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Michael McDowell wonders: Is Ireland doing too much on Climate Change?

Credit where it is due, Michael McDowell has never feared being unpopular. Which is just as well, because his article for the Irish Times yesterday asks some questions that will be unpopular with the Government:

Practically no one has articulated the reservation that it may not make sense for Ireland to be in the frontline of the international climate change drive. There is another way of looking at our national interest. Given the almost insignificant difference in terms of the planet’s future that a choice between ambitious and less ambitious climate change targets will make, there is an argument that we should not aspire to be at the front of the peloton but that we should, like some team riders in the Tour de France, be content to have a comfortable and less demanding place in the chasing pack.

I am always suspicious of a government that makes commitments which will not be realised in its own lifetime. It is very easy to backload the pain and cost of policy proposals to the next political generation or at least to the next few governments. At the same time, a five-year horizon for climate change policy makes no sense at all.

McDowell’s arguments will be familiar to Gript readers, since our own Ben Scallan never tires of making them: We are a small country, and our contribution to global emissions is negligible. Many of our policies have no net impact on the climate anyway: We stop cutting turf but import it from overseas anyway. We ban offshore exploration, but the companies explore elsewhere, and extract the same amount of gas, and so on, and so forth.

McDowell’s case is a simple one based on risk and reward: Ireland risks doing itself considerable economic harm, while netting almost no reward in terms of the climate, because other, much larger, countries, are not doing anything like what Ireland proposes to do. We should sit back, he says, and wait for actual global initiatives that might work, before investing all our chips on a strategy of setting an example.

All of that makes perfect sense, of course, but it suffers that fatal political flaw of not being very romantic. What is the point after all, of having political beliefs, especially as a young person, if you do not believe you can save the world? That is one of the big attractions, especially for young Irish voters, of the Climate Change issue. It is one are where they feel really empowered to, in the words of Barack Obama, “make change”. It might make no difference, but we can drive gas guzzlers from Irish roads, ban oil drilling, and build a nation of cyclists. The reward is not economic – it is a sense that we are “doing our bit”. That is the problem for people like McDowell, and indeed those of us who wholeheartedly agree with him. His argument is perfectly logical. Which is utterly hopeless, when going up against a political plan based on romance and emotion. You might as well tell your daughter that her boyfriend is unsuitable. You’re only going to make her love him more.

Nonetheless, he is right, and those of us who know it cannot stay quiet and hope that the madness will pass. Ireland has embarked on a strategy of being a global leader on Climate Change. The problem is that said global leadership will likely backfire. If we turn down new data centres, for example, other countries will gratefully accept them. When we turn off our electricity generation capabilities, other countries will gladly sell us their own excess, or, in the alternative, use our rolling blackouts as a cautionary tale. We risk being an example, alright – but of what not to do.

Credit to McDowell, who won’t be thanked for it, for speaking up.

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