Climate conversations: ‘The buck stops, with us, the grown-ups, right now’

Inter-generational conversations on the climate crisis with Eamon Ryan, Dr Tara Shine, Dara McAnulty and others

What do people with decades of experience advocating for climate action and the natural world have to say to younger people taking on that work? And what do young activists want to ask the people who are further along the road? We decided to get some inter-generational climate conversations going. These were recorded and edited by journalists Edel Coffey and Catherine Cleary.

Rónán Ó’Dálaigh is the founder and CEO of social enterprise Thriftify and Eamon Ryan is Minister for Transport and leader of the Green Party

Rónán Ó'Dálaigh: I'm a social entrepreneur and climate activist so it's a space that I'm very interested in and very frightened about. I read about the permafrost melting. I'm reading about the catastrophic blue ocean event where the Arctic ice is going to fully melt. It's going to happen this decade and add up to 0.8 degrees of warming. So we're currently on a trajectory towards complete collapse of our ecosystems and I'm incredibly scared and anxious. Are you frightened?

Eamon Ryan: When I was 16 I studied ecology, it was 1979 and we were reading all the latest books: The Limits to Growth; Gaia Theory; Small is Beautiful. But we were being told then that unless we changed our ways that we would have an ecological crash this century. And I remember being terrified then and it's inspired everything I've done since.


And sure enough 41 years later we’ve lost half of all wildlife biodiversity. We’ve known the science of climate for 30-plus years. So yes, it’s terrifying. We’ve to be very careful not to just terrify ourselves and terrify our younger people.

RO'D: I think it's okay to be frightened and actually if more of the generation above us were as frightened as we are we would have had more action. Are your Government partners as afraid as you?

ER: I don't think there's many people who don't realise the scale of the enormity of what the science is telling us. I think there's other reasons which hold people back from the level of action and that's more complicated.

RO'D: A lot of evidence would suggest that the social enterprise and co-operative model is substantially more sustainable than the current economic model. Do you see that as a core part of building a sustainable future?

ER: I do. There's a book by Kate Raworth called Doughnut Economics which is very popular and that book opens up with how economics is taught. Too much emphasis on profit is not serving us. And I think what you say is true that the social enterprise and co-operative world reflects that. It'll be a mix.

What got you interested?

RO'D: Education. And I think all social change is an educational journey. I think the media is starting to do a better job but, up until very recently, has not done a good job of really educating people as to how severe things are. So I went to an Extinction Rebellion meeting out of interest and signed up for a talk given by two climate scientists where they painted the scientific reality of what was happening. It was the very first time I heard it and that made me incredibly sad, but also incredibly disappointed in our media and in Government because the reality of what is happening is not understood.

ER: The problem is that political science trumps climate science. Politicians are very good at assessing how far can we go. I can remember distinctly as a young man walking home one day from school and I was going through a park and I was learning all this stuff about ecology and how things were connected and I just got a blinding sense of my own connection to nature and the interconnected nature of the systems we're in. My personal feeling was you could get all the information and the understanding of it but when it's in your heart as well as in your head then it's personal.

RO'D: I think you're right. But if we're to bring more people on that educational journey, and their sense of their place in the natural world, that is what builds movements and gets people involved to put the pressure on the political system to achieve the change we need. I don't envy you. I wouldn't want to be in your position.

I think I would find it very difficult to work with others who didn’t appreciate the urgency of it. And I’m yet to be convinced that Eamon’s Government colleagues have any sense of the urgency

ER: What advice would you have for me? If you were in my shoes what would you do differently?

R O'D: I think firstly I would try to facilitate that educational journey among those who vote. I would invest a lot more, investing in the arts to bring people on that journey. It's crucially important. I would put a huge amount more pressure and direct asks on the media to really engage with the science. Because if we can do that we will see all kinds of outcomes.

One very specific policy change I would make? Enterprise Ireland’s high potential startup funding is the largest source of capital funding for entrepreneurship in Ireland, by far, 20 times bigger than the local enterprise office. It’s not accessible to cooperatives and social enterprises. And if we want to build resiliency we need to unlock that funding to the organisations that are much more resilient and more diverse.

I really appreciate how transparent you are as a political leader. I don’t agree with you on everything and I’m probably more scared than you are. But I think that transparency is crucially important. You are now, I believe, the last generation of political leaders with the option of being on the right side of history. Previous political leaders will be able to get away with the argument that they didn’t know how bad it was and therefore they didn’t act. If in 10 years’ time we’re facing the absolute worst-case scenario unfortunately it’s going to be the existing Government parties who will be judged to have been on the wrong side of history and that will be a lasting legacy.

Dr Tara Shine is Director of Change By Degrees and Beth Doherty is a Climate Activist.

Tara Shine: What is an activist? I'm a middle-aged mother and I'm very much grounded in science and fact, whereas I don't think that's necessarily what people always associate with activism. I think sometimes people associate activism with a position of emotion rather than fact.

Beth Doherty: I think an activist is just someone who wants to see change, whether that's in your own community or at a national level.

TS: I have always wanted to make change. That's why I got stuck in directly to policy making. I wouldn't do things differently because I've learned so much along the way but what I do think is really important to know for Beth and people her age is that I didn't have a plan, there was no such job as a "climate advisor" when I was growing up. Possibly the job that Beth will do has not been invented yet.

BD: I want to see how we can create a change and also how we can look at it through that entire lens of society in an intersectional manner and understanding how different things in society and law influence the climate crisis and how they can be used to tackle climate action at a structural level.

TS: I think what's really exciting for me listening to Beth is when I first started working with the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice she exposed me for the first time to the real power of the law and human rights as tools that I, as an environmental scientist, could use to achieve the ends that I wanted to achieve.

BD: We need action to come from our structures and from our law. In particular the case in the supreme court last summer with Climate Case Ireland really shows that there is power in the law for challenging the status quo and our decision makers.

TS: A key thing you can do is talk to your peers about why it matters to you because your peers listen to you way more than they'll listen to a politician or an established leader. Politicians will only do what they feel they have the support of the citizens and voters to do so if they hear the conversation about climate change every time they're out and about it gives them this licence to be braver, to do the right thing.

BD: I completely agree. One of the most urgent things is that sense of collective organising in terms of speaking to people in your community and making sure that is solutions-focused so we're acknowledging people's power to come together and create that political pressure on our decision makers to take action.

I think the pandemic led to a shift in the way we think about nature, particularly the early days where we saw nature coming back. It exposed a lot of inequalities, and caused people to reflect on how systemic the inequalities are in terms of the global north and global south divide when it comes to vaccines. It’s similar to the divide we see when it comes to the impacts of the climate crisis. It made a lot of people understand those inequalities.

TS: We're overly comfortable in the status quo and that's weird to me because the status quo is imperfect. It's full of homelessness and inequality and vaccine inequality and people dying of diseases they don't need to because they can't afford the treatment. We need to redesign the system. So now this generation can own the refresh, the redesign of the way humanity lives on planet earth.

BD: I am hopeful but I think it's important to know that we need the generation in power to make change because by the time my generation gets into office it's going to be too late.

TS: That message is critical. I want to be able to say to Beth, don't worry, we'll get what needs to be done done in the next five years so that we leave you something good to work with. That's where the buck stops, with us, the grown-ups, right now. I refuse to leave it to Beth or to my son or daughter to fix this.

To solve this climate crisis we have to be humble enough to listen to every single viewpoint. Fairness and justice, without them we won’t get a lasting solution.

BD: The most important message I ever got was one of intersectionality and climate justice, and that work around climate should always take note of inequality around the climate crisis and that includes the rights of trans people, the global south divide and who is seeing the consequences.

Richard Nairn is an ecologist and writer based in Wicklow. His latest book is Wildwoods, The Magic of Ireland's Native Woodlands. Dara McAnulty is an award-winning teenage author, naturalist and conservationist from Northern Ireland. His latest book Wild Child: A Journey Through Nature is out now.

Richard Nairn: Can you see the sea from your house?

Dara McAnulty: I can see the sea looking directly this way.

RN: It's something I miss because I've lived by the coast most of my life but now I'm looking inland. We have buzzards and kites over us most days, just soaring over the valley, calling. It's just lovely. You know what that sound is like because you have them in your area too.

DMcA: Yeah we've got the red kites here as well and they're quite important birds to me. God I love red kites. I wrote my entire university application personal statement about red kites.

RN: Tell me, I believe you know Murlough [Nature Reserve] quite well? I spent five years there nearly 50 years ago, aged 22. I'd just left university and it was my first job. So I have a place in my heart for Murlough and Dundrum and that area.

DMcA: That's where I've done all my work experience, volunteering for the National Trust. I was doing the tree surveys and fixing up the boardwalk. The thing that I don't think people realise about boardwalks is that once you put it down you've got to actually keep on replacing it because it rots.

RN: That's right. They need maintenance. I was there when they put the first boardwalks down, nearly 50 years ago. In those days there were fences with "Keep Out" on the dunes everywhere. There's a much better understanding now of how beaches and dunes are intimately connected. Winter storms could come in and tear away the front of the dunes, wash down the beach and then in the summer wind will blow dry sand back up the beach and on to the dunes again. But it's being slightly messed up by climate change because that's causing sea-level rise, as you know, and more frequent storms. I wonder whether you think it's a good idea to put rock armour at the base of the dunes to prevent erosion from storms?

DMcA: I don't really agree with it because dunes are such delicate systems if you're going to toss in loads and loads of rocks – dunes are pretty unpredictable how they act – so sticking a load of rock into it would probably throw it a little bit out

RN: Many of our dune systems have golf courses on them and I've nothing against golf but one of the problems is that when they establish greens and fairways on dunes they want it to remain stable and not to move around in the wind or from the effects of the sea. But the dune needs to be able to act naturally. You could call it rewilding of the dune to allow it to behave in a natural way.

DMcA: Yeah they're definitely taking a less management-heavy approach to it now although of course we've got lots and lots of devils bit which means marsh fritillaries (butterflies) and the dark green fritillaries. It's the only place where I've seen marsh fritillaries. Actually that's a lie. I did see them in Fermanagh once.

RN: Yeah we have silver-washed fritillaries here in our woodland. They're lovely

DMcA: And lizards. We've got lizards. The lizards love the boardwalk

RN: Probably sunning themselves

DMcA: Yeah you can sometimes catch a lizard just lying on the boardwalk

RN: Most people are quite surprised to learn that there are wild lizards in Ireland. The one lizard we have, instead of laying eggs and leaving them to hatch, it produces live young so the young grow inside its body in order to overcome the cold problem.

DMcA: Even in Murlough it's a great day when you actually see one. It's like: Yesss!

RN: What gives you the most pleasure when you're out. Do you like to see rare things or observe behaviour of common animals?

DMcA: I get really really excited when I see something rare. But I'm more interested and engaged when I'm looking at something more common. When I see something rare it's like 'oh my goodness me. I can't believe I'm seeing this'. You get like a whole adrenalin followed by a dopamine rush. But you're not really paying attention to the creature that much because you're completely overcome with emotion at that point. There's a different sort of thing when you're looking at something that you see everyday and you get to see a new behaviour. That's what fascinates me.

RN: One of the most exciting things for me here in my own woodland was finding a woodpecker nest.

DMcA: I've heard woodpeckers around here before. I've never seen one here. I remember the first time I ever got to see a woodpecker I was with the scouts at the time.

RN: I was in the scouts too...

DMcA: I was deep into the forest completely lost, well I knew where I was but it's a wood where you always feel like you're lost. And then a woodpecker nearly hit me over the head by flying past. It just sort of exploded out of the tree this close to me.

How difficult is it to write about nature?

DMcA: I've always written because I enjoy it and it's my primary form of communication for most of my life. I just did not like speaking so I wrote instead. And nature was the thing I was most interested in so naturally that was what I wrote about.

RN: I'm the same. I keep a journal, I don't write everyday but when I see something interesting or unusual or something that inspires me I'll write that down. But for me the big challenge was actually breaking out of my scientific training because science teaches you to write in the impersonal. I think particularly in this time of biodiversity loss and climate change we need people like yourself [Dara] who can interpret the science and turn it into everyday language and help other people to understand, but also to keep the facts there.

I hope you’re going to write some more. Have you any other books in the pipeline?

DMcA: I do have one book that I'm not supposed to talk about.

RN: Top secret!

DMcA: The secret book. But the one I can talk about is going to be about Irish myth and legends and it's going to be about one of the things I've always loved my entire life, and that's storytelling. It's going to be basically me going and talking about how stories are connected to the land.

Dr Cara Augustenborg is an Environmental Policy Fellow at UCD and a member of President Higgins’s Council of State and Salim Kajani is a Climate Activist.

Salim Kajani: I think being an activist, the key thing is passion for something specific. My background is in climate action and fighting for climate justice. It's something I genuinely care about, and that's what activism is, fighting for something that you care about.

Cara Augustenborg: I'd agree with that definition. I like the quote "activism is my rent for living on the planet", I thought that was a nice way of thinking of activism as something that's paying back the earth. There's negative connotations associated with it now and that makes me really sad because I'd like to think that everybody is an activist in some area of their lives, that everybody cares about something strongly enough to fight for it.

SK: I think the biggest thing for me is to organise, speak to scientists, speak to friends who have an interest. Another really important thing is writing to your TDs or members of parliament that's one of the biggest things you can do because they are the political representatives of the people and we want to make sure they represent us.

CD: The journalist Bill McKibben described it best when he said the best thing an individual can do is stop being an individual. The urgent changes we need are big-system changes that we as individuals can't do in our own homes. That's why collective action is really important and I'd take that one step further and say we need people to stand for election that understand the transition we have to make. For politicians that takes a huge amount of bravery. Not every road project is going to be funded if we're going to meet our climate targets.

SK: I think the pandemic has changed how we think about the natural world and I'm just hoping that we don't lose that because one of the big things about the pandemic is realising what nature does for us.

CA: I think on the climate side there was this sense that emissions decreased by about six per cent, but unfortunately residential emissions increased because we were all in our cold houses with our heat turned up which was less efficient than if we'd all been in our offices all together so I'm not sure if the penny has dropped on emissions and the pandemic wasn't actually as good for emissions reductions as people expected it to be. Also it's not the way we want to solve climate change.

It’s been hard to get people to the point where in the last election we saw people asking politicians from every party what they’re doing about climate change. That was something that took over a decade of hard work from lots of people in civil society. I’m very hopeful about that because I finally feel like people understand the challenge and in order to solve it we need to understand it. The current Programme for Government makes me hopeful because if we can achieve the 300 promises in it we will see the curve turn downward over the next couple of years.

SK: We still seem to be quite slow. Ireland has been a model country for social change and has been at the forefront for social progression but we're still the worst country in Europe for emissions per capita.The Programme for Government is a good sign that hopefully things are changing. It's about following through with that change, having a sense that action is coming.

CA: I think everyone in the climate area is spread very thin because so much is affected by climate change so you're expected to be an expert in agriculture, energy, buildings, biodiversity, you have to have the science nailed plus understand policy and politics and it's impossible to be an expert in everything, and it's impossible to do everything to a level of excellence so the words I tend to repeat to myself are "good enough is good enough" and just try and do good enough in everything.

SK: There's a lot to take from that. There's something similar in a quote that stuck with me from the film Finding Nemo, where one of the characters said "just keep swimming". I think in this crazy world where we have more than enough issues to deal with and every day you're fighting for something and you seem to go nowhere, to just keep swimming, keep going and something will have to come of the work you do.

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests

Edel Coffey

Edel Coffey

Edel Coffey, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a journalist and broadcaster. Her first novel, Breaking Point, is published by Sphere