Leo Varadkar says he cares about the environment. But his government is currently using dirty tricks to block People Before Profit’s Climate Emergency Bill. Bríd Smith TD explains the background to this story, and how we can stop Fine Gael in their tracks.
After the recent local elections, Leo Varadkar promised his government would prioritise the environment. And how could he not, with one exit poll suggesting that 88% of people in Ireland wanted radical action on climate change.
But it hasn’t taken long for Leo to expose just how empty that promise was, as he so often does. In last few weeks his government have engaged in a shameful charade, hiding behind parliamentary procedure, as they deliberately block urgent and vital climate legislation. In doing so, Varadkar has revealed not only how little Fine Gael care about our climate, but also the rotten way that our political system works, and the great lengths they go to protect the interests of the powerful in this country.
Take the case of the Climate Emergency Measures (CEM) Bill, initially brought before the Dáil by People Before Profit in February 2018. Here is a very basic but important opportunity for the government to show its commitment to averting climate chaos. And the aim of the bill is simple; to “Keep it in the Ground,” by restricting any further licencing for fossil fuel exploration off Irish shores. If the bill becomes law, the Minister responsible would have to ensure there were safe levels of CO2 in our atmosphere which is set at 350 parts per million, and act to prevent it rising further. When the Bill was introduced the levels were at 410 parts per million. Today they are already at 416, and rising.
The CEM bill should already be legislation, and Ireland should be the fifth country in the world to ban fossil fuel extraction. The Bill was supported by a vast majority of TD’s (with only the Government and a few independent TD’s voting against it). It passed its Second Stage, and went through Legislative Scrutiny by July 2018.
Unfortunately, the Irish government has utilised every trick in the book to prevent this bill progressing further through the democratic procedures of the Dáil. Along with civil servants, they have thwarted their own standing orders, used underhandedness by conflating the roles of different committees and even asked Senators who showed little or no interest in the issue of Climate Chaos to vote against the Bill on several occasions.
After painful and confusing arguments with top Civil Servants, People Before Profit TDs used our limited Private Members time to put a motion before the Dáil calling for the Bill to progress to the Third Stage and begin its journey to completion. Again we received overwhelming support across all parties, except Fine Gael, and we won the support of the former Environment Minister Dennis Naughten.
Stage 3 was to take place on 11 June 2019. But over the weekend of the Local and European Election count, the government moved again to stall the progress of the Bill by introducing the requirement for a “Money Message”. This was despite having been told by the Dáil Bills Office in February 2018 that the Bill did not require a Money Message. A deeply dishonest move by the government, by any measurement.
Worse, this move came within two weeks of the Dáil having declared a Climate Emergency. A report last week from the University of Edinburgh showed that the arctic ice caps are melting six times faster than was hitherto thought by scientists. The Botanical Gardens at Kew in London produced a report which revealed a loss of plant life to extinction five times greater than we previously thought. Everyday more alarming reports are published indicating the speed of decline in our ecosystem due to global warming. And with every new report, it becomes more and more disgraceful that the Irish Government chooses to sabotage an opposition bill that targets legislation at the root of climate chaos—namely the behaviour and impact of the fossil fuel industry in continuing to explore and extract more oil and gas.
Fine Gael Obstruction
The experience of the People Before Profit CEM bill on its journey through parliament should not come as a surprise to any socialist. Parliamentary democracy is used by the establishment as a veneer that all is fair and equal in appearance, but often the opposite in practice. As Leo Varadkar said proudly on radio this week “we are a pro-business party”. Fine Gael will never be fit to challenge climate chaos, because they will never challenge the captains of industry and their profits.
They have proven this time and again, in their opposition to our bill, and in their own policies. Fine Gael’s mantra is that we need “energy security” and will have to rely on fossil fuels up to 2050 and beyond. Their target for renewable energy to deliver our needs is 70% by 2030 and they argue that we will still need 30% energy from fossil fuels.
Even if that were the case, we could continue to import fuel from Scotland and the North Sea. Currently we import 50% of our energy needs by these methods. Then we could bring our reliance on Corrib and Kinsale to a halt, and have a reduction of 20% and falling.
Moreover, any discovery of oil or gas that the government continues to licence for would take another 15 to 20 years to come on stream. So it would be 2035 at the very earliest before we would have a local supply of fossil fuel—five years after Fine Gael claim to want to reduce our fossil fuel use by.
But even the kids on the street know that by then we must be drastically less reliant on oil or gas. And even if there is fuel found off our shores, there is no obligation for Exxon or anyone else to sell this stuff back to the Irish State. Indeed, even if they did, it would be at market rates. For that matter, what makes our future needs “more secure” under a fossil fuel regime backed up by the Chinese state as against one backed up by the Russian state? The minister constantly repeats his paranoia of Putin as an excuse to extract our own fossil fuels. Does he know the butchers of Tiananmen Square?
The reality is that we currently need to keep at least 80% of known fossil fuels in the ground if we have any chance of saving the planet. Why would we licence for more to be extracted when we can easily supplement our needs (should they still exist by 2030) with what has already been extracted in the North Sea?
Does the Minister or his bidders really understand what is happening or indeed do they really care? Do they believe that there will be any security on a planet where temperatures are rising by over 4% plus?
The Money Message which is meant to measure the financial cost to the public purse of proposed legislation has become somewhat of a tool to block opposition bills. This practice is now being seriously questioned for its constitutionality and indeed may become subject to legal action.
But in the meantime, the Climate Emergency Measures Bill is still alive and we—the movement to stop climate chaos—are doing all we can to keep it that way. We have a couple of weeks to build enough pressure on the Government to back off and allow the democratic will of Dáil Éireann to proceed.
Despite the rising “green” tide across Ireland as indicated by the recent elections—but more importantly by the rising school students taking strike action, and the growth in the number of activist groups like Extinction Rebellion—the Irish state continues to do the dirty work of the fossil fuel industry. Within days of the declaration of a Climate Emergency by Dáil Éireann, the government issued another exploration licence, this time to a consortium of oil and gas companies including Exxon Mobil and CNOOC, the national gas company of China.
Hope, however, remains. The response of the wider movement to attempts by Varadkar to block the People before Profit Bill was fantastic. Tens of thousands of protest emails and messages were delivered to the Minister. At a days notice almost 400 protesters turned up outside the Dáil to demand that they “Do Not Kill the Bill”. Within a week, more protests took place as a committee met with Extinction Rebellion and other groups mobilising outside the Dáil.
A major gathering of the movement took place that evening to decide the next steps, with support from a Left-Green Icelandic MP who has copied the People Before Profit Bill and put it before the Icelandic parliament, and from the NGO Oil Change International. A panel of speakers included representatives from every party in Dáil Éireann except Fine Gael and some rural Independents.
The movement is determined to mobilise in support of the bill and there is a window of opportunity in the next few weeks to achieve that while People Before Profit seeks legal opinion on the Money Message.
The Root of the Problem
We will fight tooth and nail to defend this bill. There’s no doubt about that. But we also need ever greater numbers on the streets to truly turn the tide. Greta Thunberg has called for 20 September to be a Global Day of Strike Action against climate chaos. There have been two school students strikes in Ireland so far—the most impressive having over 15,000 school students on the streets of Dublin and tens of thousands more around the country. Their demands were radical and far-reaching and were reflected in their slogans: “Keep it in the Ground”; “System Change Not Climate Change”; “No more coal, no more oil, keep our carbon in the soil”; “Our future, our lives, we strike to survive”.
The People Before Profit Climate Emergency Bill fits perfectly with this sentiment. Unless we tackle the roots of the problem, like the addiction to profit of the fossil fuel and related industries, we are going nowhere fast according to all recent reports and studies on climate change and biodiversity.
The power of the fossil fuel industry will not easily budge. The challenge to that power is a challenge to the existence of the capitalist system itself. We cannot have a business as usual approach to the future of the planet and we certainly cannot stop climate chaos by “market mechanisms” like carbon trading and carbon tax. Market mechanisms do not lower our CO2 emissions which are now at the highest level in human history. They do not change our behaviour, instead penalising the poorest in society, whilst letting the fossil fuel industry completely off the hook. Is it any wonder that such mechanisms are supported by Exxon Mobil?
So strike action and mass protests on 20th September are crucial. We need to build a mass movement of people power, which links up with the power of workers, to challenge the oil and gas tycoons. Crucially, if we are to truly have a ‘Just Transition’ to a greener society, then it must have the support of the workers and communities affected. They are our allies too. It must involve those who are impacted already by the transition to renewable energy, like the Bord na Mona workers and their families and those communities who are impacted by the wind energy industry.
The Socialist Alternative
This system will always put the interests of profit before the interests of people. Nowhere does this play out more clearly, more emphatically, than in parliament; where lip service is paid to measures like renewable energy, improved public transport, grants for retrofitting homes and solar power. It is not just a case of a rotten government, bad as they are. It is the entire way our system operates. Unless we actually challenge the industries which continue to extract oil, gas and coal — who also sustain other ecologically destructive sectors, like the booming plastics industry — then we are certain to hurtle towards climate chaos.
And that is why I am a socialist. And that is why socialists are so crucial in this moment. Without socialists in the Dáil— equipped to slap down the nonsense economic and geo-political arguments that try to justify the fossil fuel industry—we may not have revealed so quickly the empty nature of the government’s commitment to the environment.
Having socialist TDs is good, of course. But having more and more socialists organising outside of parliament is immeasurably more important. And the two can go hand in hand. Socialist organisation is needed to articulate an economic and political alternative to this system, and to build a movement that can ultimately overcome it. Without socialists in every area of our society and communities, we are doomed to a recurring future, where one or other of the conservative parties who govern our society, run our climate and people into the ground to appease the captains of industry.
Only socialists can articulate the utter failure of the market to deal with climate catastrophe; arguing for publicly owned and controlled renewable energy industries; for a real and just transition for workers and communities; for free and frequent public transport; for a corporate carbon tax on the profits of the fossil fuel and global food corporations, not ordinary people; for an end to privatisation of our services; for opening the borders to help those escaping the effects of climate change; and for a more equal world where people and planet are put first.
We need more socialists. There is no Planet B.