‘The current’s fast, but the river moves slow,
And I can feel things changing.”
Sometimes it takes a poet to capture a moment, and hearing those words at a recent performance by the elemental Kate Tempest, I felt the click of an internal time-stamp. Remember this.
It’s been 10 years since I started studying environmental science, 10 years since I walked out of those first lectures on rural land use and sustainable development with my jaw dislocated from the shock of the information. How did people not know this? Why was nobody talking about this? Why, when I talked about this, did people’s eyes glaze over? It was a surreal time.
And that’s saying something: I’d spent the previous 10 years in the music business. But now climate change, biodiversity loss and water quality felt more rock ‘n roll than rock ‘n roll did. It was disruptive, urgent and underground; and it mattered.
For a recovering music journalist the best description I could muster to explain this new-found passion to old friends was that it was basically a new form of punk. Punk science. But was anybody listening?
Fast-forward a decade, and 2019 will be remembered as the year that it all, finally, went mainstream. The decision-makers across government, business and media – who had managed to sidestep reports from the Intergovernmental Panels on Climate Change and Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and the slew of grey literature and news items they generated – could not avoid the tidal wave of raw emotion unleashed among the world's youth by Greta Thunberg and her viral school strike.
Nor could they avoid the direct action of the Extinction Rebellion movement that, no matter what you think of its tactics, forced the media to reframe its perception of who cared about the environment: it was workers, consumers, old, young, rural and urban; it was everyone. Following a 100-fold increase in usage, Oxford Dictionaries made “climate emergency” the words of the year.
Even in Ireland, with our Instagram-worthy delusions of "greenness", fertiliser contouring and sterile Botoxed landscapes, we have begun to look beneath that heavily filtered self-image – and we don't like what we see. This national reality check was helped along in no small measure by RTÉ's Climate Week, in particular the documentaries which shone a cold, hard spotlight on the challenge.
In Will Ireland survive 2050? we got the opportunity to visualise – and feel – what the science is saying, with footage of water flowing like a river through Dublin and Cork city centres coupled with emotional testimony from families who had been affected by flooding, wildfires and coastal erosion.
Philip Boucher-Hayes' Hot Air, meanwhile, explored our national response in all its cognitive dissonance. As the programme made plain, we've squandered so much time denying, distracting and dithering around the science that the gradient of transition is now more extreme, and more challenging to implement.
But implement we must. As Boucher-Hayes says: “We won’t be forgiven for getting this wrong.” The 157 children who took over the Dáil a few days after the programme aired for the Youth Assembly on Climate no doubt agree with him.
The viewing figures for these two shows suggest that we are, at last, paying attention – they brought in 258,000 and 266,000 viewers respectively; respectable 20 per cent and 24 per cent shares of the viewership – but it will take much more public service broadcasting of this ilk for us to really hear the message.
Besides, there’s an awful lot more that needs to be said, not least around how we adapt to a climate-changed future, and the role of nature as our first – and best – line of defence against the worst of the impacts. While the reverse isn’t always true, wins for nature are almost always wins for climate.
The upcoming election is likely to be the greenest yet, with parties falling over themselves to capture the ambition of an electorate that is demanding solutions. It's up to us, the voters, to ignore the gloss and make sure that what's on offer is what the science demands. So when the canvassers come knocking on your door, remember the wise words of a different type of poet, the physicist Richard Feynman: "Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."
This is Hannah Hamilton’s final column for The Irish Times. She is taking on a new role with Coillte Nature to advance native woodland and ecological restoration projects