This article appeared in the Irish Times on the 22nd of June 2023 as https://www.irishtimes.com/environment/climate-crisis/2023/06/22/we-need-talk-about-climate-politics-mary-lou/
A climate-conscious friend of mine recently shared that what keeps him awake at night is the prospect of a Sinn Féin-led government propped up by rural independent TDs. I can go one better than that.
What keeps me awake is the prospect of said coalition in power, with a fragmented opposition of anti-immigrant Aontú, a new farmers’ party, three left-wing parties, the populist rumps of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and a handful of Greens that everyone, from right to left, blames for absolutely everything.
While such a scenario probably reveals more about me and my biases than it does about politics, as we approach the next local, European and general election cycles, the political landscape for climate action is coming under increasing scrutiny. The local elections, if they deliver a roughly 30 per cent support base for Sinn Féin in actual seat numbers, would see the party win more than 300 seats (it won 81 seats in 2019).
If the party’s surge in opinion polls holds up, Sinn Féin could, according to some estimates, win six seats out of 14 (assuming Ireland gets an extra MEP following a review) in the European Parliament elections. If it won a proportionate share of seats in the following general election, due by early 2025, they could win something like 55 seats or even more.
Electoral bonanzas are not unprecedented in Irish politics, nor is churn a bad thing in itself. But three consecutive electoral victories for Sinn Féin within two years would have a dramatic impact on Irish politics. What is even more interesting is that many of the soon-to-be-elected Sinn Féin representatives are as yet totally unknown to us.
Sinn Féin – a party with a reputation for secrecy – will have enormous influence over the shape and policy direction of local and national government during an unprecedented global climate and biodiversity emergency.
Sinn Féin could make or break the key policy interventions that are needed whether in government or in opposition
Whereas local representatives in other parties are much more loosely affiliated to party structures and frequently deviate from their party’s national policy positions, Sinn Féin’s internal candidate selection procedures will play a critical role in shaping the political preferences of its supporters and voters alike.
It is for this reason that the party’s policies are being put under the spotlight. Whatever way it chooses to position itself in regard to climate action will likely determine whether or not the State meets its global, EU and national commitments between 2025 and 2030. And that is true even if the party ended up as a very large opposition party instead of in government. It could make or break the key policy interventions that are needed whether in government or in opposition.
And the thing is, it could drift either to the right or to the left when it comes to climate action, or stay non-committal and adrift. Only time will tell. None of their stated positions make it clear that they will uphold the system of carbon budgets and sectoral targets laid down in the 2021 Climate Act, though somehow they support the overall targets.
How will the party campaign on climate and the environment? An electoral strategy is one thing, but lasting improvements to our local and global environment require much more than a mandate. Climate action requires system interventions at all scales, and an incredibly high level of co-ordination and policy consistency across government.
It won’t wash to be pro-road building and anti-emissions at the same time, and politically tough decisions will have to be taken. Chaired by the secretary general in the Department of the Taoiseach, the Climate Action Delivery Board monitors progress implementing the hundreds of individual measures in each annual climate action plan. The oversight and transparency this provides could easily be dismantled under a government apparatus that chose to look the other way instead.
It could limit the power of corporations and put ecological restoration on a par with social justice, promoting ways to treat our natural resources equitably
More optimistically, Sinn Féin could champion the need for effective measures to end our reliance on fossil fuels in heating, transport and energy once and for all. It could help build a social movement that unites left and right, urban and rural, around the demand for faster and fairer climate action.
It could be a policy innovator, taking risks to speed up the deployment of renewables and travel and public transport measures. It could limit the power of corporations and put ecological restoration on a par with social justice, promoting ways to treat our natural resources equitably, and allowing people to share in the benefits.
It could put an end, once and for all, to destructive agricultural and fossil fuel subsidies, shifting our tax system towards more income equality and forcing multinationals to contribute their fair shares. It could join the dots between the housing crisis, poor planning and inadequate public transport services in ways that offer ecologically minded, low-carbon solutions that improve wellbeing for all.
But will it?