We need a public information campaign to combat climate change

Every year, the little town where I live in Donegal has a harvest fair. Part of the annual event includes a parade of floats and marching bands, usually on a Sunday afternoon.

This year’s fair was the first in three years, COVID having forced its cancellation in the previous two. Rain in the early part of the day forced the parade to be put back by a couple of hours but there was a decent spell of fairly bright weather when proceedings finally got underway.

As we stood on the side of the main street watching the floats pass by, nearly all of them put together by local people, it became clear very quickly that one theme dominated the entries for 2022: Turf.

I counted at least four floats devoted to the government’s proposal to ban the sale of turf. None of them were supportive. In nearly all of them, Green party leader Eamon Ryan was portrayed as the villain of the piece, usually cycling alongside the float. The reason for the hostility towards Ryan, the climate and environment minister, was his proposal to ban the sale and distribution of turf as part of new regulations on solid fuels.

Ryan had proposed the ban on the grounds of reducing air pollution but there are also serious concerns over the carbon impact of continued turf cutting and burning because peat bogs are considered to be very efficient carbon sinks.

According to the Global Peatlands Initiative, “greenhouse gas emissions from drained or burned peatlands are estimated to amount up to five percent of the global carbon budget — in the range of two billion tonnes CO2 per year”. It adds that “peatlands store large amounts of carbon. Although they cover less than three per cent of global land surface, estimates suggest that peatlands contain twice as much as in the world’s forests”.

The reason why I’m talking about the presence of anti-Ryan floats in a small town in Donegal is because they highlight a glaring weakness in the way that the climate crisis is being presented to people by government in Ireland. Last week, I had a chance to read the “12 Step Programme for Bold Climate Action” from Friends of the Earth (FoE). It outlined a range of actions that could be taken by government “to urgently cut pollution and reduce energy costs for households” in four specific areas: transport, agriculture and land use, buildings and electricity.

While the measures outlined were, to my mind, all very worthwhile and effective, I wasn’t entirely assured that enough was being done to cajole and convince people to adopt them. For example, one of the steps calls on the government to end the sale of new internal combustion engine (ICE) cars within three years. “Start by immediately raising VRT on cars based on emissions and weight, so that the highest band is at €5,000 by 2025,” the document states. “Ban the sale of new ICE cars from 2026.”

While I’m sure the measure makes sense, the problem is that it appears shockingly drastic to the casual reader. As a means to help people wean themselves off fossil fuel cars, the document suggests more, cheaper public transport and state-backed interest free loans for people in rural areas to buy electric vehicles (along with congestion charges in Dublin). Again, this sounds commendable but it doesn’t seem to be making an argument to people why it needs to happen merely telling them why it has to be done.

In this context, it’s perhaps unfortunate that FoE waits until after it sets out the 12 steps before making the most important point in terms of getting the measures accepted and adopted by the general populace.

In a section headlined “3 Steps for a cultural transformation”, FoE proposes banning fossil fuel advertising and promoting sustainable diets but the most important of the three is undoubtedly the call for a public information campaign. FoE says the government should “develop and launch a comprehensive long-term government information campaign on climate and energy, as we have done on road safety and smoking over decades”.

This, to me, is the truly vital measure for any government if it is to have any chance of gaining the consent of the people of Ireland to adopting the 12 steps required for effective climate action. Without greater awareness, any policy will be viewed as an isolated diktat enforced on one particular group, serving only to nurse and reinforce grievances against the wider strategy of combating climate change.

An effective public information campaign is designed to involve and engage all citizens. It is incredible, in the literal meaning of that word, that a public information campaign about the climate crisis has not been run in Ireland (and many other countries) to date.

As FoE notes, there have been several very successful public information campaigns in the past, in areas such as road safety and smoking. It is shocking that the climate crisis is being ignored when it represents such an existential threat to us all.

That lack of engagement with the public and the unwillingness to have an honest discussion with the populace over what the country has to do to combat climate change is a terrible abdication of political responsibility and merely delays the inevitable. Worse still, the longer the government leaves it, the more likely it will have to impose those measures rather than agree them.

The people deserve more. They deserve to be better-informed and to have a greater awareness of the climate crisis. It’s a failure of government that so many of them don’t. The situation is not irredeemable but something needs to be done quickly. FoE should be making the argument for a public awareness campaign as loudly as possible. It’s disappointing that what is, to a large extent, the most effective climate action measure is so far down the list of priorities. It shouldn’t be considered a bold measure but, unfortunately, it is. That tells us everything we need to know about the situation we find ourselves in. It's time to do something about it.

Photo by Markus Spiske