The Irish Times view on climate and the election: The missing issue
It was unfortunate the RTÉ debate dealt with climate change in relation to the national herd
Charred trees in a patch of forest burnt during the recent bushfires near Batemans Bay, New South Wales, Australia. Photograph: Loren Elliott/Reuters
Tackling climate change is “the biggest challenge our country has ever faced”. Green Party leader Eamon Ryan made this opening comment on the Claire Byrne Live election debate between seven party leaders on Monday night. It’s a position that no other leader questioned directly.
Indeed, one of the welcome features of our political landscape is that no significant party or social organisation questions the ever-more urgent warnings from scientists that human life faces unprecedented catastrophe unless we drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Too many politicians elsewhere are less amenable to reason.
In fact, Ryan’s statement is echoed almost word-for-word in Fianna Fáil’s election manifesto, and implicitly or explicitly in those of the smaller parties. While promising “a zero-carbon future”, Fine Gael gives climate action a lower profile.
In practice, all the political parties accepted that housing, health and taxation are of much more immediate concern to voters
It is notable, too, that the Dáil last year declared a “climate and biodiversity emergency”, and that school strikes here in support of climate action have been broadly welcomed or at least tolerated.
The recent recovery of the political fortunes of the Green Party, coupled with accelerating global news of extreme weather culminating in Australia’s disastrous fires, generated a widespread assumption that climate and environmental issues would play a central role in this campaign.
Yet no one in the RTÉ debate, not even Ryan, addressed the challenge of climate again for the next 90 minutes. It was clear that, in practice, all the political parties accepted that housing, health and taxation are of much more immediate concern to voters.
The environment is far too important to be treated as a political football between town and country.
And it was unfortunate that, when the debate returned to the climate issue, it was in the context of a question for each leader on whether they were in favour of reducing the national suckler herd.
The relative contributions of agriculture, transport, industry and other sectors to reducing emissions must be debated. But the environment is far too important to be treated as a political football between town and country.
It is certainly absurdly magical thinking to contend, as the two biggest parties and Sinn Féin do, that climate change can be mitigated without significantly reducing the herd.
But we need to look at a much bigger picture, which reveals that the economy is a subset of the environment, not the other way round. We will not reverse the climate and biodiversity crises until we reassert the primacy of the common good over private gain in every sector, and work together to restore the degraded natural systems on which our survival depends.
It is troubling to find, through the election campaign so far, that that kind of necessary vision is still lacking in so many quarters of our political and civic life.