World in their hands: Five women who want us to take action on climate change

From Greta Thunberg to Mary Robinson, women globally are giving leadership to the climate crisis – the defining issue of our time. To mark International Women's Day, Helen O'Callaghan talks to five women in Ireland, playing key roles in raising awareness about the urgent need to take action.

Sadhbh O’Neill

Environmental activist and researcher in UCD School of Politics, also lecturer in DCU in Environmental Politics.

Pictures: Moya Nolan
Pictures: Moya Nolan

What began your passion for the environment?

“As a student, a friend lent me Jonathon Porritt’s book, Seeing Green. He was director of Friends of the Earth in the UK, a leading voice in emerging green politics. For me, there was no going back — I joined the Green Party and got elected as a Green public representative on Dublin City Council. Afterwards, I worked in environmental organisations including An Taisce.”

What environmental work have you done that you’re especially proud of?

“Most recently, the One Future Campaign. Before the general election, Professor John Sweeney of Maynooth, Dr Cara Augustenborg, UCD, and I reviewed the parties’ manifestos, ranking them on quality of their climate policies. We asked all candidates to sign a pledge to implement our key asks on climate, biodiversity and just transition.”

Is environmental/sustainability awareness coming in from the margins, getting more mainstream?

“People can see the loss of diversity. Those of us a little older remember flourishing wildlife in the countryside. But we now have a generation of young adults, graduates of the Green Schools programme, clued into the small things we can do to correct [environmental damage]. They’re asking why the adults in the room aren’t making enough effort to walk, cycle, recycle properly, compost.

“This has been amplified hugely since Greta Thunberg started galvanising people to take a personal stance against the stupid destruction of the atmosphere that’s going to impact us all in time.

“There’s also great solidarity and collegiality between the different environmental groups. People are coming together spontaneously, groups springing up out of nowhere — like Extinction Rebellion. There’s an ease of communication now, unimaginable before. It’s inspiring.”

What can governments and individuals do?

“Just focusing on the enormous scale of the problem, it’s easy to feel defeated. There’s a surprising amount individuals can do. Even with tiny plots of land, we can make an enormous difference to pollinators by not mowing dandelions or using chemicals.

“We can work with others in the community to put pressure on politicians and decision-makers — because the challenge will have to be Government-led. We need very strong top-down commitment to implement emissions reduction. Resources should follow commitment.

Government must finance schemes to encourage people to retro-fit homes — people can’t be expected to use all their savings. They must invest in very visible, deliberate ways in public transport, cycle lanes, wider footpaths, more pedestrian crossings — really signalling pedestrians, cyclists and people with impaired mobility are prioritised.

“They must stop spending money on destructive environmental projects, like fossil fuel infrastructure. We need to rethink our approach to data centres, which consume too much electricity — and make it easier for farms/schools/households to generate their own electricity with solar and wind, and to sell any surplus back to the grid and get a small payment for it.”

Are women in pole position to effect change needed to stop climate change?

“The feminist movement emphasises equality, fairness and inclusivity, also a different set of values: not everything’s for sale, people are more important than profit and vulnerable members of society need to be respected/protected.

“This perspective makes it easier to think of future generations — of their right to equally share in earth’s resources — and to see connections between environmental destruction and impact on vulnerable people anywhere in the world.”

Anja Murray

Ecologist, broadcaster and environmental policy analyst

World in their hands: Five women who want us to take action on climate change

What began your passion for the environment?

“I grew up feral in West Wicklow — climbing trees, making dens, scrambling around the lakeshore, making things out of clay. It really shaped my existence, observing nature. Wanting to know how the natural world worked, I studied environmental science.”

What environmental work have you done that you’re especially proud of?

“I’m producing and presenting a one-hour radio documentary, WILD, which airs on RTÉ lyric fm in April. It looks at what the landscape was like when the first people arrived. Until about 300 years ago, Ireland had lots of deciduous woodland, vast expanses of bogs. Now we’ve the second lowest woodland cover in Europe.

We look at the landscape today and don’t realise how transient it is. What changes will we see in the next 100 years? It’s important to think how we can make a [sustainable] input.

“With RTÉ’s Eco Eye, I get to meet amazing communities bucking against the trend and making positive environmental changes. An example’s the Inishowen Rivers Trust in Donegal, regular people working together to improve quality of the rivers around Inishowen and to tackle issues like flooding. They’re driving a lot of action locally, working with the local authority and other agencies.

It’s really empowering and inspiring to see these communities coming together to find what they can do to address the challenge.

“Our chances of limiting global warming to 1.5C are very small. But there’s a 5% chance. And that’s worth fighting for – people have much less chance of winning the lotto, yet lots of people buy lottery tickets.”

Is environmental/sustainability awareness coming in from the margins, getting more mainstream?

“Definitely, even in the last two years there’s an up-swelling in awareness of the changes posed by diversity loss and climate change. Another community coming together is the Abbeyleix Bog Project, saying they don’t want their bog drained or industrially harvested and pointing out its importance to the community — for biodiversity, water quality, soaking up greenhouse

gases. It’s a lovely example of a community enriched and enhanced by actively managing this resource on their doorstep.”

What can governments and individuals do?

“Individuals feel guilty around not doing enough. Transform this into a positive — make conscientious lifestyle changes and feel good about it: fly less, take the train, eat differently.

“The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action came up with 60 really strong recommendations. Government must now put their money where their mouth is. It won’t happen without sustained pressure from the electorate. Everybody has an area of interest: transport policy, food production, bumblebees — get informed, start engaging with neighbours and politicians in a way that’s more than hobby commentary. Get involved in campaigns/organisations, make direct contact with elected representatives — let them know this is something you care about, want action on. Prod for change where change is needed.”

Are women in pole position to effect change needed to stop climate change?

“Women tend to have a more long-term perspective and often aren’t quite so embedded in the status quo. But currently women aren’t participating in policy and decision-making as much as men. We need women to be at least equal – to give them positions everywhere they’re not on a par with men.”

Nature File with Anja Murray begins Saturday, March 21, RTÉ lyric fm.

Bernadette Phelan

Director of the Leaders’ Group on Sustainability, Business in the Community Ireland

World in their hands: Five women who want us to take action on climate change

What began your passion for the environment?

“I’m a country kid. I grew up between Thurles and Cashel. From an early age, I developed a love of maps and atlases and a sense of ‘this is my place — how is it connected with other things?’ I grew up in a family business — pub and shop. Many of our customers were farmers/working in agriculture. There was a strong sense of business connecting with community — our customers were our neighbours and we were all inter-dependent.”

What environmental work have you done that you’re especially proud of?

“As BITCI head of advisory services, I’m responsible for design and development of the future services for business. I’m always thinking: What next for business? How can business play a bigger, more ambitious role in the sustainability crisis? How can we get more businesses to engage in the sustainability challenge?

“I’m the architect of, and responsible for, the CEO-driven Leaders’ Group on Sustainability, which acts as an innovation/R&D hub for sustainability — they design new initiatives for the full BITCI network.

“The BITCI team has worked with our member companies to develop two new initiatives: The Low Carbon Pledge, the first dedicated pledge generated by Irish business to set industry standards on sustainability and reduce carbon usage. And the Inclusive Employer Blueprint is a practical guide to create inclusive workplaces and reduce social inequality in Ireland. It’s designed to be a starting point for any employer interested in building an inclusive society.

“For companies already applying a social lens to their diversity/inclusion strategy, the blueprint complements existing activities.”

Is environmental/sustainability awareness coming in from the margins, getting more mainstream?

“The Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures really shows sustainability and climate change are going mainstream. A key player is Mark Carney, outgoing Bank of England governor — he leaves the role this month to become a UN special envoy for climate action. In 2015 he gave a milestone speech on the impact of climate crisis and the role of the financial systems.

“He said there’s a lot of unaccounted-for risk in financial systems because risks associated with climate change haven’t been factored in — and they need to be. It’s a clear sign capital markets, investors and general wealth managers are recognising the need for sustainability thinking. We’ve a long way to go, but it’s an important step.

“On a national level, the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly for Climate Change are so progressive and they reflect what Irish people are thinking — they’re really tuning into this issue.”

What can governments and individuals do?

“Policies like the regional enterprise strategies can play a role in helping Irish business embrace new opportunities that moving to a more sustainable world will create. In a low-carbon world, my car will be different, my clothes made from different materials — within all these changes are opportunities.

The IDA, Enterprise Ireland and local enterprise agencies have been successful in fostering new business. So what’s the next big [business] sector that will help build our sustainable world? We should be going after them.

“For individuals, it can be overwhelming – eco-anxiety does exist — and people feel guilty. We’re in a transition phase — it’s difficult. But think: what one thing can you do in each different part of your life. With your employee hat on, can you help reduce plastics use in your workplace? How do you get to work? With a shopper hat on, think about what you’re buying in the supermarket.”

Are women in pole position to effect change needed to stop climate change?

“Sustainability and reversing climate change are about challenging the status quo. The old ways of doing things aren’t fit for purpose — change is needed. Many women are still slightly outside the system, outside the traditional power structures, and they see things differently — maybe one reason why women are emerging to tackle the climate crisis. There’s a big disruption in what we’re doing. There’s a danger in over-emphasising this though. Sustainability and caring for the planet is a job for all of us — it is not just ‘women’s work’.”

Éanna Ní Lamhna

Lecturer, broadcaster, and Tree Council of Ireland vice-president.

World in their hands: Five women who want us to take action on climate change

What began your passion for the environment?

“I grew up in 1950s rural Co Louth. My mother had seven children — she’d say ‘go out, play and don’t come in unless you’re bleeding’. We climbed trees, went to the river, knew where birds’ nests were.”

What environmental work have you done that you’re especially proud of?

“I was a lecturer in DIT for 20 years. I was part of a team that drew up a curriculum for a master’s in sustainable development. I lectured in ecology and took students on field trips.

“I worked for Foras Forbartha until they closed in 1988 — I was head of their biological records centre, making distribution maps of Irish animals and plants. Then I took up talking on the radio. Derek Mooney was asked to produce a programme on nature and wildlife and he wanted a woman’s voice.

“Before then, wildlife programmes were always experts — men mostly — talking to other experts. They wouldn’t call an oak tree an oak tree — they’d use its Latin name. So when Derek asked what’s this and how does that work and how do spiders have sex? — we were like a red-top wildlife programme. It was a great breakthrough — the ordinary people of Ireland tuning in and learning in a pleasant way about wildlife.

“I’ve written books for teachers and the public — Wild Dublin published by O’Brien Press; also Wild Things at School.”

Is environmental/sustainability awareness coming in from the margins, getting more mainstream?

“No — if it was, there’d have been a Green wave in the general election and not a Sinn Féin wave. If I’m from a rural place, how can I go on public transport if there aren’t any trains? Or cycle if there aren’t cycle paths? If we were all really concerned, we’d have voted for people who’d do this.

We’re 154th worst in the world in reducing carbon emissions — out of 180 countries. We produce 8.35 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year per person.

“In Britain, it’s 5.8 tonnes, in the US 16.24. The best are Burundi at 0.05 and Sudan at 0.45 — yet they’re the ones suffering because we’re pushing all that carbon up into the atmosphere.

“People think doing something for the environment will cause them to reduce their standard of living and they’re not prepared to do that. It’s a case of make me pure but not yet.”

What can governments and individuals do?

“Forty-nine percent of emissions that come from making electricity come from two turf-burning stations and one coal-burning. I understand people will lose jobs if these are closed but we’ll end up paying millions in fines — money that’d be much better spent on rehabilitating workers, as well as put into public transport.

“As for individuals, nobody — when I was growing up — would dream of walking around drinking bottles of water. We don’t live in the Sahara! These bottles end up in ditches. You don’t need to buy coffee and walk down the street carrying a cup. I don’t need to be eating strawberries from Peru or mange tout from Lebanon in February. Think of the air-miles. There’s plenty we can eat that’s local.

“People don’t cook anymore — they buy takeaway meals in boxes. But everything [green change] works in tandem — whether you home cook connects up with transport, less likely if you’ve been sitting hours on the motorway getting home.”

Are women in pole position to effect change needed to stop climate change?

“Women have a lot of purchasing power in their own households, so they’re in pole position to spend money in a greener way. When my son lived in New Zealand, he’d see my face if he was chucking his dinner in the bin — mammies are in pole position to influence the next generation. But whether women have enough clout to influence the world? I think it’s still very much a patriarchy.”

Kate Ruddock

Deputy director of Friends of the Earth (FOE) and board member of Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland.

World in their hands: Five women who want us to take action on climate change

What began your passion for the environment?

“Before I knew the word ‘sustainable’ it was in me. I grew up in Dublin near the Phoenix Park. I spent a lot of time in nature, looking at spring flowers coming up, running through the trees.”

What environmental work have you done that you’re especially proud of?

“Working on energy policy and legislation, I’m proud that communities and citizens are being considered in Irish energy policy as really important players, by supporting communities to develop their own renewable energy projects and to take part in this energy transition.

“FOE is in the second year of a competition to support schools to install solar panels. The school comes up with an idea for a climate-action project and we help the winners install the solar panels. Last year we had five winners and three have had the panels installed. There’s a lot of interest in the competition — 400 applicants this year.

“FOE is also working with a group of energy co-operations to build bigger renewable energy projects, for example, solar farms — three projects are likely to happen in the next year. The other aspect is the legislation we’ve influenced to prevent the bad energy. We were very involved in legislation that banned fracking in Ireland — this was also community-driven.”

Is environmental/sustainability awareness coming in from the margins, getting more mainstream?

“I believe so. People are seeing climate change really hitting, the environment deteriorating before us. We can see what’s proposed if business as usual proceeds.

This injustice is really felt by a lot of people and they’re starting to voice it. We’re talking about really, really reducing emissions over the next 10 years or we hit irreversible tipping point.

“Politicians and senior civil servants haven’t set up for a liveable world. If we keep going as we’re going, the world will be very different.”

What can governments and individuals do?

“ There aren’t sufficient buses or cycle lanes — our heating comes mostly from gas and oil. You have to give people an alternative — that’s the Government’s job. It needs to make systematic changes but has to be fair on everybody. We have to rethink how we do things. We still produce huge amounts of energy from fossil fuels. Transport’s dominated by the private vehicle, which is very polluting. Individuals would respond if alternatives were available.

“Individuals can come together and talk to those making decisions about how we value, people, nature and natural places — and be the decision-makers — so we can live in a habitable and thriving world.”

Are women in pole position to effect change needed to stop climate change?

“It’s really positive to see so many women leading in this space. Mary Robinson has been shouting for decades about justice, fairness and responsibility. It’s not surprising women are now making their voices heard. Historically, the world has been dominated by men. It’s mostly men leading the polluting industries. Diversity in decision-making leads to better decisions, the more women the better.”

    Just a glance at some of the roles Mary Robinson has held over the past decades underlines some of what she has done for environment and justice.

  • She’s Adjunct Professor for Climate Justice in Trinity College Dublin.
  • She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 from then US President Barack Obama, who hailed her as
    ‘an advocate for the hungry and the hunted, the forgotten and the ignored’.
  • In 2013-2016 she served as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy in three roles: for the Great Lakes region of Africa, on Climate Change and
    most recently as his Special Envoy on El Niño and Climate.
  • Her Foundation, the Mary Robinson Foundation — Climate Justice, established in 2010, came to a planned end in April 2019.
  • A former chair of Council of Women World Leaders, she was president and founder of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative from 2002-2010 and served as Honorary President of Oxfam International from 2002-2012.
  • Her book, Climate Justice — Hope, Resilience and the Fight for a Sustainable Future, published in September 2018.
  • — Helen O’Callaghan

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