Pat Leahy: Climate activists need to get realistic

Protesters must shift focus on to the political and legislative phase of their campaign

Peaceful and sustainable change happens when those promoting it engage with the political and democratic process, translating their reforming zeal and campaigning energy into new policies and laws. If the growing wave of climate activism wants to be as effective as possible in protecting the environment and reducing carbon emissions, it will recognise this necessity and embrace it.

Sure, that will require accommodations and compromises in dealing with those who are less convinced of the immediate threat of climate change. It will require recognition that while there is broad consensus on the threats of climate change, views differ on how to address it. Some activists insist on a sudden, radical decarbonisation; other voices want a more managed adjustment which preserves living standards, and therefore public endorsement.

But if you think the situation is as urgent as many scientists and climate activists do, presumably you have to do whatever you can, as soon as you can.

Lots of people routinely and justifiably express frustration with politicians and politics. And it’s true that democratic decision-making processes are often infuriatingly slow and cumbersome.


But some of that pedestrian pace is for good reasons. Far-reaching policies should not be thrown together overnight; big changes in the way we run our society should be carefully considered and their consequences interrogated by both experts and the laymen and women to whom we entrust leadership in government. The chaotic and increasingly dangerous toxicity of politics in our nearest neighbour should serve as sufficient warning about the dangers of not thinking these things through.

Of course, a lot of the time the reluctance to reform is not so well grounded. It’s just reluctance to reform. (“Reform? Reform? Aren’t things bad enough already?”) It’s just in-built conservatism. It’s just that powerful interests hold sway.

Our political processes and procedures offer structural advantages to those opposed to change. All institutions are by their nature conservative to some degree. Progress moves at a crawl. If you’re itching for change, the whole thing can seem maddeningly, glacially slow.

That’s why climate action campaigners need to engage with the political system inside the gates of Leinster House, as well as threatening it from outside. Don’t get me wrong: a bit of threatening from outside can concentrate minds inside wonderfully. But ultimately it’s the political and legislative process that decides the shape and extent of the change.

Shutting down Dublin city centre, as climate protesters will do on Monday week, is all very well (though some people are going to get very annoyed) but it’s not going to limit carbon emissions by itself. As for “raising awareness” – honestly, exactly who isn’t aware of climate change at this stage? Protests can show public support but climate activists also need to prepare for the political and legislative phase.

In the past decade, we have seen what happens when a calamity hits the country; we have also seen how the business of government can be focused on one objective above all else

And not just through the Green Party, though they are obviously in the vanguard. I expect the Greens will win a cluster of seats in the next Dáil, but they won’t lead the next government. That coalition will be led by Fine Gael or by Fianna Fáil. So if climate activists want to see the next government take climate change more seriously they will have to figure out a way to convince the old conservative parties to do it.

They will also have to convince the officials who run government to co-operate. Civil servants operate the great machine of government and they can choose to make it run smoothly, or otherwise.

They are also often the closest and most trusted counsellors to ministers. For one example, Michael Brennan’s new book about the Irish Water fiasco, In Deep Water, recounts how Martin Fraser, secretary general at the Department of the Taoiseach and the most powerful civil servant in the country, repeatedly advised the Fine Gael-Labour government in blunt terms not to go ahead with water charges. How they must wish they listened to him.

Those at the heart of government nowadays say his power and influence are unmatched. Fraser contributes at Cabinet meetings, Ministers say, and when he does, everyone listens. More importantly, he controls the apparatus of government, without whose buy-in and co-operation no ambitious, reforming administration will achieve its goals.

Activists will have to figure out how to deal with the power of the permanent government that Fraser represents. They will need a plan to put to it, and interlocutors to work with it. The governments that achieve most are those that have worked out ideas in advance of taking office and are ready to hit the ground running . You can’t just arrive on day one and say: “Now what do we do?”

To the brave and the faithful, they say in Thomond Park, nothing is impossible. To the organised, realistic and determined, it is possible to bend the machine of government to their purposes. In the past decade, we have seen what happens when a calamity hits the country; we have also seen how the business of government can be focused on one objective above all else. That same Fine Gael-Labour government, which took office in 2011 in the depths of the financial crisis, prioritised fiscal stabilisation and then economic recovery above all else.

Every government department was given quarterly requirements and targets for changes and reforms, savings and efficiencies, and the results inspected publicly under the watchful eye of the Troika. Progress in achieving targets was monitored internally on a weekly basis.

It was brutal and ruthless. It was also effective. You can claim that the austerity was unfairly distributed and inequitably applied. But you can’t claim it didn’t achieve the aims set out for it.

If Ireland is to succeed in decarbonising its economy and preparing for the changes in climate that may come, something similar will be required. Those who are serious – really serious – about tackling climate change need to figure that out now.