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Opinion: Feeling despair over climate change? Don't panic, you can make a difference

Jane Hackett says that small changes we make together can make a big difference.

Jane Hackett

I PRESUME YOU have read or heard about the IPCC 6th assessment report which was released this week. However, you may have missed it if you are on a digital detox or enjoying the beauty of a staycation.

Let me fill you in on the finer details – our climate crisis is getting worse, we need to act and we need to act fast. The crisis will affect every aspect of our lives and the future lives our children hope to have and everything our civilisation is built upon – a stable, reliable climate – is now a thing of the past.

These facts are undeniably terrifying and are so huge that it is hard for an individual to absorb the enormity of the situation, never mind feeling able to do anything about it. I have been reading and learning about climate change for almost two decades and with knowledge has come fear, anger, grief and a multitude of other emotions.

It is fair to say that I had eco-anxiety way before the term was coined. I see the debates and hear the conversations this week. It’s so tempting to throw your hands in the air and say, ‘what can I do when global governments and corporations have all the power’. I understand this, I have been there. However, what I feel now is something completely different: I feel empowered. I have become empowered because I have started to accept that I am one person who has one responsibility – that is to do my bit towards making things better.

One person can bring change

I have a busy life, three kids and a full-time job so I know how hard it is to find time to think about our climate let alone take action. However, I am happy to report that there are so many easy ways for you, your family, your workmates or your college friends to get involved and to make a difference. 

In the grand scheme of things, any changes you make can seem like a drop in the ocean, but cumulatively we have enormous power. There are almost five million of us in Ireland, each of us can start to get involved in making ourselves, our households and our communities more climate ‘friendly’, or carbon neutral, or just better.

We are each of us pieces of a giant planetary jigsaw puzzle and each is connected to the other. We can influence, support and motivate each other to get involved. Covid-19 has taught us that while we were affected as a global population, the focus became very much about local – our homes, our communities. If we switch that up in relation to climate action and focus on our locality, we can make a global difference. 

Another way of thinking about climate action is to see it as something that will benefit your family or your community or your sports club. Everyone is motivated in different ways but it is important to make the connection and recognise that you are part of something much bigger.

So what can you do? Start small and think big…

1. Money

We all know that money makes the world go round and your money is hugely powerful. If you are lucky to have savings or a pension you should explore where your money is being invested.

Your bank or pension provider should offer ethical investments, ones that are not linked to carbon-intensive industries but to more sustainable funds. Ethical funds have proven to be more resilient during the global pandemic so they make economic sense too.  Don’t be shy, ask your employer, your financial provider, this is how change comes about.

2. Spending

If a courier is your new best friend then maybe it’s time to step away from the phone and have a rethink of how much ‘stuff’ you are buying and why.

We all know that ‘stuff’ doesn’t just arrive in a box but takes an enormous amount of energy to produce. From cotton production to transport costs, our addiction to ‘stuff’ has resulted in runaway consumerism and inevitably a hotter planet. Catch yourself when you’re ordering and ask yourself if you really need this piece of clothing, furniture or tech, etc or maybe you’ve just ordered it because an ad appeared in your social media feed.

If you do need (as opposed to want) ‘stuff’, then consider second-hand or borrow from a friend or neighbour. This particularly works for gardening tools. Check out https://www.thriftify.ie/ and www.weshare.ie/library-of-things.

3. Digital Footprint

Do you have hundreds of cat videos on your laptop? Or are you saving thousands of images onto the ‘cloud’? Over 4.9 billion people globally have access to the internet and are streaming videos, using video calls and uploading cat videos. This transfer of data uses a huge amount of energy and this will continue to increase as our reliance on technology grows.

There are some great ways to reduce your digital footprint and if 4.9 billion people did it then we could make big savings. Check out www.myclimate.org/information/faq/faq-detail/what-is-a-digital-carbon-footprint/ for some easy wins. 

4. Plant, plant, plant

If you have a window box, garden, allotment or farm then now is the time to get planting. We have not only a climate crisis but a biodiversity crisis, so getting your hands dirty and planting is a really fantastic way to take action.

Try growing some food in window boxes or planting some pollinator-friendly plants to support our bees. Trees are carbon heroes and will absorb extra carbon from the air, as well as looking beautiful and giving a home to wildlife so if you have space plant a tree or a native hedge.

Children particularly love planting trees and they can watch it grow over their lifetime. Check out: https://pollinators.ie/gardens/

5. Warm your home

If your home’s temperature fluctuates between cosy and freezing then you know you need insulation, new windows or a new heating system. Insulating your home is a very positive step in reducing your energy bills and thus your carbon use. There are grants and support to help you when you are upgrading your insulation or heating system so check out: https://www.seai.ie/grants/home-energy-grants/ and www.superhomes.ie.

6. Do you need a car?

Modern society has somehow developed the idea of a ‘two-car family’ as the norm. I can hear those living in rural Ireland screaming now that yes, you do need your cars. It’s difficult to argue with that when Ireland’s rural transport network is far below par, but if you live in a city or town, ask yourself if you need that car (or cars). Cars are so costly, both financially and environmentally, that it is time to rethink our use of transport.

You could start by working out the cost – how much did it cost to buy, how much is the insurance, tax, how much is petrol/diesel weekly, etc. This will give you a potential savings cost for you or your family.

Bikes are much cheaper for those in urban settings and electric bikes are a great investment if you need to travel longer distances. Cargo bikes for families are now becoming much more common and are great fun – there’s nothing like watching your kids in one.

If you live in a more rural location, you can make changes. Consider investing in an e-car. They are expensive, but they hold their value and maybe you could trade two petrol cars in for one e-car. Again, it’s not an option for everyone because of the costs involved.

The main thing to consider is; Do I need to use my car today? Hopefully, you get into the habit of saying no more than yes. Try to keep it in the driveway as much as you can.

7. A load of rubbish

We have a waste crisis. Yes, we have the infrastructure in place to remove, sort and either compost, incinerate or recycle our waste, but the volume of waste we are producing is increasing, especially electronic waste.

Waste isn’t really waste but a valuable asset, and in time the hope is that we will have a circular economy whereby each product can be redesigned for use over and over. However, now we have a linear model whereby each product bought has a short lifecycle and can either be recycled once or ends up as waste.

Stick to the classic; rethink, reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle. Get a compost bin, question the amount of packaging you are being given at the supermarket, stop wasting water (yes another resource to consider) and try to buy less plastic. It is a difficult one, but if each of us starts to complain at the check out then eventually big business will have to listen. Check out: www.mywaste.ie.

8. At work

Many of us are working from home, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t get involved in influencing how our workplaces take action on climate.

There is a growing corporate awareness of sustainability and many companies have signed up to Net Zero. This is a global campaign aimed at businesses and governments to set strong carbon reduction targets ahead of COP26. If you work in a corporate setting then you could find out more from the company’s Sustainability Officer or CSR Officer.

However, if you work for yourself, you can set your own targets. There are many organisations helping SME’s to set carbon reduction targets and many new employees are keen to learn more about how businesses are playing their part.

If you are a business owner, set the tone and be a leader – this may lead to many opportunities to network with like-minded people, save money, retain staff and ultimately help build a resilient economy. If you are an employee, start to ask questions, offer support and solutions and reach out to others who have done something similar. Check out: https://unfccc.int/climate-action/race-to-zero-campaign and https://www.bitc.ie.

9. Talk, share, engage

If we are to reach our national target of a 51% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030 then we need to get behind the solutions offered. 2030 is only nine years away – near enough for FIFA to be planning the 2030 World Cup!

This means that we have to start stepping up to support radical decarbonisation, we can’t sit on the fence and wait for the dissenting voices to shout loudest. We need to vocalise our support for ideas or projects we feel will benefit us and the climate for example if there is a cycle lane proposed and you want to start cycling then offer support in writing or phone your elected representative.

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It is also important to listen to each other and talk about your thoughts and concerns about changes that will happen during this time. We have to be open to change but change can be hard and some of us will feel left behind, but if we have strong communities with strong leaders then we will be able to face these challenges. Therefore get to know your neighbours, volunteer if possible, vote and have your elected representative’s number on speed dial. Remember leaders come from all sectors of society – do you fancy being one? 

10. Mix up the BBQ

For a few weeks there the Irish BBQ business was in full flow. Burgers were flying off the shelves and sausages were big business. We are big meat eaters in Ireland and we eat on average 10 times the amount of meat in comparison to someone from, say, Malawi. This means that our dietary carbon footprint is large especially when you add dairy into the mix.

However, we have a strong agricultural tradition in Ireland and farmers work hard. So how do we mix up our diet while at the same time supporting our farmers? It is critical that our agricultural system is supported so that it can adapt to our changing climate, whilst at the same time tackling its own carbon footprint.

Each of us has to think of our diet in terms of how it is impacting our national GHG targets. You could ask yourself if you could reduce the amount of meat and dairy you are eating. Should you be buying better quality, local food? How much value do you place on your food and where it comes from? Is ultra-processed food good for you or good for our planet?

Food is the ultimate gift from nature and should be treated with respect. In the face of this climate emergency, we must reassess how we value our food system, how much we are willing to pay for our food and ultimately what type of food we wish to pass on to the next generation. Being a small island means that we can and should be producing food of high quality for our own population, we are a nation that once understood what it was to be hungry and now is the time to value our food system once again.  

11. Become a Climate Ambassador

If you want to learn more about our amazing planet, how its climate is changing, what solutions are available and how you can play your part then apply to become a Climate Ambassador. You will meet some great people from all walks of life, become excited about the solutions we have and feel empowered to get involved.  Find out more at: www.climateambassador.ie.

Jane Hackett is Senior Programme Manager, Environmental Education Unit, An Taisce.

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