Wednesday 23 October 2019

Sean McCabe: 'Life's not black and white - consumers and producers have walked into this mess'

Road trip: Sean McCabe researcher at TASC pictured in The Burren near Kilnaboy, Co Clare. Photo: Eamon Ward
Road trip: Sean McCabe researcher at TASC pictured in The Burren near Kilnaboy, Co Clare. Photo: Eamon Ward

Sean McCabe

I caught a dawn ferry across the Shannon travelling from Kerry to Clare yesterday morning. It was hard not to be struck by the beauty of the sunrise coming through the heavy fog hanging over the estuary. Pulling away from the south shore, under the shadow of the oil-powered electricity plant in Tarbert, I could see no further than Moneypoint, the coal-fired power station on the northern shore, surrounded, as it is now, by a small number of wind turbines.

We are living in worrying times. We know we stand on the brink of environmental catastrophe - fossil fuel- induced climate breakdown and the collapse of biodiversity confront us with an existential crisis. We know we must urgently wean our societies off fossil fuels, that much is clear. But what lies beyond remains shrouded and uncertain. For the workers at Tarbert and Moneypoint, their families and their communities, this uncertainty means that the climate crisis is also a livelihood crisis.

This livelihood crisis is not limited to workers in fossil fuel or energy sectors. It is true of any livelihood in any sector which could be transformed by action to combat climate change. However, when it comes to climate action in Ireland, discussion around the role of the agricultural sector can be fraught.

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The tension is understandable. Farming is the lifeblood of many communities around the country and Ireland rightly prides itself on the quality of its agricultural produce. There is a perception in Ireland that action to prevent climate change will negatively reshape Irish agriculture and, in doing so, undermine farmers' livelihoods. This results in resistance to climate action from the very communities that stand to be most severely affected by climate change.

Inequality lies at the heart of this challenge too. Earlier this year, Tasc, the independent think-tank for action on social change, published our annual economic inequality report, Cherishing All Equally, in partnership with FEPS, which highlighted the agricultural sector as the most unequal in Ireland in terms of income.

That, coupled with the threat posed to farmers, both from poorly planned climate policy and climate impacts, prompted TASC to set up Ireland's first Just Transition Centre and serves as the motivation for the unusual journey I find myself on.

I am on day seven of a 21-day journey around Ireland, living in a campervan and seeking to meet with, and listen to, as many people as possible. We are talking about the future of communities in towns, villages and rural areas in the face of climate change, with a focus on farming communities. This phase of the research is about understanding the perspectives of the people I meet. The insights will shape how our research evolves, ultimately bringing forward recommendations for Irish and European governments on how to implement people- centred climate action in rural communities.

It is still early days, but the conversations have been lively and heartfelt. They have highlighted concerning issues regarding the disintegration of rural services; indebtedness, increasing overheads and unsustainable workloads due to intensification; the vulnerability of farm incomes and rural outmigration.

For me, perhaps the most unsettling insight gained to date is a more rounded understanding of the chasm that has opened between those passionate about protecting the environment and those working the land. I have met with numerous farmers who have expressed genuine hurt at what they perceive as a devaluing of their livelihood by those who insist eradicating beef and dairy is central to climate action.

This hurt is understandable. This is a simplistic solution to a complex challenge. Farmers' livelihood and way of life is undermined by low payments for their products, often sold as "loss leaders" on the shelves of highly profitable supermarket chains frequented by us all. "Life is seldom black and white," as one farmer put it "the consumer and producer have walked hand in hand into this mess."

There have been many positives too. Meeting with farmers from the Burren Project in Clare highlighted how willing and able farmers are to work for tangible environmental benefits once the correct supports are in place. Similarly, the enthusiasm for the relatively new Bride Project on the Cork-Waterford border shows farmers are keen to drive conservation and biodiversity action.

While it is far too early to draw substantive conclusions, one thing is certain - people want to talk about the future of Ireland and the future of farming and rural life in Ireland. I have received hundreds of messages and emails from women and men all over the country who want to give their views on this work.

Together, we are facing into a transition unlike any previously experienced in human history. It is unprecedented in its scope and at once local and global. We will be confronted with economic, social and cultural challenges to overcome. It can be hard to know where to start, but jumping in a van to travel around the country at the changing of the season to speak to people seems like a reasonable first step. This work is rooted in the belief that, by giving farmers and their communities ownership over climate action our leaders and decision-makers can lift the fog of uncertainty and create an inclusive vision for the future that offers both security and opportunity.

Sean McCabe, a researcher and policy analyst with TASC, was reporting after his first week on the road through farming Ireland in his climate change campervan.

Irish Independent

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