There is a debate missing from Irish politics. Despite the now overwhelming scientific consensus about the causes and implications of the changing climate, there has been little if any public discussion about the possible impact of climate change mitigation on everyday life.
This is a major problem. If, and it is a big if, the world is ever going to get truly serious about climate change mitigation, the patterns of work, play and consumption that have become so familiar to us will have to change, perhaps quite drastically. Having not prepared the public at all for the scale of this challenge, it is very possible that efforts to meet it will be greatly resented and opposed. Put bluntly, if the government bans the family holiday or the big car, people may get rather angry.
Thus if climate change mitigation is ever to succeed, public support must be built for it. Undoubtedly, there will be no shortage of opportunistic or dogmatic politicians willing to deny climate change, or water down mitigation, in order to win votes. A public that suddenly has a large carbon tax, say, thrust upon it, will find many comforts and desires suddenly unobtainable.
This is because generating the energy required to power the existing economy from green technologies is almost certainly not possible at the moment and, even if it was, would be enormously costly. According to Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Research Institute at the University of Manchester, a successful climate change mitigation effort would likely require a major “planned recession”, with many jobs lost, most salaries slashed and all lifestyles drastically changed as a result.
People do not have a good track record of responding to such things rationally, but are rather more likely to react emotionally. Motivated bias, basically an emotion-inspired irrationality, may well come into play, with people angry about their lost luxuries being increasingly persuaded by climate denialist arguments.
We need look no further than wind-farms to see this effect. Across Ireland and the United Kingdom, people who previously had no strong opinions suddenly bought into all sorts of arguments once they felt themselves personally affected. Imagine this NIMBY-ism on a nation-wide scale and one begins to grasp the extent of likely public opposition.
Opponents to mitigation will be unscrupulous in their use of rhetoric, propaganda and plain falsehood.
Recent polling suggests that about half of all Irish people do not even regard climate change as a serious issue. These people, at the very least, would be ripe targets for an anti-environmentalist party. Such a party could sound very optimistic. They could argue, based on widely discredited evidence, that the problem is small or not anthropogenic. Even if accepting to some degree, they could, in a manner reminiscent of Brexit, argue that ‘human ingenuity’ will solve the problem without need for much sacrifice. They would, unlike those realistic about the problem, paint a picture of a very rosy future. There is, by contrast, little to be optimistic about in relation to climate change mitigation, unless one wants to go down the dangerous and likely false path of some ‘ecological modernisation’ thinkers and claim that mitigation will be a win-win, with new green technologies spurring further economic growth.
Rather, persuasion on an unprecedented scale is likely required. We should be cautious about straightforward education, which most environmentalists advocate. Opponents to mitigation will be unscrupulous in their use of rhetoric, propaganda and plain falsehood. They are also likely to be well-funded. Proponents of mitigation have the facts strongly on their side, but recent examples show this to be insufficient. Distasteful as it may be, a strong, slick PR campaign may well be required to win the public debate.
At the very least, the case for mitigation should be made and the Irish public given the chance to accept or reject it. Ireland may well gain more than it loses from a warmer climate, at least for a few decades, so it is perfectly possible that the public will be unwilling to make sacrifices for the benefit of other nations and future generations, even if they accept climate change and the challenges of mitigation. But if there is ever going to be any chance of the Irish people buying into a just and effective approach to climate change mitigation, they must first be prepared for what this will entail.
Dr. Michael Keary is a Teaching Fellow in Humanities and Social Science at Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan. He has published academic articles in the areas of climate change, technology and environmental politics.