Government will feel the heat if it fails to lead on climate change

It was one of the turning points of our national relationship with climate change: Mary Daniels rang Liveline because she had booked to bring her grandchildren to meet Santie in Lapland this week and there was no snow.

For years to come, students of journalism will ponder those minutes of radio, which is listened to by more than 300,000 people, as Joe Duffy struggled to find a simple narrative in which to “frame” Mary’s plight.

By “framing”, journalists mean spinning a story out of facts or events.

The journalist and DCU academic David Robbins has just published a study of how climate change has been “framed” in the Irish media.

It seems there are only eight possible “frames” through which the story can be told. The Irish Examiner scores highly for using the “morality/ethics” frame for the problem of climate change.

However, the endlessly popular story of the little man unfairly pitted against anything big — government, corporations, people — is very hard to use as a “frame” for climate change because there is no one enemy and we, the people, are the agents of change.

Duffy’s Liveline is based almost entirely on the little man “frame”.

That’s why it was so astonishing when climate change became a major theme of the show late last week.

It has to be said that Duffy mentioned global warming in his introduction to the item on a snowless Lapland, but I doubt he thought it would take off as the narrative on the show.

The classic Liveline “frame” for the story would be that of the hardworking granny whose one true wish was to bring her grandchildren on the trip of a lifetime but had been deprived of a refund because Lapland had no snow by a travel agency which was, as one caller said, “getting away with blue murder.” Except nearly everyone struggled with the idea that the travel agency was responsible for the weather.

Duffy was endlessly sympathetic to Mary, who had spent a whopping €6,500 for a 36-hour trip to see Mr Ho, Ho, Ho.

She worked in a factory and had saved for years. Her grandchildren’s dad had died.

Though “the Celtic Tiger” was mentioned, any attempt to ridicule this woman’s generosity fell on deaf ears.

Duffy came up with “the commercialisation of Christmas” as a frame for the story and on came Fr Paddy Byrne with a sentimental narrative about the far worse problems faced by the homeless people with whom he works.

No one bought it.

Mary’s problem was not to be belittled. The problem, for a show like Liveline, was finding someone to blame.

Then on came farmer Peter Whelan, with the suggestion that the lack of snow was “Santie’s way of telling us that we have to mind the climate”. I had to sit down. Was climate change being discussed on Liveline and through the frame of “morality/ethics”?

At first Duffy responded badly, calling out Peter Whelan as a pork producer and asking what is, on Liveline, a rhetorical question: “Should you not do what Mary Robinson advocates and become vegetarian?” So here was a well-used populist “frame”: The tree-hugger seen as a hypocrite and his solutions seen as impractical.

Except then Duffy changed tack and stated that the very fact that there was a debate about climate change on Liveline will help environmental awareness in this country.

I think this was a hugely significant moment in the history of sentiment regarding climate change here. It was a culmination of a massive awakening to the issue which I have seen happening across Irish media and society since the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in October in October that we had 12 years to make emissions reductions of about 45% or we could face a catastrophic temperature increase of 3 degrees by 2100.

The fact that the Government did not raise the carbon tax in the budget the following day was met with outrage. Small demonstrations followed, such as the Extinction Rebellions in November.

The ‘gilets jaunes’ demonstrations across France on Saturday which involved about 300,000 people — not that many for a country of 67m — show the opposite face of popular sentiment about environmental taxes on fossil fuels: The little man is pitted against an environmentally-aware Government.

This is the compelling narrative that Government fears, in the wake of the last Government’s badly mishandled attempt to introduce water charges. That is why they are insisting on cross-party agreement before they act against climate change.

I think their fears are exaggerated. We are a small, centrist country with no tradition of revolution since the foundation of the State. We don’t have a hard right as yet, however, and our hard left at least talks the talk on this issue. Though People Before Profit TD Brid Smith’s Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill did use the little man narrative, it was significant that the benefit proposed to those little men was a reduction in emissions.

I honestly think people’s awareness of climate change is now such that they would respect the Government if it led. This week they listened to David Attenborough’s plea to the UN: “Leaders of the world, you must lead” to prevent “the collapse of civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world.”

Few will accept yesterday’s ‘Annual Transition Statement’ from the Government as anything more than an attempt to kick the can down the road. The Climate Action Fund of €500m to 2027 is in addition to Project Ireland 2040, which is priced at €116bn and is not climate-proofed at all.

There are high ambitions for 2030 such as a ban on the sale of new fossil-fuel-run cars but the steps to get there, such as a shovel-ready charging infrastructure, are missing. The use of peat to generate electricity is to end by 2030 but be replaced by polluting biomass technology.

How can a Government which has just failed to increase the carbon tax in the budget talk with a straight face about pricing which sends “a sufficiently strong signal” to change people’s behaviour? How can it expect citizens to change if it will not lead?

What the Government needs to do is tell a story of action on climate change to which we can relate before the French narrative of the little man pitted against big regulation has a chance here.

What about little Ireland as a world leader in the fight against a big problem which could wreck the lives of our children and grand-children?

Wouldn’t they like that better than the narrative of a climate-aware people pitted against its climate-blind Government?

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