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On climate policy, RTE is miles from “public service broadcasting”

My colleague Ben Scallan ably noted, earlier this week, what no viewer of mainstream Irish news could fail to miss: It’s warm, and, therefore, the media and politicians are availing of the good weather to talk up the threat of climate change. They also do this when it is colder than usual, windier than usual, wetter than usual, or milder than usual. When it comes to climate change, the media rule is no more complicated than “if the weather is worth talking about, it must be because of climate change”. RTE’s Prime Time devoted an entire show to the topic on Tuesday night. I did not watch, but I do not need to have watched to know what was said: “It’s time for action, we’re living with the consequences, it’s only going to get worse”.

That is, after all, very literally the only thing on Climate Change that RTE programmes are allowed to say. I’m not joking – they are literally banned by RTE policy from saying anything else.

The problem is that there is, of course, much more to say.

For example, let’s take it as a given that the basic underlying RTE analysis is correct, and that this week’s warm weather was a) caused by climate change and that b) this problem will only get worse in the absence of serious action.

If that is true, it behooves us to analyse, clearly, the prospects of there being serious action. Just this week, for example, President Biden finally gave up on passing his – already milquetoast by European standards – climate bill. That action will not pass the US Senate this year. It likely will not pass for the remainder of his term, given the likelihood of Republicans taking at least one chamber of congress this autumn. Indeed, if Biden’s approval ratings do not stage a miraculous recovery over the next two years, 2024 may well usher in a Republican President, and therefore put an end to any prospects of an American Climate bill this side of 2030.

In Brazil, the Government proposes to almost double the national herd by 2030. In China, emissions are scheduled to rise progressively until, at the earliest, 2040. One can have a guess what Vladimir Putin’s policy on carbon zero is. Look around the world, and you see the same pattern. If the world’s only hope is net zero, then the world has no hope at all. That is not pessimism, it’s just objective fact, and it matters little how much Irish activists cry about it.

All of which I think poses basic questions about how Ireland proposes to spend the enormous sums that this Government has earmarked for climate action. The overwhelming majority of that money – both money that will be directly spent, and money that will be lost due to carbon cutting measures – is currently earmarked for a carbon reduction plan that is of dubious value. It frankly matters not one jot whether Irish politicians succeed or fail in reaching carbon zero if major polluters around the world are not even trying to do the same. In that scenario – which is the one unfolding – Ireland will endure both the pain of carbon budgets AND the consequences of climate change.

At the same time, we are spending almost nothing on climate mitigation measures. If, for example, Irish politicians truly believe that the consequences of inaction would be massive sea rises, then where are the sea walls being built to protect coastal towns? Where are the bans on building new homes in areas likely to be affected, if these sea rises come to pass?

If, for example, scorching summers are to be the norm within a decade, as some have claimed, then where are the plans to harden and protect the railway network, which will become inoperable in 40 degree heat due to warped rail lines? If temperatures are going to rise so that this week becomes a normal week, why are we spending so much on insulating houses in a manner that makes them dangerous during a heatwave?

There are many more such examples. The list of consequences of climate change is – as RTE is obligated to remind us constantly – practically endless. The list of things that Government is doing to prepare for these consequences is practically zero.

All of the climate eggs, then, are in the zero carbon basket. And yet, we can observe with our own eyes that the zero carbon basket is riddled with holes the literal size of China, Russia, India, Brazil, and the United States.

Against this backdrop, more and more insane ideas are being proposed. This week, we had some poor, slightly touched soul in Government propose that homes would be banned from owning more than one car. Aside from the relatively obvious point that such a measure would be, at least for the moment, unconstitutional, it also smacks of political illiteracy. People will tell a pollster that they want climate action, sure. But by all means, Government TDs should feel free to test support for ideas like this when people are in the privacy of the polling booth.

If we are going to make policy on climate change, then the debate around that policy should be informed and mature. In Ireland, it is neither. Our leaders and commentators appear wilfully uninformed about what is happening – or more importantly, not happening – in the rest of the world. At the same time, there is no maturity. All the eggs are in the childish “we can stop this from happening” basket. Hardly any are in the “how we will survive if it does happen” basket.

Ireland is a tiny country. It cannot control the global climate. It cannot even meaningfully impact the global climate. We are talking about second cars in Irish homes: There are 2.5 million Irish cars in total. China, by contrast, added an additional 18 million cars last year. The simple fact is that if Ireland got rid of all of its cars tomorrow, there would still be more cars in the world at the end of 2022 than there were in January.

The same is true of cattle. The same is true of oil fired heating systems. The same is true of, well, everything.

At some stage, we might get real about all of this. But remember: RTE are literally banned, by their own editorial policy, from considering any other view.

Public service broadcasting? I don’t think so.

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