Turf wars signal betrayal on climate action

The bizarre and pointless recent ‘turf wars’ are a throwback to an Ireland many of us thought was gone forever. The scramble by politicians to outdo one another in capitulating to a handful of industrial turf cutters and their noisy acolytes, while ignoring the climate and biodiversity crisis has been one of the most depressing episodes in recent years. I wrote in the Business Post about this shameful yellow streak running right across our political classes and how it augurs badly for tough decisions that lie ahead.

THIS WEEKEND, hundreds of millions of people across the Indian sub-continent continue to endure almost unliveable conditions as the region remains gripped by a deadly heat dome that scientists have confirmed has been intensified by climate change.

Neither this ominous humanitarian crisis nor the horrific conflict in Ukraine could even begin to compete for political or media oxygen in Ireland this week with the bizarre rolling controversy surrounding, of all things, turf.

While this phoney war raged across the airwaves, with politicians queueing up to score cheap points off one another, back in the real world, the young are freaking out in unprecedented numbers over the climate crisis. A survey this week found one in four Irish teenagers self-describing as “climate activists”, with 78 per cent of youths worried about climate.

What’s more, nine in 10 young people believe our government is “not doing enough”. One can only imagine the sense of bewilderment those same teens are now experiencing as they watch on incredulously while their elected representatives publicly jostle to denounce the dreaded “green agenda” and the risk that it might actually deliver a safer, healthier future.

And while the mostly rural TDs at the vanguard of stoking up this faux hysteria are likely to be unconcerned at how younger voters will react, the same can hardly be said for Sinn Féin. whose polling numbers among the 18-34 age group are extremely strong.

Despite the clear and rapidly growing demands for meaningful political action on climate from younger voters, Sinn Féin has time and again chosen populism over principle on crunch climate and environmental issues. As climate concern morphs into political activism and engagement among the young, the party’s wins today may well be storing up serious trouble for the future.

Last year, Sinn Féin tabled (then dropped) a private members’ bill that would have seriously limited onshore wind development. It has also stoutly defended the dairy industry’s indefensible expansion and its spiralling levels of pollution and emissions.

While claiming to support the government’s plans to cut emissions by half by 2030, it is hard to think of an even mildly unpopular action on climate, such as the carbon tax, it doesn’t oppose. And this week, for good measure, its leader, Mary Lou McDonald led the opposition charge in opposing a ban on large-scale turf cutting and sale, a move underlining the party’s ambivalent and wafer-thin support for climate action.

Uncomfortably for Sinn Féin, it is now almost indistinguishable from its political rival Fine Gael in in its refractory stance on almost every environmental issue.

Three years ago this month, the Dáil unanimously declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. This was a direct response by politicians to the massive student-led climate strikes of early 2019.

It is worth recalling that when this historic decision was passed, only six deputies actually bothered to attend the Dáil chamber. It was left to Green party leader, Eamon Ryan to propose the motion from the Opposition benches to a near-empty Dáil, wryly observing: “we have declared a climate emergency in our own Irish way”.

Over the last two weeks an almost unprecedented political consensus has emerged in defence of the right of a handful of industrial turf cutters to continue to operate on the fringes of the law and wreak havoc on some of Ireland’s most sensitive and carbon-rich habitats.

Turf burning contributes directly to the air pollution that kills over 1,200 people in Ireland annually, as well as hospitalising tens of thousands more. The medical profession strongly back moves to ban all smoky fuels, hence the irony that the staunchest supporters of turf-burning include many rural TDs who built their political careers around lobbying for improved local hospital services.

As the smoke begins to slowly clear from the turf controversy, far knottier political challenges lie ahead. Sectoral climate budgets are due to be announced shortly. The much-needed modal shift in transport away from private cars and towards active travel and public transport is already being fought street by street by the well-heeled car lobby and populist councillors.

Agriculture accounts for over one third of total national emissions, mainly from livestock, yet it is flexing its political muscle to ensure it avoids playing its fair share. While our national 2030 target is a 51 per cent emissions cut, agriculture is “aiming for” just 22 per cent. In truth, even this wholly inadequate commitment largely depends on unproven techno-fixes.

We can soon look forward to another motley alliance of Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, rural independents and some Fianna Fail TDs standing shoulder to shoulder to tell us that “now is not the right time” to take whatever modest action is next being considered that might even slightly discommode one or other vocal interest group.

The yellow streak running through so much of our political culture as it refuses to engage with, let alone act on the existential climate crisis is a stain on Irish democracy and a bitter betrayal of the young and every future generation.

Yet, as the covid and Ukrainian refugee crises have shown, Irish people are prepared to take difficult decisions and act in solidarity when our politicians show unity, leadership and yes, a little personal courage.

Tragically, as we now collectively stare into the climate abyss, many of the same politicians, whether through cynicism or cowardice, lose their nerve and betray us all with their unconscionable failure to act in the common good. We truly deserve better.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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