UCD Students Union and the L&H’s panel talk on climate change last week as a part of UCDSU’s first ever Green Week. The panel which considered on academics and politicians attempted to present and debate practical solutions to the climate crisis. Moderator Professor Patrick Paul Walsh, Director of the UCD Centre for Sustainable development Studies introduced the talk by asking, who is failing the environment and how do we fix it.
Walsh starts by asking how Ireland, as the hub for many multinational companies, can effect change on their policies. Professor Andreas Hoepner of the School of Business revealed that approximately 160 companies worldwide were responsible for nearly 70% of the worlds carbon output. He argued that there were only 20 to 30 real decision makers in each of these companies, and that meant that there were just over 5000 people whose minds we needed to change in order to see a shift in policy. Hoepner further said that the fact that the Irish Government had already divested public funds from fossil fuels was a valuable step, and encouraging other Irish bodies to do so would build upon this precedent.
Together for Yes’s former campaign manager and Fine Gael general election candidate Deirdre Duffy, a human rights lawyer spoke about how the duty bearer for climate change was clearly the state. She also spoke how this issue had been ignored for so long, that there was a serious need to move into ‘deep change’ mode in order to address the crisis. She also emphasised that the responsibility for change was on all of us.
Green Party leader and TD Eamon Ryan said that he wasn’t sure blaming corporations would get us anywhere. Noting that for years the environmental movement had attributed blame to individuals to no avail. He said that they instead needed to find a new way forward.
Craig McHugh, DCU Vice President for Education Placement agreed with Ryan’s statement that attributing blame was not productive. Instead, he said the importance of stressing individual responsibility was in making climate change a priority for politicians.
Moving forward, Professor Walsh speaks of a project one of his master students recently did, highlighting the massive gap between what is needed, and what is proposed in the Government’s climate plan. He wonders why the system is so disconnected from the problem of climate change.
Duffy says that she won’t defend the Fine Gael climate policy as she was not involved in making, though does say there is agreement that it is not good enough. Duffy goes on to say that a new climate action plan is due in late March which will include more cross-department groups to tackle the issue. She does say that it appears there will be widespread acceptance that existing state institutions are going to be fundamentally challenged by this.
Eamon Ryan expressed his concern that the scale of the challenge is so huge, but the response is just not matching this. He said currently the Irish Government is blocking a Bill before the Dail that would ban further oil and gas exploitation in Ireland. This would stop new resources being found, and he says makes sense given we must leave 80% of existing known fossil fuels in the ground in order to meet our climate targets. Ryan notes that there is not a word regarding climate sustainability in the Ireland 2040 plan, the current major infrastructure plan in the state. He says that there needs to be a greater level of joined-up thinking so that this crisis can be addressed.
Dr Lisa Ryan of the UCD School of Economics replied that there would be a need for oil and gas for a time yet and that the climate dimensions to energy policy were not as black and white as one may like. Playing the devil’s advocate, she said that unlike what was previously believed, we are not going to run out of fossil fuels. Instead, we needed to prove that alternative means of energy production were better. She called on the public sector to lead by example, seeking for example that every public vehicle was electric.
Duffy added that we needed to be realistic about what could be achieved given that we were facing into ‘Brexit hell’. Eamon Ryan replied that realistically there would be energy cooperation between the EU and UK as the UK couldn’t sell its power to New Zeland.
Professor Walsh at this point expressed a belief that the whole University system was perhaps going in the wrong direction in its own response to the issue. Walsh said the same arguments about slow steady transitions were made regarding slavery in the past, and that instead of trying to win over the hearts and minds, we needed to ‘fix’ them via the educations system.
Professor Hoepner agreed that nearly 80% of known fossil fuels needed to remain in the ground, and presented a simple solution to keep them there. He argued that the big companies, with their small cabal of decision makers, only cared about the short term, and they consistently sought to refinance debt based on projected profits from new explorations in order to fulfil short term goals. Hoepner proposed that we as citizens, and deny them the ability to refinance, which would force them to evaluate whether or not they could continue to explore.
Dr Ryan also brought in the idea of carbon pricing, in an effort to properly price in the externalities that arose from the burning of carbon. This had already been proven to work in the cases of cars, where since its introduction via the motor tax had seen most cars be converted to A grade fuel-efficient models.
In a comment to the Tribune, Katie O’Dea the UCDSU Environmental coordinator responsible for organising ‘Green Week’ said ‘’It was great to have such a high calibre of speakers at the environmental responsibility panel discussion – I felt that it could have continued for hours! The topic itself is fascinating and one that is particularly relevant in a society where the focus seems to be more on individual and less on government responsibility. I think that the panellists agreed that it was up to governments to lead by example and to make it easy for individuals to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. It’s certainly an event that we’ll look at doing again next year.’
By Aaron Bowman – CoEditor