VICTORIA WHITE: Floods and pylons are inextricably linked in climate change planning

Has anyone spelled out the alternatives to pylons and renewables, such as building a nuclear power station at Moneypoint and confining economic development to Dublin? Or just turning off all the lights and using candles?

IT WAS one of the beautiful views in the country, the white-sanded cove facing the mountains and breached by a hand-built pier commissioned by the Congested Districts Board according to Captain Nimmo’s report, in the early 1890s.

That pier is gone. The next time I look out at that landscape the familiar landmark won’t be there. That’s if I get to sit in our summer rental house again, because half of the road in front of it has disappeared and the front door is only a few feet from the sea at high tide.

The landscape, which generations of people who inhabited and visited Inishbofin Island, Co Galway, knew and loved and painted and photographed, has been radically altered. To the north of the island the sea is actually flowing into Inishbofin lake and locals have expressed the fear that the lake might join the sea on both sides, splitting the island in two.

“It probably used to be two islands”, says my eldest son, as we pass around the images on our phones. That could be true. Ireland and England used to be joined. You used to be able to walk to France. It’s just that we’re used to these massive geographical changes happening over millions of years. And this winter in Ireland we’re watching the Irish landscape being redrawn as if by a maniac draughtsman.

It may be funny to see a man swimming up Oliver Plunkett Street in two feet of water but it was less funny to open the door of your shop yesterday morning, as some traders in Cork did, and find it completely destroyed. Perhaps the most horrifying image of the week was that of the Limerick man who opened a door and was faced with a wall of water four feet high. The Ireland of my childhood felt so safe, so immobile. But climate change has arrived.

“I think we all believe in climate change”, said Minister Michael Noonan in a welcome acknowledgement as he surveyed the flood damage in his native Limerick. “As if you’d have to have faith to believe in it”, commented my 15-year-old. “As if science had nothing to do with it.”

There was another welcome intervention from a Government minister this week when Brian Hayes told RTE that the idea that the Government can protect every acre of land in the country is “a lie and a pretence.” He’s right. We are into real time now with climate change. We need a survival plan for us, for my 15-year-old and his children and their children on this island, based on the best projections we can get.

In Cork that might mean a flood barrage across the harbour to stop the tide coming in. But in other parts of the country that might mean abandoning coastal homes to their fate and building inhabitants’ houses further inland, exactly as we did when we brought island people to the mainland.

The truth is that the State and its insurers will never be able to pay the whole price exacted by climate change, but we must do our best to protect ourselves with what we have.

And most of all we must tackle climate change itself. We need to cut our carbon emissions by 80 or 90 per cent. It’s hard to take carbon out of land-based industries like farming and forestry, so we have to take pretty much all the carbon out of our energy supply. That means no coal and no peat and only a little gas as well as foreign electricity supplied through an interconnector to tide us over. But mostly it means wind power.

To send wind power around the country we need some pylons. Unless Catherine Mc Guinness’s expert panel finds information hidden to everyone else, including the European Cable Association, they will unfortunately find that cables can only go underground for between 10 and 20 kilometres at a time. Where those “chunks” can be depends, not just on the sensitivity of the landscape, but also on the geology of the area.

If we had proper planning it would be much easier to avoid inhabited areas by undergrounding but due to political incompetence and corruption, we have houses dotted all over the place. The massive public campaign by affected residents against pylons is wholly understandable on aesthetic grounds because they look horrible.

The health concerns stand up less well, as this week’s report from the European Commission did not find any conclusive evidence for a health risk in living close to pylons. And the campaign for undergrounding doesn’t tally with the campaign based on health concerns because the underground cables are likely to be nearer people than the over ground ones.

You have to ask the question why there was no such massive campaign about the huge roads infrastructure built in this country in the last couple of decades which has radically altered the landscape and kills – according to an An Taisce study — 3,000 people a year from particulate inhalation. If you live beside a road it will affect your health. But people put up with roads because they believe they will bring benefits to their communities. Through the local authorities, they even feel they own the roads to some degree. That’s why the wind farms and transmission networks must be in public ownership and community ownership so that they benefit the people who have to put up with them.

And the benefits of a modern electricity network sharing our renewable power have to be believed and passionately advocated by Government if they are to be built at all. Instead the plan has been coated in hot fudge and put on the back burner with the expert panel until after the local elections when it will suddenly be brought to the table. This is hardly a recipe for winning our confidence.

HAS anyone really explained properly that the North-South interconnector will mean a massive saving on both sides of the border as we pool our resources in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and that we’re losing about €30 million a year while we delay? Has anyone spelled out the alternatives to pylons and renewables, such as building a nuclear power station at Moneypoint and confining economic development to Dublin? Or just turning off all the lights and using candles?

Our Government owes us a real explanation. And they must present the generation of renewable power and its transmission around the country in the context of climate change. That hasn’t happened at all. There is no climate expert on the Government-appointed expert panel. You can argue that our climate is as affected by the carbon emitted in Bogota as by ours. But that’s a pathetic excuse.

The world will not tackle climate change until we all jump in together. International agreements require us to radically cut our carbon emissions. The hard truth is that as a people we no longer have any choice as to whether our landscape is going to change or not. It is going to change. The only question is how much change we will choose and how much will be forced on us.

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