The IPCC, the ecological emergency, and the local scene in North Cork: wising up is what we need to do now

Here are the choices. We can not believe that the climate will have any impact on north Cork, that the weather’s pretty unpredictable in any case, and that therefore there’s no point in doing anything. People who refuse to believe that climate change is happening fall into this camp. It’s easy to denigrate this approach but it’s also remarkably common, and in a sense, fully understandable. After all, if you look out of the window right now you’re probably seeing weather that is at least related to weather you’re familiar with. The climate hasn’t suddenly gone from temperate to desert.

We can get depressed and angry that we can’t do anything meaningful, that reusing plastic bags and attempting to cut down on travel are tiny acts that are almost irrelevant when you look at the huge military operation in Afghanistan. We can think that “we might as well be phoning” as N’s father used to say – meaning that nothing we do makes any difference at all. We can blame other people for the way things are and withdraw into our own safety zones, taking comfort in food or alcohol, sex or even violence. Not caring.

Or we can realise that what’s going on is inseparable from us. We’re in it. We can stop thinking about things as separate systems, and that means we can stop talking about climate as though it’s separate from biodiversity. Atmosphere is affected by terrestrial and marine systems. Both are affected by human attitudes. We have changed the world by what we think about the world, and by how that’s caused and causing us to act in the world.

Now we’ve understood how we’re involved, and what makes a difference – our worldview, our way of seeing our involvement as part of the problem and part of the way of dealing with the problem – let’s go back to a more detailed look at the problem. What will happen in north Cork, according to the IPCC report? We don’t really know, is the first answer. Professor John Sweeney of Maynooth University says that the climate in the west of Ireland, and probably in the north, will likely become wetter, stormier (‘warmer, wetter, windier’). Climate in the south and east and perhaps the midlands will likely become drier, or at least with more extremes of drought and flooding. The coastal counties will experience more erosion and more coastal flooding.

None of these happen without affecting terrestrial (including waterways) systems. So we need to put these pieces of information together. Firstly, we need to recognise our interdependence and the interdependence of these systems. This is because along with the fragmentation and collapse of natural systems (think insect populations, desertification, deforestation, urbanisation) including climate systems (think the North Atlantic Drift which impacts climate in Ireland and is losing energy, carbon parts per million in the atmosphere leading to trapping of heat in the atmosphere), we’re also seeing the fragmentation, through attitude polarisation, of human systems. Attitude polarisation is the tendency for extreme positions to be held by people who then refuse to tolerate people with other points of view. We can see that happening in response to the IPCC report, as farmers, foresters and businesses on the one hand face citizens, activists and politicians on the other (these groups are not mutually exclusive and there are many fragmentations within them). What can we do? The same thing we do when we see natural systems collapse: realise they’re not separate from us. What’s happening over there isn’t separate. So we need to take the same approach: synthesise. Find ways to build connections between different groups. Recognise that some farmers are activists, that business people can come up with solutions that activists might not have thought of. We have to build community resilience by building tolerance from a multi-faceted approach.

So what might happen in north Cork as a result of this report? We could see more flash flooding of rivers and unless we deal with slurry and sewerage systems differently, we will see more pollution, reduction in biodiversity loss, and a deepening crisis. Flooding of rivers affects soil health and human habitation, roads and transport, energy consumption (blackouts when power lines get shorted). Erosion through drought then flooding means upland soils become more depleted. We can replace waste treatment systems with composting systems and begin a radical change in how we see and deal with waste.

Here in north Cork, farming needs to change but farmers need to be listened to and supported, and those who have understood and embraced a mixed model need to be supported more, and to become ambassadors for change. We need more hedgerows and more mixed farms. We could reintroduce sugarbeet as a crop, get farmers to mix tillage with livestock, reduce the herd. Reduce the herd, but also mix species, bring in more biodiversity, since we don’t know which kinds of animals will better adapt, rely less on housing animals in the winter, create more windbreaks, more natural shelter. Farmers have been told since the 80s to pull up hedgerows and cut down trees, to create prairies of their lands. Now we’re asking them to increase biodiversity fast. It’s in their interest but they’re often heavily invested in equipment that’s unsuitable for the mixed model of farming that’s coming to the fore. So they need help. Financial help. Plant a diverse variety of mostly native trees, and think about having tree crops as well as vegetable crops. Why are we buying onions from New Zealand?

The councils need to change. Politicians need to change. We need to see understanding of interconnection, and action on all fronts, from energy to transport to education to waste management. Everything needs to be examined for how it fits into the whole pattern of how we live, not just in some niche place where we have a nice closed community, like on a huge estate, or in a religious order’s demesne. These can be examples, though. Bridges not walls is what we need.

We need to change energy use and biogas might be a source, windmills everywhere is not necessarily the best long term solution, solar panels on all rooves is much better. Data centres (not yet an issue here in north Cork but a threat nevertheless) need a major rethink: who benefits? What are they really for? Likewise offshore energy from windfarms outsourced to private companies that don’t and won’t create any benefit for the Irish population – not a local issue, perhaps, but one that needs thinking about.

Forestry needs to change. Growing native trees on uplands protects soil health and allows for the regeneration of long over-exploited systems. Fewer sheep. Fewer deer. More space for wildlife (deer have no natural predators in Ireland – we could reintroduce them but that requires further thought…).

There’s no ideal answer to the report. Fear doesn’t help. Denial doesn’t help. Talking to one another and pooling resources, realising that we all have a bit of information and knowledge that might help, that creating community is creating resilience. This matters. We have to respect citizen science, we have to respect the rights of groups to protest, but ultimately things will get worse until and unless we recognise that we need to work together, with all groups. Fragmentation is the cause. Knowledge is only part of the answer. Knowledge is science, technical responses which are great for short term fixes. We need more than that. We need a shift in attitude, in worldview, and ultimately we need to become wise, which means agreeing to common ground on what we value. If this is community, patience, courage, love and freedom, values that are key to our survival, then we can’t limit them to the species. We have to see and respect the intelligence that’s inherent in systems. We still have time. Not much, though. Wise up!

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