Why we'll never be rich enough to tackle climate change


After months of expectation, world leaders today made their pitch for tackling climate change. If finely crafted speeches and lofty words could save the world, we would be celebrating tonight. One after another the most powerful men in the world (yes, 99% men) played to the cameras and tread the fine line between global aspiration and domestic interests. Say enough to be accepted as a good enough global citizen, but not too much to commit to sacrifice of vested national interests.
The mood music was certainly much more hopeful than six years ago, when the world last attempted a deal of this scale, with many many more sectors of the global economy now on board for robust action. China seems to be stepping up. The 5th Assessment Report of the IPCC is so stark in its warnings, there is little wriggle room for the skeptics – at least publicly. The global climate movement is also in a better place than ever before. The case for divestment from fossil fuels has given a new vigor, a clear focus and stronger voice to campaigners. Even the Daily Mail is now saying that the movement is not just die hards but ordinary people. Its a strange day when you find the Daily Mail on your side!
Despite this mood music, Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s speech and comments to the media delivered little in concrete action. They were depressingly familiar. As RTE’s George Lee summed it up: special pleading. He continued to make the case that Ireland is special, we have had a hard time, our agricultural economy is different. We need more time. Listening to him, you would think that the only voices that count in Ireland are the farmers – and the export agri-food industry in particular. Where were the voices of the 6000 people who marched yesterday in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Naas?
To say that we have had it tough and we are not wealthy enough to tackle climate change beggars belief. Let’s get things in perspective. We may have fallen from our heady top spot as one of the wealthiest nations in the world, but we are still in the premier league! Yes, we have domestic inequality issues – but there is a serious lack of vision. By the time we are ‘wealthy enough’ to tackle the problem, we will have missed the opportunities that transition brings. The world will have moved on. Responding to climate change does not happen sequentially – it can’t. It has to be an integral part of our economic recovery across all sectors.
Listening to his remarks in the context of a world ravaged by conflict, inequality and poverty just shows how out of touch our politicians are. Other countries like Malawi and Kenya are facing huge challenges of food shortages and desperate poverty. They have been subjected to IMF debt restructuring programmes for decades. Yet they are stepping up with ambitious climate policies which would put us to shame. Our pleading poverty must seem like free riding to them.
The problem is that when one assumes the stance of special pleading, it is difficult to be leading. With the sad violin playing in the background, the mind set is about making excuses – defending a position which increasingly looks like it is from another era. However, dealing with climate change is not just about costs. It is about having the vision to see there are opportunities in seeking sustainable alternatives and the leadership to nurture them. Perhaps our problem is actually that we are too wealthy to address climate change. We feel we have too much to lose.

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