We need to have an honest and open-minded debate about climate change, writes David Quinn
I confess to being in two minds about the green agenda for reasons I’ll try and explain.
Green issues have pushed to the forefront of public debate in the past year. Here in Ireland, the Green party did quite well in the local and European elections and large parts of the media were happy to talk about a ‘green wave’, enough though the size of it was exaggerated.
We have seen schools going on ‘strike’ to protest about climate change. The school protests have been inspired by the Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg. She demands that we become carbon neutral by 2030 or face certain catastrophe.
She has now travelled around the world to spread her message. She has addressed parliaments. She has met the Pope. She addressed a UN summit on climate change recently and admonished adults for their inaction, saying “how dare you” endanger the planet and rob children of their childhoods.
RTÉ ran a week of programmes on climate change and even managed to have the Dáil chamber handed over for a day to school children aged 10-17 so they could recommend action to combat global warming.
Pope Francis has often spoken about the need to care for the environment and so do priests in many parts of the country. Some parishes have committees established specially to work out ways to reduce their carbon footprints.
Given the obvious need to care for the only planet we’ve got, why would anyone be in two minds about the green agenda? Surely everyone should simply climb on board and do everything possible to reduce the damage we are doing to the planet?
This isn’t a question of reducing only carbon emissions so as to try and ensure temperatures and sea levels don’t rise to catastrophic levels. We must also try to reduce pollution. We heard very recently that the country’s rivers are more polluted than they used to be.
If we did what the likes of Greta Thunberg want, our economies would immediately be driven into a massive and sustained recession”
We produce untold amounts of waste that need to be recycled. This often happens in very dubious ways. For example, we simply ship it off to countries in the developing world.
We are reducing the habitats of lots of different species and driving many to extinction. So, again, how can anyone be in two minds about the need to clean up our act, both literally and metaphorically?
To be clear, we absolutely do need to clean up our act. Who doesn’t want to clean up our rivers, reduce waste, reduce our carbon emissions, ensure no species becomes extinct? No-one in their right mind.
The trouble is, whatever we do will involve hard choices. In the last few decades carbon emissions released from burning fossil fuels like oil and gas and coal has increased enormously. But poverty has also declined enormously. The two are very closely linked. Literally hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in countries like China and India since the 1980s.
Unfortunately, we have not yet found a way to uncouple economic growth from the burning of fossil fuels. There is lots of talk about renewable energy sources like social power and wind. But these are nowhere near good enough yet to replace fossils fuels as the way to grow our economies, or even sustain our economies.
If we did what the likes of Greta Thunberg want, our economies would immediately be driven into a massive and sustained recession and poverty would soar again. Vast numbers of people in the developing world would be pushed below the poverty line again.
She might say we have no choice but to do this if we want to save the planet. However, the economic recession would be so great it would create a huge political pushback. Governments would be either voted out of office or violently overthrown.
In addition, Greta tends to always quote the very worst predictions of climate change, as does RTÉ incidentally. The UN itself in its reports actually makes a number of predictions about what might happen by the end of this century based on different assumptions. The prediction that sea levels could rise by over a metre on average by 2100 is based on the worst assumptions. Other, less drastic predictions are also scientific.
You don’t have to be a ‘climate change denier’ to point out that different predictions are made by the UN itself (more precisely the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)). Far from it.
In fact, if you only make the worst predictions then you might be the opposite of a denier, you could be a climate alarmist.
The reason I am in two minds is that, while the necessity to reduce the harmful effects we are having on the planet is as plain as the nose on your face, if we go about this in the wrong way the effect on the poor above all will be catastrophic. The Church must care about both the poor and the environment.
There is absolutely no way to drastically reduce carbon emissions in only 10 years and stop a massive global recession. One will cause the other as surely as day follows night.
What do we do, then? I think we must reduce our reliance on fossil fuels gradually, instead of drastically, and convert to renewable energy more and more as that technology improves. We also need to come up with ways to offset the effects of global warming. The Netherlands, for example, is mostly below sea level, and the Dutch built dikes to combat this centuries ago.
We also need to have an honest, not a one-sided debate about climate change and realise that anything we do to combat it can have negative as well as positive consequences. It is denialism to pretend otherwise.