Election 2020: How much of an impact will the environment have?

Climate change stands out as a key concern but will it change how people use their votes?

All parties in this general election know environmental issues will come up on the doorsteps – especially with younger voters. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

All parties in this general election know environmental issues will come up on the doorsteps – especially with younger voters. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Climate change stands out as a key concern among voters in private polling carried out by all the major political parties.

Some politicians argue that crisis policies are needed to respond to the threat facing the environment, but the immediate question, for now, is whether it will change how people vote.

Outgoing Government TDs will seek to push a more tempered line – that the sins of the past should be parked and the main focus should be on the 183 actions in its plan to address climate breakdown.

The big shift in public attitudes, reflected in deep concern about carbon footprints, is a relatively recent Irish phenomenon, driven by the ever increasing evidence of climate change seen and published over the last 18 months.

Last May’s local and European elections offered a hint of what could happen, when a green wave of sorts led to a good outing for the Green Party. But the general election will be different. All parties know environmental issues will come up on the doorsteps – especially with younger voters.

Public consciousness of the problem is clear from Predict 2020 research produced by Core Research, which sought the views of 1,000 people ahead of the election campaign. Climate action topped health and affordable housing as the key issue for respondents.

Sixty per cent of adults expect “Ireland will prioritise climate action” this year, and those with young families were most optimistic that this would happen.

Finian Murphy of Core Research said that while demand for climate action is a strong trend, it is found in pockets and is most pronounced in households with teens or pre-teens. He noted that this demand was “woman-led”.

“Women, particularly young women, are most likely to say climate action is very important to them personally; 55 per cent of women say it is very important, compared to 45 per cent of men, highlighting the gender divide between the willingness to take action,” he adds.

Climate laggard

The outgoing Government is vulnerable on the subject. Notwithstanding its substantial climate action plan, and close to an all-party consensus on what to do – including increasing carbon taxes – Ireland is widely regarded as a climate laggard. Emissions continue to rise, especially from transport and agriculture.

However, people often say one thing but ultimately do another when voting.

Rural Fine Gael TDs already face the wrath of those who may be affected – long-distance commuters facing rising carbon taxes, or farmers who believe they are being made the scapegoat for CO2 emissions.

Last autumn, an Ipsos MRBI opinion poll showed that 50 per cent of those from a farming background agreed with the statement: “I don’t think climate change will be as bad as some people say so I’m not that worried about it.”

Moreover, debate about necessary decarbonisation in agriculture has become polarised. The hard reality is the sector will have to decarbonise by between 10 and 15 per cent by 2030, or face sharp cuts in the size of Ireland’s national dairying and beef herd.

The broader political issue around climate is even more problematic. The world has 10 years to halt the rise in emissions to keep the rise in temperatures within 1.5 degrees of pre-industrial levels and to avoid irreversible impacts.

Given the existential threat to humanity this century, the debate will come down to the boldness of response (or lack of it), especially as other developed countries have forced their emissions downwards.

There will be much focus on transport, including investment and subsidisation in public transport to get people out of cars, which would bring down emissions while reducing congestion and urban air pollution.

Thunberg effect

The Greta Thunberg effect has rallied young people, but it has also mobilised women more than men. The old truism that older people are much more inclined to vote may not apply on this occasion.

There is much anecdotal evidence to suggest the new generation of impatient under-18 teenage climate activists are not only having an impact on the carbon footprint of their households, but also on their parents’ voting preferences.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the 32nd Dáil was a far more active parliament in terms of dealing with climate change than any of its predecessors. The specially-formed all-party committee agreed ambitious decarbonisation targets.

However, disagreements exist between the two big parties and the smaller parties, especially on roads. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil still favour heavy spending on motorways; the Greens, Labour, Sinn Féin and the smaller parties want spending ratios reversed. There were also disputes over carbon tax, a measure opposed by Sinn Féin and by Solidarity-People Before Profit.

The Green surge in the local elections has led other parties to focus more on climate change, culminating in Minister for Climate Change Richard Bruton rushing out a draft Bill in early January.

If implemented, it aims to ban new fossil fuel-powered cars after 2030 and to have one million electric vehicles on the State’s roads by then. But the Bill was not even fully drafted, never mind fully written, when it was published in the dying days of the Dáil. It was gestural, more than anything else.

Focus groups are clearly telling other parties that climate change is now a central issue, and that the Greens are seen as leaders on the topic. Sometimes the Greens benefit when other politicians are forced to talk about the issue.

Bandwagons sometimes come along in politics. The local and European elections, and opinion polls, signal that the Green Party’s seat total could break into double figures for the first time, and shape the next government.

These signals, however, have yet to be turned into votes.

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