Response to climate crisis must include the less-well-off, says President

Michael D Higgins tells Borris festival a wider societal response will be required

President Michael D Higgins has called for a widespread societal response to climate change.

“Our planet is on fire and it will require a global and whole-of-society response. One of the good things is that there are very few climate change deniers now. They have headed for the hills,” he said at a cultural event in Co Carlow on Friday evening.

He reiterated that those who had contributed the least to the climate crisis were paying the harshest and most immediate price.

“We will be obliged to widen our perspective of home to all people on Earth in an act of international solidarity which will mean there will be some sacrifices we must make,” he said, noting that about 82 million people were displaced.


However, he questioned whether public figures had “the generosity of spirit or political intelligence” to deal with climate refugees and “absorb new groups of people”.

“What will be required is a merging of consciousnesses – the consciousness of the younger generation fighting on ecological matters and those who have fought for equality and justice,” he said.

Speaking to Lord David Puttnam on the topic of Ireland, Europe and the Climate Crisis at one of the opening sessions of the Festival of Writing and Ideas in Borris, Co Carlow, the President made reference to Irish research that has shown many of those suffering from bad housing and unemployment show the least interest in climate change. "It's the well-off people who are showing the most interest in climate change but an all-of-society response will be needed so that communities can generate strategies and measures within their own communities."

Beyond borders

President Higgins said that on an international level there was a need for a "moral and intellectual awakening" and co-operation beyond national borders. He said that while he was pro-European, the European Union needed to pay more attention to different cultures. "The future of Europe can't be reduced to a Franco-German conversation," he said.

Speaking about Europe’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, he argued that Europe had lost the trust of countries in the developing world who were struggling to vaccinate their populations. “We’ve lost credibility in terms of global vaccination because we’ve been unable to find a mechanism to deal with intellectual property to allow other countries to produce vaccines as they need them. This won’t be the only pandemic we will experience, so we have to be willing to make changes.”

He made specific reference to the power of lobbyists with vested interests stopping good action on climate change and the distribution of pharmaceuticals. "There are 35,000 lobbyists in the European Union and 12,000 in Washington DC. It's a cop-out to say that we are all guilty of vaccines not being delivered to Africa. It's an exercise of power."

Responding to a question from the audience on what farmers can do in terms of climate action, President Higgins said, “It’s a question of getting out of the American-style farming that was introduced into Europe. Farmers need an assured income ... We’ll have to privilege different forms of production. If you consider that we import 55 per cent of our food yet we are one of the biggest producers of infant formula in the world.”

In one of his concluding remarks to a masked audience of about 200 people, he said, “There has been great empathy shown during Covid which if available, could get us to a new place.”

The Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas in Borris, Co Carlow, continues until Sunday.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment