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With sea levels projected to rise by one metre by 2100 - some 9,000 Clare houses could be under water. Photograph by John Kelly

Make A Difference – new year a time to make a change

A new year, a new you. Do you resolve to be fitter, slimmer, less stressed? Or is your only resolution to have no resolutions? Regardless, the start of a new year is a good opportunity to stand back and consider if we are doing what is important in our lives. And one of those important things, whether we like it or not, is our reaction to the climate crisis.

A recent EPA survey showed that 85% of respondents are worried about climate change and almost the same amount – 80% – thought they personally should be doing more. For many of us, we simply don’t have the time, energy or headspace at the moment to deal with it. We are doing our best just to get by.

Whatever we do or don’t do, it is our responsibility to the children of today to take informed and conscious action – and doing nothing is an action. Depending on our current state of knowledge, we may need to inform ourselves a bit. In less time than it takes to watch a Netflix series, we could learn a lot about what is happening to the climate, the impact we have and what we could do about it. (Speaking of Netflix, have a look at Don’t Look Up, a star-studded allegory of our current situation.)

Since March 2020 our lives have been dominated by Covid19 and it is hanging on like a dog with its teeth in our leg. Another problem like the climate crisis can seem just too much to take on right now, even though it increases our risk of pandemics. But the longer we leave solving the climate issue, the harder it is to solve.

The climate in Clare

Few people continue to deny that climate change is happening and unfortunately the scientists have been surprisingly accurate in their predictions.

This last year has brought the reality closer with floods in Vancouver, wildfires in California, heat waves in Siberia and widespread severe drought. Many of the migrants risking their lives to reach Europe are doing so because of climate induced poverty and strife.

Ireland is in a relatively fortunate location. Storm Barra gave us a good bashing in early December but we had an unusually calm summer and mild autumn.

Although that seemed like very welcome good weather, it was also consistent with climate change predictions. And do you remember the record-breaking rain in the February before the pandemic arrived? And the glorious sunny dry April and May that helped us to survive the first lockdown? Met Eireann says we are looking at climate change, not just normal fluctuations in weather.

Global warming is often the first thing that comes to mind with climate change but it will take a big temperature increase before we suffer from heat stress on the beach in Kilkee.

Flooding is a different matter though. The sea level has risen by about one foot (0.3m) since pre-industrial times. It sounds small but when you consider how much water is in the ocean, that is a huge increase.

If we don’t change our ways, the sea level will rise by a further 1 metre by about 2100. Conservative estimates are that this will result in 13% of homes in Clare being flooded. That’s almost 9000 households.

If you have a low-lying home by the coast or tidal river, it could be you. It doesn’t do much for the resale value – “close to water”. And flood insurance is already hard to get in some areas.

The oceans are saving us from immediate disaster by soaking up much of the carbon dioxide emitted. But this increases the acidity of the sea at a rate 100 times faster than at any time in the past 55 million years. That’s about 10 times longer than we humans have been around.

Unfortunately our lobsters and crabs don’t like higher acidity as they can’t build strong shells, so it will be bad news for fishing.

Time for change
This round-up is all very depressing but it shows how vital it is to change and to change quickly. We have the ability to solve it. Our human ingenuity, that created the marvels of the industrial and digital ages that gave rise to this problem, can also find technical and societal solutions.

Scientists say the heavy lifting must be done this decade as time is not on our side. And in Ireland we need to do our share of the lifting. Even though we rank 124 in the world by population, we rank 68 as country emitters. Our CO2 emissions per capita are almost twice the global average, at over 8 tonnes.

System change is needed but it is not enough to leave it to “them”. Individual action puts pressure on the establishment to make those changes that will create a better world for our children and grandchildren. It also reduces our greenhouse gas emissions directly.

Carbon Footprint
Before we look to reduce our emissions, it helps to know the source of them and that’s where the carbon footprint comes in. What exactly is it and how big is yours?

Carbon footprint refers to your personal or household carbon emissions per year. It includes all the green-house gases which are mainly carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Each gas is converted to the equivalent heating effect of carbon dioxide so that we are comparing apples with apples.

Greenhouse gases are mainly generated from fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal. They are a source of energy and provide the starting chemicals to make all sorts of things like plastic, medicines and textiles.

Fossil fuels are formed from plants and animals that decayed over 100 million years ago. Other significant sources of greenhouse gases are cattle, drained or disturbed land (including bogs), fertilisers, trawled ocean beds and, a bit further from Clare, melting permafrost.

Over the last hundred years, our industrialised society has released huge amounts of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels and other sources. These greenhouse gases act like a blanket around the earth and have caused it to heat by over 1.3℃ since pre-industrial levels.

When our body temperature rises like that, we get out the paracetamol and go to the doctor if it gets worse. It’s too late to bring the earth’s temperature down, but we can stop it from rising to fever pitch.

There are loads of websites with carbon footprint calculators and using them is a way of identifying which changes you can make with the biggest impact. It’s also interesting to see how your emissions compare with the average. Unless you still have your confirmation money, it’s a safe bet that the better off you are, the greater your emissions are – and the more you can easily do to reduce them.

The big impact
It can be easy to identify the main culprit even without a carbon calculator, partly by looking at where you spend your money.

For example, if you spend €100 a week on petrol or diesel, you need to look at driving. A car is essential for lots of us – we simply don’t have much alternative in Clare. Even if your budget doesn’t stretch to an electric or hybrid car, you can reduce your fuel usage and emissions dramatically with minor changes in driving pattern.

Reducing your average motorway speed by 10km/hour saves about 18% for petrol cars and 12% for diesel cars. In towns, driving like it’s your driving test can save up to 30%. Correct tyre pressure, good maintenance, less air conditioning and avoiding short journeys give further savings in fuel and emissions. That could easily be more than €1500 a year.

If your home heating bill shows you are heating half of Clare, a major upgrade will solve that but that may not suit your budget or situation.

There are low cost quick fixes that quickly pay for themselves like insulating your attic, blocking draughts, heating only where and when you need it, putting a rug on cold floors and sitting with a cosy blanket around you.

If you love to book your next flight as soon as you return from a trip, air travel is the thing to look at. A simple solution to air travel is not to fly. That’s not so simple if loved ones live abroad or sunshine in January is essential for your sanity.

Decide what matters most to you and see if you can say no to a weekend in Warsaw. One return flight a year to the sun or city breaks in Europe is equivalent to driving about 3500 km per year.

The next big suspect in causing personal carbon emissions is buying stuff. It could be you if shopping is a hobby and fashion your passion. Look back at all your purchases in the last few months.

Impulse or planned? The buzz we get from buying is not to be underestimated so if that is a big part of your carbon footprint, consider what brings you to the shop or internet.

An interesting exercise is to estimate the hours of work it took to pay for the not-so-essential purchases you made recently and the time it took to buy them. Treat yourself to something else with that time and money – a Burren walk, a night out, tickets to a match – whatever low carbon activity that takes your fancy.

Other changes include buying local, buying sustainably made products, avoiding single use plastic and following the 5 R’s – reduce, reuse, recycle, return and repair.

In the kitchen we can avoid processed food, eat sustainably produced fish and meat, make sure we reduce food waste and compost what we do throw out. In the garden, avoiding peat compost, artificial fertilisers and pesticides is good for the environment and our flowers.

Look at your sources of emissions systematically and do something to bring them down. Pick the actions with the biggest impact or the ones that you find easiest to do.

Don’t be hard on yourself and don’t try to do everything at once. Aim to do the same as most governments have agreed to and reduce by 50% by 2030. And everyone’s situation is different, so aim to avoid judging others too.

The impossible is possible
Nelson Mandela said “it always seems impossible until it’s done”. The dramatic social changes is the last few decades all seemed impossible before they happened.

The recent government U-turn on compensating households for Mica is a case where people power yielded a quick response. And remember when thousands of grey heads poured onto Dublin streets to protest against removing the medical card from the over 70’s? The seemingly impossible is possible.

Public protest doesn’t come naturally to many of us and taking to the streets might be a step too far. There are other ways to make our voices heard. The vote is one way.

Politicians need to know that climate action is a priority. Perhaps you know a politician personally, or are willing to contact them to ask for action. Maybe you would consider joining a political party or business group to keep climate issues on their agenda. If you work for a large company, perhaps you can influence their climate policy.

Groups like the Tidy Towns, Future Ennis and Futureproof Clare that work to improve our environment always need a helping hand. Simply being there gives support to others.

The wonderful achievement of Ennis Tidy Towns in winning the overall award this year is a testament to the power of volunteering and the benefit to the wider community. And if you have more money than time, let your money do the walking and donate.

Talk the talk
It’s not all about doing things, we can say things. We Irish are great at talking, and also great at avoiding talking about things that are a bit uncomfortable.

We don’t want to be a killjoy, or be seen as holier than thou by raising environmental concerns. Although we usually say that actions speak louder than words, when it comes to topics like the climate crisis, it is found that by talking among ourselves about it, it creates the bonds and the basis for action.

Lecturing and hectoring is not what it’s about. Simply raising the issue on occasion, listening to others thoughts and feelings on it, comparing experiences of what is working can be very powerful. It costs nothing but it can take courage. Try bringing it into a comfortable conversation you are having. If things get heated or eyes glaze over, search for the common ground or change the topic.

Walking the walk is also powerful. It’s found that when an individual does a thermal upgrade or installs solar panels, it spurs others within the vicinity to consider doing the same.

The political level
As individuals we can do our bit and it is also essential that changes are made at government and corporation level to support out efforts.

It’s very tempting to give out about politics and bureaucracy, but it’s worth acknowledging the achievements regarding climate change in the EU. The EU has already reduced emissions by over 25%, and has committed to reducing by 55% by 2030, more than any other region. But progress is held back by countries such as Ireland.

According to the 2021 Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI), Ireland is 43rd of the 57 countries evaluated and has “very low performance”. A report by WHO put us 154th of 180 on delivering on emissions targets. Nothing to be proud of there. We will be required to pay compensation within the EU for our underperformance – that’s money that could have been spent solving the problem.

Change for the better
The climate crisis is more challenging than anything we have faced before. The solutions are many and complex. Change is needed but change is hard. Many of us are lucky enough to have a comfortable lifestyle now, and some of the proposed changes threaten that lifestyle. Jobs can be lost, farmers put under pressure, wind turbines built within view, prices of fuel, electricity and travel will increase.

Resisting change is a human reaction that often protects us but it is not in our long-term interest when dealing with the climate emergency. Before we object to a proposed change, it helps to focus on the potential benefit of the change instead of the inconveniences.

If you have concerns about a proposed measure that will however reduce emissions, it is better to try to minimise the adverse impact on the most vulnerable, rather than rejecting the measure outright.

If you are badly affected, it’s hard to see the silver lining but there are opportunities. Remote working, jobs in renewable energy and home upgrades can bring life back to towns in Clare.

The proposed changes in farming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with adequate financial support, have the potential to bring more varied work and less exposure to hazardous chemicals.

Traffic is a major stress in our lives. Measures to reduce carbon emissions from traffic will bring fuel price increases together with route and speed restrictions.

These changes will also reduce traffic volumes and traffic speeds. This in turn reduces injury and death from accidents, reduces pollutants, reduces noise and reduces stress – all significant benefits, plus the likelihood of saving money. And it’s a lot easier to cross the road.

Who doesn’t want a warmer house with a fifth of the heating bill? And upgrading houses provides lots of jobs. There’s the not-so-minor issue of finding the money to do it, but the savings made are substantial. Maybe you can even do something to improve the system or join forces with neighbours.

A decluttered life with fewer things and less waste can be calming. A town and countryside with less monoculture, pesticides and fertilisers supports the nature around us with all the benefits that brings, both financial and for our wellbeing.

Focus on making changes that come easily to you, and where you can see the benefit. Perhaps pick one or two at a time to avoid your own burn-out and embed them as habits before you select another change. If it is becoming too much of an effort, step back, lower your aim to what you can do easily and get satisfaction from achieving that.

The New Year
This last year has been a tough year for many of us. Looking forward to 2022, a lot of things will claim our attention – work, education, home and play, and of course Covid. We can’t do everything and need to set our priorities.

All of us with children in our lives devote effort to helping them develop and keeping them safe. A safe planet is the greatest challenge they face. Depending on our stage in life, we prepare for the future – look after our health, save for housing, pay into pensions. Helping to limit global warming is the best preparation we could make for a comfortable old age.

We spend about one billion euro on lottery tickets each year, with a one in 10 million chance of a big prize. We spend a fraction of that on reducing our carbon emissions, with a one in 2 chance that world is on a pathway to destructive heating. A win in climate action is the ultimate prize.

It’s time to focus on reducing the greatest risk, the climate crisis. We may not achieve anything – but we might. Failure is certain if we do nothing.

All of us can do our bit. For those of us currently in challenging circumstances, doing relatively little is justifiable. Some of us have the resources to do more and we can all use our voices and our votes. A few might aim to become the Gerry or Greta Thunberg of Ireland in 2022. Whatever you do, you might Make A Difference.

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