This year – ahead of December’s critical UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris – making that message heard is more important than ever. The last major conference in Copenhagen in 2009 (COP15) managed only to kick the can of a meaningful climate deal down the road while letting some of the world’s leading polluters off the hook. Here in Ireland, the first Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill is currently working its way through the legislature, but it has already been roundly derided as feeble and “wholly inadequate“, failing to set any concrete targets and failing even to define what it means by “low carbon”.
On Thursday, I wrote a piece about an initiative called Climate Conversations, aimed at discussing how best to work towards a low-carbon future in Ireland. At the second of these sessions on Thursday evening, Robert Watt of the Department of Public Expenditure & Reform suggested that unless climate change is seen as a priority for the public, it won’t be a priority for political change. Glen Dimplex CEO Seán O’Driscoll put it more bluntly. “Our politicians,” he said, “are not reformers. They do things in two situations:… when they run out of options… [or] when there are votes in it.”
The implication is this: for the Irish government to develop meaningful legislation, and for world leaders to finally come up with their long-overdue binding, universal agreement in Paris, there needs to be the unequivocal public demand for effective action to address climate change. It needs to be important for us if it is going to be important to them.
Yet climate change remains something of a tangential issue for most people. One of the first newspaper articles I ever published was a report on Earth Hour events in Brighton and Hove. I tagged along on a “torchwalk” along the seafront as the promenade lights went dark, but I was dismayed to see – despite the assurances I’d gotten from the management earlier in the day – that the manic flashing lights of Brighton (or Palace) Pier, the city’s most famous landmark, were still blazing away. The torchwalk passed more or less unnoticed by those at the slot machines or spinning on the waltzer.
Climate change still sits way down our list of priorities – not as nearly as pressing or important as day-to-day worries of income and bills and family and work. Perhaps this is because it still seems remote rather than immediate. Perhaps we haven’t quite grasped yet that climate change affects or will affect all of those priorities too. Climate change is the epitome of a cross-cutting, universal issue, transcending all our ethnic, religious, gender and social divisions and concerns. It is something we will all need to actively engage with. Here in Ireland, that is the idea behind Climate Conversations. On a global scale, that is what Earth Hour is about – giving ordinary people the opportunity to symbolically, collectively say: “This is important to all of us.”
That statement is getting louder. Earth Hour began in just one city, Sydney, in 2007. Last year, 7,000 cities and towns across 162 countries were involved, making it the “largest mass participation event in history”. This year, it is shaping up to be bigger again. (Rather shamefully – but perhaps indicative of the low priority of real climate change action here – Ireland is one of the few countries that is not officially taking part in Earth Day.*)
When the clocks go forward tonight, we’re going to lose an hour’s sleep, but that’s the short-term trade-off for the long-term benefit of six months of brighter evenings. If we switch our lights off tonight, we’re going to lose an hour’s light – but that’s the short-term trade-off to make that statement and demand the long-term benefit of a safer and more sustainable future. It’s worth it.
And don’t forget to put your clocks forward at 2am
*This article was edited to reflect the lack of involvement of Ireland in Earth Day