January 28th, 2020
Energised as a party, as deputy Catherine Martin put it at the launch of the Green’s election campaign earlier this month, spirits were high that the green wave of the local and European elections would continue to crash against the Irish electorate in the brawl for the Dail, heralding in a new “green decade” – a renewables-fired roaring 20s.
Surely that same wave would have washed over the media too – savvier now to the public’s position on climate, the growing body of scientific literature and data spelling out impending doom, and the need for a nuanced debate on a just transition out of this mess?
Yet, hook, line and sinker, the media scrum went straight for the click-bait election season jugular– ‘Who do you want to take to the Debs – Micheál or Leo?’, ‘What about the Michael Ringroads?’, ‘Where are your wolf policies?’, and my personal favourite, the old election adage, ‘What about your posters?’.
While party leader Eamon Ryan playfully quipped back that, in using the same posters for the third election in a row, his photo was a bit like his confirmation snaps; the question has come up at numerous media doorsteps over the past two weeks.
While concern over the environmental footprint of single use election posters is quite valid, as Saoi O’Connor, Ireland’s answer to Greta, very aptly tweeted as the #GE2020 hashtag started to trend, we really can’t afford for posters to be the “climate issue” of the election.
Existential elephant in the room
Drearily, a fortnight (and a long one at that) into the election cycle, it is looking increasingly likely that this may be the case. Even worse, in the first two-way Presidential-esque leaders’ debate last week, Pat Kenny just about waited for the credits to roll before squeezing in the climate question and then only placed in a head-to-head bout with the suckler herd. Ding-Ding!
Over 90 minutes into the seven-way leader slogfest on RTE last night, a clearly bemused Eamon Ryan pressed Claire Byrne on the need to tease the existential elephant in the room out of hiding.
Oh, it’s coming, she quipped, an ominous and ‘clairevoyant’ warning for the lean green machine as the mic boom and camera swung in unison in the direction of Generic [insert beef or dairy here] Farmer #678, with the words suckler, herd and cull wet on his lips.
Another RTE attempt to give us a good old fashioned manure slinging fight between a rural custodian of the land and a Georgian mansion, loafer loving urbanite eco-warrior. Good thing Eamon was able to hide his elderflower cordial and tie-dye patterned socks behind his podium.
Frustrations aside with the negative framing of the debate (why not a more constructive discussion on how most parties want farmers at the centre of the Just Transition?), one may ask if it is at all surprising that climate has floundered mid-table in the election issue league when the rental market is shot, the cost of living is skyrocketing, thousands are on the streets, trolleys line the hospital corridors, and violence is on the rise (or at least under more scrutiny)?
There may be an argument that those awake to the climate catastrophe at our door are out of touch with the majority of potential voters opening their own doors to prospective Teachtaí Dála, with housing, health and crime topping the concern charts.
Or is there a better argument to be made that a climate inaction bubble is more present in the media that continues to frame climate breakdown as a standalone election issue when, in reality, it is the one all-seeing eye that touches on nearly every issue driving the election deliberations.
Busting the bubble
Take housing, for example, that dominated the RTE debate last night – and quite rightly so. We are in a mess and there is a lot to tease out on the parties’ policies around social housing, rent controls and new build figures.
However, climate mitigation and adaptation measures are at the heart of housing policy. As architect and planning expert Orla Hegarty argued succinctly on Twitter this past weekend – “housing policy is climate policy”.
The billions set aside for housing investment is “the best lever we have for climate adaptation”, Hegarty said in her short but powerful thread, that, used strategically, can provide housing solutions, tackle the climate crisis and help make Ireland a leader in the likes of rooftop solar.
Many parties understand this and do have strong positions on the likes of micro-generation and retrofitting but the questions are rarely coming up. We need the media to be teasing these issues out (as Harry McGee of The Irish Times did at the Sinn Fein manifesto launch today) to help the public better understand the climate linkages, and not just in housing.
The same goes for health (think air pollution and water quality), the economy (think the Green New Deal and the rising cost of climate inaction), rural infrastructure (think ecotourism on restored bogs and clean transport hubs), agriculture (think premium payments for biodiversity custodianship), and Brexit… okay, no one cares about that right now.
So, maybe we don’t actually need a standalone climate debate. Maybe we just need the media to soften on this outmoded and, quite frankly, dangerous narrative that climate change is just one of a number of problems we face as an electorate, and a distant one at that.
Maybe we just need an election debate that asks – even just one question – about where climate sits in the parties thinking across all the key election issues.
This would be a progressive change for a progressive electorate that is concerned with the climate crisis but also worried if they will have enough in the bank to keep a roof over their head at the end of the month.
While it would not quite be the climate debate that many wanted, it may be what we need to help the electorate and the politicians who represent them to understand that climate changes everything – and not for the better.