While the election of a new president of the United States of America may not directly impact us in Ireland, their policies most certainly will. One of the most pertinent of these policies is related to climate change and carbon dioxide emissions, where the current Clean Power Plan will most likely be reversed and America may remove themselves from the international UN Paris Agreement on climate change. Politicians' mistrust of the scientific data evidencing the decline in health and increase in temperature of the planet is negatively impacting such national policies and affecting public opinion on global warming.
Climate change is not a “hoax”. As correctly noted in Dáil Éireann a number of months ago, there have been patterns of climate change happening over hundreds of thousands of years. However, as was not mentioned in parliament, the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere began to dramatically increase a few hundred years ago (around the time of the Industrial Revolution) and has continued to increase with our persistent dependence on fossil fuels. Extreme weather, accompanied by the prevalence of more tropical diseases, are only some of the visible outcomes of global warming. Norman Crowley, founder of the “Cool Planet” climate change centre due to open in Wicklow in 2017, has also noted that “climate change has more to do with refugee displacement than conflict”. This is not an issue we can afford to politically ignore. Should we continue to use fossil fuels as we are doing, the average temperature is predicted to rise in a range of 4 to 12 degrees by the year 2100.
Tackling climate change as a global issue requires policies on international, national and local scales. In London, a new ultra low emission zone may be introduced where, unless you are driving an electric car, your city charge will dramatically increase. In Norway and Germany, talks are under way to stop the sale of all internal combustion engines in the next two decades and there are substantial incentives to encourage you to drive electric cars. I recently visited Amsterdam as part of the RTÉ series 10 things to know about, where public transport is going green with buses, trams, airport taxis and even boats now powered by electricity. Members of the public are encouraged to generate their own electricity, through wind or solar power, which can then be sold back into the main grid. A city known for its bicycles, if you do require a car there are tax, parking and grant incentives to encourage you to go electric. And I, for one, noted a far higher quality of air than we enjoy in our own capital.
Known for our "forty shades of green", in Ireland we have not yet hit our targets for electric vehicles or renewable energy resources – despite tax and grant incentives. According to the most recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency, our carbon dioxide levels are rising and air quality is falling. Following Amsterdam's initiative, wouldn't it be wonderful to designate our cities or towns as "smart and green"?
Unfortunately, public opinion does not yet seem to qualify climate change as an issue for which we should each be accountable. In the US, a large-scale study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that 50 per cent of Americans think that climate change has nothing to do with human activity. Of these, half consider it due to natural patterns of the planet and others believe there was no solid evidence of climate change at all. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland has reported that only half of Irish people believe that climate change is a serious problem. Scientists are partly to blame for this divide in public opinion, since debates around evidence have negatively impacted the public’s trust of what they should believe. However, despite arguments of the extent of global warming, there is no denying that climate change is happening and needs to be tackled through policy and through community efforts.
Ireland's national electricity grid has already been upgraded to one of the most innovative smart grids in Europe, our former president Mary Robinson is the UN's special envoy for climate change and, with the wealth of renewable energy resources at our fingertips, we have the potential to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint. Let's hope our own politicians can critically but carefully review the scientific evidence, and lead Ireland in addressing global warming through local and national directives and policies.
Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin is an assistant professor in the UCD School of Mathematics and Statistics