Climate change will kill my generation, unless we step up now

Ireland has the necessary means to invest in cleaner energy and should be flying way beyond our self-set climate accord measures, yet we continually fail them, writes Owen Hanley.

On November 17 events all over the world took place at the bidding of Extinction Rebellion, a growing call for direct action against those individuals, organisations, and states who continue to be complicit in the destruction of our planet. In my little corner of the planet, on the edge of the Atlantic, nearly two hundred people gathered on the coast of Galway city, Ireland. We were asked to wear black to mourn the unpredicted loss of 60% of global wildlife since the 70’s as a direct consequence of human activity. And children donned wildlife masks in protest at local plans to build a new hospice in local woods that serve as a biodiversity sanctuary.

The vast majority of us are well aware of climate change, the science behind it and its impact. And yet there seems to be a massive cultural apathy to system change.

In Ireland the green movement has become mere lip service to the major parties while the simplest of policy changes, like an increase in carbon tax or increased investment in public transport and cycle lines, remain on the backburner. But to pin the blame solely on the political system wouldn’t be the full picture. According to a recent European Social Survey poll only 20% of Irish people find climate change “very” or “extremely” concerning, one of the lowest rates in Europe.

Common explanations for this have included the lack of a tangible sense of climate change given a flexible climate like Ireland. But if that is the excuse a modern, well-educated nation uses what hope does the rest of the world have? Ireland has the necessary means to invest in cleaner energy and should be flying way beyond our self-set climate accord measures, yet we continually fail them.

Human rights crisis

Climate change is often removed from local, community, or human-based consequences. It is presented as a passively occurring phenomenon, a footnote unless it directly encroaches on the western world i.e. the recent increase in amount and severity of hurricanes hitting the States.

Those interested in climate justice must not only win the scientific debate but the persuasive one. Brexit demonstrated the power of nativism and fearmongering around migration: what if a similar debate occurred that this time was rooted in fact and compassion?

Changes in climate if undeterred could see the entirety of North Africa become uninhabitable, hundreds of thousands would be starved and dehydrated, farm lands untillable and communities torn apart. We would see the greatest dispersal and migration in the history of humankind, with millions fleeing for their family’s survival. Simply put, no western state has the logistics to handle such a crisis. The first failure of the left would be to allow this to occur at all, the second would be to allow such an ecological and inhumane disaster to be co-opted by demagogues and populists.

These events that are already happening to an island nation off the coast of Papua New Guinea, such as the Soloman Islands, which is being washed away while neighbouring states struggle to respond compassionately to such a crisis even on a small scale. No doubt this narrative will lead to nativist rhetoric if the green movement and the left at large are unable to learn from mistakes of the past and get ahead of this with a human rights perspective. It requires a bravery and unity that progressives have not been able to demonstrate for some time, and a new generation to meet these challenges.

New generation

Ireland has seen such a new generation emerge, a generation that is more liberal, more engaged, and more attuned to activism. Marriage equality and the repeal of abortion laws in the constitution have demonstrated this, showing how the nation is moving faster than the political system even through our darkest economic times. However, some political commenters have been quick to malign these movements, arguing that they have rarely led to electoral consequences and asking whether even if they did, there was really anything left to fix? An absurd statement at any time but when the greatest existential threat of all times faces the planet, a depressing one too.

At 23 I am one of the youngest candidates running in Ireland’s local elections next May, and the youngest in my party. I represent a new generation, the beginning of twenty first century politics, and yet I constantly find myself asking what that actually means?

Looking back a hundred years ago, twentieth century Irish revolutionaries knew exactly what bold break from the past they wanted. They wanted to break from the domination of the United Kingdom and they were willing to die to do so. Now, there’s this sense of failure before we’ve even begun and a weary uncertainty over whether we have a cause worthy of martyrdom.

New green deal

In Ireland our former President Mary Robinson has made that call with her new devotion to climate justice. Having seen her speak on the topic, she seems to me one of our best modern Irish politicians, despite not even holding political office. In America, we’ve seen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez emerge as an advocate for a “Green New Deal”, an attempt to root the response to climate change as an economic one.

Twenty first century politics should not and will not be defined by blind allegiance to economic ideologies hundreds of years old. For the sake of the planet we should not judge our economy primarily by profit or distribution but by sustainability. Capitalism and socialism have been the binary optics in the world for too long, and I myself feel detached from both.

Both ideologies are self-serving and punish deviation. Both are based on a principle of exponentialism and require unsustainable growth. The only economic system I see worth supporting in and of itself would be sustainable economics, climate economy, the Green New Deal, whatever you want to call it. Neither socialist nor capitalist, but a system committed to a set of economic principles; one that works for all people through the green transition, rewards hard work but doesn’t punish tragedy, sustainable and equal, balancing the role of government and civil society but putting the climate’s health first as a state concern.

None of this is very concrete, but you must determine values before you determine policy. And of course there are steps we know we must take today to ensure any ecological security in the future. And to do that we must elect a new generation of politicians, supporting and electing a new generation of progressives who are committed to the widescale systemic reform we need to save our planet and our communities.

We need leaders who some may dismiss as radicals but they very much aren’t. Change was needed years ago. We’re late. Let’s not be any later.

Open democracy