Will An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s speech to Fine Gael lead to action?
An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s strong emphasis on environmental protection in his speech to the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party think tank this week is as welcome as it is overdue.
It is clear from his speech that Mr Varadkar has become aware how completely out of step his party and his government is with the very real concerns of the Irish public, especially the young. “When I talk in particular to young people they are certain on the need for action to protect the planet. You only have to look at the projects at the Young Scientists Exhibition to see their level of engagement with the issue”, the Taoiseach said.
However, rather than providing political leadership on what the Taoiseach himself described as “The greatest long-term challenge facing humanity – the protection of our environment”, his party finds itself instead having to play catch-up for eight years in government when climate and environmental issues were completely sidelined.
Contrary to the Taoiseach’s claim that emissions have fallen, total national GHG emissions have risen 6.6% since 2012  Cherry-picking a single year does not equate to a ‘GHG emissions are falling’ trend.
It is heartening that now that the Taoiseach realises that the environment “is something voters and younger voters in particular really care about”. Voting intentions always capture the attention of politicians, and these are shifting rapidly. An Taisce would however disagree strongly with Mr Varadkar’s description of environmental threats as being a ‘long-term challenge’.
The impacts of our rapidly changing climate are hitting home right now, in the form of extreme weather events and rising sea levels and these are set to intensify in the years ahead. Framing this as something for the distant future is a tactic often used by politicians to side-step taking responsibility for immediate action.
Despite the best efforts of the lobbyists and spin doctors to cloud the issue, the science of climate change remains crystal clear: the time for decisive action is now, not next year. Ireland has been among the very worst countries in the EU in terms of climate action. We agreed with our EU partners a 2020 target of reducing our emissions by 20% versus 2005, and instead we will have achieved “at best” a 1% reduction, according to the EPA.
Indeed, emissions from our two main sources of climate pollution – transport and agriculture – are actually increasing, which has resulted from a scandalous political capitulation to special interest groups. It is a gross derogation of responsibility on the part of Ireland to meet its modest EU targets and to play its fair share as a prosperous country by world standards in acting responsibly on reducing dangerous levels of carbon emissions.
The irrational backlash against remarks made in the Dáil yesterday by Mr Varadkar regarding reducing his own consumption of red meat “both for health reasons and for reasons of climate change” underlines the extremist positions being taken by a tiny minority of TDs, egged on by vested interests in the agri-industrial sector who are attempting to shout down reasoned debate on this crucial issue.
While being slow to act on climate change, the current Fine Gael-led government has, regrettably, taken steps to actively damage biodiversity and harm Irish wildlife with the passage of the highly contentious Heritage Bill by minister Josepha Madigan last year. The Bill undermines protections for our already endangered wildlife, and has been roundly condemned by all Irish environmental and wildlife NGOs.
Scrapping this highly destructive Bill would be a useful show of good faith by Mr Varadkar, given that he says “our new values need to be the protection of the environment”. For this to become meaningful in 2019, he and his government need to engage with scientific experts, including ecologists and the largely voluntary eNGO sector with as much enthusiasm as they currently show for consulting with well-heeled industry lobbyists.
An Taisce recognises that the government is slowly beginning to awaken to the reality of climate breakdown and ecological collapse, but the Taoiseach’s remarks this week are in no way commensurate with the scale and severity of the ecological crisis. When he said: “Fine Gael must become the party of the environment. The long-term protection of our planet cannot be ceded to niche parties or other parties”, An Taisce could not agree more.
However, whether there is the will – and nerve – within Fine Gael to turn this lofty rhetoric into meaningful action is what matters now. Already, the special interest groups and climate deniers are working hard to undermine the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action, fearful that their ability to continue to externalise the environmental costs of their industries while pocketing the profits is now under scrutiny.
The eyes of the future are upon us now, urging us to act, with courage and with foresight. We say we care about our children; we say we want to build a better future for them. Now is the time to prove that our actions are in line with our values.
For further information, contact:
John Gibbons, An Taisce Climate Change Committee: +353 87 233 2689
Charles Stanley-Smith, Communications, An Taisce. Tel: +353 87 241 1995
An Taisce The National Trust for Ireland
- EPA NATIONAL INVENTORY REPORT 2018 http://www.epa.ie/pubs/reports/air/airemissions/ghg/nir2018/Ireland%20NIR%202018.pdf
- Small decrease in Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions evident in 2017 EPA Press Release - http://www.epa.ie/newsandevents/news/pressreleases2018/name,65204,en.html
About An Taisce
An Taisce is a charity that works to preserve and protect Ireland's natural and built heritage. We are an independent charitable voice for the environment and for heritage issues. We are not a government body, semi-state or agency. Founded in 1948, we are one of Ireland’s oldest and largest environmental organisations.