Does Irish America Have Anything to Offer for Brexit?

Not really


The boring, tedious, frustrating, not to mention suicidal, Brexit process continues. Recently Irish Central, a media company, put together a conference on US-British-Irish relations in the context of Brexit. The “US” focus was really about whether the Irish-American diaspora has any role in or influence over Brexit. The obvious answer is: Why would it since Brexit is a fight over the relations between the UK and EU?

But there are some complications that account for the US disapora concern about Brexit. The premise for an Irish-American role is based on the experience with the Northern Ireland peace process that unfolded from the late 1970s to 1998. At critical moments along that way, Irish-American leaders actively supported the peace process, generally in favor of the nationalist position.    And former Senator George Mitchell, at the urging of the Irish-American community (including Niall O’Dowd of Irish Central) and President Clinton, was instrumental in helping the parties in Northern Ireland (NI), and British and Irish governments, to reach the Good Friday Agreement that ended the period of violence and created a devolved administration for NI.

The interest in Brexit for Irish America is the potential threat to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). Given the UK/NI and the Republic of Ireland membership in the EU, there has been a free flow of goods and services, and EU people, across the border between NI and Ireland. If, or when, the UK leaves the EU, that flow of commerce would be expected to be interrupted rather than free-flowing, with a “hard border” of customs and immigration controls. The argument has been that such a “hard border” would contravene the GFA and threaten a resumption of the violence ended by that Agreement.

The Conference

The conference began with a few remarks by organizers and a speech by the Irish Minister for Justice and Equality, then two panels of government representatives, business and industry leaders, Chamber of Commerce people, journalists from The Financial Times, The Irish Times and The New York Times, and development agencies. The program ended with two short speeches by George Mitchell and Richard Neal, the new Chairman of the important US House Ways and Means Committee.

Given the context, and importance of the “hard border” to the political well-being and safety of the people in NI, one could reasonably have expected to hear from those most affected. Yet there was only one representative from NI and he was from the business community. So it was inevitable that the panels focused almost exclusively on the economic implications of Brexit for business interests in the UK and Ireland, and for US investors. But there were a few moments when wider socio-political issues broke through.

The unsurprising consensus was that Brexit is not going to be good for almost anybody’s economic interests. Yet most were optimistic that they or their constituents would make do. For instance, while Brexit could adversely impact the Irish agriculture sector, the services sector would gain, and already there were 70 companies, with 5,000 jobs, moving to Ireland from the UK because of Brexit.

We heard several expected responses during the conference. Niall O’Dowd got his chance to annoy the British Consul: Why does PM May keep changing her story about the backstop depending on whether she’s talking to the DUP or others? The rhetorical question went unanswered.

We also heard a part-plea and part-demand from a member of the audience for a poll on whether the Irish border should go – not the Brexit hard border everybody else was talking about, but the 1920s border. This seemed to be the 21st Century version of “Brits Out.”









There was also my favorite: a claim that there are 30 or 40 or 45 million Irish-Americans, with the insinuation that they are all committed to Irish affairs. Most of them are ghosts. This unreal number of Irish Americans is derived from a question on part of the US Census which asks each household to identify which ancestry or ethnic origin the person most closely identifies with. The question does not measure the degree of attachment the person has with any ancestors or ethnic group. An example that has been used by the Census Bureau states: a response of “Irish” might reflect total involvement in an “Irish” community or only a memory of ancestors several generations removed from the individual. Many of those who migrated in the 18th and 19th centuries from the island of Ireland may identify with being Irish, as it is part of their family history, but they may have no connection with Ireland and may indeed not even know where Ireland is. There are more than a few Irish-named families in Appalachia. If you look at the number of subscribers who pay for Irish newspapers, the members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and other large groups, the people attending the 50 or so Irish Festivals in the US, and the number of visitors from the US to Ireland (a good indicator of “connections”), a reasonable, perhaps generous, estimate is that there may be about five million, give or take a few million, Irish Americans “connected” to Ireland or “Irish” affairs, and only a fraction of these would be connected to Northern Ireland.

Similarly, despite the claims that Irish-Americans represent a sizeable group of votes in any election, there is little if any evidence that they vote for political candidates based on the position of the candidate on Irish or Northern Ireland affairs. Of course there are isolated districts with an overwhelming Irish-American constituency where any candidate had better espouse a United Ireland. But they likely are few and far between.

Now and again a speaker at the conference would note, in passing, that we need to make sure that the Brexit talks do not undermine the Good Friday Agreement and/or create conditions that could lead to a resumption of the violence that killed 3,500 people during the “Troubles.” But no one offered any explication of just how the Brexit talks, or even a hard border, would actually lead to a resumption of violence, or how likely that was, or who would resume the violence. Or what specific provisions in the GFA are at risk of being breached by a “hard border.”

Thankfully, George Mitchell saved the conference, at least for this attendee, much as he saved the Northern Ireland peace talks. Rather than pushing any economic dimension, Mitchell focused on the dynamics of the GFA talks and how they were able to create critical institutions and governing structures that have at least kept the violence to a minimum over the past 20 years. Of course these structures have not prevented the two leading parties in NI from gutting the devolved administration, and leaving the people of NI without any local control over what happens to them as a result of the Brexit process.

Mitchell also argued that no one knows if there might be a return to violence, but some will be ready to use the threat of violence to advance their cause or interest. He added that maybe it might be only a few but even a few can create chaos and suffering. Mitchell did not offer any concrete analysis of the prospect of a return to violence with a hard border.

The lack of any analysis of this issue, which is paramount to those living in NI, was surprising.   Perhaps it was lacking because there is actually little likelihood of a return to wide-spread violence. After the Good Friday Agreement, the Independent Monitoring Commission, appointed by the two governments, periodically reviewed whether the paramilitary organizations were complying with the terms of the Agreement. In their various reports, and analysis, and meetings in New York, it was clear that there were increasingly fewer active members of the paramilitary groups and that they did not have the wide community support that existed in the 1970-1990s. A recent article by Patrick Radden Keefe supports such a reading of the situation although Keefe rightfully worries that confrontations at border crossings could escalate.

As we noted, the leaders of the main political parties walked away from each other and the devolved administration, and have refused for over two years to re-establish that administration, leaving the people of NI without a democratically elected governing body. Once again, NI is run by British civil servants. Yet there do not seem to be reports of any uptick in paramilitary violence. A lack of local control over the day-to-day lives of communities in NI would seem a more direct threat to the peace process and the GFA than some form of custom control.

As for getting the US government involved in the impact of Brexit on the people of NI, or appointing a peace envoy as proposed by Taoiseach Varadkar, we need only mention that the President is Donald Trump. But Ted Smyth, moderator of the first panel and a seasoned former Irish diplomat, provided a better answer. He reminded us all that the American government has been actively engaged in Northern Ireland affairs on only three occasions: in 1977 with the Four Horsemen (Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, Daniel Moynihan, and Hugh Carey) organizing the Friends of Ireland to support a peaceful, non-violent resolution to conflict in NI, and getting the support of President Carter; the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 which established the principal of consent for any change in the constitutional position of NI, and which gave Ireland a voice in the peace talks in NI, with support from President Reagan and his relation with PM Thatcher; and President Clinton’s active engagement in granting a visa to Gerry Adams and with the peace talks in the 1990s, ending in the GFA.

Each of these instances grew out of actual and virulent violence and was intended to help resolve that violence. Those conditions do not exist at the moment in NI, at least not to the extent they did in the 1970s through the 1990s, so any engagement by the US government is a faint hope.

Indeed, there is growing concern that the Irish diaspora in the US itself is fading, with fewer Irish emigrating to the US and fewer younger Irish Americans visiting Ireland. In a recent article on this issue by Suzanne Lynch, one of the panelists, O’Dowd noted that, “A diaspora can die.” That would be a sad wake. So perhaps it is time for an intervention to save the diaspora.


Note: For a view of how Brexit (and the lack of a devolved administration) threatens to undermine environmental protections in Northern Ireland, see a series of video interviews in the Podcast section of this magazine, irish environment, with leading figures in NI environmental non-government organizations (eNGOS), including: Anne-Marie McDevitt, Project Manager of Nature Matters Northern Ireland (Jan 2019); Dr. Jade Berman, Ulster Wildlife and Nature Matters Northern Ireland (Feb 2019); Sean Kelly, Development Manager, Northern Ireland Environmental Link (April 2019).


“Is Ireland the most pro-US voice at the EU table? Brexit conference discusses US-Irish relations,” Irish Central (21 March 2019). Many photos, and videos of George Mitchell’s and Congressman Richie Neal’s speeches at conference.

Clive Irving, “ST. PATRICK’S REVENGE: Brexit Threatens Ireland’s Age of Peace and Prosperity. The Brits Don’t Give a Damn,” The Daily Beast (16 March 2019).

Suzanne Lynch, “Irish-American relations at crossroads as Varadkar goes to Washington,” The Irish Times (9 March 2019).

John Downing: “Face it: no-deal Brexit brings us straight back to Border controls,” Irish Independent (26 March 2019).

Patrick Radden Keefe, “The Irish Border Is a Scar: Could Brexit reignite the Troubles in Northern Ireland?’ The New York Times (31 march 2019).

Author’s Note: The author has been following NI political affairs since the mid-1960s. He organized a group in Philadelphia, Committee for a Dialogue on Northern Ireland (early 1980s to 1988), and put on two public conferences on Northern Ireland, following the New Ireland Forum and the Anglo-Irish Agreement, with speakers representing both Nationalist and Unionist communities. Then he moved to New York City where he organized a private group to follow Northern Ireland affairs. The group met with Northern Ireland politicians (including those from the Unionist community), representatives of NGOs, and leaders of NI Commissions in New York, 1990-2008, again with members of the group from both communities. He now publishes irish environment online magazine, 2009 – present.

From 1988 to 2007, the author served as Assistant Attorney General in the Environmental Protection Bureau of the New York State AG Office, and as Senior Counsel for Commissioner Initiatives in the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, 2007 – 2009.

The ruckus over the Democrat’s Green New Deal

Linking climate change with economic inequality


Some democrats in the US House of Representatives and Senate recently introduced a Resolution “Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.” Beyond the knee-jerk condemnation by Republicans, the Resolution has created a lot of buzz, curiosity, questioning, criticism, and concern.

Before delving into just what the Green New Deal (GND) is, we should clarify what a Resolution is.   Basically it is a document that expresses the will or interests of Congress, or a branch of Congress, on a particular subject.  It can be designed as a piece of legislation or more an expression of principles, opinions, goals and ideals. The current Resolution is non-binding and an expression of ideas, with supporting goals. It resembles more a party platform, with aspirations, rather than a legislative Programme of Government. That characterisation should not be read to dismiss or diminish the Green New Deal Resolution. We all could use some aspiration these days.

The GND confronts two of the most pressing challenges — climate change and growing income inequality, with wage stagnation. It also links them together in the one resolution with the overarching goal of decarbonizing the planet and the economy.  The GND also grew out of a youth Sunrise Movement to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.






The Resolution sets out a Preamble that includes a series of Whereas clauses that offer factual and historical predicates for the growing problems from climate change and economic inequalities that disproportionately impact “frontline and vulnerable communities” and that require a national, social, industrial and economic mobilization as seen in President Roosevelt’s New Deal (post Depression) and World War II.

It cannot be said the Resolution lacks ambition.  With regard to climate change the goals and projects are not revolutionary as they have been advanced for a number of years to define the scope of action necessary to address the increasingly threatening impacts from climate change.

Following the Preamble, the Resolution describes a series of goals and projects that will be promoted by the sponsors through legislation, or at least serve as the basis for discussions within Congressional committees to deal with climate change and economic policies.




Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Sen Ed Markey



For climate change, examples of goals include net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including 100% of power through clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources, through a 10-year national mobilization. This transformation will rely on a just transition, where those working in the fossil fuel industries and agriculture, and other sectors, will be provided support and retraining to adjust to the more sustainable society toward which the Resolution reaches. In addition, greater emphasis will be placed on developing more sustainable infrastructure and energy efficiency in homes and businesses. The means for achieving GHG reductions and a sustainable economy are familiar and reasonable, though a 10-year timetable is perhaps overly ambitious.

The new mobilization will also transform the economy through jobs and prosperity in particular for the frontline, vulnerable communities that have been suffering from wage stagnation and income inequality for decades. Certainly these sectors of society desperately need, and deserve, such ambitious goals. There are a few expressions of goals that do stretch the political calculus in “guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people in the United States,” and the promise “to provide all people in the United States with high-quality health care; affordable, safe and adequate housing; economic security; and clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and access to nature.” None of the goals or projects is subject to cost estimates in the Resolution.

These last few examples, and a few others of like scope, are what triggered the Republicans to scream SOCIALISM. But then they shout that whenever anyone suggests any income and money being more evenly distributed. Indeed, they tend to see even social security as some form of socialism.

David Roberts of Vox has posted a series of extended and thoughtful analyses of the evolution of the NGD, its current form, and possibilities and risks. Roberts also adds what he thinks is missing, including a critical focus on density and public space.

Given the nature of the Resolution, politicians and supporters can pick and choose which elements they support. One could embrace the climate change goals and projects and pass on the economics, or vice versa. But there clearly are political risks in linking together in one proposal the many hurdles in trying to develop support for climate actions and for a fundamental transformation of the economy.

There also are some weaknesses in the choice of historical examples — the New Deal and World War II — that the proponents offer for mobilizing, at least when it comes to the fight against climate change. The New Deal followed from, and was a response to, the Great Depression that for a number of years had wrecked the national economy and devastated the lives of most people in the country. The mobilization for WW II was instituted to fight and destroy a clear common enemy, after years of that enemy invading and destroying close allies of the US, and after Pearl Harbor and the atrocities of the war.

We’re now being asked to mobilize to fight catastrophic, civilization-ending, extinction-inducing climate changes that increasingly seem inevitable but are still, at their worst level, decades and longer away.  Extreme weather events are beginning to convince many that climate change is real and must be dealt with, but still these events are not, at the moment, comparable to the imminent threats and despair felt during the Depression and WW II.







And as in WW II, is there an agreed-upon enemy of climate change actions? It seems at times politically expedient to search for a convenient enemy to blame for our climate troubles. Certainly the fossil fuel interests qualify to some extent, as do vested interests in agriculture and other economic sectors. The problem is that climate change is the result of all of us wasting our natural resources; conspicuously consuming whatever we can get our hands on; relying on fossil fuels for heating, air conditioning, driving, flying and eating; and, opposing renewable energy and bicycles lanes when they block our views or inconvenience us.

It’s not easy recruiting people to join an army to fight themselves.



HOUSE RESOLUTION: Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.

David Roberts, “This is an emergency, damn it: Green New Deal critics are missing the bigger picture,” Vox (23 Feb 2019).

David Roberts, “There’s now an official Green New Deal. Here’s what’s in it: A close look at the fights it picks and the fights it avoids,” Vox (7 Feb 2019).

David Roberts, “The Green New Deal, Explained,” Vox (7 Feb 2019).



Attacking the Irish Government’s abysmal National Mitigation Plan


The Friends of the Irish Environment eNGO raises the stakes in court

The environmental advocacy group, Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), has filed a legal action against Ireland claiming that the government’s National Mitigation Plan (Plan) fails to provide for a reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sufficient to protect the people of Ireland or to meet the government’s obligations under EU law.  FIE asks the court to require the government to replace the failed Plan with a more ambitious strategy.  This national “Climate Case” was heard before the Irish High Court in January 2019 and awaits a decision by the court.

In the recent proceedings before the Court, legal counsel for the Irish government argued, among other issues, that FIE had no right to bring the case on behalf of all Irish citizens and that the organization was trying to intervene in the national policy process.









There is the technical, legal issue of whether FIE has “standing,” which is the right of people to challenge the conduct of another person, including agencies and governments, in a court.   In many, but not all, cases FIE and others have been found to have standing to bring cases for environmental wrongs.  At times that right has been grounded on Article 9 section (2) of the Aarhus Convention:

What constitutes a sufficient interest and impairment of a right shall be determined in accordance with the requirements of national law and consistently with the objective of giving the public concerned wide access to justice within the scope of this Convention. To this end, the interest of any non-governmental organization meeting the requirements referred to in article 2, paragraph 5, shall be deemed sufficient for the purpose of subparagraph (a) above. Such organizations shall also be deemed to have rights capable of being impaired for the purpose of subparagraph (b) above.

Then there is the larger, political question of who has the power, resources and commitment to attack in court governmental inaction that puts the people in jeopardy.

The Mitigation Plan is blantly inadequate as it provides little if any concrete action to tackle, or mitigate, the disastrous impacts from climate change and there is no scientific and other serious dispute about the seriousness of those impacts.  Recent and ongoing extreme weather events attest to this unfolding disaster.







While the government’s passive behavior may have been tolerated for years, that is no longer the case.  Times, they are a changing.  Witness a recent editorial in the Irish Times:

The [National Mitigation] plan was heavy on proposals, light on actions. Less than a year later, Minister for Climate Action Denis Naughten has been forced to admit it needs radical overhaul. His inaction, given the immediate verdict of the Government’s own Climate Change Advisory Council and climate scientists, who had warned more needed to be done urgently, amounts to a gross failure to respond to an emerging crisis. (emphasis added)

In the Executive Summary for its latest Annual Report, the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC), appointed by the government pursuant to the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act (2015), states unequivocally that:

Irish greenhouse gas emissions are rising rather than falling. Ireland is completely off course in terms of achieving its 2020 and 2030 emissions reduction targets. Without urgent action that leads to tangible and substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, Ireland is unlikely to deliver on national, EU and international obligations and will drift further from a pathway that is consistent with transition to a low-carbon economy and society. (emphasis added)

And this past year the Citizens’ Assembly weighed in strongly on the urgency to address climate change.  The Citizens’ Assembly is a body comprising the Chairperson and 99 citizens, randomly selected to be broadly representative of the Irish electorate.  It was legally established by a Resolution of the Oireachtas (legislature) to consider some of the most important issues facing Ireland’s future.  The Resolution included the following among five matters to be considered: “how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change.”

Following review of 1,185 written submissions on the question, two weekends of open public hearings, and deliberations, the Assembly adopted thirteen recommendations on climate change, reflecting broad endorsement of climate action.







The recommendations represent a clear consensus by a representative body of all citizens and provides the government with a blueprint of specific, concrete actions that the citizens want the government to undertake, including:  for the State to retrofit public buildings, and use low carbon vehicles; for the public to pay higher taxes on carbon intensive activities; for the assessment of critical infrastructure (energy, transport, water and communications) to prepare for extreme weather events, with priority spending on the most vulnerable of these; for greater community ownership of future renewable energy projects; for the end of subsidies for peat extraction and use of the savings for peat bog restoration, with some protection for workers affected; for greater priority of public transportation rather than new roads; for mandatory measurement and reporting of food waste; and, perhaps most controversially, for a tax on GHG emissions from agriculture.

When one compares the Assembly Recommendations to the government’s National Mitigation Plan, we can see that the citizens are far ahead of the government.  Unfortunately, there is no sign that the government will catch up and act on the Assembly recommendations.  Indeed, it immediately rejected out of hand any tax on agriculture emissions.

The community at large, as represented by the Assembly, as well as the panel of experts on the CCAC, and the national press have spoken.  The Irish public is demanding that its government take action to effectively protect it from the threats of climate change.  Yet it also seems clear that the Irish government refuses to listen, or is incapable of doing so.

So it is time for the courts to listen.

And who shall they listen to?  Certainly the national press, the government’s own appointed climate experts and a Citizens’ Assembly are unable to bring the government to court.  Someone else had to step in.  We can be grateful we have those with the commitment, credibility and expertise of FIE, or An Taisce, or Peter Sweetman to take on the burden of bringing these failures to the attention of the courts.

Let us hope that the current Climate Case provides an opportunity for the courts to offer the Irish public the necessary protections against the impacts from climate change that the Irish government seems incapable of delivering.  If the government will not listen to its Citizens’ Assembly or its own body of experts on climate change, then maybe it will listen to the courts.

Recall that lawyers for the Irish government also claimed in this Climate Case that FIE was trying to intervene in the national policy process.  Assumedly, the government’s lawyers were raising this as some sort of affront or impertinence on the part of FIE.  The reality is that FIE is indeed attempting to influence the national climate policies, or lack thereof, of the Irish government through the lawsuit.  That is what concerned citizens can, and sometimes must, do.

Bringing a lawsuit is not always legally successful but nevertheless it can be critical in focusing the attention of the public on the inadequacies of the government in dealing with climate change.  By so doing it can help develop public opinion and generate public action, and expose the failings of those who pretend to govern.  That can translate into voting behavior and that always gets the attention of the politicians running the government, however temporarily.



Isabella Kaminski, “Irish Court to Decide If Country Must Strengthen Its Climate Plan,” Climate Liability News (28 Jan 2019).

Friends of the Irish Environment et al. v. Fingal County Council et al., Irish High Court

Climate Change Advisory Council (Ireland), Annual Review 2018 (July 2018).

Editorial, “The Irish Times view on Ireland’s response to climate change: incoherent and weak,” The Irish Times (1 Sept 2018).

The Citizens’ Assembly, Third Report and Recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly: How the State Can Make Ireland a Leader in Tackling Climate Change (18 April 2018).

Robert Emmet Hernan, “A Tipping Point on Climate Change in Ireland?” in the Reports section of irish environment (01 Jan 2018).

Robert Emmet Hernan, “EEB Report on Access to Justice and Litigation in the EU” in the Reports section of the current issue of irish environment (February 2019).

What’s With the Yellow Vest Protests in France Against a Diesel Fuel Tax

A Push Back on Carbon Pricing, or Something Else?

The recent “Yellow Vest” protests in France against a new diesel fuel tax have raised all sorts of questions about whether there is a new or growing pushback against carbon taxes or carbon pricing.[1]  The issue is whether the public is willing to pay new or increased taxes on any fossil fuel. Such taxes typically represent an attempt to reduce consumer use of fossil fuel by making it more expensive, all in the name of fighting against climate change.  A carbon tax is but one form of carbon pricing, as is cap and trade of carbon emissions.

Many supporting the fight against climate change have argued for carbon taxes as an efficient, proven, economic-environmental policy that is easy to administer (in contrast to cap and trade) with an existing taxing authority bureaucracy for implementation.

So it is understandable that many were surprised by the Yellow Vest vehemence against new fuel taxes and concerned that this could signal some larger pushback against a pillar of the climate change fight.

The problem for determining the meaning of the protest is that the protesters themselves have so many different reasons for putting on a yellow vest.  And commentators have as many explanations as there are commentators.  We’ll add our two cents on the issue.







The Yellow Vest protest may well have resulted from circumstances in France unrelated to the fight against climate change.  The French have supported progressive EU action on climate change action, in contrast to the Australians and Republicans in the US, so the protests against fossil fuel taxes were not expected.  The problem more likely is the way in which the tax was imposed by President Macron. Before imposing the diesel fuel tax, Macron had already cancelled a surtax paid by France’s wealthiest people, relaxed rules to make it easier to fire and hire workers, and reduced pensions for railway unions.  Is it any wonder that the working class were disturbed by the new tax, especially in rural areas where cars and fuel are indispensable.  In contrast the urban French communities generally have access to public transportation, and the rich are largely unaffected by small fuel taxes.  So certainly part of the force behind the protests is the growing inequality between those who have and those who don’t.

It has also been suggested that Macron’s unveiling of the tax was hindered by his lack of prior political experiences since his party did not exist before the presidential elections and he had no local mayors to test the market on his policies.  A certain autocratic approach was not helpful and seemed to reflect a government uncaring of its working classes — a not unfamiliar refrain in many places these days.

This is not to suggest that we should dismiss the Yellow Vest protests as simply a function of local French politics, unrelated to climate change action.   For we have seen other carbon pricing mechanisms run into deep resistance lately.  For example, Washington State, a progressive state (think Seattle and coffee shops) proposed a carbon “fee” (taxes for the meek) on fossil fuel companies for each ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.  The proposal was defeated.   And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada has experienced some entrenched opposition to his carbon pricing initiatives.

In both Washington State and Canada we see one factor that affects the outcome of any such initiative.  It is all too familiar and grows out of the tobacco companies fight against non-smoking legislation.  The well-funded oil and gas and coal interests continue to spend lavishly on fighting any political action that smacks of carbon tax, or cap and trade. Think of any coal company, ExxonMobil and, especially, the Koch Brothers.

At the same time, many working and non-working class people in many places may have good reasons to be suspicious of, if not hostile to, fossil fuel taxes.  There has always been a concern that the environmental movement has been dominated by affluent middle-class activists and that the working class is marginalized within the movement.  Usually this issue was raised in conversations about the movement itself.  Lately it has surfaced as an issue with attempts to implement specific climate change actions, including carbon pricing.  Certainly coal miners and even some auto workers have joined in opposition to such initiatives as they directly affect their livelihoods, and they are demanding a Just Transition to move from fossil fuel jobs to something else.

What is particularly disturbing is when the fossil fuel monied interests target, and manipulate, working class interests to build opposition to climate actions.  It is just such attempts to undermine climate action that require the most sustained and clear counter-messaging, and support for dealing with the economic impacts on working classes (and developing countrtries) from efforts to switch to a carbon-free world.

Ireland is not immune to these forces.  Carbon taxes, on motor gas, diesel and home heating oil, have been part of the Irish landscape since 2010. The carbon taxes were part of the Programme of Government, 2007-12, for the Fianna Fail-Green Coalition, and were part of a movement by the Greens to move Ireland towards a Green Economy.  They were carefully planned and tied to the long-established EU Emission Trading Scheme, which had been around for some time. There was no broad opposition or protests to these carbon taxes.







Yet around the same time, Ireland introduced water charges, which are similar to fuel taxes as they are both designed to reduce consumer usage of a fundamental natural resource.  The water charges provoked protests akin to the Yellow Vests. As in the French protests against fuel taxes, the context for the recent introduction of water charges in Ireland may be helpful.

The charges were directly tied to the National Recovery Plan and a condition to the arrangements for the EU-IMF bailout of Ireland in 2010 (or an excuse by the government to impose water charges).   Part of that Plan was also the creation of Irish Water to handle all water issues, including installation of water meters and collection of charges.  It did not help matters that Irish Water spent €85 million on consultants by 2015, and that Irish water spent  €180million to set up, and that employees were entitled to bonus payments, even if their performances were sub-par.   In other words, the then Irish government’s rollout of water charges was less than brilliant.

We ignore such concerns about climate action at our peril, and to the peril of the planet.  And we need to be ever more cafeful in how we try to persuade or sell climate change actions.

At the same time, we should not read too much into the Yellow Vests as carbon taxes have been introduced in 40 countries and more than 20 cities, states and provinces, and more are planned  without widespread opposition.  In total the World Bank reports that they cover about 13% of annual greenhouse gases and remain the most efficient way for businesses to determine how and when to invest in clean technology.  See BBC News, below.

[1]The demonstrators take their name from the fluorescent hazard vests that all drivers in France have to carry in their vehicles and are used in emergencies.


Cory Doctorow, “Yellow Vests stand for and against many contradictory things, but are united in opposition to oligarchy,”
Boingboing (14 Dec 2018).

Thomas L. Friedman, “The End of Europe?” The New York Times (18 Dec 2018).

Neil Gross, “Is Environmentalism Just for Rich People?” The New York Times (14 Dec 2018).

Josh Siegel, “Washington state voters reject carbon tax ballot initiative,” Washington Examiner (21 Dec 2018).

Ian Austin, “Justin Trudeau’s Carbon Tax Push Finds Critics on All Sides,” The New York Times (7 Dec 2018).

Roger Harrabin, “Climate change: Protecting the poor from green taxes,” BBC News (11 Dec 2018)

AFP, “Thousands protest post-bailout water charges in Ireland,” Yahoo News (31 Jan 2015).

Frank Convery, Louise Dunne, and Deirdre Joyce, “Ireland’s Carbon Tax in the context of the Fiscal Crisis,” Cyprus Economic Policy Review, Vol. 8, No. 2,
pp. 135-143 (2014).

Joseph Curtin, “Can carbon taxes ever work for voters?” Joseph Curtin Blog (7 Dec 2018).

“Just Transition” in iePEDIA section of irish environment magazine (Nov 2018).


The Dark Side of Nuclear

It’s “clean” energy but when it goes wrong, it goes very wrong.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) makes a case for treating nuclear as a transition power source until wind and solar and other renewable sources expand the capacity to replace fossil fuels and nuclear. See “The Nuclear Power Dilemma: Declining Profits, Plant Closures, and the Threat of Rising Carbon Emissions (2018)” in the Commentary section of the current issue of irish environment.  While not entirely clear in its report, UCS seems to limit the proposed favorable treatment (e.g., continued significant subsidies) to existing but not new nuclear plants.

The rationale is that we desperately need to reduce carbon emissions, and when nuclear plants are retired or shut down, they are replaced with natural gas or coal plants. As a result, carbon emissions rise substantially, or fall much slower.

The easy answer against prolonging nuclear is to not allow coal or gas plants to be built as replacements. Of course to the extent that this could or would create a shortage of power, neither politicians nor the public would likely approve.

While emissions from nuclear plants are clean, the mining and production of raw materials and the disposal of nuclear waste remain deeply problematical. As does the extensiveness of the subsidies to cover liability for nuclear accidents at such plants.   The UCS report covers safety of nuclear, but largely to argue that only nuclear plants with strong safety records should qualify for continued financial support and extended life span. There is no assessment of the risks of significant releases of radioactive materials, and the costs of damages and losses that occur with such releases. The nature and extent of those risks and losses need to be factored into any discussion on extending the life of nuclear plants.

Some may suggest that a significant nuclear accident is unlikely, and therefore worth the gamble of keeping nuclear plants open. Yet in the past 62 years there have been five major environmental disasters at nuclear facilities: Kazakhstan, region of Soviet Union (1956, unreported but discovered recently); Windscale, UK (1957); Three Mile Island, US (1979); Chernobyl, Ukraine (1986) and Fukushima, Japan (2011).   So about every 12 years there has been a significant release of radioactive materials from a nuclear facility. And we have seen that even plants with reasonable safety records have been subject to these disastrous releases.


The impact from these disasters have been horrendous at times. Nuclear clouds from Chernobyl drifted across and terrified much of Europe, exposing 400,00 million to radioactive materials. Radioactive releases destroyed the habitats for reindeer in Lapland, Finland, and sheep in northern Scotland. A large number of young children contracted thyroid cancer from Chernobyl’s releases. The childrens’ surgical scars around their necks have become known as the “Chernobyl necklace.” The costs of Chernobyl have amounted to hundreds of billions of dollars, and are still draining the budgets of Belarus and Ukraine to support the victims.  An area around Chernobyl is called the Exclusion or Dead Zone, originally about 30 km but now extending about 1,000 km. For all practical purposes it is lost for human use for thousands of years.






The UCS report characterizes what happened at Fukushima as an “extreme natural disaster.” In “Evaluating Reactor Safety Performance,” the UCS report mentions in passing that Fukushima “released large amounts of radioactive material into the air and water, requiring more than160,000 people to leave their homes and causing an estimated $200 billion worth of damage to the economy. Moreover, the accident led to the shutdown of the entire Japanese nuclear power sector for years, and it is unlikely to fully recover.” At 22. See, also, Radiation Survey in Fukushima Prefecture – Greenpeace (August 2018) in the Podcast section of the current (December 2018) issue of irish environment magazine.

The report also notes that the US Nuclear Regulatory Council refused to adopt enhanced safety measures at US plants that were implemented at French and Japanese plants found to be necessary as result of the disaster at Fukushima. At 23.  Such conduct does not provide much in the way of assurance that nuclear power plants are adhering to the most stringent safety standards.

The final impacts from Fukushima remain to be seen, as do the possibility of further environmental nuclear disasters

In the meantime, let’s push for wind and solar to keep on expanding as fast as possible.


The Nuclear Power Dilemma; Declining Profits, Plant Closures, and the Threat of Rising Carbon Emissions )” in the Commentary section of the current issue of irish environment.

Robert Emmet Hernan, This Borrowed Earth: Lessons from the 15 Worst Environmental Disasters Around the World (published in English in February 2010 by PalgraveMacmillan, and in Chinese in December 2011 by China Machine Press).