Election 2020: Climate change is the dog that didn’t bark

It was Sinn Féin’s message of change rather than the Green one of climate change that emerged as the big winner

Climate change simply did not rate as a hot issue during the election campaign among the vast majority of voters in spite of stark warnings and more evidence showing an overheating world.

Calls for improvements in the health service, housing sector and “for a new lot to run the country” dominated from the get-go. The climate issue got a look in during the final week, but it failed to deflect from electioneering on a narrow range of issues and Sinn Féin’s momentum.

The campaign saw little beyond tokenistic attention being given to the single biggest threat Ireland is facing this century. In the first television debate with all seven leaders the only question was on whether parties supported reducing the national herd to cut carbon emissions.

The exit poll confirmed the extent of disconnect; climate change was the main issue for just 6 per cent of voters.


The Green Party managed to build on its performance in last year’s local and European elections, and secured a small increase in its first preference vote and a big lift to its Dáil seat numbers. But it was Sinn Féin’s message of change rather than the Green one of climate change that emerged as the big winner.

Tactically, instead of welcoming all-comers including Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in forging a new administration, perhaps Green Party leader Eamon Ryan should have aligned more closely with parties of the left.

After all, the Greens with Sinn Féin, Solidarity/People Before Profit, Labour, and the Social Democrats endorsed the One Future Ireland campaign for "faster and fairer climate action". Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were non-committal on this.

A brutal reality was summed up by a veteran Fine Gael handler in Galway East: "The Greens got bogged down in the national herd and carbon tax."

Reforming land use

The party’s relationship with rural Ireland needs careful nurturing by building understanding of its substantive plans to support farmers in looking after nature and reforming land use while offering prospects of a better return for family farms. Collective agreement has to be in the mix.

In some ways herd size is a side issue. A major shift in consumer diets in the western world and a decline in suckler numbers is already in train and reflects market reality.

The climate movement, including young climate strikers, has helped raise public awareness but the Greens have to re-examine their approach to address the big disconnect with voters. Climate disruption somehow remains an issue for tomorrow for many people.

Dr Orla Hegarty of UCD's school of architecture summed up the perception conundrum on Greennews.ie

“On a recent radio programme a commentator said we can’t deal with climate change until we have a roof over our heads. Ireland is in a housing crisis that is dominating the current general election campaign. Climate has hardly been mentioned.”

This type of thinking is perhaps the biggest challenge, she suggested – “the problem isn’t proving the case [that’s been done] or winning hearts and minds [thanks, Greta!] or even finance [€8 billion will go on capital projects this year]. The problem is a lack of imagination.”

Climate adaptation is being seen as a cost and a burden rather than an opportunity. “We have become used to an economics that values quick financial returns, blind to the true social, economic and environmental costs,” she said.


A separate problem that will quickly surface in talks on forming a new government is contradictions and vagueness on climate in the manifestos.

Fianna Fáil says it endorses a response based on what climate science requires. That demands an annual cut in Irish emissions of at least 7.6 per cent a year up to 2030. There is no indication of how it will be achieved.

Sinn Féin has bold ambition on public transport, yet is vague on how to enforce emissions cuts, has unrealistic targets on renewables used in power generation and hopelessly underfunded a programme for retrofitting houses. In any combination its opposition to carbon taxes becomes problematic, and contradicts ESRI analysis showing they work as one instrument to decarbonise economies.

The Greens in any scenario will demand a robust climate governance framework; legally-binding targets, carbon budgets that once agreed cannot be dropped by incoming governments, a major retrofitting programme with novel financial incentives and the drawing up of a national land use plan.

It will insist that carbon taxes backed by just transition principals, such as increased supports for those in fuel poverty, are not incompatible.

The ultimate questions, according to climate researcher Sadhbh O’Neill, are: “Are the parties’ platforms as they head into talks over government formation consistent with a pathway to net-zero emissions? Will climate change even make it on to the ‘red line’ list? With such a tremendous result, will Sinn Féin now ignore its promise to deliver 8 per cent annual emissions reductions and focus on other issues?”

All political parties, but especially those with strong electoral mandates, need to reconcile promises made to the electorate “with their over-riding moral and political duties to future generations to ensure a safe climate”.

“That is a bottom line that works for everyone,” she says.