When Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny addressed the Paris Climate Summit last December, he declared that Ireland was committed to playing its part in the global push to tackle climate change, and, in line with E.U. targets, would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030. “This requires action by everybody—big and small,” he said, “Ireland is determined to play its part.”
It was all going well, until Kenny disembarked from the stage and seemed to lose his message in the process. Speaking minutes later to the Irish media, he said that Ireland would not compromise its agricultural output and economic recovery for the “aggressive targets” of the European Union. His flip-flop drew widespread criticism, not least from Irish environmental groups. As Oisin Coughlin of Friends of the Earth put it, Kenny “effectively turned to the Irish media present, winked, and said to the audience back home: 'Don't worry, I didn't mean it.'”
Kenny’s contradictory remarks were, as we say here, an Irish solution to an Irish problem. The expression, which appears so often it has its own Wikipedia page, describes any official response to a controversial issue that is timid, half-baked and side-steps the fundamental issue. It has been used to describe all manner of positions taken by successive governments, where outright denial is much more appealing than positive action. Climate change, still an abstract concept in the Irish political psyche, has merited such a confused response.
If Enda Kenny’s Paris U-turn weren’t enough to confound the general public, consider Ireland’s twin targets for 2020: cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent and nearly doubling agri-food and fisheries production from 2008 levels. As agriculture is the largest source of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, the government is on a glide path to spectacularly miss all E.U. and global emissions targets. The only hope of avoiding significant fines is to convince the European Union that Ireland is an exceptional case.
It’s unfortunate that the debate around climate change is often reduced to a sparring match between rural farmers and urban climatologists, each regarding the other as out of touch and unrealistic. The Irish Farmers Association has argued that you can’t replace 100,000 farmers with trees or threaten Ireland’s role in the future of global food security. Environmentalists have warned that you cannot compromise the planet in the name of capitalism.
There is a legitimate case to be made for growing a strong, sustainable strand of Ireland’s economy, but there is also an urgent need to address climate change. The storms that caused the devastating floods on Ireland’s west coast last December cost over $113 million in damage, with many forced to leave their homes. The U.K. Meterological office found that the unusually bad weather was seven times more likely to happen in a greenhouse gas-filled atmosphere.
The new Irish government, formed earlier this month, has pledged new environmental policy and a low-carbon future, but the promise is as vague as it is aspirational. The responsibility now belongs to Ireland’s new Minister for Communications and Climate Change, Denis Naughten. He was elected from a rural, farming constituency, and there is little chance he will make any significant challenges to the agricultural lobby.
Another pioneering spirit that reflects the government's relationship with climate change is Danny Healy-Rae. A new T.D. (Teachta Dálaor member of parliament) from County Kerry, Healy-Rae is often ridiculed by the mainstream media, depicted as a caricature of the backwards, rural politician who got to Dail Eireann (Irish parliament) by fixing potholes rather than inspiring those around him with a grand vision. It is often an unfair depiction but one that actually serves Healy-Rae well in the fierce Dublin-rural divide that exists.
Earlier this month, Healy-Rae decided that his first major act in the new Dail would be to stand up and deny climate change. “God above is in charge of the weather and we here can’t do anything about it,” he declared. “I don’t agree with all this story about climate change at all. There has been patterns of climate change going back centuries, before there was ever a combustible engine working in this or any other countries.” The video footage, which went viral, shows Ireland’s two Green T.D.’s looking on in pensive silence.
He was widely ridiculed but stood by his comments. His brother, Michael, also a T.D., later said it was the inference of “God” that most offended people. (The brothers, both Catholic, seem unaware of Pope Francis’ global push to tackle climate change.) Catherine Connolly, a T.D. from Galway, later referred to Danny “Palin” Healy-Rae, in reference to former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin who also disputed the existence of climate change. Other government ministers were quick to point out that Ireland was, in fact, committed to acknowledging and tackling climate change.
But let's consider the basis for Healy-Rae’s argument for a moment: First there is skepticism in the research and data from science, then confusion about the difference between weather and climate. Finally, and most importantly, there is denial. For a member of the Irish government, it sounds like he’s right on message.
Rhona Tarrantis America's Ireland Correspondent.