Voters and politicians need to seek a greener, cleaner future

Voters are preparing to go to the polls
Voters have the opportunity to make sure their politicians plan for a greener future

ALL POLITICIANS need to be reminded that as policy makers they are key players in deciding our environmental future – and election time provides the perfect opportunity for voters and interest groups to have their say.

Before I get down to the business at hand, I should point out that I live and vote in the Republic of Ireland, which means that for several weeks – since February’s General Election – the state’s elected politicians have been vying  not to be in Government.

But it’s the upcoming Northern Ireland Assembly elections that I want to write about now, and the pressure on politicians to plan for an environmentally-friendly future.

Politicians appear to still struggle with something that the NGOs have always known – that ‘The Environment’ is not just about trees and bees, but is linked to almost all aspects of our daily lives, including the air we breathe, our drinking water, the energy we use in our homes and businesses, the food we eat, our physical and mental health, and our children’s wellbeing.  

Environmental manifestos

In recent weeks, a variety of groups in the North’s environment sector have been busy highlighting the issues they feel should be prioritised in the next Programme for Government 2016-2021, while the parties have also been setting out their stalls.

The interests of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH), which represents environmental health professionals, range from environmental protection to food safety, and from housing standards to people’s safety at work and in public places.

The body believes that one of the first tasks of the incoming Executive should be to implement a Climate Change Act, setting out clear targets for carbon reduction as well as tackling the inevitable impacts of climate change – examples would include flooding, damage to agriculture and infrastructure – by introducing ‘climate-proofing’ across all public policy.

The region still trails behind its nearest neighbours on both sides of the Irish Sea, who all now have climate legislation.

Separately, Northern Ireland Environment Link (NIEL), which is a forum of environmental interest groups, wants a Land Strategy and a Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill , as well as more action to encourage children to connect with the environment.

Fragile Woodland Resource

Meanwhile, the Woodland Trust is appealing directly to voters to grab the chance to quiz local candidates on the doorstep on how they intend to protect and enhance the region’s “fragile woodland resource”.

The charity is suggesting that voters should ask candidates if they plan to increase woodland cover (which is currently at just 8%) and to back a register of Very Important Trees (V.I.Trees), guaranteeing their protection.

The Woodland Trust wants a Very Important Tree register
The Dark Hedges, picture by Michael Cooper

“Trees provide huge health benefits, both mental and physical; places for recreation; havens for wildlife; improve air and water quality; and, planted in the right place, can help prevent flooding,” says Trust director Patrick Cregg.

Slow to Change

Politicians traditionally tend to be tentative when it comes to change, preferring to adopt a wait-and-see approach rather than tackling issues that might cause alarm to Big Industry interests or might come at a financial cost. They also seem to find it easier to focus on the past than look to the future, beyond the next polling day, that is.

In 1786, one of the founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, wrote of the harmful consequences of long-term exposure to lead.

He expressed concern that the effects of lead exposure to human health had been known for decades but had not been acted upon, writing: “You will observe, with concern, how long a useful truth may be known, and exist, before it is generally received and practiced on.”

It might be nice to think that today’s leaders – on both sides of the Irish border – are more willing to act fast and adopt policies geared towards the future welfare of the people and the environment. It’s a case of wait and see.


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