General Election 2020 – a wake-up call for environmentalists

January 23rd, 2020

Voters don’t care about the environment. There, I said it. And I wouldn’t have believed it until this week either.

I think I have been living in a bubble for a very long time – seeing the increased coverage of the climate emergency in the media, watching Greta Thunberg deflate pompous politicians, and joining in the student marches.

It really looked like we were making moves in the battle to help the general public to understand the urgency of the climate problem. And when the Dail declared a climate emergency last year I thought that they were on board.

When the election was called last week, I knew that the main issue would be housing, yet, I also believed that a thread running through all of the issues and arguments over the campaigns would be climate. I thought it could even be a headline issue. I was genuinely confident that the climate crisis was now “mainstream”.

Launch at Sandymount Strand of One Future, a new campaign group calling for faster and fairer climate action Photo: Marc O’Sullivan
Launch at Sandymount Strand of One Future, a new campaign group calling for faster and fairer climate action Photo: Marc O’Sullivan

Cracks starting to show

But then I started to see the signs of deflation in my little climate bubble. Where is the mention of climate? Sure housing is a crisis, and crime, and hospital beds, and childcare, and beef prices, and, and, and…. But so far no one has mentioned climate in any great detail (although it si refreshing to see biodiversity plans cropping up from the Greens and the SocDems).

When RTE and other broadcast media ask people on the street about the election, no-one, and I mean no-one, seems to be mentioning climate as something that concerns them. It just hasn’t come up. And I’m beginning to worry that it won’t.

I took matters in to my own hands this week and asked a few random people in my area about their key election asks and they didn’t even think of climate. When prompted, people say ‘yes, of course climate is important” but they are just being nice and responding in the way they think I would like them to. Putting food on the table and keeping a roof over your head are seen as personal issues. Climate still seems to be seen as something that other people should be worried about.

What has changed in Ireland? How have we gone from a nation that was stopped in our tracks by vast crowds of students skipping school and marching through our cities to protest the very politicians now looking for our support who were doing next to nothing to deal with the climate crisis.

We supported these children, parents encouraged them, and people didn’t even complain (much) when Dublin and other cities ground to a halt because of the climate and extinction rebellion marches. We showered praise for them and clapped ourselves on the back.

School strike Dublin November 2019 Photo: Kayle Crosson
School strike Dublin November 2019 Photo: Kayle Crosson

‘Little Ireland’

Yet, it seems that all of the work, all of the confidence, all of the science, just gets forgotten when people are faced with immediate concerns. As a nation we have fallen back into the thought pattern of housing, health, and crime. Perhaps we think that these are the only issues our politicians might be able to deal with.

Maybe we don’t think anyone can deal with climate. It could be that we don’t even want to think about issues this big, this difficult, and this intractable. And, now that people have a chance to say something that politicians might listen to, climate doesn’t get a mention.

We laugh at “Little Britain” but we have turned into “Little Ireland”, worried only about immediate issues. Australia may burn, Indonesia may flood, the arctic may defrost. Climate change is happening and is going to affect us all, but tomorrow, and for the next few weeks we are going to ignore all that.

And I wonder if we will ever go back to worrying about that stuff again. Maybe we will when the school strikers are old enough to vote but I don’t want to risk waiting that long.

The climate crisis should, must, and has to be something that informs everything they do in office. We need to contact every politician we can and remind them that climate change is coming for us whether we ignore it or not.

Whether we, the public, push for climate action to get on the agenda this election or not, one thing is for sure come February the 8th – we will get the politicians we vote for, or another way of putting it, the leaders we deserve.

By Justin Byrne

Justin is the Chair of An Claoimh Glas, an environmental NGO active in the areas of planning, law, and the environment. He is on the Secretariat of South Dublin Public Participation Network (PPN) and works with many Dublin based community organisations on environmental issues. He is also Chief Operating Officer of the Irish Environmental Network.