting country per person in the OECD and the second worst in the EU. And we so did not want to hear about it. We had been poor for so long and were rather surprised to suddenly find ourselves in the money. The boom was our collective adolescent binge-filled blow-out. And party-poopers were not welcome. As then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern put it, in his now infamous comment, he didn't know how those who were moaning didn't commit suicide.
What is supposed to happen next is a certain normalisation of prosperity, a shift to what sociologists call a 'post-materialist' phase of development when other concerns such as the environment come to the fore. In other countries this has included cleaning up the legacy of pollution from industrialization and establishing new environmental protection standards and practices. This has been the pattern in countries like the UK and Germany. Although Ireland's record on implementing EU environmental directives is poor there were some signs of this shift in recent years. Certainly, in the 12 months following Al Gore's movie and the Stern Review climate change broke into the mainstream not just as a policy issue but as a media fad.
Unfortunately, before that shift could be consolidated and institutionalised came the bust. In Ireland it has been as spectacular as the boom. As a result we are right are back in a 'materialist' phase with the public agenda dominated by jobs, banks and cuts. All other issues are being crowded-out.
Another particularly Irish challenge is our ambivalent attitude to regulation, often ascribed to a lingering post-colonial suspicion of authority. We have tended to see the likes of tax codes, planning regulations and drinking times as a challenge rather than a collective democratic decision.
The irony is that the factors that explain our sudden flip from boom to bust are also at the heart of the climate challenge: poorly understood risk, weak regulation and short-termism.
Maybe human evolution hasn't kept pace with human civilization. We perceive and respond to threats when they are close or visible, and our response is not necessarily proportionate to actual risk. Plans for dumps, incinerators, pipelines, powerlines and phone masts are often met with opposition but we're not so sensitive when the threat seems remote or abstract, as climate change does. The fact that that business as usual will leave us with a 70% chance of global warming of more than 5°C when scientists and politicians agree that anything over 2°C would be dangerous doesn't of itself rouse the public or the politicians to action.
If I told you that if you continued to fly as often as you do now there is a 70% chance you will be in a plane crash I think you would re-consider your transport plans. Yet, carry on as we are going and there's a 70% chance our civilization will crash. Friends of the Earth is not the first to lament the fact that the gases which cause climate change are invisible. If we could see them billowing from our homes and our cars and our factories and our farms the effect would be transformative.
But we can't see the cause of climate change and we can't wait to see the consequences before we act. This is where the analogy with the financial crash breaks down. After the collapse of Lehman Brothers a year ago governments were still able to muster the authority and the capacity to pull the system back from the brink, despite the disarray and the missteps. The banking system did not collapse even if, as we know all too well in Ireland, it is still debilitated and degraded. But if we wait for the definitive moment when the climate crisis becomes a climate crash - say the collapse of the Greenland ice-sheet - there will be no way back. Nature doesn't do bailouts as the activists' placards read this summer and there is no planet B.
If we are to rise to the climate challenge we have to act under conditions of risk and uncertainty and act now to pre-empt the probability of disaster down the line. That is why Friends of the Earth has led the campaign for a climate change law and is delighted with the news that the Government has decided to draft and publish a climate change Bill before the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in December.
A climate law will set a long-term framework for climate policy. Putting our long-term emissions targets into law gives certainty to business and households. It sets the direction and ambition of government policy, creating the confidence to invest now in solutions that have a relatively long payback time. Establishing a small, independent Climate Change Commission means the Government will get expert, evidence-based advice on targets and policies.
The preparation of legally binding five-year Carbon Budgets, with the allocations broken down by department and sector just as in the fiscal budget, will institutionalise the whole-of-government approach that is required to achieve the necessary emissions cuts. Making the Taoiseach or the Minister of Finance responsible for presenting the Carbon Budget to the Dáil ensures coordination at the highest level with more authority than a sectoral ministry like environment can muster. Equally, the Climate Change Commission would lay an independent report before a new Carbon Accounts Committee of the Dáil in the same way C&AG's report goes to the Public Accounts Committee. Line ministers and the department secretaries would be accountable to the Dáil committee. Together, this 'policy architecture' hardwires action and accountability into the political system.
Overall, a strong climate change law is the best way to ensure that all departments across government and all governments across time take climate change seriously and take action consistently. It will also be the cornerstone of an economically and environmentally sustainable recovery. For example, Ireland was not rich in the natural resources of the fossil-fuel era but we are rich in the natural resources of the post-carbon age. The law will drive innovation in public policy, private enterprise and personal behaviour and lay the foundations for low-carbon prosperity.