Leo under fire for climate change ‘benefits’ comment

Published by Niall Sargent on

November 4th, 2019

The Taoiseach has come under fire from medical professionals, academics, and climate activists over recent comments about the potential upsides to climate change for Ireland.

Speaking at the launch of the first progress report on the all-of-government climate action plan at the Botanic Gardens on Thursday, Leo Varadkar said that climate change has “benefits” for Ireland due to the expected increase in winters temperatures.

“One thing that we definitely face as a result of climate change is warmer winters,” the Taoiseach said, according to the Sunday Business Post.

He added: “That actually means using less energy because it’s warmer and people need less heating, and it also means fewer deaths as a result of cold weather.”

“There is a ledger, and there are benefits and there are downsides. The downsides outweigh the benefits but we need to be aware of them too,” he is reported as saying.

Ireland has among the highest levels of excess winter mortality in Europe despite our relatively mild winters compared to most of our mainland neighbours. According to the Institute of Public Health in Ireland, many deaths are directly linked to poor housing standards.


Criticism comes fast

Criticism of Mr Vadarkar rained in fast following the publication of the Sunday Business Post article for a failure to take into account the level of death and devastation seen globally from an increase in storms, drought, flooding and other extreme weather events caused by climate change.

UCD environmental scientist Cara Augustenborg wrote on Twitter that the lives that might be spared from winter-related deaths “pales in comparison to [the] suffering we’ll see in Ireland”.

“The Office of Public Works says 30,000+ properties are at risk of flooding from storms & sea-level rise from climate change. By 2050, direct damages from flooding will amount to €1.15bn a year without defences,” she added.

Ireland has suffered from severe flooding in recent decades, including the winter of 2015-16 when thousands of properties were flooded or cut-off. Met Éireann predicts that winters will become wetter, with a potential 20 per cent increase in heavy precipitation events.

In a letter sent to the Taoiseach this morning, Irish Doctors for the Environment asked Mr Varadkar to retract his comments and “address the errors” in his statement as climate change has an “overwhelmingly negative effect on human health”.

Irish Flooding in 2016 Photo: Niall Sargent

Plethora of negative health effects

The letter from the medical professionals cites a recent Department of Health report that outlines a “plethora of negative effects” from climate change, including a projected doubling of skin cancer cases by 2045, an increase in heatwave-related deaths, and adverse effects from flooding.

The Department document also contradicts the Taoiseach’s statement, indicating that, while warmer winters that may reduce the risk of cold-related illness, “significant health impacts and risks will continue from cold snaps and more frequent heavy precipitation events during winter”.

Extinction Rebellion Ireland will hold a protest outside the Dail today to highlight the Taoiseach’s “utterly bizarre” comments. Activists will wear bikinis and shorts, sunglasses and sun hats while sunbathing on loungers in front of a large sign reading “Leo’s Fantasy Island”.  

The non-violent activist movement said this morning that the comments clearly demonstrate that the Government “cannot be trusted” to take the steps to tackle climate change.

“Any meaningful action on climate must be based on the full acknowledgement of the depth of the crisis, whereas the Taoiseach’s comments actually belittle the severity of the climate emergency,” the group said this morning.

Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton at stakeholder meeting Photo: Niall Sargent

Climate plan progress

The climate action plan progress report indicates that the State has achieved 85 per cent of the 149 objectives for this year, with the remainder expected to be completed by the end of December.

The plan contains 180 core actions and hundreds of additional policy moves in key areas such as electricity, transport, agriculture, heating, and waste that it says will put us on a pathway carbon neutrality by 2050.

Climate adaptation plans for 12 key areas, including flood risk management and public health, were also released last week, outlining key risks and the approach needed to build resilience for the impact of climate disruption.

The Government plans to bring in new climate legislation before the end of the year that would see departments and state agencies penalised with funding cuts if they fail to deliver on their climate targets.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London