Climate Change: ‘Like a cancer before onset of symptoms’

The gradual progression of climate change and delayed effects of emissions can give a sense of unreality; denial is a great psychological defence, write Liam Quaide and Róisín Cuddihy.

An aerial view of homes that were destroyed by the Tubbs Fire on October 11, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.

The birth of our daughter Bláithín last November brought new meaning and joy to our married life.

We have also felt a daunting sense of responsibility for her care, and with that a keener awareness of the state of the world she will grow up in.

Until her birth, climate change was a vague threat on the periphery of our minds. We now realise that it is the most important issue of our time, and potentially of all time.

It stems primarily from our unchecked use of fossil fuels since industrialisation took off in the 1700s. Methane emissions from cattle are also a significant factor.

The gradual progression of climate change and the delayed effects of emissions can give the subject a sense of unreality, like a cancer diagnosis prior to the onset of debilitating symptoms.

Most Westerners, as yet, do not have a sense of urgency about climate change because their lives are continuing as normal.

It is easy to dismiss a period of severe weather if it is followed by a return to relative normality. Denial is also a ready psychological defence when faced with so foreboding a prospect.

However, unusual weather patterns are becoming more difficult to ignore — this year alone we had an April without showers, two oppressive heatwaves in Europe, flash floods in Donegal and Laois and a series of epic hurricanes in the US and Caribbean.

Wildfires have raged with peculiar intensity in several countries. Six weeks ago, on an eerily warm October weekend, we awaited the battering onslaught of Storm Ophelia, an unprecedented national weather event in our lifetime.

While denial relieves us of anxiety in the short-term it ultimately exposes us, in the case of climate change, to far greater danger. As Conrad’s Captain MacWhirr memorably says in Typhoon when confronting a violent storm at sea, “Facing it — always facing it — that’s the only way to get through”.

It is now essential that we think ahead and heed the overwhelming scientific consensus that calls for a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies. We have the technology to achieve this, and can reap enormous economic reward from doing so.

A critical decade

What is it we are facing? If harmful emissions are not drastically reduced in the near future climate change will lead, over the course of our daughter’s life, to more erratic and extreme weather, and to increasingly intense heat-waves, floods and storms.

There will be widespread damage to property and infrastructure, and crops are likely to suffer on a large scale. Parts of Asia and Africa will become uninhabitable, resulting in mass migrations of climate refugees. As resources become scarcer, political and social tensions will escalate.

Such events have already been unfolding in parts of Africa where extreme weather has contributed to drought, famine and war. Meanwhile, rising sea levels have wreaked havoc in South Asia, South America and the Pacific Islands.

It is difficult to predict exactly how Ireland will be affected by climate change but it appears likely that our daughter’s generation will be growing up in a less resourced and more unstable world.

The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has called the 2010s a “critical decade” for reducing harmful emissions. The World Meteorological Organisation announced two weeks ago that concentrations of atmospheric CO2 had reached a level unmatched in 3-5 million years.

Earlier this month, 15,364 scientists from 184 countries addressed a ‘letter to humanity’, warning of “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss” if environmental perils including climate change were not addressed in the near future.

As we investigated the Government’s record on climate change, we discovered an alarming lack of action to date. We are set to fall well short of our 2020 EU emission reduction targets and will be fined €610 million as a result.

This is taxpayers’ money that could have been spent on essential services or invested in sustainable industries. Fine Gael is the only Dáil party opposing Independent TD Thomas Pringle’s Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill, which would see Ireland diverting future public investment into renewable energies and away from pollutants.

The Government’s launch of its climate change strategy in July highlighted the importance of the issue while failing to propose timely measures to address it.

Instead, it recommended lengthy “feasibility studies” for essential measures such as the closure of peat and coal plants.

Critically, it did not set out emission reduction targets based on actions recommended.

A few days prior to this much publicised event, Environment Minister Denis Naughten granted a licence to a company named Providence Resources to commence drilling for oil off the coast of Kerry.

According to environmentalist John Gibbons of An Taisce, these oil reserves have the potential when burned to release 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere – the equivalent of twenty-five years’ of Ireland’s total carbon emissions.

The granting of this licence, while professing radical commitment to climate action, was deeply hypocritical. It was all the more reprehensible for having been done without public announcement.

As parents aware of the dangers our daughter’s generation is facing, we felt great frustration and a sense of helplessness when hearing of this news.

Minister Naughten has also lobbied the EU to reduce our 2030 emission reduction targets, thereby attempting to pass the responsibility for climate action elsewhere.

Last week, two European environmental NGOs rated Ireland the worst performing country in the EU for taking action on climate change.

Protecting our children

Our parental instincts to protect our daughter have spurred us to activism over the past year. We aim to be part of a movement of citizens that can influence politics.

It has been suggested to us that the public should be appealed to with a less forbidding account of climate change than what we have outlined above, so they are not paralysed by fear. In our view, people are disengaged from climate action in large numbers because they are not aware of its urgency.

Indeed, there is perhaps nothing more motivating than fear for the safety of our children, especially when accompanied by solutions for addressing the threats. We can all take modest steps to reduce our carbon footprint.

However, the scale of this challenge calls for immediate and radical action at a political level. This can come about through a more engaged electorate recognising that we are all in this together.

Earlier this week, the High Court validated the constitutional right of Irish citizens to a safe environment. This paves the way for legal cases here similar to that taken by twenty-one American teenagers against their government in 2015 for exposure to future harm as a result of political failure to address climate change.

Our representatives currently do not feel under pressure to take meaningful action on climate change. As voters we have the power to apply this pressure by contacting them directly and insisting that they work with climate experts to meet our emission reduction targets.

The Citizens’ Assembly on climate change which met in recent weeks can inform this process. Necessary measures will include major investment in public transport, a rapid transition to electrical vehicles and the closure of all peat and coal burning stations in favour of wind and solar energy.

Crucially, there must be significant reform of agricultural practices. At this moment in history we require courage from a Taoiseach who can reckon with vested interests and put our country on the road to a sustainable future as part of an international trend led by Norway, Sweden and the state of California.

The gains for our economy, not to mention our health and quality of life, would be immense. The losses, if we do not act, are unthinkable.

Liam Quaide and Róisín Cuddihy are both psychologists working with the HSE.



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