Paul McCormack Cooney
A father makes his case for the future of his children
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
‘We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children’
‘We are doomed or we are going to be ok. And the truth is we’re not doomed and we’re not going to be ok. We’re at the beginning or near the beginning of a process of loss and we will determine the amount of loss. Some of the loss has already been set in motion and can’t be undone, most of it hasn’t.’
Jonathan Safran Foer – Climate One Podcast - 24 Sep 2019
Meitheal is the Irish word for a work team, gang, or party and denotes the co-operative labour system in Ireland where groups of neighbours help each other in turn with farming work, such as harvesting crops. Neighbours who give their work to others are helped in turn with their own heavy seasonal tasks to the heart of the concept is community unity through cooperative work and mutually reciprocal support. Meitheal is the Irish expression of the ancient and universal appliance of cooperation to social need.
I’m 41 years old. In 2060, should I live that long, I’ll be 81. My daughter Sophia will be 50 and my son Finn will be 47. Though my children will be older in 2060 than I am now I still imagine them as the same clever, thoughtful, creative 10-year-old girl and the same joyful, loving, mischievous 7-year-old boy that I am head-over-heels in love with today. I could be on my deathbed in 2060, and when I think about the world I might be abandoning them to I am legitimately frightened of it.
You see right now, in 2020, we are sowing the seeds of a vicious and unforgiving climate which we will soon bequeath to our children. If we don’t act now with the same level of urgency and spirit of ‘meitheal’ we have seen in response to the coronavirus pandemic, we will, in the next ten years, pass through what David Attenborough describes as ‘a series of one-way doors.’ Once we pass through these doors there will be nothing our children can do to reverse the damage we will have done. There will be no going back.
We have ten years left to act. Possibly less. Certainly no more.
I’m going to lay out where we are with the state of the climate at the moment and I’m going to tell you how we can avoid the worst. I’ll attempt to paint a picture of the kind of world we’re facing if we fail to rise to the challenge and the kind of world we can expect if we do what’s necessary. Covid-19 has shown us what’s needed, and only a global response on par with what we’ve seen with the pandemic will give us a chance. Getting the world to move in the same direction may seem an insurmountable challenge but this little country of ours has always had an influence far greater than our size. 10 years may sound like a shockingly small amount of time to act but if we can find a way to pull together we are capable of doing it. At the very least we owe it to our children to try.
Why only 10 years?
The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) are a body of thousands of scientists and other experts from every member country of the U.N. (including Ireland). There is no higher scientific authority on climate science.
The scientists that contribute to the IPCC are representatives of their governments and the reports they produce reflect a consensus of all participating members. Since their formation in 1988 they have produced 5 major assessment reports on the future risks of climate change. The central aim of the Paris Agreement in 2015 was ‘to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius’.
Following the Paris Agreement the IPCC were commissioned to report on what it would take to limit global temperatures to 1.5°C.
In October 2018 they published a frightening landmark report which found that in order to prevent catastrophic global warming we would have to cut global greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, and then reduce them to net zero by 2050.
If we can make those emissions cuts we might be able to keep global temperatures under 1.5°C and avoid the worst. The report was clear in its language, ‘Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’. This report was earth shattering across the environmental movement but it received practically no attention in the Irish media.
Imagine if we responded to the pandemic with very little media coverage, no leadership from our elected representatives and a largely uniformed general public. This is how we are currently responding to the climate crisis.
What is causing our climate to change?
The fundamentals of what is causing our climate to change aren’t complicated. Our planet is warming because of the huge amount of greenhouse gasses we are releasing into our atmosphere. The main source of these greenhouse gasses is the burning of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is the number one culprit but methane comes in a close second.
We measure the amount of carbon dioxide in our skies in parts-per-million (ppm for short). Before the industrial revolution in the early eighteen hundreds the level was approximately 280 ppm. The atmosphere trapped just enough of the sun’s heat to make the planet perfectly liveable. During the last 800,000 years, normal cycles fluctuated between approximately 180 ppm during ice ages and 280 ppm during warmer periods.
With the invention of James Watt’s steam engine in the late seventeen hundreds we learned to harness fossil fuel energy in a way that humanity had never done before. We started to extract fossil fuels from the earth, burn them for energy, and release carbon dioxide into our skies in ever increasing quantities.
As time progressed, and the global population grew, demand for fossil fuels grew in tandem. Now we’re releasing so much of these greenhouse gasses into our skies that it’s trapping more and more heat and we’re sitting in an oven that’s getting hotter and hotter.
When I was born in 1979 greenhouse gas concentrations were already at 336 ppm. Ten years later in 1989 they passed 350 ppm. 350 ppm was the last level considered safe enough to preserve a liveable planet. Now we’re at 417 ppm and we’re still rising.
The reason the next ten years are so important is due to the lag between when we stop emitting greenhouse gases and how long it takes our planet to stop heating. The last time greenhouse gas concentrations in our atmosphere were as high as they are now sea-levels were 20 metres higher and the planet was 3 to 4 degrees warmer. You could be forgiven for looking out your window and asking well why isn’t it like that today? If you think of our planet like a kitchen oven then greenhouse gasses are the temperature dial. If you set the temperature at 200°C, for example, it takes time for the oven to heat up. Right now we have approximately 16% more greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere than what are considered safe levels. So we have effectively turned the heat switch on the planet to a much higher temperature than we are currently experiencing. The problem is our switch is broken. Even if we could stop all emissions tomorrow the planet would still heat up for approximately 40 more years before stabilising.Temperatures won’t decrease, they will just stop increasing.
Another analogy that might help explain this it is that of a vehicle's breaking distance. If you are driving along a road for example, and suddenly an animal darts out in front of you, you are likely to slam on the brakes. Your car however will still travel a certain distance before it stops. If the road is wet, the braking distance is even further. From the time we hit the brakes on our carbon emissions we will still have a breaking distance of approximately 40 years. Consider that for a moment in the context of places already significantly affected by climate change today. Australia, California and the Amazon will still have 40 more years of worsening fire seasons before things level off. South American and Africa will still have 40 more years of worsening drought. The South Pacific Islands will still have 40 more years of increasing sea levels. As the writer Jonathan Safran Foer says in the introductory quote to this post 'We’re at the beginning or near the beginning of a process of loss and we will determine the amount of loss. Some of the loss has already been set in motion and can’t be undone, most of it hasn’t.’ It all depends on how urgently we apply the brakes.
So right now, today, we are crafting the climate of 2060. To give our kids a fighting chance forty years from now we need to stop adding to the gasses in our atmosphere as soon as possible and find ways to extract the gasses already there as soon as possible. Right now in 2020 we’re experiencing temperatures of approximately 1.1°C (above pre-industrial levels). We’re on track to hit a global temperature of around 2°C by 2060. It sounds like a small difference, but every fraction of a degree matters.
What might our planet look like in 2060, at 2°C?
As the temperature rises so too will air pollution and being outside without a face mask will often prove impossible for any stretch of time. The difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees warming is estimated to kill 150 million people from air pollution alone by the end of the century. To put that in perspective that’s twice the number of casualties in World War 2. If you have a loved one with asthma or any other respiratory condition they will be particularly vulnerable. The climate emergency is a health emergency.
As the temperature rises and the frequency of extreme weather events and drought increases, crop yields will decrease and global food supplies will become sporadic and unpredictable. The daily news will be full of stories of starving people in numerous countries across the globe. Even today in 2020 at 1.1°C people in Africa and South America are already leaving their homes because they can no longer grow food in areas that previously supported their families for generations. In a 2°C world we will have to rely more on locally produced food as other nations jealously guard their own resources, but local production won’t be immune from the fury of an angry planet. Recent years have shown us how vulnerable our farmers are from extreme drought and flooding and as the years go by the frequency and power of those weather extremes will only increase. The climate emergency is also a food emergency.
At 2°C millions of men women and children across the globe will be forced to flee their homes because of extreme weather events and rising sea levels. Many coastal cities like Hong Kong, Miami and Venice could be lost to rising seas. On our own doorstep, more than 70,000 Irish addresses will be at heightened risk of coastal flooding by 2050. The U.N. estimates between 25 million to 1 billion people will be displaced by climate change before 2050. Even the lower estimate of 25 million dwarfs the 7 million refugees forced to flee the war in Syria. The climate emergency is a humanitarian emergency.
What will we see in the eyes of the faces we meet passing through the world of 2060? Anger maybe, or hate? We’ve seen what happens when refugees have tried to flee war and drought already. Immigration has fuelled the rise of populist politics all over the globe. Look at Brexit. Look at Trump. Look at the arson attacks on direct provision centres in Ireland. When more than 25 million people are forced to flee their homes, are we prepared to help them? Will we be considerate of the fact that the conditions they are fleeing are directly connected to our inability to stem our own energy consumption? Will we be able to keep the far-right at bay in our own country when they will have so many refugees to point at, dehumanise and blame for our downfall?
Or maybe we’ll see despair reflected in those eyes? At 2°C of warming we have a much greater chance of triggering a chain of ‘climate tipping points’ that could prove impossible to stop. As our planet’s temperature rises the polar ice caps melt, causing more of the sun’s energy to be absorbed by the ocean, causing temperature to rise even further creating a continuous feedback loop. As our planet’s temperature rises areas of melting permafrost will release long frozen stores of methane gas into our atmosphere again causing the temperature to rise even further. Methane is a particular concern as in the first twenty years from its release it is more than 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide. As the temperature rises wildfires increase, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere, causing the temperature to rise even further. The list goes on.
Maybe what I fear most is what we’ll see in the eyes of our children’s generation. The resentment for not doing enough when we had the knowledge, the power and a window to prevent it all, because none of this has to happen after all.
What have I learned in the years since the IPCC report?
I used to know nothing about climate change. I wasn’t even an environmentalist. Sure, I was concerned when I saw an oil spill on the news or heard about the extinction of another species but those oil spills and animals were always so far away. What could I really do about them after all? They never seemed to impact me directly so I quickly forgot about them and got on with the business of my daily life.
It wasn’t until 2006 when I saw Al Gore’s climate change documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ that I became aware of the problem at all. After watching the film I’d love to say I leapt to the aid of the environmental movement, but I didn’t. Instead, I consoled myself with the idea that someone bigger and more important than me would come along and turn us around. Some world leader was surely going to steer us on the right course.
I also tried to find arguments online to convince me that the science presented in the film was somehow wrong. Instead, what I found was mounting evidence to the contrary. Instead, I experienced the same world we’re all experiencing now. A world with ever-increasing temperatures, with more and more glacier melt, with more and more newspaper reports of animal extinction, dying coral reefs and extreme weather events. Gradually every major scientific organisation added its name to the list saying climate change was a very real and pressing danger and still we were doing nothing. I chose to turn away and just stop reading about it. I suspect many of us did that. In 2008 I married my wife Sheila, and in 2010 Sophia was born, followed by Finn in 2013. Having a child has a way of focusing your senses. You become keenly aware of surrounding dangers in a way you weren’t before. Children extend your period of concern beyond your own lifetime. Self-preservation becomes secondary to your children’s welfare. Climate change began to creep back in.
We have 10 years left and emissions are still rising. In 2030 Sophia will be 19 and Finn will be 16. They’ll never get the chance to save their own future. After the IPCC report was released in 2018 I felt I wouldn’t be able to look them in the eyes when they were older if I didn’t try to do something when it mattered.
I don’t come from anything like an activist background so I had no idea where to even begin looking for something to do. I do work in communications though. Specifically I work in pension communications. My job involves trying to communicate the importance of a financial product that you won’t receive the benefits from for decades, but in order to have the best possible outcome you need to start preparing straight away. There are obvious parallels with climate change here. We have to act now, but we won’t see the pay-off for years into the future. The problem is human beings tend to discount the value of events that pay out in the future. In psychology the process is called delayed gratification. I felt that the core issue with our inability to deal with climate change is that the majority of people don’t understand the threat level. So, when I stumbled across the Cool Planet Champion program which was looking for volunteers to give presentations on climate change I felt it was the perfect fit.
In November of 2018, I joined more than 40 other volunteers gathered from all walks of life from all over the country – farmers, engineers, students – to learn the facts of climate change from prominent Irish climate scientists, NGO members and science communicators. Any last hope that I was overreacting to the scale of the problem was lost at that training. Our small group of volunteers were tasked with giving talks wherever we could to raise awareness of the crisis. Presentations were organised when companies requested them or when I could organise one myself. This happened too infrequently to have any great affect so I looked for more to do.
In November of 2018 I met some of my local TDs at a climate change event where John Lahart of Fianna Fail told a group of us that even despite him being on one of the government's climate committees, many of us knew more about the topic than he did. He also told us in an effort to promote cycling in Dublin South West he removed a car lane from a roundabout to favour cyclists. ‘The amount of shit I got for that’ he said.
This encounter was illuminating. Our politicians are not bad people. They are not all carelessly disregarding the science on climate change (though I suspect some may be). Our TD’s vote on an average of 400 bills per year. They cannot possibly have a full knowledge of everything they are voting on. They are stuck in a short-term election cycle and they prioritise what the general public care about. Many, are also blinkered by market-based ideologies promoting constant economic growth. They hope they can nudge people into making better consumer choices. That might have worked if we started 30 years ago but it won’t work with the 10-year timeframe in which we now have to act. Imagine for a moment if we adopted that approach to the coronavirus pandemic. Imagine we didn’t receive the daily communication campaign from the government and media, instead we received sporadic updates from Dr Tony Holohan trying to encourage us to wear face masks as a lifestyle choice not as an urgent necessity. The advantage the pandemic has over the climate crisis is that the payoff is immediate. With a lockdown, we see near immediate results. The pandemic response does not have to overcome our delayed gratification instincts.
The IPCC report had put a fire under the belly of many others paying attention. Following it’s release we saw a huge rise in the School Strike movement led by Greta Thunberg. In November 2018 we also saw the activist group Extinction Rebellion block 5 main bridges over the river Thames in London. In early 2019 I joined Extinction Rebellion Ireland in planning a ‘Funeral for Humanity’ protest in Dublin City Centre.
Part of Extinction Rebellion’s tactics is to peacefully disrupt normal life with attention grabbing actions in order to draw the public’s gaze to the crisis we’re facing. Myself and the other activists in Extinction Rebellion, (parents, students, grand parents) went on to occupy O’Connell Bridge for a day in April 2019. In July 2019, after interrupting a forestry conference myself and 4 others glued ourselves to the Department of Climate Action and in October 2019 during a global ‘Rebellion Week’, 5 of our members were arrested after pad-locking themselves to gates of the Dáil. Some of these actions may seem extreme, but when you consider the scale of the emergency and the 10 year timeline I hope it starts to make sense to you. The climate crisis is much bigger that the pandemic. It will ultimately destroy more lives and lay ruin to the global economy. Without a communication campaign on par with what we’ve seen for the pandemic, environmental activists have had to resort to attention grabbing stunts to try and get the message out there. The pandemic has shown us that without public understanding we're lost.
So what can we do about it?
Coronavirus has shown us the level of response that is needed. It has to be global, but first we have to act locally. We have to work together with the same spirit of meitheal that we have seen from the public in the pandemic.
Starting today, we have ten years to cut global emissions in half. That’s effectively a reduction of 8% per year for the next ten years. That’s an enormous task. To put that in perspective the economic slowdown from the pandemic has forced a carbon emissions reduction of about 8% globally. Consider that for a second. We need to deliver a coronavirus level reduction in emissions, every year for the next 10 years, on a global scale. Rather than begin the task it can be tempting to point to other higher emitting countries and say ‘What about them?’ Ireland can’t cut other countries’ emissions for them but we do have a responsibility to reduce our contribution to the problem. If we focus on ourselves first then hopefully we can lead by example and start pressuring other countries to follow. In fact, as we are a high emitting country per capita we are more responsible for the damage than lower emitting countries. We should be looking to beat those reduction targets by as much as we can manage, but we have to get on the road first. Every year we fail to begin will only result in a higher target for the following year.
Without communication and understanding, we are lost.
We have to demand more debate from our politicians and media. Each and every one of us needs to get involved. We need to talk to each other about this. Educate each other. Each and every one of us needs to understand that everything is at stake. Look to join any group working for change. Write to your local TDs and let them know you want urgent action. Write to your media outlets and call for more coverage on the emergency.
As individuals we all need to look at our own lifestyles and see where our own contribution to the problem is coming from and try to reduce it. Individual choices alone won’t be enough however. Many of us are already doing all we can afford to do. We need larger systemic changes, so we need real political action.
We also have to make those larger societal changes in a fair way. If we don’t we will face resistance from large sectors of the public who have no other options. 33% of Ireland’s emissions comes from the agricultural sector due largely to methane emissions from cattle. Farmers have long been feeling blamed for the problem but we haven’t offered them any real alternatives to meat and dairy farming. If we don’t offer them alternatives how can we expect them to abandon a livelihood they need for daily survival? We have to press our politicians to create those alternatives and incentivise farmers to be stewards of the land. We need to support and retrain anyone working in an industry that will lose out through making the changes necessary.
We need to invest aggressively in green energy. We need to make public transport affordable and frequent so people can leave their cars at home. We also need to assess any new carbon intensive projects like roads, runways or data centres. We cannot tolerate the construction of any Liquid Natural gas terminals planned for Ireland. Those terminals will import fracked methane gas from North America, which is far more damaging to our global environment than coal.
And we have to plant trees. Lots and lots of native broadleaf trees to extract greenhouse gasses from our atmosphere and restore our biodiversity. This is not an exhaustive list by any means. We will surely have missteps along the way but we will learn as we go and inspire other countries to follow.
Imagine the world we will gain
If we can do all this, if we can build a real and inclusive grassroots movement, then the world in 2060 might be on track for a world no warmer than 1.5 Celsius. To reduce our traffic emissions we will have prioritised investment in green public transport. By making it affordable and frequent enough to be a real alternative to the family car, traffic congestion will be a relic of history. Solar panels will be everywhere. Our homes will generate their own electricity and any excess will be sold back to the grid, making energy bills a thing of the past. The air will be clear and fresh with greenhouse gasses removed from our energy systems. Even in the heart of our cities it could feel like walking through the countryside. Our cities and towns will be dominated by pedestrians, cyclists and electrified public transport. The best technology we currently have to remove greenhouse gasses from our atmosphere is a tree. They will be everywhere. A massive tree planting program will have restored our native biodiversity. We will have reintroduced a wild beauty all over the country. Even our urban spaces will be teeming with greenery. Our food will be seasonal and made with locally sourced organic ingredients. Local chefs will have reintroduced us to the forgotten tastiness of Irish seasonal vegetables and we’ll take pride that our purchases support local farmers and help our communities stay resilient. Life will be slower. We’ll have more time to stop and think. The drive for constant growth and more-more-more will have been replaced with an awareness of limited resources and a mindset of conservation. We’ll consume less and we’ll rejoice in the creativity of reuse and repurpose. We won’t feel like we sacrificed anything, we will have simply refocused on that which is actually important; family, friends and community.
Though we will have avoided the worst effects of the climate crisis some losses are unavoidable. We will still regularly experience extreme weather events but we will face them with resilience and a spirit of community. That sense of community will extend far beyond our own neighbourhoods. Some areas of the world will still be suffering from the effects of the increased temperatures but because we will have learned to take only what we need we will gladly share our resources and technology to help other nations adapt. Our grandchildren will return from their play in the schoolyards to study our movement in history class, and I pray they will look at us with love and gratitude for the planet we will hand back to them.
We need that spirit of Meitheal
As I tucked Sophia into bed one night recently she asked ‘Daddy, what will the world be like when I grow up?’ I do my best to shield my kids from the scary facts of climate change but Sophia eavesdrops on conversations all the time.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and replied. ‘I don’t know Angel, but it’ll be different from how it is today.’
‘Will I be able to travel? I want to see Japan and America and lots of other countries.’
‘I don’t know,’ I replied, ‘Daddy and lots of other people are trying to make sure you’ll still be able to do those things.’
We just need help.
You see, I’m banking on you, Dear Reader. I’m banking on you having someone you care for whom you don’t want to see suffer. Or maybe it’s just you yourself now realising what’s ahead if we don’t act. Or maybe you’ll be motivated to help those people who are already losing their homes to rising sea-levels or are facing catastrophic forest fires. It is not an understatement to say that the next ten years may be the most consequential of all human history. I'm banking on you, whoever you might be. We all are. If you’ll just listen you’ll hear the alarm bells ringing loud and clear. We’re in the midst of a very real climate emergency. Now it's time to start acting like it.
The task is not a small one. Every step we take in the right direction will help. Every step is worthy. Even if we fail to make the emissions reductions necessary we will at least have crafted a more resilient society for our children.
Do not allow your final moments on this earth be overwhelmed with the regret of not doing what you could while we still had time. We do still have time, but we have to move fast. We can still catch the train but we have to run.
Where can I get involved?
There are many different groups all over the country working towards change. Here's a short list of some groups you might consider joining:
This is not an exhaustive list but it should give you a few options of where to start. Some groups might suit you more than others but the important thing is to increase your knowledge about what's happening and get involved, because we need your help. If you need any more information please feel free to contact me with any questions you might have.
In today's age of 'fake news' it is only right and healthy to be sceptical of the information you read in a blog post by any unqualified individual. Throughout this post I have tried to provide links to the supporting reports and news articles for the information I have provided. You don't have to take my word for it. If you wish to read more about the kind of world we are heading for I recommend the following articles as a good start:
Christiana Figueres is the former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and one of the chief architects of the 2015 Paris Agreement. In the Guardian newspaper she outlines a worst case scenario of the world in 2050 here and a best case scenario here.
David Wallace Wells is a U.S. journalist. His article 'The Uninhabitable Earth' for New York magazine in 2017 was a ground breaking piece of climate change communication which depicted what the earth has in store for us a temperatures of 2°C and above. The annotated version is available to read here and you can watch him discuss the article with U.S. climate scientist Michael Mann on YouTube here.