Climate change: the crisis and challenge of this generation


Every era has its blind spots and our blind spot in relation to climate change is enormous

LOOKING BACK, particularly on the more shameful aspects of our history like industrial schools, is necessary and vital. However, the old cliché about hindsight being 20-20 vision also holds true.

We are so quick to condemn those who failed to act to end injustice in the past, yet it cannot be said that we are distinguishing ourselves today by our prompt action in response to contemporary crises.

Take climate change, something that affects not only us and our children, but will affect generations to come. Where is the huge public demand for action?

Taking the industrial school system as a kind of case study might provide us with some clues, although the two situations are in many ways utterly different.

Let us assume that many people knew that certain institutions were notorious for brutal physical punishment and that much smaller numbers knew about sexual abuse.

What factors prevented people taking action? What caused the inertia, the shrugs? At that time, was it unthinkable to challenge the church and State?

Today, is it unthinkable to challenge the idea that all economies must be in a constant state of growth, despite the fact that resources are finite? Has global capitalism colonised our minds to the extent that we literally cannot imagine any other system?

Was the sheer scale of the problem overwhelming? There were thousands of children in industrial schools. Did it just seem impossible to devise a system that would allow families to care for their own children or provide non-institutional substitutes?

In a similar way, does the sheer scale of the challenge posed by climate change cause people to switch off, to seek to escape?

Was there a belief that it was someone else’s problem, that someone “out there” was in charge and that it was their job to run the system or reform it?

Was it just too uncomfortable to change? Was there a feeling that we did not have the resources, that while Britain may have started moving away from industrial schools as early as the 1920s and 1930s, it was an empire with vast resources and poverty-stricken Ireland could not do the same?

In the same way, are we now pleading that we cannot afford to act? Ironically, looking at our past at this time has meant that the local and European elections passed with little or no debate on vital issues. The European elections could have provided an opportunity to debate climate change and Europe-wide action. (I know. Here I am writing about it after the elections are over.)

Even those of us who worry about the democratic deficit at the heart of the European project must acknowledge that the EU has been an important driver in relation to climate change.

In recent times, spurred by the EU, we have heard that the Government is finally planning to introduce legislation on climate change. Ireland has had one of the highest levels of carbon emission per capita in the world. Emissions are now reducing only because of our economic difficulties.

Unfortunately, those same economic difficulties have meant that interest in taking action on climate change has plummeted, yet one of the major factors in getting us into our current mess was a lack of long-term planning.

If we make the same mistake in relation to climate change, this financial crisis will seem like a minor blip in comparison.

Very little is known about the proposed legislation, except that Minister for Energy Eamon Ryan has suggested it will be modelled on the UK legislation which proposed a 26 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020.

Even that seemingly ambitious target will not be enough. We need to achieve a 40 per cent reduction on 1990 levels by 2020.

All our individual actions, such as avoiding flights, taking public transport and trying to shop for locally produced goods, will come to naught unless structural change happens as well.

Legislation will make our Government accountable, so that positive change is not just some optional extra for the good times.

It will also provide a major incentive for innovation and for investment in new, cleaner energy, which will result in greater employment and more sustainable and community based lifestyles. The transition to a

post-carbon economy offers huge opportunities for Ireland, particularly in the area of renewable wind and wave energy

The United Nations Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change next December has the task of producing a successor to the Kyoto Protocol for after 2012.

The next few years are vital because experts agree that unless emissions peak and begin to reduce by 2015, the consequences will be disastrous.

However difficult it will be for developed countries, climate change threatens to overwhelm the humanitarian system and destroy the gains made in developing countries. Poor people in developing countries bear over 90 per cent of the burden, resulting in death, disease, displacement and destitution, yet they are least responsible for creating the problem.

However overwhelmed or helpless we feel, one painless step that we could take would be to take part in the Stop Climate Chaos protest at noon on Sandymount Strand on Saturday, June 13th.

The Metronewspaper is printing special red and blue covers for the event. Participants will use the covers to create images, such as a giant egg-timer, to symbolise time running out. It will be a message to politicians that people want action now. (http://www.stopclimatechaos. ie/)

Every era has its blind spots and sometimes they result in tragic injustices like industrial schools. However, our blind spot in relation to climate change is truly enormous.

If even a fraction of the Doomsday scenarios predicted by climate scientists come true, our children will be asking us questions within in a far shorter time span about why we failed to take action on climate change.

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