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Some countries have a haze of smog – we have a haze of smug

Our climate cheques are bouncing but we still think we are an exceptional people

Ireland may not be the best little country in the world. But it is unquestionably the smuggest. We suffer from SSS: Snow White stepmother syndrome. We have a magic mirror that knows the required dialogue off by heart: Who’s the fairest of them all? You are, lovely little Ireland. But on the single most important question facing our world, Ireland is truly hideous. When it comes to the existential threat of climate change, Ireland is a rogue nation, a spoiled brat that thinks it’s a little angel. At least when Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris accord, the malice and aggression were overt. We do things in our own sloothery way. We love the Paris accord so much that we don’t have to do anything to honour or obey it.

All our climate cheques are bouncing. We signed up to achieve by 2020 a modest 20 per cent reduction in carbon emissions from 2005 levels. The Environmental Protection Agency’s latest projection is that, at best, Ireland will achieve a 1 per cent reduction by 2020. In 2016, the latest year for which we have full figures, overall energy consumption actually grew by 3.2 per cent. This isn’t us missing a target. It is us dousing the target in petrol and setting it ablaze on a bonfire of dirty coal and carbon-rich peat, while we enthusiastically fan the greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Carbon emissions from Irish households are the highest in Europe, nearly 60 per cent higher than the EU average. The 2018 Climate Change Performance Index puts Ireland in 49th place of 56 countries – making it the worst in Europe. The more recent EU-sponsored Climate Action Network (CAN) report has some better news – it ranks us only second worst in the EU, ahead of Poland, which is, of course, a major coal producer.

Burned with shame

Some of what we continue to do is beyond belief. John FitzGerald wrote a piece about turf-fired power stations in The Irish Times in June that must itself have raised global temperatures since anyone who read it burned with shame and boiled with anger. It is official policy to continue to subsidise these massive carbon-emitters (peat is worse than coal) until 2030. Not tolerate – subsidise to the tune of €100 million a year. FitzGerald calculated that it would be vastly cheaper just to close the stations and keep paying the wages of all those employed. But we prefer to pay them to actively create greenhouse gases.


We are climate outlaws. But we are happily sanctimonious about it. When Trump announced his intention to pull the US out of the Paris accord, Leo Varadkar condemned him in eloquent terms: “Donald Trump mentioned that he was elected to represent Pittsburgh and not Paris, but whether you’re in Pittsburgh or Paris or Portlaoise, we all breathe the same air and we’re all affected by the same climate.” Yet the CAN report also notes that behind the facade of virtue, “At EU level, Ireland failed to join the group of progressive EU member states calling for increased EU climate ambition and played a negative role in the negotiations of the EU 2030 climate and energy legislation, pushing for loopholes to dilute the laws.”

Climate vandalism

So maybe the climate doesn’t affect Portlaoise after all. Some countries have a haze of smog – we have a haze of smug. If we were to organise a mass demonstration against Trump’s climate vandalism, we’d get tens of thousands on the streets. How many of us would turn out to protest our own abysmal evasion of responsibility for the habitability of the planet? We are weirdly shameless about the most shameful aspect of our collective presence in the world.

Behind the complacency lurks a clapped-out Irish exceptionalism. We’re still living off the glorious irresponsibility of historic victimhood and the superiority of never having colonised anybody. Is there no statute of limitations on these self-exculpating mindsets? Or: we are only a little country and, sure, we suffered uniquely in the great recession of 2008. So how come Portugal, similar in size and recent experience, is fully on track to meet its climate commitments by 2020? How come even Greece, which suffered and is still suffering much more, is performing far better than we are? How come we have never asked ourselves what we want to be when we grow up?

Thinking ahead

The truth is that we are exceptionally wrapped up in the past and the present and exceptionally indifferent to the future. We love being in a “decade of centenaries” and reliving history. We love dreamily admiring ourselves in our SSS mirror. But we are collectively awful at thinking ahead. For all our self-proclaimed imaginative power, we cannot imagine the next decade, never mind the next century. We thought about climate change when we had a little heatwave – but when the rain and clouds returned, our thoughts vanished with the sun.

If there is a human future in which history can still be written, what will it say about Ireland’s self-satisfied shirking of the greatest challenge facing humanity? That we couldn’t be bothered, that it was too inconvenient, that it was somebody else’s problem – but sure our hearts were in the right place.