All climate politics are local, but are local politicians up to the challenge?

This article was published in the Irish Times here on the 23rd February 2023.

Former speaker of the US House of Representatives Tip O’ Neill is famous for quipping that all politics are local: he said, “everything starts at your back yard”. How to square this political maxim with robust decision-making in respect of Ireland’s renewable energy transition will be one of the most defining issues in the 2024 local elections. Will the next cohort of local politicians have the guts to stand up and defend essential national infrastructure against what appears to be growing hostility towards wind and solar farms?

Climate denial is rare in Irish politics, thankfully. But acknowledging the crisis and acting on it are two different things. The climate emergency requires a transformation of the energy system to electrify almost everything and power our economy with renewable energy. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only raised the geopolitical stakes – a world energy system controlled by authoritarian petrostates is obviously not in our national interest.  

Ireland has ambitious targets for renewable energy, reflecting our outstanding resource potential. The good news is that this transition is both technically and economically feasible, with the potential for massive job creation and rural development. And if done correctly, it doesn’t have to have a negative impact on existing habitats or protected species.

But there appears to be a phenomenon of anti-renewables sentiment around the country. Solar farms are being opposed in Counties Tipperary, Meath, Kildare and Waterford. Onshore wind farms have often been controversial, but now offshore wind plans are attracting public opposition. A special meeting of Kilkenny County Council in March 2021 passed a motion unanimously to propose a ban on turbines within 2km of any house – which, if taken seriously by Minister Eamon Ryan, would signal the death of Ireland’s onshore wind industry.

It is especially perplexing to see the occasional Green Party representative oppose plans in some of the best parts of the country for wind energy when climate action was their main justification for going into government in the first place. Who is going to stand up for renewable energy if not the Green Party?

There seems to be a reactionary, opportunistic rejection of solar and wind farms on the more straightforward grounds that the scale of change is simply daunting for some people. Turbines and solar arrays may not be aesthetically pleasing for those who see them as “industrial” features (forgetting that the wires delivering electricity to rural homes lead to dirty and polluting fossil fuel-powered generation elsewhere). Farmers trying to develop renewable energy projects come under severe pressure from their neighbours and local communities and some projects are withdrawn quietly to avoid community schisms.  

Hostility to new energy infrastructure, often couched in pro-environment arguments, is rife on social media. Of course, environmental impacts must be screened for, assessed rigorously, and mitigated. The public must also be able to trust in a robust planning process that guarantees a right to have their views heard.

The problem is that misleading and exaggerated claims in public discourse drown out the overwhelming but underrepresented majority that support climate action and renewable energy in surveys conducted by EPA. Their research report Climate Change and the Irish Mind, published last year, found that 95% of respondents support the use of carbon tax revenues to develop clean energy, and 85% approve of new grid infrastructure to support renewable energy targets. You’d never think that if you attended a rural council meeting that was discussing wind and solar farms. Who is actually representing the silent majority?

Politicians already have a tough job, and I don’t want to make it any more stressful than it already is. But we desperately need better than huff-and-puff rhetoric from those councillors who only listen to the noisy chorus of objections. Under the amended climate law, local authorities will soon have to devise their own climate action plans that will have to align with national policy. Some local authorities are leading in the rollout of active travel measures and a range of practical climate projects; others are clearly stalling.  Politicians who dare to oppose roads or support cycleways take unrelenting flak in local media. But every community deserves public representatives who are willing to confront the reality of climate change and be honest with their electorate about the scale of change that it demands. We need to challenge the apparent consensus that local interests can be best defended by working against the national interest.

In contrast to the legal system, local democratic structures provide the ideal forums in which to interrogate energy policy and engage local communities, whether through the development plan process or in developing projects directly with local energy agencies (such as CODEMA in Dublin). That is what political leadership demands. Ireland needs local politicians who are willing to work for solutions that benefit everyone in the long-term. Ducking this responsibility in the midst of a climate emergency is inexcusable.

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