Pat Leahy: Why has climate change not benefited the Greens?

Despite all the handwringing, Irish voters are oddly reluctant to back Green initiatives

12-year-old Sumaya Mohammed speaks before the Joint Committee on Climate Action calling for Government action on climate change. Video: Oireachtas TV


The tortuous deliberations of the Oireachtas committee on climate change this week finally produced a report on measures to respond to the effects and tackle the causes of climate change.

Big deal, you say. Politicians produced a report. It’s not even Government policy – rather it will inform the forthcoming policy from the climate action (sic) Minister Richard Bruton.

It’s not even like the report produced the sort of all-party consensus that had been advertised in advance. When it came to the most contentious issue, Sinn Féin and Solidarity/People Before Profit TDs voted against the proposed carbon tax increases. It’s a credo most politicians seldom deviate from unless they absolutely have to: never do anything that might be unpopular with your voters.

Down the road, the local Fine Gaelers welcomed the decision this week by Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown County Council not to plonk traveller accommodation in the middle of salubrious Mount Merrion. The absolute desire to not inconvenience their own voters is common to Irish politicians on the right and the left.

So don’t get too carried away by the success of the committee – however well-meaning – in concluding its report. The last all-party report to be launched amid a welter of reforming zeal was the health reform committee’s Sláintecare report. You’ll have seen the dynamic reform programme in the health service which that precipitated – no?

Urgent action

But those who want to see urgent action by the Government on climate change shouldn’t be too downhearted, nor too surprised. This is how reforms in Irish politics often work. The small parties (it used to be Labour, especially on social issues) convince the big parties; their natural pragmatism and political caution retards and weakens the proposals, but, once adopted, the big parties make the reforms happen in Government.

The report and the politicking on the committee that preceded it suggest that this pattern is being followed here. That means it’s much more important for the Green and green-minded TDs to win over Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil (albeit nervously) than it is to get the Shinners and the lefties on board. And they’ve done that.

But it also prompts a question which is obvious but seldom asked: at a time when climate change is recognised by an awful lot of people as one of the principal political challenges facing the Irish political system – and in countries all over the world – why do more people not support the Green Party?

More than two-thirds of Irish people see climate change as a very serious problem

The party has two TDs, and prospects of a few more. But not many more, I think. The Greens were at two per cent in the last Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll earlier this month. You’d expect their support to be strong among young urbanites, but they’re only at 5 per cent in Dublin and 3 per cent among the under-35s.

Opinion polls

It’s true that national opinion polls are not the best vehicles for measuring the support of small parties. They depend on high-profile candidates in a few constituencies. But still. There’s really no sign of life in the Green numbers.

And I think that’s surprising. Green parties are thriving in lots of European countries, as public concerns about climate change and dissatisfaction among former social democrat voters propel them into the mainstream. A poll in Germany this week showed the Greens at 18 per cent – joint second with the social democrats and further evidence of a sustained rise that is one of the most important trends in German politics. The Greens are in coalitions in nine of the 16 state governments. And beyond: local elections in Belgium and Luxembourg last autumn saw strong gains. Same in the general election in the Netherlands the year before when the Greens went from four to 14 seats.

So why not here? More than two-thirds of Irish people see climate change as a very serious problem, according to a Eurobarometer poll last year; 13 per cent see it as the most pressing issue facing the world today. Wouldn’t you think a few of them would give the Greens a scratch?

Two explanations – and the truth is probably a mixture of both (it usually is). Firstly, for all the handwringing and public virtue-signalling, Irish people may be willing to tackle climate change only as far as it doesn’t inconvenience them – a sort of national “Mum, can you collect me from the climate change march?”

We might pay lip-service to reducing carbon emissions, but draw the line at supporting a carbon tax. There are evidently lots of politicians who think so, anyway.

Effective political message

Secondly, the Greens have not been good at delivering an effective political message. Of course, it’s hard to break through in a fractured political environment; but if the Greens are to win seats, they need to connect concerns about climate change to voting for their candidates.

The Greens are running 100 candidates North and South in the local elections – a springboard, says leader Eamon Ryan, to a general election he expects in September/October. His target when that contest comes is 5 per cent and six Dáil seats – enough to almost certainly put the party in Government, he thinks. A realisable goal – but he’s not nearly there yet.

He might get his opportunity sooner than that, even. German chancellor Angela Merkel is not coming for a long-awaited lunch date on Thursday; she is coming because Brexit is truly in the endgame now. A resolution of some sort seems the most likely outcome of the coming crunch. And if that happens – the UK is out, or into a long extension – then Brexit will be taken off the domestic political agenda, transforming it immediately, and immediately creating a vacuum where it once was.

Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum . So what fills it? “A burst of activity by Leo,” says one Government insider. “And then an election.”

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