Smug Ir­ish eco-war­riors keep avoid­ing the meat of the mat­ter

If cli­mate change ac­tivists want to save the planet, they should start with what’s on their own plates, writes Eilis O’Han­lon

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Analysis -

OP­POR­TU­NI­TIES to ap­plaud Mary Robin­son have been few and far be­tween since the Mayo woman got tired of be­ing Ir­ish Pres­i­dent and ran away to join the cir­cus at the UN in­stead. That changed last week. She did a re­mark­able thing on Sean O’Rourke’s ra­dio show. The for­mer Uachtarain said that she’s be­come a veg­e­tar­ian.

What’s so im­pres­sive about that? Noth­ing in it­self. What food they put in their mouths is peo­ple’s own busi­ness. But it’s re­mark­able how many cli­mate change ac­tivists have not made the same com­mit­ment to change their diet, de­spite scream­ing about the ter­ri­ble fate await­ing planet earth if some­thing isn’t done right now about global warm­ing.

They’ll hap­pily call for the im­me­di­ate shut­down of power plants. They’ll rail against the use of fos­sil fu­els. As seen this Bud­get week, they miss no ex­cuse to de­mand a car­bon tax be im­posed on ev­ery­thing that moves. But ask them to give up meat, which has been de­scribed by the UN as the sin­gle big­gest thing an in­di­vid­ual can do to limit the harm they do to the planet, and they go sud­denly, mys­te­ri­ously silent.

It was the same again last week af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of the lat­est re­port by the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel On Cli­mate Change (IPCC), which warned in the stark­est terms that not enough was be­ing done to limit global warm­ing to 1.5°C above pre-in­dus­trial lev­els in or­der to avoid catas­tro­phe.

Ev­ery part of the re­port, from its ad­vo­cacy of green en­ergy to the call to plant more trees, was heav­ily hyped in the Ir­ish and in­ter­na­tional me­dia — with one no­table ex­cep­tion. Those were the parts which ad­vo­cate a rad­i­cal re­duc­tion in the con­sump­tion of meat, in par­tic­u­lar beef. It’s been es­ti­mated that switch­ing to a meat-free diet re­sults in an im­me­di­ate re­duc­tion of 50pc in an in­di­vid­ual’s car­bon foot­print. Driv­ing an elec­tric car doesn’t come close.

This is not about cli­mate change. I’m in no way qual­i­fied to say whether hu­man ac­tiv­ity has ir­re­vo­ca­bly al­tered the earth’s cli­mate, and what should be done to stop it. It might even be too late. World eco­nomic growth is set to dou­ble in the next few decades. Hold­ing it back may ul­ti­mately prove im­pos­si­ble.

It’s not even about veg­e­tar­i­an­ism, though as a ve­gan my­self — for an­i­mal wel­fare, rather than en­vi­ron­men­tal rea­sons — I wouldn’t claim for one sec­ond to be im­par­tial.

But for those who shout loud­est about the en­vi­ron­ment, and who cam­paign for po­lit­i­cal change to end global warm­ing, it’s im­pos­si­ble to square the cir­cle. De­spite pur­port­ing to be­lieve that the en­tire world is un­der threat, most still won’t give up eat­ing meat. There’s an old-fash­ioned word for that. Hypocrisy.

Ear­lier this year the most ex­haus­tive study ever of the en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fect of farm­ing was pub­lished. It found that dairy and meat ac­count for just 18pc of the calo­ries we con­sume, but take up 83pc of the farm­land. Land use could be re­duced by three quar­ters whilst still feed­ing the world. Even the least dam­ag­ing forms of dairy and meat farm­ing were far ahead of all forms of veg­etable and ce­real grow­ing when it came to en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion.

Beef pro­duces 105kg of green­house gasses for ev­ery 100g of meat; tofu less than 3.5kg for the same amount of food, and nuts even less than that. The pro­fes­sor put it sim­ply: “Con­vert­ing grass into (meat) is like con­vert­ing coal to en­ergy. It comes with an im­mense cost in emis­sions.”

Farm chick­ens now make up 70pc of birds on the planet, whilst 60pc of land mam­mals are live­stock. In Ire­land alone, we eat more than three mil­lion chick­ens a week, and are the EU’s largest con­sumers of beef.

What do cli­mate ac­tivists have to say about this? Pre­cious lit­tle, as it hap­pens. They’re the ones de­mand­ing that the world lis­tens to cli­mate ex­perts, but when those same ex­perts tell them to do some­thing that in­volves a small per­sonal sac­ri­fice to their nor­mal life­styles, they start awk­wardly whistling, look­ing down at their fin­ger­nails, pre­tend­ing not to hear.

The Green Party is­sued a state­ment in re­sponse to the IPCC re­port last week. “The Ir­ish po­lit­i­cal sys­tem must act now so our coun­try can be­come a leader in tack­ling cli­mate change,” it de­manded. “We need to end our use of fos­sil fu­els in a sin­gle gen­er­a­tion. Switch­ing to pub­lic trans­port, walk­ing and cy­cling will al­low us to build health­ier and stronger com­mu­ni­ties.”

No­tice any­thing miss­ing in all this fa­mil­iar bumf ?

There are some coy ref­er­ences to the need to “re­duce our na­tional herd” and “rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion” of “land use”, but noth­ing spe­cific. The mes­sage is de­lib­er­ately vague.

Sim­i­larly with the Bud­get, which the Greens at­tacked for not in­tro­duc­ing a car­bon tax. Party leader Eamon Ryan wrote an in­dig­nant piece in The Jour­nal which talked a lot about fos­sil fu­els, but said pre­cisely zilch, nada, about the IPCC call for a dra­matic re­duc­tion in meat con­sump­tion.

Mean­while, he was tweet­ing away about car shar­ing, and some statis­tic that more Ir­ish school­girls are driv­ing them­selves to school each day than rid­ing bikes. (Why he was pick­ing on school­girls is any­body’s guess). The idea that shar­ing cars and rid­ing bikes in Ire­land will make the slight­est dif­fer­ence to global cli­mate change is lu­di­crous.

The Greens are prob­a­bly afraid of be­ing too rad­i­cal. They don’t want to frighten the horses in ru­ral Ire­land, and that’s un­der­stand­able. They’ve al­ways been care­ful to say that any changes to land use must in­clude suf­fi­cient com­pen­sa­tion for farm­ers and help to adapt to new farm­ing meth­ods. The mes­sage that growth it­self might have to be halted or re­versed is also deeply un­pop­u­lar. No one’s pre­tend­ing that this is an easy sell for the Greens.

But they can’t at­tack Fine Gael for be­ing too much in hock to con­ser­va­tive ru­ral Ire­land while Greens them­selves don’t even have the courage to say to their own sup­port­ers: ‘Put down those beef­burg­ers, peo­ple, and step away from the sausages’. Ev­ery time they ap­pear on ra­dio or TV de­mand­ing that Some­thing Must Be Done to save the world, they should be asked: And what are you hav­ing for din­ner tonight, as a mat­ter of in­ter­est? Those who won’t act on the ad­vice of cli­mate change sci­en­tists them­selves have no right what­so­ever to de­mand that oth­ers do so.

For­mer Pres­i­dent Robin­son at least prac­tises what she preaches. When it comes to the pa­tro­n­is­ing know-italls who in­creas­ingly run ev­ery­body’s lives, that’s a rare enough phe­nom­ena to be ap­plauded when it hap­pens.

‘World cli­mate change won’t be stopped by rid­ing bikes in Ire­land’

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