Colm O’Regan: A hypocrite’s guide to saving the planet

Game Changers: The comedian has written a new book about trying - and often failing - to be part of the solution to the climate crisis

It’s unnerving to listen back to my interview with Colm O’Regan. Not because of anything he says; the writer and comedian is a self-confessed Person Who Wants to be Liked. But we’re outside the Irish Museum of Modern Art and artists are piping discordant music into the courtyard. “Is this the soundtrack to the struggle?” O’Regan asks, as the clashing notes swell. They are the 4am collywobbles made sound.

It is a tribute to O’Regan’s skills as a comedian and writer that his new book, Climate Worrier, was the opposite of unsettling. It made me laugh and think and feel a little lighter. It is a one-man plea against tribalism, a stream of conscience narrating the darting thoughts of someone who likes animals and eats meat and contains lots of anecdotal advice on changes we can make to be part of the solution to the climate crisis.

O’Regan is funny and the climate and biodiversity crises aren’t. But there is work to be done and he has rolled up his sleeves.

Is the book a plea for togetherness? “I suppose there’s a bit of ‘why can’t we all just get along’” he says, “and eventually like I’m hit by a tomato and think well ‘f**k this’ and pick a side and storm a barricade. But for the moment, why not give that a go as a thing?” One of the things we might tip away at (to borrow a phrase from the book) is being a “tactivist” someone who likes “to build consensus ... Someone who has learned patience the hard way. Who knows that very few things are pointless,” he writes.


These thoughts nudge us into a gentler conversational space. When we laugh, we breathe and connect. Social media conversations have become places where “you need to win the conversation. I think people are totally okay with being wrong if the person who’s right wasn’t being a knob about it.”

How does he blend the oil and water of serious and funny? “I think there’s an episode of The Simpsons where they go to see a climate change comedian and everybody walks away crying. You don’t want to be that, either. Earnest comedy can be awful and not for bad reasons. It’s just that the nature of comedy is to subvert the message, to be the bold kid or whatever. To try and be funny without preaching is very important. That’s what I try to do. If I succeed? Great. If I don’t, tell me where. But don’t be a knob about it.”

The book starts in O’Regan’s childhood home on a dairy farm in Dripsey in West Cork, where his late dad (who he endearingly calls Dada throughout) was a “tasty” or tidy farmer who sprayed rushes and had ditches bulldozed to widen pokey fields. He was “partial to the Gramoxone to get moss out of yards” but also a man who loved nature and planted trees to replace the dead elm. “So I knew he was one of the good guys.”

It’s a small country. That’s why we have a chance at doing stuff. There isn’t this giant yawning chasm between oligarchs in a fenced-off compound and somebody 4,000 miles and two time zones away scratching a living in North Dakota

Remembered quotes from Dada preface some chapters. What would he think of things now? “I’d say what he’d say ... whatever business you’re in whether it’s farming or cement when you’re focused in a particular area and somebody comes along to say ‘you should do it this way’, it’s incredibly annoying, no matter how right it is ... I’d get really annoyed if somebody told me that the manual work that I was doing was wrong. And it would take me quite a while before I’d read the study.”

O’Regan’s litter picking group in Inchicore was his first step into the kind of community action he hopes will help. Our smallness as a country is also our strength. “Who spends the same time outdoors doing a thankless job for an hourly rate that wouldn’t be accepted? Ecologists and farmers ... there is common ground there. It’s not going to fix everything but, like, it’s a small country. That’s why we have a chance at doing stuff. There isn’t this giant yawning chasm between oligarchs in a fenced-off compound and somebody 4,000 miles and two time zones away scratching a living in North Dakota. There’s a strong shared experience and the degrees of separation here are about one and a half.”

The lost decades were lost partly because of a deliberate campaign funded by fossil fuel companies. “I heard about climate change in 1988 and I fell asleep for 20 years. If you’d ask me about climate change in 2005 I’m sure some part of the response might be ‘well isn’t there some kind of conjecture around that. I thought it was a thing that actually last year was the coldest year in Greenland.’ I certainly wasn’t denying anything, but somehow those stories drifted into my thinking and then it turns out that didn’t happen by crash. There was a very clever way in which we lost all that time.”

Has Covid had any lessons for climate? “If we winter this one out and winter the next one and the next one after that then we might have a summer. Yeah so we won’t do a Seamus Heaney quote as the preamble,” he says.

There are two Covid lessons, he thinks: the first was a demonstration of how quickly decisions could be made, the second was learning “just how many types of frontline worker there are. It started with nurses and doctors and then the men and women who work in waste disposal, postmen and women, people who work in a shop, taxi drivers, bus drivers, the people who make food.”

Networks like the WhatsApp group that “neighboured up” a pink tie for someone’s debs the night before, and the goodness of most people are what gives him hope. O’Regan has a dustpan and brush in his backpack. He passed a broken bottle on Rialto bridge on the school run earlier and decided to circle back that way on the way to the interview. But someone else got there first. It was gone, the work already done by an unnamed good person.

The media have a role in sweeping up the mess too. “If you’re an opinion shaper and you’re stirring stuff up and you’re working in the opinion industry — I’m sure I’ve done something like this in the past so tell me — it doesn’t mean we need to cover the biodiversity agenda without listening to any other things. But if you’re presenting it as ‘transport wars’ or ‘food wars’ or ‘culture wars’, you know what you’re doing. Stop it. Insofar as we’re all doing a bit, people who communicate with large numbers of people have more of a duty than one person in their car or in their van.

“I’ve a column [in The Examiner], I want everybody to like me. See attached email from therapist,” he says with a grin, “but I also think if two people from different points of view can read the thing and not have their opinion hardened then that’s a win.”

He hopes the book is the kind of gift an activist might get for a relative who sees them as someone who’s just angry. “That’s my first job: number one, ‘save the planet”; two ‘don’t sound like a knob’. Actually no, number one is ‘don’t sound like a knob’ ... because we don’t have time for people to get over their dislike of me before having a read of it.”

Climate Worrier, A Hypocrite’s Guide to Saving the Planet is published by HarperCollins

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

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