It isn’t that this election has failed to become one about the climate emergency. In many ways, it is worse than that. It is one where our main political parties have failed to understand how to address the growth in social injustice and the interconnectivity of the issues creating the climate and biodiversity crisis.
A recent Guardian article noted how the upcoming election has failed to become one that hinges on the climate emergency. RTÉ recently rejected a petition for climate debate citing they had dedicated a week of coverage to the climate emergency. In debates, discussions, and most party manifestos, the climate emergency is only lightly addressed. The perception of our current crime, homelessness, housing, and health crises, has resulted in the climate and biodiversity receiving a diminishing amount of attention.
Dealing with the urgent societal issues in Ireland separately, puts them into competition with each other, for limited resources. This results in the arbitrary prioritisation of certain issues to the detriment of others, which has lead to a lack of confidence in the political establishment and in our policymakers. Keith Adams, housing policy advocate for the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice (JCFJ), posits that the Government’s record in otehr areas may make the electorate feel “dubious about their ability to address an over arching policy area like climate.”
By advocating for a range of social justice issues including homelessness, prison systems, the environment and economic ethics, the JCFJ has gained a unique perspective on how these issues are interconnected. Common root causes and ineffective government policies exacerbate these issues and continually tackling these issues in isolation fails to find a lasting solution with holistic societal benefits.
Holistic Thinking about Environmental Justice
To break free from this cycle we need holistic solutions which assess all aspects of the issue. Once we do this, we can see that housing, transport, health and agriculture policies comprise integral parts of climate and environment policies.
First and foremost, climate and environmental justice is about social justice. Protecting the climate and the environment is about protecting people. Any environmentalism that is not humanistic in this way risks slipping into eco-fascism. Any response to climate breakdown must take a multifaceted approach where addressing poverty and inequality is a core component. In his 2015 environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’ Pope Francis states that “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together, we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to the cause relating to human and social degradation” (LS 48). Protection of the climate and the environment is not about putting nature before people, but realising that without a healthy environment we have nothing.
Looking at the social issues in Ireland through an environmental justice lens, we can begin to see the connections. Housing is connected with the climate both directly and indirectly. Environmental justice includes reducing poverty as a core principle, therefore in its truest form, everyone would have appropriate housing. We must take heed of the fact that the residential sector, in 2018, was responsible for 10.2% of Ireland’s total GHG emissions. The large-scale building that we need to embark on to provide housing for all citizens will inevitably increase the overall emissions. The number of houses is important, but the type and location of these houses are also vital to ensure people are not locked into paying higher energy bills due to poor quality housing and the reliance on fossil fuels to heat our homes.
Transport policies might seem like a secondary concern, but how we move across the island has a huge impact on our health, environment and the economics of Ireland. The transport sector contributed 20% of our overall emissions in 2018 with road transport taking up the majority of this. Our car-centric transport policies are exasperating this problem by under funding public transport and active transport. Poor planning decisions also bears responsibility for our current dependence on private car ownership. Housing is developed without sufficient consideration for how people will get to work and school. The current policies of road-widening and ring roads are short-sighted and will ultimately lead to more car use, more emissions and more heartache for commuters. These policies not only have an impact on our emissions but also our health. Poor air quality is thought to cause over 1000 premature deaths a year and increases hospital admissions, which all have a knock-on effect on the cost of the healthcare system and loss of productivity.
Agriculture and environmental protection are widely deemed to have irreconcilable differences. Current agricultural policies are indeed conflicting. They aim for large increases in exports, with farmer welfare and the environment taking a decidedly second place. It need not be this way. Greenhouse gas emissions, chemical fertiliser and pesticide use, wetland drainage, and habitat destruction have all increased due to the policy visions of two reports from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine: Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025. The agricultural trajectory conflicts with any effort to protect our water bodies (Water Framework Directive) and promote our green credentials (Origin Green Programme).
This incoherence, pushing for intensification while simultaneously telling farmers to protect the environment, is contributing to the current perceived irreconcilable differences. This is not the only way forward. We can have policies that pay farmers a fair price for food produced, as well as for being responsible custodians of the land. The Burren Life Programme and the BRIDE project are excellent examples of these types of programmes in Ireland which are a win-win for both the farmer and the environment.
Policies based on Integral Ecology
Understanding the interconnectedness of the housing, health, agriculture and environmental problems and developing policies based on integral ecology must be the mandate of the next Government. For that to happen we need the media to explore fully the interdependence of these issues for voters instead of reducing them into separate, and competing issues. In turn, we as voters must demand more from our political bodies in delivering environmental and social justice. As a country we can make this election not just the climate election but the social justice election.