Ireland is not usually at the top of the league tables when it comes to environmentalism. In fact, we are regularly close to the bottom among our peers. We miss emissions targets, recycling targets, come close to the bottom in the biodiversity stakes and our dedication to cars and cows means we are not adapting as fast as we should or could to the reality that our way of life is under serious threat. We ranked worst in Europe in the most recent Climate Change Performance Index.
Most animals will not defecate where they eat, but we not only do that, we take it apart and set fire to it as well. It cannot last, and as I learn more about what is happening, my despair has been growing.
My eyes were really opened to how much waste we create when I had my first son, but now that I have two, I have become more and more aware that the world we are giving them is under serious threat.
The 16 year old activist Greta Thunberg said it best; “you say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes”. But for the first time since what we can call my “awakening” to environmental issues, I felt the tiniest bit of hope that maybe we are finally getting our act together, because on Thursday the Dail declared a Climate Emergency, making us the second country in the world to do so.
The Dail declaration comes about after a process involving the Citizens’ Assembly, which reported in 2017, and an Oireachtas committee following up on that report with one of its own. It’s also no coincidence that it was released not long after the devastating IPCC report warning that we are running out of time to reduce the inevitable damage of warming oceans.
Just as when the Citizens’ Assembly worked on the 8th Amendment, presenting ordinary people with all the facts in a calm and concise way resulted in a surprisingly radical outcome, one that an Oireachtas committee primarily made up of politicians from mainstream parties, was reluctant to change in any substantial way.
However, there have been many, many Oireachtas reports, most of which lie gathering dust on shelves somewhere.
The difference with this, is that, just as it did with the 8th Amendment, the Citizens’ Assembly has shown politicians that the public cares about this.
Climate marches and school strikes are still niche activities by and large, but the consistent undercurrent of unease among almost everyone I meet is not. People know there are fewer insects on their windscreens after a long drive; they know there is something wrong with the weather when we are experiencing once in a lifetime events a few times a year, and they know that the amount of things we consume, waste or throw away is unprecedented and unsustainable.
Yet again, the public are way ahead of the political establishment on something that they know must change, but that cannot change in any material way without political leadership.
Following the broadcast of Blue Planet, which opened up so many peoples’ eyes to the damage we are doing, the demand for low waste shopping options, reusable coffee cups, straws and the like has skyrocketed. Tell people the story of what is happening in an understandable, relatable way and they will do what they can to change their behaviour.
Campaigns to improve cycle access and public transport around the country are mounting, as we realise that our dependence on fossil fuels and cars simply will not be possible in a few short years. And, possibly most surprisingly, veganism, even on a part-time basis, is going mainstream, something that was entirely unthinkable a few years ago. If you want real evidence of this, just look at the menu in the cafes of rural Ireland. Almost all of them now have non-dairy milk options, and I recently visited a roadside diner in Mallow, right in the heart of Irish dairy production, with a full vegan menu alongside the carvery. People are changing their habits, but up to now there has been little or no leadership politically.
Hopefully, the Dail’s endorsement of this report will give the Government political cover to act. To invest in public transport and reduce our dependence on cars; to invest in farmers so that they can increase biodiversity on farmland, rather than milk yields; to incentivise renewable energy options at home and to penalise businesses creating unnecessary waste and incentivise those innovating to cut down.
Yes, it’s going to cost a lot. But the status quo is already costing us billions in healthcare for respiratory problems, in roadworks and car imports, in flood-related insurance hikes and in waste disposal costs.
Plus, we don’t have a choice. We need insects in order to grow our food. We need clean air to breathe, and we need land that isn’t submerged to live on. It really is that simple.