Climate change is one of the defining challenges facing our society today. Consequently next Monday’s climate change conference in Paris, which will see representatives from almost 200 states across the globe participate, is of huge importance. The conference will run from November 30th to December 11th.
Far from focussing only on environmental issues around stabilising the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere - it is in reality a critical political and security negotiation about the future – including the island of Ireland. I believe that the Paris conference has to be about citizen’s fundamental human rights over the vested interests of big business or individual States.
Climate change has often seemed for many, a scientific debate and phenomena far removed from most ordinary people's everyday reality – until now.
Several weeks ago representatives from the Pacific islands met in Fiji. They warned of the danger of large parts of their landmass disappearing in the coming decades.
They have also warned of the re-emergence of diseases which create significant health challenges, malaria, typhoid, dengue fever, and a range of diarrhoea linked illnesses. The World Health Organisation expects around 250,000 deaths globally as a consequences of this and climate change.
The Fiji foreign Minister put it bluntly: “Unless the world acts decisively in the coming weeks to begin addressing the greatest challenge of our age, then the Pacific, as we know it is doomed”.
The reason for this concern is justified. NASA recently revealed that the world’s sea level has already risen nearly 8 cms since 1992. The United Nations has estimated that a metre or more is now expected by the end of the century.
According to a recent analysis by the research group Climate Central a two Celsius increase in the world’s temperature will see 130 million people around the world lose their homes. If the temperature increase reaches four degrees Celsius that number could reach 600 million. Belfast and Dublin would effectively disappear.
For low lying areas of the world, around the coasts of countless states, including this island, the impact of rising temperatures is enormous. It is not just about flooding. It is also about coastal erosion and saltwater getting into the water table. It’s about hurricanes and cyclones and storms in greater ferocity than ever witnessed before.
While I was in Cuba recently every government Minister I spoke to expressed their concern at climate change, including the problems of drought which is affecting part of the Caribbean island.
Under the EU Commission’s ‘Energy and Climate Package’ of 2008 the 26 counties is required to deliver a 20% reduction in non-Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. This was not an ambitious target. But it was crucially important.
The European Environment Agency has reported in recent weeks that while the EU is expected to exceed its 2020 reduction targets the south will not and will be lucky to achieve half of this. In the Irish state more than 30% of Greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, the single biggest contributor to overall emissions, followed by energy and transport at around 21% each.
The challenge is to decarbonise the economy in the short to medium term and phase out the use of fossil fuels.
The island of Ireland is already experiencing significant climate change. Six of the warmest years we have experienced have occurred in the last 25 years. There has been a reduction in the number of frost days and a shortening of the frost season.
We have witnessed an increase in the annual rainfall in northern and western areas with decreases or small increases in the south and east. These changes will impact on our natural environment and on agriculture. The increasing acidification of the ocean will also impact on our marine economy.
Scientists are predicting that Ireland faces not just a rise in sea level but water shortages, adverse impacts on water quality and changes in the distribution of plant and animal species.
An ambitious deal in Paris is therefore very much in all our interests.
Rising temperatures are changing our global weather systems undermining the ecosystems on which life itself depends. While the threat posed by climate change to our food security or public health here at home compared to those countries ravaged by drought, hurricane storms, extreme flooding and disease is hugely different, we too are becoming more alert to the effects of climate change and what action we must take for the future.
Many Irish citizens are doing so for instance by generating their own renewable energy sources to heat and light their homes, or even the use of new electric cars as their mode of transport. Solar panels on the roofs of houses would once have been the exception. Now they are an integral part of planning.
In the two small economies on this island we have an opportunity to develop new business models and technologies which will be increasingly required to drive decarbonisation across the globe. This also offers us the opportunity to create new jobs as well as driving competitiveness and exports, innovation, energy security and reducing expenditure on imported fossil fuels.
How to power Ireland with clean renewable energy and transition our transport systems to electricity and gas, how to continue to improve our agriculture, protect our fisheries, expand our forests and natural resources are all critical to how we now adapt to a changing global environment and maximise new economic opportunities across our island.
This requires a plan from the Executive and from the Irish government.
Negotiators at next week’s Paris conference must connect with a wider audience and get a deal which is ambitious but which can also be the basis for meaningful delivery of the long term goal of keeping global warming under 2ºC.
It is our moral duty to find solutions to climate change now as our first choice, rather than last resort. US President Barack Obama tweeted recently, "We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it."
You can make your voice heard, and more importantly count this Sunday, 29th November by joining the People’s Climate marches which are taking place in over 70 countries as part of a global day of action.
You can join marches in Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Galway and be part of the change.