When Economics Defines Climate Action


Economics and policy, a marriage made in the public, political and societal eye – is one that not even debt can tear apart. The two are inextricable , and the power dynamic within their relationship is an important one to consider. When fiscal priorities are the parameters that frame policies, the results may not benefit society as a whole. Budgetary purse strings clearly indicate a Government’s policy priorities and ambitions.

As far back as the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes, the renowned English economist, warned that “the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood”.

The recently published independent review of Ireland’s Climate Change Advisory Council clearly highlights some of the ways in which economic priorities and ideology have shaped Ireland’s response to the Climate Crisis. If we are, as Leo Varadkar has confessed, “climate laggards”, our economic ideology must be a significant factor.

When Economics Defines Climate Action

A curious fact about the Climate Change Advisory Council – an immensely influential body – is that seven of its 11 members are economists. No climate science expertise is represented in the committee. This curiosity has implications beyond being table-quiz trivia fodder. This independent review has found that the Council is “too focused on the economic implications of climate action and that it sought incremental changes in society and the economy when transformational change was urgently required.” This was a consequence, not only of the composition of the Council but also the narrow mandate established by the Government which specifically stated that it advise on “the most cost-effective manner of achieving reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to enable the achievement of the NTO (National Transition Objective)”.

This econo-centric view of climate action, is something the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice has criticised and is a consistent feature of Ireland’s climate policies. The prevalence of the “Marginal Abatement Cost Curve” in the Climate Action Plan, published in 2019, is a prominent example of the economic tail wagging the climate-action dog. When the priority is always on the lowest cost options, solutions that are most effective and urgent may not always be considered with the weight they deserve.

The simple fact is, anything we approach with the intention of investing as little as possible in is not a priority.

Limited Mandate; Limited Action

The report acknowledges some impressive achievements of the Council while being unambiguous in its criticism. A large proportion of this criticism is aimed, not only at the functioning of the Council itself, but is in fact an indirect criticism of the Irish Government’s handling of the climate crisis, in particular the unambitious Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 which resulted in the relatively narrow and weak mandate to the Council.

Christian teaching tells us that where your money is, there too is your heart. Applying that insight to the work of the Council reveals much about the contemporary Irish State. The review noted that the budget for the Council was not adequate to its needs. Lack of appropriate access to data limited their capability and an understaffed and under-resourced secretariat limited the effectiveness of their role as advisors to the Government on climate change. This lack of resourcing speaks volumes about the priority Government places on climate action.

And a lack of urgency trickles down through departments and civil servants so that the work of the Council is marginalised. The annual reviews which the Council generates are important in terms of highlighting the failure of the Government in reducing emissions but are seldom officially acknowledged by various different Government departments. This lack of meaningful engagement is also obvious in its inability to set the pace of climate action in relevant policies. Its criticism of the recent Ag-Climatise (a National Climate and Air Roadmap for the Agriculture Sector to 2030 and Beyond) draft policy typifies this relationship of ‘watchdog’ rather than contributor or advisor.

Time for Change

This review of the Climate Change Advisory Council come at the end of its first five-year term. It is especially timely as the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2020, which is in the process of going through amendments after pre-legislative scrutiny, aims to strengthen the role of the Climate Change Advisory Committee. Recommendations in this review could help shape the form and function of this new Committee, which is badly in need of an upgrade.

A new Council must be equipped with the mandate, resources and expertise to drive ambitious and systematic changes that are needed to get us on the path to an environmentally stable and socially just society. We need more environmental scientists, but we also need ethicists and even people drawn from the creative arts to inform Government policy in a profound fashion. Such a composition for the Council would be a departure from how these things are usually run, which is why it would be a daring and inspiring first step.

After all, we are long past the point of business as usual.