MEP Lynn Boylan, Sinn Fein at Environmental Pillar hustings, May 2019 Photo: NIall Sargent

Senator Lynn Boylan on climate justice, both at home and abroad

22 July 2020

Activists the world over have been calling repeatedly for a course of climate action that simultaneously addresses existing socio-economic inequalities. The approach is often referred to climate justice, and the term has gained traction in recent years, particularly on Irish soil. 

Former President Mary Robinson penned a collection of essays with climate justice as the guiding principle and has established her own foundation dedicated to the cause. School strikers and civil disobedience campaigns frequently have it as a centrepiece of their demands. Just today the National Youth Council of Ireland launched it’s very own manifesto on the topic. 

At the moment, Sinn Fein is the only party with the term in a spokesperson’s title. Former MEP and current Senator Lynn Boylan is the party’s Junior Spokesperson for climate justice, so we gave her a call to find out more. 

(Note: the following interview has been edited for length and clarity). 

What does climate justice look like to you? 

Personally, I think it is about reflecting on what’s important to us as a society. 

While addressing your emissions reduction and your legal obligations, climate justice is also about making people’s lives better. It’s about having a better work-life balance, a shorter working week, and having a roof over your head and a warm home. 

Your climate action has to benefit people as you bring them along the transition. 

In your opinion, what’s the difference between climate action and climate justice? 

I take my guidance from the environmental justice movement in the United States, which very much focuses on a race perspective and class dimension and it goes beyond what a just transition is. Climate justice is when you’re taking climate action where you’re not exacerbating the inequalities that already exist in society and you’re actually making life better for everybody and reducing those inequalities. Climate justice is about how you approach climate action.

I’m very conscious that when there’s a discussion around climate action, and whether that’s from professional commentators on climate action or politicians, it’s very negative. The message the average person is receiving is that “climate action is going to cost me”, “it’s going to make my life more miserable”, or “they’re going to want to take away my car”. 

For me, it’s not only very important to have social justice at the core of your climate action, but it’s about the messaging of climate action and that, actually, taking real meaningful climate action could improve your quality of life. 

I think we got a slight view into that during COVID, and that’s of course not putting aside the tragedy of the people who lost their lives and the mental health problems that have resulted. But I think people really got an opportunity to reflect on what’s important in their life and the appreciation for having some time out and seeing a better work-life balance. Of course, not forgetting that there were people who were frontline workers and that there were people working that were completely flat out at the same time. 

And how did this spokesperson position come about? 

I’ve always been a vocal person within the party on climate action and the need for us to carve out our own area in climate action. I didn’t want to just set out a stall that’s similar to other parties, because I think for Sinn Fein, social justice is at the core of all of our policies. So it should also be at the core of our climate policies. 

So when I was elected to the Seanad, I made it known to Mary Lou McDonald and to others that I was very interested in developing that policy for the party, and that if there was scope for me to be the spokesperson, I would be delighted to take it up. I’m over the moon that Mary Lou McDonald has faith in me to take that role on. 

As the party spokesperson, what are some concrete policy proposals in relation to climate justice that you would like to see on an Irish level? 

We’re going to work with Darren O’Rourke’s office, the lead party spokesperson for climate and we’re going to sit down and devise some policies. 

Obviously, the first thing coming down the road is the Climate Action (Amendment) Bill and the carbon budgets it will bring, so we have to be across the legislation that’s coming before the houses. But equally, we will be launching a number of policies over the coming year, setting out a stall as to how you have climate action with climate justice at the core of it. 

It will be about addressing the emissions in agriculture, but how you do that in a way that’s not scapegoating farmers, and family farmers in particular, for their emissions. We’ll be looking at how you can secure a living wage for family farms, but also how you can encourage them to come on the journey to make the changes that are absolutely necessary to address climate action. 

I’m also very interested in the 15 minute city plan that the Parisian mayor has put forward. The idea behind it is that you should be able to access everything you need within a 15 minute walking route. 

I think we have to make our cities more liveable, and that’s not just about cycle lanes. There are lots of people who are never going to get on a bike and some people can’t cycle a bike. It has to be that the city is accessible for everybody. 

So yes, there is removing cars from the city and making the space for people to cycle, but you also have to make the space accessible for people with disabilities. You have to make it accessible for people who want to walk about and enjoy public spaces.

I was out in Ballymun this week and they have a regeneration project there without a single cycle lane. People have to travel and get in their car to do their shopping. 

They’re going to get a Lidl soon, but for years they’ve had to travel to get groceries and clothes. People are forced into their car usage and they don’t have a choice. I think it’s very important that when you’re planning an urban centre, you have the things that people need first and foremost within that walking distance. 

Casting the net a bit wider, what does climate justice look like on the European and international stage? 

A lot of people are more clued in to what climate justice is terms of international agreements and the idea that those who have least caused climate change are the ones who are facing its worst impacts. 

It’s easier to get your head around the idea of the global north and the global south and how you facilitate people in the global south increasing their living standards, but in a way that they’re not just going to follow suit of the global north and become big emitters. But of course that’s changed because you have China and Brazil who have high emissions.

We also need to look at having legal protections for people who are going to be forced to migrate because of climate change. So the concept of climate refugees is something that’s going to become more real going forward. 

Equally, the other bugbear of mine is around the idea of offsets. I don’t think we have the oversight in those offset schemes on protecting Indigenous rights and their right to access their land for their livelihoods. That’s a huge issue that I think we’re not addressing. 

I believe that’s going to get worse with some of the policies segwaying into the EU dimension. I have real concerns around the natural capital element and the commodification of nature without having the oversight of protecting Indigenous people’s rights to their land. 

What are some challenges that could come about for climate justice?

I think there are challenges in everything related to this, because there’s been a problem with the messaging. The headline message is “this is going to be bad for me” when people hear about climate action. I think communication about this is something we all have to work on.

We have to bring alternatives that show climate action is not necessarily something that is going to be painful. It can actually improve your life. 

Additionally, every sector has it’s lobby group and you have to work with people to bring them on board. I don’t think the adversarial approach that’s been taken in the past has been particularly helpful. 

Within agriculture, some of the lobbying organisations haven’t represented farmers to the best of their own interest. Farmers have been advised and lobbied on things that didn’t benefit themselves or the climate. 

So I think we have a lot to work with in regards to farmers who are genuine about making the changes with emissions reduction and tackling the biodiversity emergency. And you have to ensure that they have a livelihood. Rural Ireland depends on farmers. 

Do you think carbon tax has a role in climate justice? 

I think it’s very hard to justify to working families or to renters that you’re going to make it more expensive for them to heat their homes and to get to work without putting in place the alternatives. You’re punishing them for something they’re not in a position to change, and that’s our rationale for not supporting the carbon tax. Because we haven’t got the alternatives for people right now. 

At the moment, I live in a rented house with old sash windows. There’s no opportunity for me to make any difference to the amount of fuel that I’m burning, and I’m in a very comfortable position with the job I have. For people who are on the breadline that are renting and are now seeing the possibility of rents going up, they’re going to have cut back on something else.

It seems to be for us a very regressive tax, and I think the problem in Ireland is that we haven’t put  the alternatives in place. 

If you’re going to increase the carbon tax over the course of this government, it takes years for public transport and infrastructure to come into place. These things take time. 

Take retrofitting. I welcome the fact there’s an ambitious plan for retrofitting with this government, but how are they going to deal with the issue of people living in rental accommodation and the private rental sector. What’s going to be in it for them? 

Equally we don’t have enough trained people to roll it out, so how are we going to be able to achieve that target in the time frame that’s been set out, and also how are people going to be able to pay for those retrofits that are home owners? Are they going to be put into debt to cover the expensive retrofitting of their homes? These are the things we want to see teased out in detail. 

Staying on that thread of the Programme for Government, do you think it addresses climate justice?

I don’t think it does. I think certainly one of the things we’d like to see is a clear reference to and incorporation of a Just Transition in the Climate Action (Amendment) Bill that’s to come. 

In Spain that’s something they’ve done, but I know Spain has had quite ambitious Just Transition programmes for former coal workers. But I think that it’s very tangible that a Just Transition programme could be done and put into the Bill within the first 100 days of government. 

I’m also quite concerned that we’re going to rely on funding from the EU for a Just Transition, and that budget has been significantly cut in the recovery package. 

There are concerns there around whether or not references to Just Transition are just that. That they’re just a reference. Or are we serious about really putting in place an alternative for those most directly impacted by it?

Let’s see what comes out over time with this government in regards to it, but I do think that a clear reference to and incorporation of a Just Transition in the Climate Action (Amendment) Bill would be a good step in that direction. 

Over the past two years nearly we’ve seen young people come out and march in the streets, demanding action on the climate crisis. Why do you think they’ve put such an emphasis on climate justice in their movement? 

Well first and foremost, they are the ones looking at potentially catastrophic change coming down the line. It’s their futures and I do think that has focused the minds of young people. 

But I think what we’re seeing is a politicization of younger people and the General Election reflected that. The school strikers may not have a vote yet, but I think the younger generations are becoming very politically aware because they are seeing the gap widening.

I think this politicization has been going on since the campaigns for Marriage Equality and Repeal, and that showed we can affect change when we mobilize and we get out and vote. But I think from the perspective of younger voters, we’re in a really interesting time. 

They’re demanding more from their politicians. The way that politics has worked in Ireland to date I don’t think is going to cut it with them.