Leo Varadkar claims his carbon tax will help the environment. But as John Molyneux explains, that claim couldn’t be further from the truth.
‘I want you to panic,’ said Greta Thunberg when she addressed the assembled representatives of the 1% at Davos. And she was right! They should be panicking because the dramatic extent and extreme urgency of the climate change crisis is becoming more apparent by the day. The horrors of Cyclone Idai in South East Africa, the appalling 50°C temperatures in much of central and southern Australia followed by extreme rain, flooding and cyclones in its tropical north, the California drought and fires, the Polar Vortex across central and eastern North America; all these events point to the fact that climate change is happening NOW and is intensifying faster than more or less anyone expected.
As well as panicking, our rulers should also be feeling deeply ashamed and guilty. For the truth is they have known for at least 30 years that this train was coming down the track towards them and towards all of humanity and for 30 years they have done nothing serious about it. It has been the most catastrophic negligence in history which is already set to cost millions of lives.
And the Irish Government, successive Irish governments in fact, are up there with the guiltiest. Despite the fact that Ireland is one of the richest countries in the world, they have not only been ‘laggard’ in meeting their most minimal obligations, they have pursued a directly contrary strategy in terms of making the economy dependent on beef production. Indeed, they have done this in the full knowledge that it is environmentally disastrous in terms of methane gas emissions, while neglecting and privatising public transport thus forcing people into cars, trying to sell off our forests, and continuing to issue licences for further fossil fuel exploration and extraction, all the while trying to cover their tracks with spin, PR and green washing.
Now, faced with the reality and consequences of their criminal inaction and with growing public awareness of the looming catastrophe, especially in the form of a massive revolt by school students enraged at the way their planet and their futures are being carelessly thrown away, the government at last feels it really needs to look like its actually doing something. So what do they come up with? The cynical manoeuvre of carbon taxes of course. It is hard to think of a worse possible response.
What makes it so nasty and also so calamitous from an environmental point of view is that, in familiar blue shirt fashion it is going to hit those who can least afford to pay; working people and the poor. Worse, carbon taxes won’t even seriously help tackle the problem of reducing carbon emissions. People who need their cars to drive to work or to take their families out at the weekend are not going to stop driving – they will pay the tax and cut back on other things. People are not going to stop heating their houses, they are just going to be plunged further into debt and poverty. There is no chance it will have any significant effect on climate change.
The only real effect it will have is allowing Varadkar and co to look like they are trying to do something, without actually having to confront their very powerful friends in the giant multinational oil and gas corporations; such as ExxonMobile, BP and Shell, who are among the biggest, richest and most profitable companies in the world. [Here it is important to remember that appealing to multinational corporations by turning Ireland into a tax haven has been central to the whole Fine Gael economic strategy for many years now].
Actually that statement should be amended; there are two other effects a carbon tax could have if we let them get away with it. The first, if as is likely the mass of ordinary people reject it, is to be able to say ‘we tried to do something but were prevented by the selfish greed of the lower orders who don’t want to pay for anything’—an effort to let themselves off the hook in other words. The second is to divide the environmental movement. The school students strike and mass demonstration of 15 March has raised the spectre of a mass people power revolt over climate change in which tens of thousands of working class people make common cause with young people. This terrifies the government which has been running scared of people power ever since the water charges.
What better way, they must think, to stop that happening than to alienate large swathes of working people with the connivance, if they can get it, of a section of the green and ecological movement. Moreover, the leadership of the Green Party and of Friends of the Earth have already shown their willingness to fall into this trap. Friends of the Earth Director, Oisin Coghlan, on The Tonight Show, waxed lyrical about the Dáil Climate Report recommending carbon taxes, calling it ‘our Good Friday Agreement’. The question of class has long been the fundamental weakness of the upper echelons of political ‘greenery’—their middle class readiness to condescend to working class people and see their behaviour, not the behaviour of the 1%, as the key problem.
In the face of this cynical manoeuvre by Fine Gael and the Irish establishment the left must step up and vigorously conduct a double argument. We must win the environmental anti-climate change activists to an understanding that carbon taxes are not a limited step in the right direction but a move in precisely the wrong direction; unfairly scapegoating ordinary people for a crisis not of their making while diverting from the fact that the Irish government are refusing to take the radical actions needed. We should demand instead that the government tax the giant corporations, introduce free public transport, retrofit homes, invest in major afforestation and commit to keeping fossil fuels in the ground and to switch massively to renewable sources of energy.
We must encourage working people to resist carbon taxes as yet another example of unfair taxation while explaining that the real measures required to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, like those outlined above, would not only help to save the planet and the future of humanity but also create a better life for us all today.
Free and expanded public transport is a good example of this. It would obviously get people out of private cars and onto trains and buses which reduce emissions but would enormously enhance the quality of life, particularly through reducing air pollution, and ability to travel for all ordinary people.
Finally, tackling climate change, nationally and internationally, is going to involve overcoming the resistance of the most powerful vested economic and political interests in the world and will therefore require an immense mobilisation of people power from below. This cannot possibly be achieved without a just transition which rejects unfairly penalising working people. And that means rejecting carbon taxes on ordinary people.