Leaping from Laggard to Leader?

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These are heady days in Irish climate activism. Each day brings new twists and turns. There are growing signs that the old guard is under pressure, but constant reminders that old ways die hard. This week I have dared to imagine that Ireland, a shameful laggard on climate change, could shift gear and make a necessary leap forward. Can Ireland, as 16 year old student Theo Cullen-Mouze dared to ask in Leinster House yesterday, move from laggard to leader in one giant leap? Can we take more than baby steps?

The first reason for this hope has come from the resurrection of the Amendment to the 1960 Petroleum and other Minerals Act – the Climate Emergency Bill, brought forward by Brid Smith TD. This bill is straightforward: it would ban the further exploration of oil and gas in Ireland – making Ireland the first country in the world to do so, as far as I know. Following on from the leadership shown in the divestment from fossil fuel act, which bans state investments in fossil fuels, it would be a further clear signal to international investors that the fossil fuel era is coming to an end.

The bill was all but dead until this week. Unable to provide a rational argument against the scientific and moral basis for the bill, Fine Gael used a deliberate procedural manoeuvre to effectively park the bill with little hope it could come to the next stage and generate confusion over its future. Several months passed, and nothing seemed to be moving.

Then the climate strikes happened: 18 weeks of continuous noisy Friday strikes outside Leinster House and in Cork City, and a massive strike of 15000 students across 40 locations in Ireland. There is absolutely no question that the public mood is shifting. The lies and equivocation of the political classes has been laid bare for all to see by the forthrightness of children.

Suddenly, the political mood seemed to question: how will history judge of those who continue to block radical measures in line with the science? How will our own children judge us? Climate change, it seems, is moving from something out there, something other into something proximate. It is becoming a doorstep issue in Irish politics – just eight weeks before local and European elections.

Against this backdrop and perhaps in response to this growing momentum, the Climate Emergency Bill was resurrected. All parties bar Fine Gael pushed forward with the Climate Emergency bill and managed successfully this week to unblock it. This week the bill was put to a vote in the Oireachtas and passed comfortably on to this next stage. It is a significant victory for climate activists who continued to ask their politicians to get it through.

The second reason to hope came in the form of a long awaited cross-party report on climate action. Following the Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Leadership, the Joint Committee on Climate Action (JOCCA) has finally released its long awaited report. The report contains no less that 40 significant measures which, if enacted, will demonstrate a very significant step forward in climate action. Many of those actions are basic by other countries standards, but one in particular has never been voiced before – and would up turn decades of climate inaction: a radical shift in Irish agriculture. All other government and committee proposals until now have focused on the need to protect the interests of the beef and dairy industry at all costs – and promote an export-led expansion of the national herd. The best that could be expected of the agricultural sector, which accounts for over 30% of Ireland’s emissions, was marginal efficiencies rather than big cuts. This committee, however, has dared to do what nobody else has done: it has called for a root and branch reform of agricultural policy away from beef and dairy and towards diversification of land use, horticulture as well as greater efficiencies.

Moreover, after much intense discussion, the cross-party group voted at the last minute to accept the advice of the Climate Advisory Council and propose a meaningful carbon tax.

This is radical indeed by Irish standards. It demonstrates that the committee has not been beholden to the vested interests, and as a cross-party group it was prepared to cross the rubicon. On the last day of the committee hearings a representation of young people from the youth climate strikes presented. Their concern and passion had everyone spell bound. They came with a dire warning for politicians that ignore their entire generation’s concerns – change at the ballot box is coming. They called for a “leap” rather than “baby steps”. They are thirsty for radical change and will continue to demand it. Much remains to be done – words are cheap. But as words go, what has been heard this week gives cause for real hope. If fully implemented in a timely way, it would truly be a great leap forward.

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