Comment: People must be at the heart of climate policy

An emergency response should reach those in the most vulnerable situations first, such as older people

23rd August, 2021
Comment: People must be at the heart of climate policy
‘The fact that older people are concerned about the potential negative impacts should pose serious questions about the implementation of people-centred climate action in Ireland.’ Picture: Getty

Perception, it is said, is nine-tenths of reality. If the adage is true, then a change of tack may be necessary to deliver effective and enduring climate action in Ireland.

Fifty-nine per cent of people over the age of 65 in Ireland are concerned that climate action will make their lives harder while only 39 per cent of the same cohort report being optimistic about the opportunities that come with climate action. This is according to a Red C poll, commissioned by the Think-tank for Action on Social Change (TASC) and the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) as part of a project to understand perceptions of climate action across Europe.

On the face of it, older members of our society should be enthused by climate action – it should mean warmer homes and lower heating bills, more easily accessible transport options, and cities, towns and villages that are more people-centred and easier to navigate. Poor public transport options, particularly in rural areas, mean many older people are overly reliant cars.

The fact that older people are concerned about the potential negative impacts should pose serious questions about the implementation of people-centred climate action in Ireland. In seeking to understand this reticence, perhaps we can learn some lessons from our efforts to tackle the coronavirus.

Since the outbreak of the virus, much has been written on the linkages and similarities between the global pandemic and the climate crisis. Some have drawn comparisons between the necessity of engaging the public in emergency response measures. Others pointed to the initial, unintended and temporary relief for the environment as our world ground to a halt last March. Climate scientists and epidemiologists highlighted the increased risk of deadly pathogens from the same process of deforestation and intensive agricultural monoculture that is contributing to climate change.

However, maybe the clearest similarity is in the progression of solutions to both crises. Both are global crises with domestic consequences. Both require the creation of new technologies, and both require that these technologies are distributed universally to ensure the drivers of the crises – the virus or greenhouse gas emissions – are eliminated. For both, the technologies needed to survive exist. Our failing is in ensuring that the solutions reach all people.

The global inequality in vaccine roll out is as galling as it is concerning, particularly because it can be seen as a test run for the type of global solidarity required to avert the climate crisis. The global community is being found wanting in its failure to secure the World Trade Organisation’s TRIPS waiver and support the poorest countries through the provision of resources necessary to enable proper global immunisation. The risk with such a lack of solidarity is the emergence of a variant that will render existing efforts futile.

As a crisis solution, a vaccine rollout is straight forward – produce enough doses and distribute them in such a way as to ensure that every person on earth can be inoculated. Granted, this is an oversimplification – but stacked up against the necessary response to the climate crisis, the resolution to a pandemic, once a vaccine is available, is a simpler prospect.

If we consider the anatomy of the successful vaccine rollout in Ireland, we get some idea as to how a crisis response should work. Older and more vulnerable members of our community were targeted in the first wave of vaccinations, every effort was made to ensure the process of getting vaccinated was straightforward and there was no question of any up-front cost for the privilege of vaccination. Basically, the response was designed to be accessible in order to ensure take up on the levels necessary to eradicate the virus.

The same cannot be said for the climate response. For an older person in Ireland, the path to climate action is not clear. Take the case of retrofitting, for example. The upfront costs for retrofitting of a home may make it inaccessible to an older person. Seventy-eight per cent of survey respondents over the age of 65 felt that retrofitting was too expensive for them.

Beyond cost, there has also been limited proactive engagement of the public to inform them of, and persuade them to consider, retrofits. The grants process is complex and has a limited budget. Those in rental accommodation likely have no control over whether a property gets retrofitted or not.

Put simply, an emergency response should be accessible to all and reach those in the most vulnerable situations first. By this measure, the vaccine roll out looks like an emergency response, but the roll out of retrofitting does not.

Set against this backdrop, and the promise of an annual increase to the carbon tax, it is perhaps not too surprising that older people are apprehensive about the potential negative impact of climate action on their lives. This isn’t to say that people are against climate action. The TASC-FEPS survey found that 81 per cent of people over 65 expressed a desire to do more as individuals to combat climate change, 82 per cent wanted to see more action from government and big companies and 52 per cent felt that current action to fight the climate crisis was insufficient.

The gap, therefore, appears to be accessibility. Not everything that is good for the planet is good for people. Climate policy designed without considering capabilities of people, and particularly those in vulnerable situations, to access solutions, is likely to be ineffectual. Instead, decision makers must hold people at the heart of their climate policy making and build emergency response measures that assist, rather than burden.

“System change not climate change” has served as a rallying call of young climate activists in Ireland and around the world as they took to the streets to compel leaders to act on climate change.

These activists recognise that progressing real solutions to the climate crisis has very little to do with technological innovation – the technologies we need to survive already exist. Rather, globally and nationally, the climate crisis represents a battle for our humanity. It is a crisis of empathy and a crisis of solidarity.

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