“Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” TS Eliot wrote, yet even all- owing for that, the reality of climate change can no longer be downplayed. Still need evidence? This week, all you had to do was open a window or go outside. Freak weather conditions are happening on our doorstep, with temperatures hitting record highs.
Ireland has largely sat on its hands since scientists raised a warning flag toward the end of the 20th century, but an ambitious objective of halving greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this decade has now been set, reflecting the scale of the crisis, which continues to escalate.
Data published yesterday shows there is more methane gas and CO2 going into the atmosphere than ever before, meaning both government policy and international treaties are being breached. Timely action is of the essence.
Negotiations are under way to agree the specifics of sector-by-sector targets, beginning with agriculture. You would hope everyone of good sense would be on board, but the issue has already become a political hot potato.
The farming fraternity feels singled out (although the broader economy must also play its part) and is lobbying busily. That is to be expected with livelihoods at stake. But two recent public interventions from senior members of the political class – where leadership needs to originate – represented something intolerable.
Signals were sent to the farming and rural communities by Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue (Fianna Fáil) and Fine Gael whip Brendan Griffin. It goes without saying they are meant to keep the national interest to the forefront as members of the Government. Actually, it does not go without saying – clearly, they need reminding.
Environment Minister Eamon Ryan and Mr McConalogue are currently in talks about emission reduction targets for agriculture, expected to be between 22pc and 30pc.
Ideally, what is agreed would go before the Cabinet next week. No hurry? Just look at England, where trains stopped running due to overhead cables sagging and tracks buckling. Painting tracks white to deflect the heat did not work.
But back to our own sagging and buckling coalition, and the distinct possibility this horse-trading will drag on until September. More than two-thirds of all agricultural emissions are from livestock, so herd size is a key issue. A reduction in cattle numbers is one option, but farm incomes would be impacted. That means the national good seems to run contrary to what is best for those who make their living from farming.
Fewer cows means considerably less methane gas, but it also means less meat and dairy produce, which lowers incomes for farmers and increases prices for consumers, who are already under pressure.
Options include switching from cattle to tillage, with protections to guarantee income levels, but this solution does not appear to be popular.
The farming sphere’s fightback is focusing on how a guaranteed food supply line is essential, especially with the war in Ukraine. This argument not only drives fear, it is a false equivalence. The key problem with food security relates to grain: Ukraine and Russia are huge producers. However, those missing loaves of bread cannot be replaced with sirloin steaks, but with rice or other staples.
Farmers’ advocates are entitled to advance arguments they can stand up, but it is unedifying to hear Mr McConalogue use food security to make a case for the sector. Being agriculture minister does not mean he has to spin for the farming lobby, as he did on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland this week.
About one-third of Ireland’s overall emissions come from agriculture, and a large proportion of those are from cattle. They produce methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases, which contributes to global warming. This is a strong indicator that radical action must be taken.
If agriculture does not reach its emissions target, enormous reductions will be inevitable in other sectors such as transport. Coincidentally, that is within Mr Ryan’s department.
And so to Mr Griffin, who took a swipe at the Green Party leader with a sneer about culling sports utility vehicles (SUVs) in Dublin Bay South, Mr Ryan’s constituency. Is it possible the Kerry TD is looking at seat retention by flagging to the rural community that he is on their side? But he is in government and is meant to be on the Irish people’s side.
A strong case can be made for limiting SUV ownership. Not because of political point-scoring, but because they consume 20pc more energy than the average car. Some users, such as farmers and construction workers, need them, but for many drivers they are a lifestyle choice.
There are other pro-planet steps that can be taken; for example, an environmental levy on meat-eating. Phasing out heating buildings with fossil fuels is also on the cards.
Marie Donnelly, chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council, gave a sobering interview to Morning Ireland, saying fossil fuels are responsible for two-thirds of emissions – we are reliant on them not only for heat but for transport, for the way electricity is generated and goods are distributed. Reducing fossil fuel dependence must be a key objective. It also makes economic sense.
Let us return to the weather. Temperatures have cooled a bit, but a second blast is possible later in the summer. It is part of the climate change pattern.
An increase in the frequency of extreme weather conditions is under way, with the number of heatwaves and intense storms predicted to climb. Heavier rainfall over autumn and winter is also projected, and sea levels will keep on rising, leading to coastal erosion and damage to property and infrastructure.
Public policy must be designed and implemented to take account of a challenging future. This is not an urban-versus-rural struggle, and it is dangerous for politicians to contribute to any such framing. Climate change affects all of us, regardless of where we live or how we earn our daily bread.