Diarmaid Ferriter: Varadkar needs to change our approach to climate change

The Taoiseach should define climate change as the most important challenge we face, because it is

The rise of Sinn Féin in Ireland was dramatically underlined 100 years ago this month with the election of Éamon de Valera in the Clare East by-election. One thing Sinn Féin came to rely on during that election and beyond was youthful enthusiasm, vigour and focus, in contrast to an older and tired Irish Parliamentary Party. As with all generational shifts, it caused tension. A confidential Royal Irish Constabulary report from this period suggested "sons are frightening their fathers as to what will happen if they don't vote Sinn Féin".

Sinn Féin organisers and leaders had to do a lot of work to sustain the momentum and convince its members and the electorate it could deliver something new and different and that it had a new project for a new generation: advancing the cause of Irish nationalism well beyond the limited home rule that had been part of the constitutional crusade at Westminster in previous decades.

One of those revolutionaries was Denis McCullough, who saw it as necessary in the early 20th century in the Irish Republican Brotherhood

It was natural that a younger generation would embrace the idea of doing things differently; for many of that era their cause became a revolution that defined them and their country in so many ways. One of those revolutionaries was Denis McCullough, who saw it as necessary in the early 20th century in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, to “clear out most of the older men (including my father), most of whom I considered of no further use to us”. It sounds harsh, and it was, but it was also necessary to advance their aims.

When the last of that revolutionary generation departed the political scene in the 1950s and 1960s, some of the post civil-war generation sought to redefine public service and come up with new solutions, including the so-called "mohair suits" and the Just Society brigade, who had interesting ideas about justice, education and economic development and reorientation in their attempts to expand Irish political ambition.


Avocado smashers

Fifty years on and there has been a clearing-out of another generation, this time by the running, shorts-wearing avocado smashers. To what will they bring their focus, energy and vigour? One thing they have promised is to take climate change seriously. On election as Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar said he wanted to see a new ambition on climate change. But he and his colleagues should do more than that; they should define it as the most important challenge to be faced; they are, after all, in Andrew O'Hagan's phrase, the "globally warmed generation". Oísín Coghlan, director of Friends of the Earth, made the point during the week that given the preponderance of much younger Ministers there is the "potential they will get climate change in a way others haven't".

Too many of the old guard used their climate change interventions to carp about targets rather than trying to meet them

They need to; as Coghlan also pointed out, Ireland has developed "a reputation as a climate laggard rather than a leader". Too many of the old guard who have departed the political stage, including Enda Kenny, used their climate change interventions to carp about difficult targets rather than trying to meet them. In 2014 Kenny did the usual speaking out of both sides of his mouth in relation to emissions: "Ireland will be ambitious about its targets but we do not want to be in a position where completely unreachable targets are set for us". In other words, "we" will carry on as normal, with special pleading about our unique dependence on agricultural production.

Shirking responsibilities

Have we advanced much from that position with the unveiling on Wednesday of the government’s blueprint for reducing greenhouse emissions by 80 per cent before 2050? There are parts of the plan that identify specific targets, in relation to banning petrol and diesel cars, for example, but overall it is too tentative and vague and again shirks the need to robustly confront agricultural emissions. In relation to something basic, cycling, to which less than 1 per cent of the Irish transport budget is devoted, there is mention of doing more, but no detail, and there is an obvious fudging on the question of coal and peat burning in a country where burning peat provides 9 per cent of our electricity but 27 per cent of emissions from electricity generation.

In a country where the political establishment has disgraced itself on the issue of water conservation, the omens are not good

This is not a plan commensurate with the stated seriousness with which climate change has to be taken; nor does it match what both the Environmental Protection Agency and the government's climate change advisory council insisted is needed: "A transformation in attitude and the economy."

In a country where the political establishment has disgraced itself on the issue of water conservation, where people will actually profit from refusing to conserve water, and where the Green Party – the party with most credibility in these areas – has just two TDs, the omens are not good. The much-vaunted "new generation" needs to do a hell of a lot more to distinguish itself, and to frighten its parents and children as to the consequences of not embracing climate radicalism. As Margaret Atwood has pointed out, climate change is in reality, "everything change".