‘Blah, Blah Blah’ from Stormont on the climate crisis

“Blah, blah, blah” is how Greta Thunberg has described what we get from politicians across the world. This is strikingly seen at the COP26 climate conference where world leaders “lobbied” to water down reports which expose the urgency of the climate crisis. The COP26 conference is widely seen as a cop-out with a failure to “keep the goal of 1.5℃ alive” with even basic objectives like to state that coal would be phased out being removed. Even Boris Johnson has described the commitment at the recent G20 summit (governments of largest 20 world economies) which preceded COP26 as “drops in a rapidly warming ocean.”  How can it be any other way when representatives of the fossil fuel industry had more representatives than any one country! As Socialist Party member, Amy Ferguson, put it “Inviting fossil fuel industry reps to a conference on climate is like inviting arms dealers to an anti-war conference.” Indeed  a key feature of the conference was attempts by companies and politicians to engage in ‘greenwashing.’ 

Anyone who has seen politicians from the Executive Parties at Stormont will know exactly where Greta is coming from. Political parties and the Executive themselves have all rushed out a series of documents and tokenistic programmes on the environment. A striking example is Stormont’s environment minister, Edwin Poots, who launched a 78-page “Draft Environment Strategy for Northern Ireland.” Hailed as the first of its kind but largely vague in character with conservative targets. This is unsurprising from an environment minister who up until recently felt we shouldn’t talk of a climate crisis. Poots also recently announced a ‘carbon literacy’ course for school children which aims to teach kids about the effect of their behaviour. Friends of the Earth have correctly labeled this as greenwashing and pointed out that if Poots and Co. were serious “ministerial colleagues, agri-food corporations and those in his own department.”

Climate change bills

Yet for all the “blah, blah, blah” one fact is striking: Northern Ireland has the highest household carbon emissions per population size in the United Kingdom. This is despite the Oxford economist pointing to the fact that the North has a strong base of industries that could support the green economy, particularly in its energy sector. However, it is of no surprise that for decades the main Stormont parties have ignored the climate crisis. Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK and Ireland without an Independent Environmental Protection Agency and no National Parks. Currently, it has no laws setting targets to cut climate-changing emissions.  

Now we have two ‘Climate change bills’ going through Stormont.  Not because of the urgency of the situation but because the DUP won’t even support the timid targets proposed in an original bill being moved by the Green Party’s Clare Bailey and backed by Sinn Fein, Alliance, SDLP, and People Before Profit. The Socialist Party welcomes many of the proposals in the original bill including declaring a climate emergency and setting a regular target. We also believe that it is necessary to have a Climate Action Plan but it is also necessary to warn that in hands of right-wing parties in the Executive the targets set could be profoundly conservative or connected with eco-austerity measures which put the blame and cost for climate crisis on working-class people including, for example, domestic water charges. 

The original bill commits Northern Ireland to being carbon neutral by 2045 and the DUP bill reduces that even further to 82% by 2050. This is in line with the inadequate approach of many governments and multinational companies which have set such targets for 2045 or 2050. Copying the approach of other politicians across the world means adapting the approach which an independent group of scientists warned was “too little too late”, and will not achieve the long-term temperature goals identified in the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C by the end of the century. Many environmental groups favour much more ambitious targets, Extinction Rebellion for example argue for the UK and Ireland to be carbon neutral by 2025, Clare Bailey’s colleagues in the Green Party in England and Wales and the British Labour Party argue for carbon neutral by 2030. 

No green-washing Stormont 

However the much more fundamental problem is not with the bill itself but the hypocrisy of the majority of politicians pushing it. Like Greta’s powerful speech, Friends of the Earth has warned that “Powerful actors are using “net zero” pledges to hide their climate inaction.” While local politicians are happy to have their pictures taken campaigning for this bill, they allow and support toxic industries. While community protests have stopped attempts at fracking, there is still no official ban, and the threat from unwanted oil and gas companies remains. The Northern Ireland Executive has even commissioned a £75,000 consultants’ report on the pros and cons of petroleum exploration. Despite strong public opposition, two companies are currently seeking petroleum licenses, one around Lough Neagh and another in Co. Fermanagh. Likewise, tens of thousands of people have objected to gold mining in the Sperrin mountains, yet all Stormont has committed to is a public inquiry on the issue.

At the same time there has been years of underinvestment in for example our water service and inaction in the face of corporate polluting. This means there has been more than 3,000 incidents of water pollution here in the last four years and there has been a significant increase in illegal dumping. We need serious public investment in services in order to address these crucial issues.

Mass action for urgent Socialist change needed

Recent Lucidtalk polls show that an overwhelming majority – 74% are concerned about climate change. Correctly people are cynical and opposed to the climate crisis being used to impose regressive taxes such as Carbon Tax, which tries to make working people pay for the crisis rather than major polluters. Instead of the hypocritical approach of the Assembly parties we need a radical programme to address climate change and achieve a real, just transition in the interest of working-class people. This includes the need for measures such as the free, reliable and expanded public transport and cutting the working week to 4 days without loss of pay in order to cut the number of cars on our roads. 

We need a Climate Action Plans but their content is important! A Socialist Climate Action Plan would implement a massive green jobs and public works programme that builds new green industries, carries out the transition to 100% renewable energy and leads the transition to a sustainable economy. It also fights to transform agriculture but that can’t happen when politicians are hand in hand with agri-business which in Northern Ireland have been demonstrated in a series of scandals such as RHI. For more on this read ourSocialist climate action plan- for a world on fire.

Such a necessary programme is could not implemented as long as the vast wealth in our society is left in private hands. It requires break with the capitalist system and urgent transitioning of our economy in the interest of working people and the planet are needed. The movement for climate action has no real or consistent allies in the capitalist ruling class or its political parties. Only through mass struggle can it effectively fight for the real changes needed such as the very simple demands such as free public transport or ensuring fossil fuels stay in the ground. Young people have been central to putting this issue centre stage and should continue to mobilise and look at how we can create a movement of thousands striking in schools. The movement must also reach out to workers to take action which would mobilise the real power working-class people have to bring society to a halt. Our movement shouldn’t let politicians give the usual blah, blah, blah speech at our demos as they have been free to do on demonstrations in Belfast up until now. Instead we should call them out for the hypocrites they are in order to build the movement that can really transform our societ

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