President Michael D Higgins has strongly criticised attempts by billionaires to control public discourse, suggesting Elon Musk's purchase of Twitter for $44 billion was a case of "dangerous narcissism".
Speaking at the establishment of the DCU Centre for Climate and Society in Dublin on Thursday, the President said “social discourse” must move away from a laissez-faire economic narrative to meet today’s urgent global challenges.
While he did not identify Mr Musk by name, Mr Higgins voiced concern about the ownership of media platforms.
“Is it a great success that a multi-billionaire would be now deciding what is appropriate for people to exchange in discourse? I think it can hardly be described as anything other than a manifestation of an incredibly dangerous narcissism,” the President said in unscripted remarks.
In a wide-ranging speech, Mr Higgins said the Covid pandemic had shown those who claimed the role of the State should be kept to a minimum were wrong. However, the State’s transformative capacity had now to be applied to climate action as the world “is at the precipice of a global ecological catastrophe”, he said.
The public health response to the pandemic proved the State had the capacity to deliver universal services to the highest of standards in the most adverse of circumstances, Mr Higgins said – those who contended states were too large are too costly had “gone to the bushes” but would probably return.
The State, however, had been ravaged due to decades of attack from an orthodox laissez-faire economic narrative “that demanded its role must be minimal, non-interventionist, while asserting that the private sector should lead in all aspects of life, including responding to climate change, on the grounds of a claimed, exclusive competence for economic efficiency”.
Its recovery was urgently needed into the context of addressing climate disruption, where “people now say we will be regarded as criminals in the future by future generations... I think we might begin to think about consequences of a species failure”.
The President said climate and the environment had to become “the unspoken, understood, taken-for-granted context for social discourse in the way that jobs and the economy are now”.
In the released script, Mr Higgins said: “The Irish State must lead by example if it is to have any credibility, any realistic hope of bringing its citizens with it on the challenging journey to a net-zero carbon future.”
Mr Higgins called for a forging of new connections between ecology, economics and ethics for the sake of our shared, fragile planet itself and its global citizens, and for a “eco-social” model to be applied to wellbeing that goes beyond GDP and recognises the limits of the world’s natural resources.
“Let us acknowledge, too, that those who have made the least contribution to our ecological crises are paying the highest price. The most powerful in economic terms cannot, with any credibility, continue to be the slowest to change,” he said.
DCU president Prof Daire Keogh said the centre was a recognition climate change was no longer a problem for physical sciences alone. "It is a policy problem, it is a communications problem, it is a media problem, an ethics problem, an education problem, a corporate problem. In fact, it is a challenge that every area of society will have to respond to."
Centre director Dr David Robbins said "politics, the media, policies and human systems such as finance and governance [are] now the places where blocks to climate action are found".
The gathering was against a backdrop of the IPCC warning the world has only three years to get serious on climate, the Ukraine war, geopolitical upheaval and attempts to get EU states to ban Russian oil imports. "And ringing in our ears are the arguments against...the most innocuous and insignificant climate mitigation measures here in Ireland. Can we stop digging up land and burning it? Can we even build a cycle lane? We can – but we have to understand those who oppose these measures, to engage with them and give them new ways of talking about climate change," he said.
RTÉ's managing director of news and current affairs Jon Williams said the station had failed to join the dots last summer on the climate link to extreme heatwaves. He thanked those who highlighted how it got that wrong. From that point on, he had promised to "double down on climate coverage", and nine months later he was in a position to say that had happened.
Centre co-director Prof Pat Brereton said the media and film industry had to be sustainable, just as other businesses have to do. "It's easy to preach but you need to get your own house in order as well."
He believed the creative industry could speak to mass audiences on climate action. Referring to the satirical film Don’t Look Up, he asked: “Can we really use parody, pastiche, piss-take to connect with audiences? Yes we can – sometimes it can be very effective.”