Unmasking Ireland’s real ‘climate radicals’

Below, my article as it appeared earlier this month on the OpEd page of the Irish Times. I’ve been intrigued for many years at the way some people are automatically pigeon-holed as outliers and ‘radicals’ in certain debates. Nowhere is this more widely seen than when the media approaches climate and environmental coverage.

Leave aside for a moment the phoney ‘balance’ of allowing folks representing between 0–1% of mainstream scientific opinion equal air time. That’s bad enough, but the reality is in fact worse. The media, civil servants and state agencies defer (consciously or not) to what they perceive are the ‘voices of authority’. That, by itself is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if those voices are of bona fide experts giving independent advice on technical issues.

The real problems start when the ‘voices of authority’ are instead co-opted by most powerful vested interests, the organisations with big media and PR budgets, insider access to politicians and policymakers? Take the employers’ group, IBEC for instance. Last year its turnover was a whopping €21 million. The agri industry and farm lobby group, the IFA has a turnover of around €17 million, with offices in Brussels to ensure its lobbying reach goes well beyond our shores.

IBEC has worked hard for years to ensure the Irish state takes as little action as possible to deal with climate change. It’s my understanding that senior IBEC figures “scared up” the IFA top brass some years ago with horror stories of how ‘those greens’ were going to wipe out agriculture with their annoying demands that we “do something” about climate change.

These are just two of the well organised, well-financed and well-connected groups whose lobbying work has led to Ireland being, per capita, among the very worst performing in the EU, and in turn, has exposed us to billions of euros in EU fines in the near term. These and similar paragons of conservatism and respectability are, I would venture, the real ‘climate radicals’, whose pursuit of profit today puts countless lives and livelihoods in real jeopardy in the years ahead.

And what’s more, these are mostly clever, scientifically literate people who know well the cynical, dangerous game they are playing, but are too caught up in their own short-term pursuit of profit, prestige and power to give a damn about the smouldering wreck their own children will inherit. Radicals indeed.

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WHAT DO you imagine an “environmental radical” might look like? Chances are that an image of a 20 or 30-something in faded jeans with bicycle clips, maybe sporting a scruffy combat jacket with a “No Nukes”’ button, might spring to mind.

The above caricature is, I would suggest, hopelessly outdated. Today’s new breed of eco-radicals are more likely to wear Louis Copeland suits, drive a seven-series BMW and be on first name terms with the Taoiseach and his Cabinet colleagues.

Leo Varadkar is, in fact, the honoured guest of a gathering of climate radicals in Croke Park on Monday, December 4th. Other activists attending the day-long conference include the heads of Ornua, Kerry Group, Kepak, the IFA and Bord Bia.

The fruits of their radical Food Wise 2025 agenda involving the oxymoronic concept of “sustainable intensification” are already plain to see, with greenhouse gas emissions from Ireland’s agriculture sector up by over half a million tons in 2016, according to data published this week by the Environmental Protection Agency. This is at a time when emissions are legally mandated to be declining sharply.

Globally biodiversity is in freefall thanks in part to the toxic rain of pesticides and herbicides that are secret ingredients behind intensive monoculture farming.

This has triggered what Prof Dave Goulson of the University of Sussex called “ecological Armageddon” as insect numbers plummet globally. “If we lose the insects then everything is going to collapse,” he added.

It takes a true radical to shrug at such terrifying portents and focus instead on what a useful herbicide glyphosate really is, while it wipes out many insects’ food sources.

Biodiversity loss
Despite their complexity, the core findings of the science of climate change and biodiversity loss are painfully clear. The price of failure is ruin, on a scale beyond imagining. Some of those heading to the conference in Croke Park must have an unpleasant feeling deep down that they may be complicit in helping destroy their own children’s future.

Meanwhile, coal and peat-burning radicals in semi-State organisations like Bord na Móna and the ESB have overseen Ireland’s energy sector emissions rise by a massive 6.1 per cent in 2016, while emissions from our car-addicted transport sector also rose for the fourth successive year.

In an era of climate change it takes some truly radical thinking to spend over half a billion euro on a 57km motorway linking two towns in rural Galway, in full knowledge that the motorway is built across a flood plain.

The Collins Dictionary defines a radical as someone “favouring or tending to produce extreme or fundamental changes in political, economic, or social conditions”. This, I would contend, is an apt description of those who, in the face of overwhelming evidence of the calamitous harms that will arise from their actions, go ahead regardless.

Last month the Citizens’ Assembly issued 13 genuinely radical recommendations on climate action. These went light years beyond anything any of our major political parties have ever even countenanced.

Political silence
Yet on the RTÉ news bulletin on the evening they were issued, as much time was given to special interests rubbishing the recommendations as to actually discussing them.

And since then, a deafening media and political silence.

The assembly proved that, when exposed to expert scientific guidance, uncontaminated by lobbyists, Irish citizens have the stomach for far more radical climate action than is reflected in the tokenistic approach favoured by “climate action” Minister Denis Naughten, as seen in this week’s second annual Government statement on climate change.

So what exactly might radical decarbonisation sufficient to avert climate catastrophe look like in Ireland?

As in wartime, carbon would be strictly rationed. Flying would once again become a rarity. Public transport, cycling and electric car pooling, along with extensive home insulation retrofits, would largely eliminate fossil fuel usage.

A massive renewables programme would see Ireland approach energy independence, while bogs, native woodlands and sheep-wrecked uplands are restored and so biodiversity begins to recover.

Vegetarian diet
Organic, plant-based agriculture would replace much of our emissions-intensive national beef herd. A healthier, mostly vegetarian diet becomes the new norm, and offers a more secure income to farmers.

The spell of mindless consumerism is at last broken, and we citizens relearn the lessons of our grandparents in making do with less and wasting little.

There is an upsurge in local and rural employment in repairing, growing and reusing. Resilient, energy and food-independent local communities would be best placed to weather the ever-worsening climatic and economic conditions that lie ahead. Soon enough we may all be climate radicals, but in the true sense of the word.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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5 Responses to Unmasking Ireland’s real ‘climate radicals’

  1. Eric says:

    Well done John on another great article. I was very pleased to be at the Agriculture conference in Croke Park and the 2nd. weekend of the Citizens Assembly on climate change. Maybe positive things are happening. At Croke Park, I was going apoplectic with all the greenwash and the booming animal agriculture markets, until Big Phil shocked the hall with a clear message on the environmental and financial consequences of current Irish farming. The Citizens assembly recommendations would put us on a completely different path in mitigating climate change in Ireland. Keep up your good journalistic work in 2018!

  2. hugh says:

    Though I live several thousand miles from my homeland of Donegal I am only able to access rte.ie on the Internet and hear little other than conventional views on climate related issues. So your articles, which I’ve come to trust, are my only source of real news concerning environmental issues in Ireland. I attended and spoke at an animal ethics conference in the UK this past summer with one insightful Irish speaker who expressed her dismay at the backwardness of Ireland when it comes to climate change policy. She noted that Ireland was far behind the majority of other countries in the EU, where emissions were concerned, but also displayed a lack of serious concern for animal abuse and factory farming which is another indicator of a generally amoral attitude towards all things environmental.

  3. John Gibbons says:

    @Eric Thanks for the feedback and kind wishes, which are of course reciprocated. Yes, Big Phil certainly caught us all off-guard last month, but as it turns out, it looks like Big Ag already knew it was off the hook – yet again – in terms of cutting emissions, thanks to the latest land use fudge. So maybe Phil was just playing to the (eco) gallery after all, knowing it mattered not a whit!

  4. John Gibbons says:

    @Hugh Comments much appreciated, and pleased you find this blog useful. Yes, the Irish speaker at the animal ethics conference was absolutely correct: we Irish talk a good fight when it comes to ethics, stewardship, animal welfare, etc. but the reality is woeful. There have been a few positive signs amid the gloom; here’s to working to build on these in 2018.

  5. michael mcsharry says:

    Hi John, saw your contribution to the ” death of liberal democracy” debate on BBC this morning. I was very impressed. I attended a similar debate yesterday at the Borris Writing and Ideas festival between Margaret McMillan and Roy Foster, though there was little between the positions postulated. The major topic was of course Brexit but when it was widened out and my question from the floor referenced the massive impact on liberal democracy and what are referred to as “enlightenment values” by the climate change issue there was almost consternation on Margaret’s face that anyone should even dare to ask this question. Roy came in to back her up but basically the room was aware that they had no answer to my assertion that we need to limit not expand trade for many climate related reasons, but emblematically perhaps,because the pollution caused by the ever expanding international merchant fleet apparently equals that of the seventh most polluting country In the world. Well done, keep up the good work and please inform your readers when the next Irish beanfest for agro lobbyists is scheduled so that I can make up a massive poster asking the participants why they hate their grandchildren so much.

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