Who is responsible for climate change action?

Climate change is undoubtedly at the forefront of global problems. Calling it merely a human problem is not comprehensive of the ensuing disasters it is likely to bring about of all forms of life. We are now at a time when denial of climate change is a fool’s act. Amongst all of the cataclysmic realisations, which often go beyond an ordinary individual’s singular cognition, emerges the quintessential question: who is responsible for countering climate change?

UCD had its first Green Week this year, running from 4-7 February, with a variety of pro-environment activities happening throughout the week. This successful initiative can be accredited to Katie O’Dea, SU Environment Officer; and EcoUCD, a group of student volunteers that form her team. UCD Estate Services, along with various student societies like UCD Horticulture Society and UCD Biological Society, held a number of successful events. The objective of this week was not only to bring the conversation on environmental matters to UCD, but also to effect change in an environment that can easily be made greener, and an academic community that may reflect on their environmental behaviours and align with a more sustainable living. There is also a new-found group on campus, UCD Sustainable Energy Community, which students can volunteer for, in addition to EcoUCD.

One of the highlights of the week was the panel discussion titled ‘Responsibility - who's failing our environment?’. The panel was composed of politicians Green Party Leader Eamonn Ryan TD; Deirdre Duffy, Fine Gael Election candidate; academics Dr. Lisa Ryan of UCD School of Economics and Prof. Andreas Hoepner of UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School; and DCU Vice President for Education Placement, Craig McHugh. The session was moderated by Prof. Patrick Paul Walsh of the UCD School of Politics and International Relations.

The discussion began with the question: “Does Ireland make a difference to global climate change and how?” With the stance that the Minister for Environment Richard Bruton has taken; envisioning Ireland to ‘act and show leadership’ in climate change action, it was agreed that Ireland indeed makes a difference, albeit relatively small, and needs to move into a stance of social transformation towards a sustainable economy. Prof. Hoepner used the famous Pat Cox quote stating that Ireland can become “not only the best small country in the world, but for the world."

When asked who the blame was to be apportioned to, the panelists had varied opinions. While Eamonn Ryan TD stated that stopping fossil fuel exploration is key to addressing climate change, rather than individual behavioural change which he considered to be a weaker path, Craig McHugh was of the opinion that individual behaviour has a knock-on effect on society. Responsibility of the government towards this problem was highlighted and also the importance of political discussion stemming from the younger generations. McHugh said, “students not only want (environmental action) but feel a value in it.” Dr Ryan commented that procurement of green vehicles for public sector services can be seen as leading by example. She also noted that a “soft transition into renewable energy” is needed rather than an abrupt stop on all fossil fuels, while agreeing with need to halt further exploration.

The panel was then directed towards the question of what can be done by Ireland to effectively affect climate change. Dr Hoepner added that denying refinancing to fossil fuel exploration will aid in this. Eamonn Ryan stated, “we need a ‘we’ politics around sustainability.” Ireland, being predominantly agro-based and having deep cultural roots in agriculture, is having considerable difficulty in addressing rising emissions from this sector, with 33% emissions last year being attributed to the agriculture sector. It has been labeled the ‘white elephant in the room’ on multiple occasions. Dr Ryan commented that there is a need to transition agriculture from being dairy-intensive to being increasingly forestry-based. Dr Hoepner pointed out that the unavailability of a substitute for agriculture, unlike most other sectors such as transport, leads to a lack of objective in reducing emissions, unless everyone turns vegan. The discussion also veered towards equality concerns in society to which Ms Duffy replied that it needs to be a matter for all of society. Eamonn Ryan TD made a statement, “[climate change] is not a matter of working class vs middle class, not a rural vs urban matter.” On a similar note, an audience member directed the question as to the creation and availability of job opportunities in a new low-carbon Irish economy. Academia is gearing towards the training of such professionals. This generated a stirred response from panelists, with general concurrence on the stance that new jobs will indeed be created and reinstatement of some older, more trades. Through Prof. Walsh’s efficient moderation and insights from all panellists on various topics, the discussion concluded.

The panel discussion incites a deeper need for conversations that will lead to action, and it is becoming more pronounced by the day. There is some discordance between setting of the target of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by Ireland by 2050, and development of a sustainable path leading to it. Although several plans are underfoot, it is high time that these plans be realised into action. In Mr. Ryan’s words, “we have to change words of intent into action.” He added that there is a need to refine the plans of action, stating, “it is because we keep deferring action that the matter is becoming more urgent.” We, as future leaders, and also most likely sufferers of consequences of climate change, are capable of more action than older generations, to whom the idea of climate change is on most occasions distant and impersonal. We can go beyond conversations and demand for governmental action to counter climate change, and on an individual level, try to consume thoughtfully and live sustainable lives. Arguments for apportioning blame can be made for all parties – consumers, producers, government, blocs of governments – and on many levels, from individual to global. However, it is to be realised by everyone that this is of no consequence if not followed synchronised efforts from every single unit.

This article was amended on 25th February at 11.00am to correct a mistake that said Prof Hoepner is a professor in Sutherland.