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Simon Harris in Trinity's Pollinator Garden during Dublin's Festival of Curiosity in 2020.

The climate crisis is looming. Is Simon Harris prepared to face it?

“I’m absolutely committed to addressing the climate emergency,” the new Fine Gael leader has said.

“POLITICIANS, REGARDLESS OF political persuasion, donning wellies and standing around looking sympathetic will not serve much purpose.”

So said Simon Harris, then in his first term as a TD, in 2015 in the midst of a winter of “exceptional and widespread flooding”.

As the minister of state with responsibility for the Office of Public Works at the time, he said that recent floods and the “possible impact of climate change” would inform flood risk management plans that were underway. He promised the government would spend more on flood relief in the following five years than it had in the previous twenty.

Nearly a decade later, Ireland has seen not only flooding but heatwaves and storms wrack damage around the country. The climate crisis and the threats it poses to lives, livelihoods and nature are coming into ever-sharper focus.

As Simon Harris takes over the leadership of Fine Gael, and soon, most likely, the country, is he ready to face the climate crisis?

Simon Harris Ploughing Simon Harris at the 2023 Ploughing Championships Simon Harris Simon Harris

‘This is his responsibility’

A Fine Gael convention last weekend to select its candidate for the Midlands-North-West constituency in the upcoming European election turned into Harris’ soft inauguration.

Speaking to reporters at the convention, he was quizzed on many issues, including climate.

“I think this is an important point and I make it strongly and I believe in it: climate action is really important,” he said. “I’m absolutely committed to addressing the climate emergency. We all are.”

He will need to be. 

Human activities have unequivocally caused global warming, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and widespread and rapid changes have already been observed in the atmosphere, on land and at sea.

Every incremental rise in average temperatures will intensify the climate hazard that the world faces and “deep, rapid, and sustained reductions” in greenhouse gas emissions are crucial to avert total catastrophe.

At the same time, Ireland is on track to blow through the carbon budget that is supposed to set a limit on the greenhouse gas emissions the country produces.

Ireland produces fewer emissions than larger heavy polluters like the US or China, but it still has an important role to play in climate action.

On a per capita basis, Ireland is one of the highest emitters across the European Union.

In addition to stopping global warming, there are also more immediate and local benefits to taking climate action, like reduced air pollution, better public transport options, and improved health and wellbeing.

people-with-banners-protest-as-part-of-a-climate-change-march Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

During this Dáil term, Harris has been Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and briefly stood in as Minister for Justice while Minister Helen McEntee was on maternity leave. Previously, he was Minister for Health, and, before that, Minister of State at the Department of Finance with responsibility for the OPW.

He has engaged with some climate action policies in those roles, but has not yet faced a thorough testing of his climate credentials.

“A lot of politicians, unless they’re directly in the Department of Environment, the environmental and climate issue just passes them by, and I think that that remains the case for most of our political parties,” said campaigning journalist John Gibbons, speaking to The Journal.

“I think it’s much more difficult for a politician in 2024 to take over the leadership of a party and become Taoiseach without grasping that, on their watch, there is a full-blown ecological emergency,” Gibbons said.

His job as a leader is to flag upcoming threats and there is none bigger and none more salient than the climate emergency, so I would certainly be hopeful that his advisors will get him up to speed.

“The idea that climate is a Green issue that is owned by one small political party is very outdated and I certainly hope that the new Fine Gael leader and the new Taoiseach will understand that this is his responsibility.” 

Friends of the Earth chief executive Oisín Coghlan agreed that it’s perhaps not surprising, given the roles that Harris has been in to date, that climate hasn’t been a central part of his remit. 

However, he added that Harris is “a politician that prides himself on being in touch with the younger generation and being tech-savvy, and he will know in that case that it is a critical issue for younger voters”.

“If Fine Gael wants to position itself as the party of the progressive centre, climate is an issue that is squarely on the agenda of those voters. Particularly among young people, it is an issue that they want to see action on,” Coghlan said.

“I hope he will appreciate that, and, now that he has a role that encompasses all of the government’s responsibilities, that he will see climate as being central to that.”

Security challenge

Harris’ first contribution to the Dáil that referenced climate – if only briefly – was in 2015, four years after he became a TD.

In a discussion about European security policy, he made the point that “competition for scarce resources and the steady creep of climate change increase the risk of instability”.

That link between security and climate change surfaced again in Harris’ remarks last weekend soon after he was officially named the new Fine Gael leader.

Delivering a manifesto-style speech to the packed room at the Fine Gael convention, Harris mentioned climate change briefly, once, saying: “Fine Gael stands for supporting the family farm and helping farmers to transition to meet the challenges of food security and climate change.”

He raised the idea of security multiple times throughout the speech; national security, but also security in housing, care, health and public spaces.

Later, speaking to reporters, Harris was questioned about why climate hadn’t appeared to feature strongly in his speech.

In response, he said: “When I talked about security, I specifically talked about security relating to our planet.”

(The speech can be read in full here.) 

“Climate action and our planet being on fire, and taking action on that, is an absolutely integral part of our security,” he said, adding that, if it could have been interpreted that climate was not a priority for him: “Let me clarify that on my part, and you’ll hear more from me on that in my Ard Fheis speech.”

“It’s not, though, rural versus urban, farmer versus science. We need to stop this idea that you can either be on the side of farmers or on the side of putting out the fire on the planet,” he continued.

“I mean, farmers get climate action. They get it a lot better than some people who just talk about it. What we need to do and what I tried to say in my speech today is we need to support farmers and agriculture in the transition in practical ways.”

simon-harris-speaks-after-being-confirmed-as-the-new-leader-of-fine-gael-paving-the-way-for-him-to-become-irelands-youngest-premier-at-the-midlands-north-west-european-election-selection-convention Simon Harris speaking at the convention at the Sheraton Hotel in Athlone on 24 March 2024. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Responding to Harris’ speech, John Gibbons said that climate change is a key security consideration and that he hopes the new Fine Gael leader has “got the memo” in that regard.

“The greatest threat to our national security in every sense of the word, from food security to wider security issues over the next decade, without a doubt is coming from climate and ecological impacts,” Gibbons said.

He said the agricultural system is already “lurching from crisis to crisis” and Harris needs to work with the industry to push it towards reducing its emissions. “I think it’s a great challenge for any politician.”

Oisín Coghlan of Friends of the Earth said that there is no greater threat to security than the climate crisis, whether it’s local security issues – like floods affecting small businesses – or wider questions of international security.

“Floods affecting small businesses and which is slap bang in the middle of the kind of voters and constituencies that, by the sound of it, Simon Harris wants Fine Gael to appeal to,” Coghlan said.

The impacts of climate breakdown very squarely affect that whole range from local impacts to global international security. International risk assessments identify climate breakdown as an existential threat to global security and to trade and relations and everything that we now take for granted.

“I hope Simon Harris realises that and I hope that in his future speeches, whether it’s at the Ard Fheis or whether it’s in the Dáil when he takes office, assuming everything goes as expected, that he recognises that more explicitly.”

Carbon tax

On the deeply divisive carbon tax, Harris has fallen in step with the longstanding Fine Gael position in favour of levying the tax on fuels like coal, oil, natural gas and peat and allocating the revenue towards climate-related project like agriculture supports and retrofitting.

In 2019, he defended the tax in the Dáil, saying: “The moment of truth is about to happen in this House soon on carbon.”

“It is very easy to back the fluffy, nice-to-do measures that we are in favour of in taking action on climate change. It is quite different to face up to the truth and to say that if we want to do it, it will involve a carbon tax.” 

It led to a bit of a verbal scuffle between Harris and the Rural Independents and People Before Profit, with the latter two groups accusing him and Fine Gael of being out of touch with the public and failing to tackle energy poverty.

“In breaking news, climate change affects rural Ireland,” was Harris’ response.

“When I was Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, I visited Kerry and Cork South West, which Deputies Danny Healy-Rae, Michael Healy-Rae and Michael Collins represent, and we watched parts of our country begin to fall into the sea and begin to flood,” he said.

“The idea of dividing the country into rural and urban Ireland and that climate change does not affect rural Ireland makes the Deputies out of touch on the issue. They do not speak for rural Ireland.”

Retrofitting and research 

In his role as Minister for Higher and Further Education, as well as Science, Research, and Innovation, Harris has been the face of a number of funding grants and support for college action plans that are linked to climate.

Most significantly, he was responsible for upskilling and reskilling programmes aimed at equipping more workers with the skills necessary to carry out retrofitting.

“We want to retrofit hundreds of thousands of homes. We cannot do that unless we have the skills we need to do it,” Harris said in late 2020.

The job is not yet done; thousands more workers are still needed. As Taoiseach, Harris will need to make sure that he appoints a successor to the ministerial role who can pick up the mantle.

“It is really welcome that the government has been emphasising and promoting apprenticeships as an authentic and positive path after school. Also, practically, we need more technical crafts people and tradespeople if we’re going to do half the things we need to do in Ireland, whether it’s building houses or the energy transition,” Coghlan said.

“There’ll be lots of jobs in retrofitting in wind, in solar over the next few decades. It’s a very solid career path now and it’s great that they’ve made a start on that. Could they do more? Yes. But it’s good that they have started on that. I hope he continues to champion that from the office of Taoiseach.” 


Gibbons and Coghlan both pointed to Ireland’s food systems as a key area of concern that Harris should address for the sake of the climate and the country more broadly.

“At the moment, our food systems are highly insecure and they haven’t been stress tested against serious breakdown. My concern is that we’re basically continuing down a pathway that leaves us incredibly vulnerable nationally to global food shocks – and global food shocks are absolutely coming down the path,” Gibbons said.

“The job I would see of the Taoiseach is to help to shift that discussion away from an industry-led model towards what do we, the public, need from our food system,” he added.

Coghlan described that the “current business model of Irish farming is dedicated towards providing premium products for premium markets abroad, more than actually for food security in Ireland”.

“You sometimes hear from lobbyists suggesting that Ireland is feeding the world. We’re not. We’re feeding premium products for premium markets. If food security was top of our agenda, we’d be looking for the Irish agricultural system to supply more of Ireland’s food because we know the fragility of supply chains,” he said.


In 2016, Harris spoke in the Dáil to nominate Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.

He identified in that speech that Ireland’s governance system is often too focused on the short term at the expense of long-term thinking, and said the Dáil needed to work harder on developing long-term plans to address major challenges – one of which, he said, was climate change.

“One of the weaknesses exposed in the Irish governance system is that it is all too often focused on the short term and does not easily accommodate long-term thinking. There will be an onus on the Government and on all of us in this House to work to build action plans and to get the input of all Members – nobody has a monopoly on wisdom – to develop long-term action plans to address the challenges we face,” he declared, ushering in what would become Enda Kenny’s last stint as Taoiseach before Leo Varadkar took over in 2017.

Now, on the precipice of leading the country himself, it is Simon Harris’ turn to be tested on whether he can use the next twelve or so months to make inroads on a crisis that is make or break for Ireland’s future.

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