Ours is clearly a pivotal generation. We have global communication and yet confrontation is more common than dialogue. – The Dalai Lama
You may have noticed that the world didn’t end last Friday, despite the confluence of a solar eclipse and the spring equinox. Doomsday predictions have a tendency to crop up around curious dates or rare celestial events, regardless of how many previous ones passed without incident. Still, when I was a child with a good Irish Catholic upbringing, those sort of predictions used to send me into paroxysms of panic. I truly expected the dread moment to arrive with four apocalyptic horsemen running rampant and Jesus dropping down on his cloud for the ultimate version of every spectacled schoolchild’s nightmare: picking teams – sheep from goats, wheat from chaff, saved from damned. But it all took quite an effort of the imagination, and that made them easier to forget day to day.
In those 1980s Cold War days, with War Games in the cinema and 99 Red Balloons on the radio, with missiles poised and pointing across the planet at each other and the paranoid fingers of two old men hovering over their red buttons of mutual assured destruction, it was far more conceivable that the world would end with nuclear annihilation. When Chernobyl happened, with Sellafield crumbling just across the Irish Sea, it seemed not just possible but imminent.
That fear receded a little when the USSR crumbled first, but there were new fears and more tangible and intractable threats. Now, we were hearing, there was a hole in something called the ozone layer – caused, apparently, by the deodorant I’d just started using and causing my neighbour to swap the Frytex for the factor-50. And there were signs that all our industrial development was causing the world to heat up. What I realised was that the end of the world might not come out of the blue on a divine whim. We might trigger it ourselves, and worse yet – by accident.
Those fears have not gone away – in fact, they’ve become undeniable. Twenty or thirty years on, there’s not much “might” about it any more. Despite the stubborn denials of those with ideological, political or commercial interests in maintaining business as usual, it is a virtual certainty that the spike in human industrial activity over the past century is the main driver behind the corresponding spike in mean global temperatures over the same period. There is little doubt that it is our pollution which is warming the atmosphere and the oceans, fuelling fiercer storms, raising sea levels and causing massive species loss.
It is widely accepted that we have to hold that increase to within 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century to avoid even more catastrophic effects. Worse, many experts believe we have already left it far too late to avoid that outcome. There are real concerns of feedback loops could rapidly increase the warming in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways. Polar melting could cause the oceans to absorb instead of reflect heat, and the loss of Siberian ice could release vast quantities of trapped methane, as bluntly suggested by Prof Jason Box. Critics dismiss such predictions as “alarmism“, but they forget that not all alarms are false alarms. As Flannery O’Connor wrote: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
It is frightening to think that the end of the world as we know it may be not only imminent and unavoidable but also of our own making. And yet, there is a positive corollary here: the end of the world as we know it can be the start of a different world and way of living in it. now that we know the damage we can do, we know what we have to do to reduce that damage. The question is: why are we still not doing it? Or if we are, why aren’t we doing enough? Why do we let ourselves get to the very brink of the precipice before we even think to apply the brakes?
Last Wednesday, I attended the first of a five-part lecture-and-debate series in Dublin called Climate Conversations. Hosted by The Climate Gathering, it brought together representatives of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (Ibec), the artistic community and NGOs including Trócaire and Christian Aid to constructively discuss “what a low-carbon future might bring for Ireland… what cultural and social changes are needed, what costs and opportunities may arise and what economic model will best serve all our needs in making this transition.”
The session was entitled “Communicating the Challenge” and a recurring theme throughout the evening was collaboration. Claire O’Connor, former international director of Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection spoke of how climate change has become polarised into another political “for” or “against” issue, where one’s stance is more a “cultural identifier” than a rational position. That is an approach that we need to move beyond. As Eamon Ryan, leader of the Green Party said: “This is no longer [just] an environmental issue… This needs to be owned by everyone.” It is a societal reality that needs the input and commitment of all sectors.
Oisín Coghlan of Friends of the Earth agreed with Eamon Ryan that we have been making a fundamental mistake for decades in guilt-tripping people for their individual behaviours – for leaving lights on or not recycling. Instead, in order to achieve real sustainable change we should have first focused our attentions on “the start of the pipeline”. Whatever our individual behaviour changes, our economies are still structured around extraction and consumption of finite fossil fuels. In an Irish context, Oisín Coghlan said, “the question is not whether we allow people to burn briquettes, or even how many of the turf-cutters cut turf… but does the ESB keep burning the stuff to make electricity.” Large economies are still built on carbon-based foundations and are still on the hunt for more and more reserves of dirty fuel – the Alberta tar sands, arctic oil reserves, shale gas. But recent studies suggest that unless we leave over 80% of the planet’s remaining fossil fuels untouched and unused, then we are – to borrow Prof Jason Box’s terminology – “fucked”.
Pride in a collaborative global venture
As depressing and hopeless as all this might seem, that is the challenge that we face and that Climate Conversations is setting out to communicate. It is our new reality, like it or not. Hard and unpopular decisions will have to be made but as recently-retired ICTU chief David Begg put it in the opening session: “Finding the means to adjust, transition to a new type of economy… is a moral, economic and political imperative.”
It is a daunting imperative, and there is – as one audience member pointed out – a strong chance that we will fail. But that is all the more reason to act as quickly and effectively and as courageously as we can – and to do so positively. Communications guru Terry Prone reminded the audience of the revolutionary impact Rachel Carson’s legendary book Silent Spring had in mobilising action to ban the pesticide DDT in the 1960s. The challenge in communicating the issue, she said, is to make it relevant and important to people. We should take “a sense of pride in being part of an undertaking of real scale,” Eamon Ryan said, and called for “a collaborative shared global venture to tackle this issue.” Daunting or not, that is an inspiring thought. With future sessions focusing on how best to restructuring economies and agriculture for a responsible low-carbon future, I for one would like to think that Climate Conversations can be a driver of that collaborative venture.
Yesterday, a post appeared on the Dalai Lama’s Facebook page that is as good a summation of the first Climate Conversation as if he had been there. He wrote: “Because past environmental destruction was the result of ignorance, we can easily forgive it. Today, we are better informed. Therefore, it’s essential that we make an ethical examination of what we have inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will pass on to coming generations. Ours is clearly a pivotal generation. We have global communication and yet confrontation is more common than dialogue.”
Whatever about eclipses or blood moons supposedly presaging divine judgment, it could well be that this is the moment on which future generations will judge us. What are we going to do? To begin with, at least join the conversation
The second Climate Conversation “A New Economy” takes place this evening, 26th March, at 7pm in the Stanley Quek Hall in Trinity College, Dublin. There will be a live stream of the discussion here. A full video of the first session can be viewed below.
The schedule for future sessions is:
Wed 8 April: ‘The Sustainable Use of Our Land’ – Guinness Storehouse
Mon 20 April: ‘Prophetic Voices’ – Christ Church Cathedral
Sun 10 May: ‘The Call to New Horizons’ – Abbey Theatre