Last Friday March 15th over 15,0000 people marched for climate action around Ireland. The figure worldwide was 1.4 million people in 125 countries. The demonstrations were unique in being led by young people, inspired by the activism of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg who began a lone strike outside the Swedish parliament last August. She has since gone on to address world leaders and CEOs at international summits in Katowice and Davos, and has been nominated for a Nobel prize. Last week, two European Parliament groupings, which are affiliated with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, blocked an invitation for Greta to speak at a European Council meeting. This was an example of people at the highest levels of power unable to handle the truth.
Climate Aware Midleton – a community group which aims to promote collective action locally – had a stand in Market Green Shopping Centre in solidarity with the school strikers. My group colleagues Joanna Curtis and Natasha Harty discussed climate action with the public, displayed eco-friendly products and offered tree saplings for planting. The stand was met with great interest. Our next meeting on March 21st at 7.30pm in the Midleton Park Hotel will include a presentation on climate change from the perspective of a local young person.
The Cork city demonstration was the most compelling event of its kind I ever attended. It was humbling to see young people take up the responsibilities of adults at such a crucial time in our history. The UN has warned that we have an eleven year time frame to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we are to offset the worst effects of climate change. This is why every decision made at local or national level over the coming years in the areas of housing, infrastructure, flood protection, agriculture and natural resource management has to be climate-proofed.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar expressed support for the school strikers. However, it was the inaction of his government over the past eight years that was the point of these protests. Ireland has been ranked worst in Europe on climate action. Our emissions have actually been rising when they are expected to be falling sharply. In the short-term we are facing EU emission fines of €600m per year as a result of our government’s inaction. A few years worth of these fines could have revolutionised regional public transport and retrofitted thousands of homes.
Although we are a small country, in the medium to long-term we are contributing significantly to climate catastrophe. Ireland produces approximately 50% more carbon per capita than the European average. This is not the fault of the individual. It is because our transport system is heavily dependent on cars, with related problems of traffic gridlock, increased air pollution and unnecessary road accidents. Also, many of our home heating systems are not efficient and much of our agriculture is unsustainably intensive.
These realities can only be changed through political leadership. We need serious development of our public transport system and cycling infrastructure. All new buildings should have air to heat pumps as standard instead of fossil fuel burner and an extensive national retrofitting programme should be undertaken on existing housing stock. Farmers need to be incentivised to move to more sustainable forms of food production.
Not only has our government failed to take meaningful action on climate change, it has blocked all environmental legislation proposed by opposition parties to address the oncoming crisis and related issues such as plastic pollution.
The school strikers want the state to communicate the “severity of the ecological crisis to the general public”. They believe that the government should implement the recommendations of the 2017 Citizens’ Assembly on climate change and that the transition to a low carbon economy should be brought about in a “socially fair” fashion. At present it is much easier for people who are well off to purchase electric cars or to upgrade home heating systems. There needs to be far more support for lower income earners and people on social welfare payments to make environmentally friendly choices.
Climate action of the kind necessary in the years ahead will involve more benefits than sacrifices – reduced traffic congestion, cleaner air, stronger flood defences and better insulated housing. Bringing this about will take real engagement from politicians at local as well as at national and international levels. The grassroots activity of groups such as Climate Aware Midleton will also play an important role in uniting people in their comunities to take on the threats and opportunities associated with climate change.
- Liam Quaide is a Clinical Psychologist and a Green Party local election candiate in East Cork