Northern Ireland news

Opinion: Why we need a just energy transition to address our climate emergency

What connects the following? The threatened closure of Harland and Wolff, Northern Ireland having the highest levels of energy poverty in Europe, the recent heatwave across Europe and the evacuation of 1,500 people from Whaley Bridge, and Harry and Meaghan's decision to only have two children to save the planet? What connects them all is the intersection of the climate and ecological crisis with issues of social injustice, class and how the structure of our economy is locking us into an unsustainable path.

Extinction Rebellion protesters reach Parliament Square in Westminster
John Barry


An important issue we need to get right is the language and framing of the climate and ecological crisis. With growing scientific evidence for accelerating climate breakdown we all should stop talking about `climate change' - as the journalist George Monbiot has noted calling it climate change is like calling enemy invaders `unwelcome guests'.

Secondly, `telling the truth about climate breakdown', as the Extinction Rebellion movement correctly demands, involves seeing that it is not the planet that needs saving.

We are perhaps finally reaching a tipping point where the public is now aware of the urgency and severity of the crisis - whether through Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and the school strike for climate movement, the public educational role played by David Attenborough, or the rise in support for Green Parties at the last European election.

Four countries have taken a leadership position in declaring climate and ecological emergencies (Ireland, UK, Canada and France), as have almost 100 local councils in the UK and Ireland. The recent Met Office report has stated that the warmest 10 years on record have only occurred since 2002. Climate science tells us have just over a decade to decarbonise the economy.

This is huge task, but one that is not impossible, but only if viewed as requiring structural and collective change than the decision by a wealthy couple to limit their family to two. At the other end of the class spectrum we have vulnerable people in Northern Ireland living in energy poverty, due to a combination of how dependent we are on home heating oil and poorly insulated housing.

Climate justice is what is needed to ensure no community is left behind in the transition to a renewable energy and climate resilient economy.

This is why the threatened closure of Harland and Wolff would be a disaster. The loss of such a strategically important, highly skilled workforce with expertise in renewable energy production and manufacturing would not only be an example of an unjust transition but one which compromises Northern Ireland's capacity to create a new green economy, with decent and well paid, unionised, jobs, innovation and inward investment.

What is needed now is a wartime mobilisation effect, coordinated by the state, to ensure this just transition, so that in moving beyond the rhetoric of politicians or parliaments declaring climate and ecological emergencies, we see some climate action.

This transition is inevitable - otherwise there is no viable future for millions of people. However whether this transition will be just is not inevitable. That is why addressing the climate and ecological crisis is not simply a technological issue or one of personal lifestyle choices. It is a huge economic, political and indeed cultural transformation. But one that has multiple benefits to create not just a climate resilient economy but a less unequal society...if we act quickly enough. After all, it is wise to fix the roof when its sunny, not when it's raining.

:: John Barry is Professor of Green Political Economy from the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University Belfast and will be speaking at the Climate Breakdown Belfast event, Tuesday August 6 5-8pm, Clayton Hotel. More information at

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