As we face into the abyss of global warming, one question should override all others: Will the vested interests triangle once again hijack our future?
I say “triangle” because vested interests operate through three interrelated channels: economic, political and ideological.
Their objective is to resist, obstruct and throw doubt into the irrefutable scientific consensus that time is of the essence and that drastic action is needed to mitigate global warming — as reported again in the major Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report earlier this month.
Economically, a range of business lobbies try to shape policy for their own interests. In the case of climate change, some culprits are well known.
As leading climate scientist Michael Mann reminds us in his recent book The New Climate War, the fossil fuel industry has obstructed action for decades by funnelling billions of dollars into disinformation campaigns.
Recently, however, it has become somewhat impossible to keep denying the obvious. Therefore, Mann writes, “fossil fuel companies, right-wing plutocrats, and oil-funded governments that continue to profit from our dependence on fossil fuels” have “masterfully executed a deflection campaign” consisting of “shifting responsibility from corporations to individuals”.
This explains why we increasingly hear a lot about individual actions to combat climate change: go vegan, stop flying, recycle your clothes.
When practical, these are surely valuable. But it’s important to remember that, as Mann puts it, “personal action means little without systemic change”.
The fact is that our production and consumption systems must be reorganised drastically to green our economy.
This task is essential and highly beneficial, but will be very expensive in the short-term. Therefore, politicians must drop unreasonable insistence on “balanced budgets” and tight “fiscal rules”.
There is a space for markets and the private sector to play a role, but the State needs to step in — with a giant foot.
During the pandemic, years of underinvestment in healthcare and public health have and continue to cost us dearly. It will be worse on climate change.
Closer to home, as the recent Climate Action Bill was passed in July, experts and advocacy groups criticised last-minute amendments inserted by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil — well-known to facilitate vested interests at the political level — which effectively diluted the bill.
Climate scientist Professor John Sweeney commented harshly that the amendments had “taken the guts out of the Climate Bill and destroyed the principles under which it was established”.
If anything, this is a reminder that the main parties must be constantly scrutinised.
The third leg of the triangle is ideological, which mostly means the mass media. RTÉ was recently taken to task for failing to make a clear connection between extreme weather events and global warming.
Their managing director of news and current affairs took to Twitter to apologise and promised to do better — but I will judge based on actions, not words.
A related problem is that some so-called “business journalists” seem to have redefined their roles as parrots for lobby groups rather than as analysts of the business world.
As a result, vested interests’ messages always find a way to dominate the airwaves.
How can we dismantle the vested interests triangle? First we have science. It is the best system of thought and investigation we have to make sense of the world.
This doesn’t mean every scientist is right about everything, nor does it ensure a few scientists won’t go off track or be co-opted by nefarious interests. However, it means that when the scientific consensus is as solid as that on climate change, it’s fair to use it as our basis for action.
Second, we have institutional channels like progressive political parties and trade unions that are supposed to represent people.
Unfortunately, judging by their performance during the pandemic, they have become too soft and centred on the narrow concerns of their members instead of larger societal issues.
Some health care unions, to my knowledge, still don’t have a position on what should be done to stamp out the virus other than “more PPE” and passively following “public health guidelines” — whatever that means.
Meanwhile, opposition parties have been so slow to call for strong Government intervention that one wonders if the word “opposition” remains an accurate descriptor of their mission.
In particular, Sinn Féin promised to be “the most effective opposition in the history of the State”.
I’m not sure if that’s supposed to happen in this century or the next, but it would be great to see it before temperatures rise beyond the point of no return.
Julien Mercille is associate professor in the School of Geography at University College Dublin.