We need to act now
Let me be very clear about the challenge we face: climate change is the most pressing issue facing us all as a global community. This year, Ireland became the second country in the world to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency, recognising the critical nature and scale of the challenge facing us all.
Climate disruption is a global issue, a national issue, and a local issue for which the window of opportunity to act is closing worryingly fast.
We as humans must take responsibility now for our role in this crisis, a crisis in which the origins can be traced back to the onset of the Anthropocene era at the start of the industrial revolution in the 1860s when an insatiable, unrestricted consumption of the Earth’s finite natural resources began. In recent decades, as consumption has intensified, we have experienced an accelerated period of the Anthropocene, and the impacts on the Earth’s dwindling natural resources are now all too apparent: rapidly declining biodiversity and accelerating climate change impacts brought about by global warming.
In short, we are at the precipice of a global ecological catastrophe.
Furthermore, dangerous shifts in climate are placing stress on communities, where ecosystems can no longer support populations, leading to a decline in, and ultimate lack of, resources for living and human flourishing. This, in turn, contributes to conflict, violence and forced migration and exile. The greatest impacts will be borne by Small Island Developing States whose very existence is at stake.
Unless we collectively take action to prevent catastrophic climate change, together with a real commitment and transfer of resources towards assisting communities to prepare for, and adapt to, changing climates, these population flows, driven by climate shifts, will take place in a context of old and emerging new conflicts that will undoubtedly be exploited by extremists.
Our basic human morality suggests that it is indefensible that another 100 million people be doomed to extreme poverty by 2030 should we fail to honour the commitment to tackle climate change.
The need for collective action addressing the climate crisis becomes more evident every month. The defence of previous generations that ‘we did not know’ will not be available to any of us.
It is this awareness of the implications of our actions, or inaction, on future generations that increases the demand for an urgent response to the climate crisis. The onus, the moral imperative, is on us all now to make the necessary changes to our lifestyles – some may be costly and difficult, others relatively painless – if we have any sense of intergenerational climate justice, and if we are to have any hope of avoiding the bequeathment to the next generation of a hostile and volatile planet Earth.
We must urgently do everything we can as a gesture towards intergenerational solidarity to safeguard a benign future existence on this planet.
We must not forget ever that policies – economic, social, environmental – are sourced in assumptions and ideas as to how economies function, and are connected with change and society.
Our prevailing neoliberal economic paradigm, a paradigm that has been with us like a dark cloud for almost four decades now, is one that constitutes an ideology that is opposed to regulation, and inimical to an intervening role of the state.
Furthermore, a culture of ‘short-termism’ pervades modern political life, as has been noted in a 2013 report by the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations entitled ‘Now for the Long Term’. Future generations, or those not old enough yet to vote, do not currently have large political or economic influence, the Commission correctly notes.
A lack of political capital is a major impediment to securing policy change. That is why it is so heartening to see the youth of today – personified by individuals like Greta Thunberg – spearheading a new movement with courage and assertiveness.
An inability to plan for the long-term, or incorrect, myopic or narrowly focused planning, will have devastating consequences for future generations. The choices that we make individually or via the apparatus of the state through policies that we develop and adopt – on energy, water, greenhouse gas emissions, cities, planning, models of business, etc. – will determine the options that will be available to the generations to come.
The State has a huge and potentially very positive role to play in all of these policy decisions. We must, therefore, reclaim the state and reassert its constructive, and potentially transformative, role in our lives, acknowledging that the state has suffered heavily, has been ravaged, as a result of decades of attack from an orthodox laissez-faire economic narrative asserting that the state’s role needs to be minimal, and the private sector should lead in all aspects of life, including the response to climate change.
We should never underestimate the strength of the resources of those who will oppose a paradigm shift, such as that of which I speak, to what is sustainable in all its forms, redistributive, more inclusive, empathetic, humane.
We must not forget that the resources and wealth of those holding largely unaccountable power are immense, at times overt, often covert, subtle, and sophisticated in their influence and propaganda.
Accepting that we have finite natural endowments and ensuring that humanity flourishes within the means of the planet will not just reduce our carbon footprint, slowing down the impact of global warming and climate change, it will also reap enormous benefits to biodiversity, that is the variety and variability of life on earth.
At a meeting of the Inter-governmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services earlier this year, members received disturbing news: stark scientific evidence on the health of the natural environment highlighting an alarming decline in nature, a critical risk for humanity in the 21st century.
The evidence has since been presented in the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the most comprehensive assessment of its kind yet produced.
The message is clear: nature, biodiversity – the life that we share on this planet and the contributions it makes to human existence – is in trouble. As with climate change, the scientific evidence is unequivocal that the primary causes are human-driven.
The report tells us that, globally, we are losing biodiversity at a rate unprecedented in human history. The number of plants, insects, mammals and birds that are threatened or endangered is growing year on year.
The land, ocean, atmosphere and biosphere are being altered at an unparalleled rate. The report makes it clear that the current response from the international community to loss of biodiversity is insufficient and that transformative changes are needed to restore and protect nature and the benefits and essential services that are derived from it.
We are already witnessing some of the effects of more extreme weather conditions on our own island. Last year we experienced a tumultuous period of unsettled conditions, from a protracted wet and cold winter, with one of the heaviest snow storms in recent memory, to a heatwave coupled with rare drought conditions.
And just last month, we experienced the aftermath of the most northerly and most easterly Atlantic hurricane since records began, just two years after Hurricane Ophelia became the first ever Atlantic hurricane to land on our shores.
Meteorological models predict that we in Ireland can expect in the future more extreme weather events, such as winter storms and flooding, as well as dryer summer conditions, and that the intensity and severity of these extreme conditions will become even greater, with bigger impacts on our people, our society and our economy.
The farming and wider agri-food sector will be particularly impacted by this changing climate. While some models predict increased crop yields resulting from longer, warmer summers, other more recent work funded by the Irish Environmental Protection Agency indicates that drought conditions will pose a larger threat.
Nature has a fine balance, and scientific models are so sophisticated and precise now that this can be shown empirically.
Earth’s ecosystem, the composition of the atmosphere, and the world’s weather – our ecological systems – operate in a stable equilibrium or homeostasis.
An ostensibly small change in just one parameter within this equilibrium, such as that brought about by human-sourced emissions of greenhouse gases, results in weather changes that include increasing temperatures and changing precipitation patterns, with catastrophic impacts on sea-level rises.
The cumulative effect of this is climate chaos with all its social and economic consequences. I suggest respectfully that the time has long passed for debate of the science, useless apportionments of blame, and idle comparisons.
Tá sé in am againn beart a dhéanamh. Action is now needed.
All of us, individuals and communities alike, are asked to take ownership of the commitment to tackle climate disruption and biodiversity loss if we are to succeed in our low-carbon transition for our economy and our society. This is not optional.
We, all of us as citizens, have a moral obligation to play our part in this great societal challenge.
The good news is that we can make small and easy changes to play our part in the climate and biodiversity crises.
Simple actions like mowing your grass less often, retaining soft landscaping over hard paved surfaces, and letting the odd flowering weed spring up in your garden here and there can have can be hugely beneficial for biodiversity.
With regard to climate crisis, we in Ireland need to continue to insulate our energy inefficient homes, upgrade our heating systems to renewable energy sources, such as heat pumps, switch to electric vehicles, and ween ourselves off our fossil fuel-dependent lifestyles.
However, simple things, like remembering to switch off lights when rooms are not in use, boiling only enough water as required, using lids on saucepans when cooking, holidaying at home or closer to home, taking public transport or cycling and walking instead of using the car – all of these seemingly small actions cumulatively make a big impact on our carbon emissions.
I encourage you to try what you can. Every measure has the potential to influence change and protect our environment, our biodiversity and mitigate climate change.
A sense of justice not only for now but for the future requires that the capacity and power of our residual sense of a shared humanity be invoked to give us the energy to reconnect our lives through a balanced relationship between ecology, ethics, economy, culture and a lived experience of fulfilment.
Tá sé in am againn breith ar an bhfaill. Anois! The time to act is now!
The longer we wait, the more we intensify and perpetuate the injustice of climate change, and we run the risk of correctly being regarded by future survivors of our planet as having been in collusion with the destruction of the lives and life-worlds of some of the most vulnerable peoples of our human family and the biodiversity on which our planetary life depends.