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The Climate Emergency is your problem - and mine

21st October 2021
Just over a week ago I was fortunate enough to attend a conference in Belfast on climate change. It was my first ‘in person’ conference since the onset of the pandemic and as one would expect from the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce who were the main organisers of the event along with SSE Airtricity, it was all safely staged, with appropriate social distancing, mask wearing and covid reminders. It felt good to be among people again, and I left the event more convinced than ever that the challenge of climate change is the biggest issue facing our world at the moment; the danger is clear and present and we all need to wake up to it. 

The very real impact of climate change was brought to the fore this summer not only by the numerous instances of extreme, dangerous weather events from Australia, Greece, the UK and in fact on every continent, but also by the report of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body charged with monitoring and reporting on climate change. They did not laboriously use any mixed messaging - their report was clear, we are all of us living through a ‘code red for humanity’. 

I really hope there are not still those among us who cast doubt on the reality that is climate change. It is not too long ago that we had our very own Environment Minister in Sammy Wilson who refused to accept that climate change was real or needed to be addressed. Even Sammy will surely see that we are one generation away from catastrophe, without action being taken. 

The alarm bells are being sounded across the globe and the eyes of the world will be on Glasgow at the end of October and into November when the COP26 summit takes place. We can expect world leaders to be in attendance and given the proximity of the venue it is important and appropriate that a number of our own political leaders will be there too. 

You might say and you might even have thought previously, ‘well we are a small player, a tiny economy, what we do won’t matter in the wider scheme of things.’ As the NI Chamber President Paul Murnaghan said at the event last week, we should turn that sentiment around and challenge ourselves here across Ireland, by saying  ‘how can we take the lead, set an example and make Ireland, North & South, a leader in the global fight against climate change?’ We really do need to stand up to and stamp out the ‘so what’ attitude wherever it exists. 

Jonathon Porritt is a world renowned campaigner on sustainable development, he heads up Forum for the Future and even a half hour spent in his company will change the mind of the most seasoned climate change cynic. Jonathon’s latest book is called Hope in Hell and there is a reason for that cautiously optimistic title, because on climate change, all is not lost. 

Look how the world came together to respond to Covid 19. Of course not every decision was the right one and we know how the UK Government made a multitude of errors in their pandemic response. But the speed of response, the development and roll out of the vaccine, the way citizens helped each other out, accepted the need for lockdown….there are lessons in how that crisis was dealt with individually and as a society. Why did that happen? Because the danger, and the impact of not responding, was obvious to everyone. 

We have a problem, all of us, in that the danger of climate change isn’t so immediately in front of our eyes. Porritt calls it ‘the tragedy of tomorrow’. He writes, ‘The climate emergency poses an infinitely graver risk to humankind than Covid 19 but has warranted too little political engagement over the years. Thats the tragedy of the horizon; today always trumps tomorrow.’ 

But we must remember the ‘hope’ part. Even in the midst of the current climate tragedies, the rising temperature and sea levels, the IPCC report does say clearly that action taken now can pay off. "Strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases, could quickly make air quality better, and in 20 to 30 years global temperatures could stabilise.” We will need to reach ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2050 - hopefully sooner. 

That challenge, that target must be adopted by all countries and that is the opportunity that exists at COP26. That is the ‘hope’ in this hell. 

Pope Francis has summed the situation neatly in his pre COP26 statement by saying, "We have inherited a garden: we must not leave a desert to our children.” 

And so a number of our Stormont Ministers will travel to COP26. I hope they listen, engage and bring back to Northern Ireland a simple, joined up message. Your actions, my actions, the actions of individuals, families, communities and countries, they all matter. Do not ignore the role you  and your business, has to play in ensuring we leave behind us a garden, and not a desert.

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