12 February, 2013

Changing Climates, Changing Communities

“The three-tongued glacier has begun to melt.
What will we do, they ask, when boulder-milt
Comes wallowing across the delta flats

And the miles-deep shag-ice makes its move?”
Seamus Heaney,  Höfn 2006

Thanks to St. Patricks College in Drumcondra for asking me to speak, and to Seamus Heaney, a man whose heart beats in time with the earth itself. His poem about the Höfn glacier in south-east Iceland is a reminder of the impact of climate change on a vulnerable world. I have a few images over on Slideshare to accompany this.

Just over a decade ago, in November 2002. I was living on Millmount Avenue, close to St. Patrick’s College, with my young family. I was working late, writing an article on Thursday 14th November. I failed to notice the first few texts from my partner, and by the time I noticed, the tone had become urgent: “Come home quickly”. I cycled back from the city centre through stalled traffic and heavy rain. The Tolka was flowing thick and fast under Drumcondra Bridge. As I turned down Millmount Avenue I realised that the road was under water, and shortly after I arrived into the house, the water gushed up from under the floorboards, until there was the best part of a metre of brown flood water throughout the house. We escaped with our young family over the back wall, passing our six week old child over the back garden wall to the waiting Guards and Civil Defence.

At that time I wrote “It was no act of god, but an act of man” that caused the flooding. Those floods were no doubt as severe as they were due to unplanned development upstream removing the natural soakage of wetlands close the Tolka’s banks. As we look ahead to your lives, there is no doubt in my mind that the acts of man, manifested through climate change will change our world in ways that we cannot even imagine. Thankfully in the case of the Tolka a brush with danger led to action to reduce the risk of future flooding events.

Today I want to address three facets of imaging the future
I wish to pay tribute to great men and women; I want express my grave concern that the wake up calls on climate are being ignored and I want urge you to take action.

John Tyndall was a Physicist from Co. Carlow. He published important works in the area of heat, sound and light, and demonstrated the greenhouse effect which is the foundation of much of the current work on climate.

Charles Keeling was an American scientist. He worked at Scripps Institute and at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. His seminal work on the increase in carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere alerted the world to a changing climate. He charted the seasonal variations in levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. He noted that in the Northern summer months, plants and trees absorbed greenhouse gases, but not enough to stop the increasing upward slope of their concentration.

In recent years many women have blazed new trails in tackling climate issues: Gro Harlem Bruntland, the Norwegian Prime Minister defined sustainability, Christiana Figueres, as the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action, and Mary Robinson in the field of climate justice. They all have all assisted our understanding and response to a world where the climate is changed.

Speaking recently at World Economic Forum in Davos, Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund stated that climate change not debt or austerity is "...the greatest economic challenge of the 21st Century." She went on to say in unscripted but sobering remarks to her audience that future generations would be "roasted, toasted, fried, and grilled."

It is easy to map the rises in sea level that will be a consequence of melting ice. It’s more difficult to predict the storm intensities and surges that can cause devastation. The North Sea Flood of 1953 that claimed the lives of thousands in the Netherlands and the UK led to a massive investment in flood defences. The 2005 New Orleans floods were a wake up call for the US, as was the recent Superstorm Sandy. In Ireland considerable flood relief works took place since the flooding of 2002. Will it take a massive climate related event before the causes, rather than the consequences of climate change are meaningfully addressed?

Outside of Ireland the consequences of a warming world are devastating. Rapid changes in habitat are killing off species, and decreasing biodiversity. There are increased movements of environmental refugees from vulnerable regions. However, the economic consequences are harder to predict.

No-one knows for certain what will happen to the world’s economy when vast agricultural regions lose their ability to grow traditional crops, when river basins lose their precipitation, or when voices are raised in anger.

No-one knows how the impact of a warming world of changing climates will impact on our children. We do know that there is a moral imperative to take action, to take action internationally, nationally and in our own lives.

In June 2012 the Secretariat of National Economic and Social Council published an Interim Report “Towards a New National Climate Policy”. At an institutional level it is important to note that NESC’s mission is to advise the Taoiseach on strategic issues relating to the efficient development of the economy and the achievement of social justice. NESC has a history of producing reports with strategic, long-term analyses of key economic and social development issues affecting Ireland. Although the Environmental Pillar is represented on the Council of NESC, their terms of reference have not changed to recognise the increased importance of the environment in recent years. This needs to change because NESC simply does not have the capacity, the understanding or the mandate to prioritise environmental issues.

NESC states: “Our starting point was that action on carbon emissions must be consistent with Ireland’s economic recovery, employment growth and stabilisation of the public finances”. All of these points are important, but if NESC fails to acknowledge that much of the life on the planet is under threat, then their understanding of the challenge will be flawed.

NESC reframes the Climate Change Challenge in Chapter Three by stating: “The opposite of compliance is thinking for ourselves.” At best this implies that a fresh approach is needed to tackle the issue, at worst it means that this Government has simply not been convinced of the need to take the issue seriously. The Reports states that we should explore tax measures that: “rely less on taxing ‘goods’ such as labour and enterprise, and more on taxing ‘bads’, such as environmental damage and resource depletion.” This is all well and good, but the train has left the station and it is time we caught up and got on board.

In November 2012 the World Bank published an important report “Turn Down the Heat -Why a 4° Warmer World Must be Avoided” The tone and the content is in marked contrast to the NESC Report. The World Bank states: There is no certainty that adaptation to a 4 degree world is possible … The projected 4 degree warming simply must not be allowed to occur. In his forward to the Report Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group says “This report is a stark reminder that climate change affects everything. The solutions don’t lie only in climate finance or climate projects. The solutions lie in effective risk management and ensuring all our work, all our thinking, is designed with the threat of a 4 degree world in mind.”

The World Bank has sounded the alarm, but the response from NESC is lagging. Where is their enthusiasm, and the resolve that is so desperately needed?

This domestic complacency needs to be dismantled. It does not involve false choices between the environment and the economy, it must be about both. One of the first ways that this can be achieved is through meaningful national legislation to set targets, for Ireland, for 2020, for 2030 and beyond. The 2009 Renewables Directive 2009/28/EC otherwise known as the “20 20 20 Directive” sets binding targets for greenhouse gas reductions, renewable energy but not energy efficiency, and that’s where the gap lies. An absence of targets is a failure to commit.

Action must take place at all levels. It can take place through the political process, but also through people’s lives, their studies, and through the organisations that inspire and guide them.

Internationally, the Conferences of the Parties will continue to meet every December. Can meaningful agreements be negotiated? It may be too late. The world population continues to rise, with global numbers equivalent to the city of Cork being added every day.

At European Level, the Commission and the Parliament have engaged with the challenge more clearly than other organisations, however the EU emissions trading system lacks sufficient ambition, and thus the current carbon price is too low. Mapping developed at European level through ESPON the European Observation Network for Territorial Development and Cohesion shows the effect of climate change through applying physical, environmental, social, cultural and economic criteria to different regions around Europe.

At National level, legislation and sectoral action is required. We need targets, sectoral allocations and realistic timetables. Last month the Irish Farming Association President John Bryan said “(the) IFA favours sectoral plans, as opposed to meaningless target-driven legislation, as a means to addressing the climate challenge.”

Targets are needed because evidence-based decision-making requires them. We already have clear figures for the amount of energy used in Ireland, and the emissions associated with them. We know the relative costs of different abatement measures in the Irish context. This sets the scene for choosing from the set of measures that are available to us today, not at some distant future date.

Without targets, without limits, we have nothing. A Bill with no targets is like a budget without the figures, or an emperor without clothes. In 2005 while in opposition, and in 2010 while in Government the Green Party produced legislation that contained targets and timetables for reducing our emissions. Had either of these bills been passed they would have given the certainty that businesses, communities and the planet so desperately need.

At regional level local authorities and other agencies can cooperate to take action. Dublin City Council has a climate change strategy that is up for renewal this year. It needs to be talked about and be seen as an integral part of the city’s strategy, rather than viewed as an add-on.

Within communities, there is significant scope for change. Traffic calming, a better bus service, community gardens can all help reduce emissions. However it is crucial that we move beyond the “unplug your phone charger” response. Real change requires a more involved grasp of the issues, and often a more fundamental response. There is a strong role for the media to educate and lead on this issue. It was heartening to pick up a current issue of the Sacred Heart Messenger magazine and read suggestions for calculating carbon footprints and carrying out carbon audits.

In my own life I try and fly less, drive less, and eat less meat. I spend more time in the neighbourhood where I live. These are all good things. We need to talk about them more.

Politicians like to give hope, I want to give you hope, so let me imagine a low carbon future. It might consist of quieter roads and streets with less motorised traffic, and more sounds like children’s’ footsteps and bicycle bells. It would contain warm homes both old and new that generate, rather than consume energy. There would be communities where bonds of friendship and connectivity exist that were unthinkable in a time where the car was king. There could be new neighbourhoods, carefully planned of terraced homes, tall trees, sunny courtyards, leafy play areas, and bustling cafes. On the bog of Allen 200 metre tall wind turbines connect to a pan-European grid. That could be our future. The alternative is more akin to that depicted in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and is best avoided.

I remain gravely concerned at the inertia within our political system, the failure to show leadership on climate on the world stage, and the locked in climate carbon emissions that spell death and devastation for many, particularly in the developing world.

Policy rhetoric has been and still is almost entirely detached from climate reality. Scientific consensus and political consensus are worlds apart. As the singer and songwriter Paul Simon once wrote “I would not give you false hope, on this strange and mournful day”

Long journeys begin with small steps, but unless you know your destination you are doomed to failure. Targets for 2020, 2030 and beyond should be enshrined in Irish law.

We have entered the Anthropocene, a period where vulnerable coastal cities are flooded, fertile lands submerged, and crops fail. Many regions will have to stage a managed retreat from low-lying coastal towns and countryside. The 1% of us who can afford to fly and drive regularly will be responsible.

The young will not forgive what we forgive. It is time to act.