Arid Environment

Sinn Féin cannot have it both ways on climate change

Mary Lou McDonald was the keynote speaker at the first national energy summit, convened last Tuesday in Croke Park.

The summit was conceived to bring together “industry experts and thought leaders from both the public and private sectors to find solutions to the issues facing us in securing our energy supply…to reach our 2030 targets and to meet the demands of our growing and decarbonising economy” “.

No small task, certainly one requiring some vision. And there to show the way into this green, decarbonised future was the Sinn Féin leader.

Right now, the planet craves leadership. An existential crisis is already under way with climate change.

Parts of the developing world are today suffering the dire effects that are disproportionately attributable to the wealthier countries, including this one.

The poorest are getting it in the neck but everybody else will soon enough. Without immediate and transformative action, today’s children are en route to a dystopian future.

We need leaders to persuade and lead into the necessary transition that is going to be painful and disruptive in order to properly serve those coming after us.

Step forward Mary Lou McDonald, putative taoiseach, self-identifying left-winger, standard bearer for the hopes and dreams of all who feel ill-served by politics as usual.

The MC for the energy summit, Ivan Yates, introduced the keynote speaker by saying usually it might be expected that a “green” person would be delivering the speech but that requires that “all the stuff you’re working on has somebody there to popularise it at every level of society and government.”

What exactly is a “green person” these days? Yates was presumably referring to a member of the Green party, but his comment is entirely reflective of a body of opinion in which “this climate thing” is a hobby horse for the Greens rather than an existential crisis for mankind.

Mary Lou stepped forward to present her vision. “In the long and winding human story, each generation faces its own unique challenge and today’s challenge is how to meet energy needs now and into the future, how we play our part from changing the economic model from extractive to regenerative, and how the energy sector evolves.”

The speech went on in this vein, visionary, polished, articulate. “We stand at a crossroads and the decisions we make today will shape the future. The stakes are very high for our environment, our planet, out future, our survival,” she said.

Then she John F Kennedy. “Change is the law of life, those who look only to the past are certain to miss the future. Let’s not make that mistake.”

At the end of it all, the audience was sufficiently appreciative. It had been, by any standards, a fine address, a vision setter.

Back in the real world

A few hours later, back in the real world, Ms McDonald was addressing the Dáil. The subject matter was the issue of people dying through poisoned air quality as a result of the burning of dirty fuel, including turf. Three previous environment ministers shied away from banning the sale of turf. Now Eamon Ryan is attempting to rectify things, in order to save lives and possibly also save bogs that they may continue to be a repository for the carbon that is killing the planet.

Perhaps Mr Ryan thought that growing awareness about climate change had engendered a political mood whereby politicians in general might see this as an issue on which to show that they are serious about what lies ahead.

There is confusion over the proposed ban on turf cutting. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

The proposed ban is not transformative change. It won’t happen today or tomorrow. There is sufficient lead-in time to the winter of 2023 to ensure nobody will be left in the cold. This is a minor, nay teeny, example of the kind of leadership required to bring about transformation.

So here was Mary Lou at Leader’s Questions on Tuesday afternoon, fresh from her Croker call to arms in the name of the planet.

“I invite the Taoiseach again to clarify that there will be no ban and that the proposed ban is officially from today ditched and assurance is given to people living in rural Ireland. This is what we need. We need clarity. The Taoiseach should not talk in riddles. He should tell us that the madcap, half-baked, unfair notion advanced by Eamon Ryan is now officially ditched.”

There you have it. Striving for clean air, attempting to retain a sump for the carbon that is killing the planet, is a madcap idea from this green person, Eamon Ryan. Perhaps, on reflection, Ms McDonald in her morning speech should have quoted not JFK, but Danny Healy Rae. “Vote for the people, stay with the people, and to hell with the planet and the fellas that say we must save the planet and forget about the people.”

Mary Lou McDonald is the most obvious, but by no means the only, example of the kind of leading from the rear that typifies the political approach to tackling climate change. When the choice is to either pander or persuade, she will opt for the former, as the latter might take too much work and is no guarantee of success.

Her party is against the carbon tax, the one proven — and minor — instrument designed to tackle carbon emissions with a sense of urgency. Why would a party described by its finance spokesperson Pearce Doherty as “centre left” oppose a carbon tax? Because all taxes are nominally unpopular and who wants to be unpopular?

So it also goes with wind energy. Earlier this month, Ms McDonald was a keynote speaker at the annual conference of Wind Energy Ireland, the industry body for wind farms. She is all for wind farms offshore, and she told the conference that what was required was an expedited planning process. On that she is correct.

Last November though, her party had to withdraw at the last minute a private members’ bill that, if successful, would have ended the development of wind energy onshore. Embarrassingly, the bill was scheduled for the same week as COP26 in Glasgow convened.

The difference between onshore and offshore wind farms for Sinn Féin?

Fish don’t vote and there is always bound to be a few first and second preferences from somebody opposing a wind farm onshore.

At some point, all of the main parties are going to have to grapple with the crisis.

In this respect, Sinn Féin, currently the largest party and in all likelihood the leading component of the next government, has the furthest to travel.

Its rise has been largely solved based on a populist appeal in which difficult problems can be without inconveniencing anybody who might vote for the party. Its climate change policy is based on a so-called just transition that promises no disruption or pain for any of its voters.

Unfortunately, that won’t suffice. Time is not on our side. That may not bother today’s leaders, but they will stand indicted by history.

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