Above: Mary Robinson speaking to Cork volunteers at the conference. Pic: Karen Casey, Trocaire.
A major conference on the topic of ‘Meeting the challenge of climate change – from evidence to action’ was held at Maynooth University on June 22 and 23. The conference was a joint venture between Maynooth University, St Patrick’s College and the Catholic Church’s overseas development agency Trócaire – all three of which share the extensive campus at Maynooth in Co Kildare. Roger Morton, a Trócaire volunteer from West Cork travelled up with students from UCC to help out. He reports on the conference.
As the title suggests, the main purpose of the conference was to inform people about the mounting scientific evidence around climate change, the moral imperative it presents as a justice issue, and to inspire people to action. Scientists are clear that the global climate is warming at an unprecedented rate and that the main cause is the increase in greenhouse gases. The gas having the most effect is carbon dioxide, released when fossil fuels are burnt, especially coal, but others include methane, a bi-product of agriculture. It is essential that action is taken now to drastically reduce these emissions. 2015 is a critical year, as a UN conference of world leaders will be held in December at which they will have to agree a legally-binding programme to replace fossil fuels with sustainable renewable sources of energy. At the moment, the science is definitely there, but the political will to act appears to be lacking, which is why the Maynooth conference was so important.
The key speakers were former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson; Vice-chair of the UN Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, Professor Jean-Pascal van Ypersele from Belgium; and co-founder of the worldwide campaign organisation 350.org, Bill McKibben from the USA.
There were a large number of young people helping out and participating at the event. Amy (17) told the audience “Our most precious resource is our future and we’re going to fight for it”. This set the tone for one reoccuring theme — ‘we have a moral duty to leave our children and grandchildren a world in which they can thrive’.
Prof van Ypersele made it very clear in his speech that if we continue with ‘business as usual’, we will leave future generations with a world where civilisation as we know it will simply not be possible. For example, as the global temperature rises, the sea level will also rise from melting glaciers and from expansion. This will have a devastating impact, not just on low-lying densely-populated countries like Bangladesh, but on everyone living on the coast, which includes a large number of major cities around the world, as well as many towns and villages in West Cork. Another fact is that, as oceans absorb much of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they are becoming significantly more acidic, which will have a huge impact on all marine life. He explained that the changes occurring are not a surprise to scientists, as their models in fact forecasted them. What is a surprise is the frightening speed at which the changes are now happening.
Prof John Sweeney from Maynooth University explained what climate change would mean for Ireland: The west of the country will become wetter with flooding while the east will become dryer with water shortages – meaning that nowhere will be good for growing potatoes.
Mary Robinson, always a strong advocate for human rights, said it is impossible to speak any more of human rights, when the most basic conditions for human survival are being undermined by climate change. She said that although the evidence cannot be disputed, the actions taken so far have been grossly inadequate. We need to move to zero carbon emissions by 2050, which means that two-thirds of the fossil fuels that are left must remain in the ground. Climate change will impact most on developing countries, in fact they are already experiencing its effects. Yet they have done the least to cause it and have the least resources to cope with it, which is why climate change is a matter of justice. The costs of climate change for poor countries are far greater than the costs of developing without carbon and it is in all our interests that rich countries help them to invest in renewable energy. Mary referred to the document that had just been released by Pope Francis, ‘Laudato Si’ – on care for our common home’ in which he emphasised the fact that everything is interconnected – we are connected to each other and to creation. She spoke of the need to overcome our individualism if we are to build a movement for change. “We need to recover that ancient Irish saying ‘Ar scáth a chéile a mhairimid ‘— we live in each other’s shadow.” Mary ended by saying that she remained hopeful – we understand the problem and what needs to be done; we now have to mobilise what Seamus Heaney called ‘a tidal wave of justice’ and she urged young people to show “transformative leadership” in this.
This theme was echoed by Bill McKibben. He said that 25 years ago there were no viable alternative energy sources available whereas now there are; he claimed that the cost of solar panels had fallen 75 per cent in the last six years. So why are we not switching to renewable energy? The problem is the power of the vested interests, which profit from the status quo – the fossil fuel industry and, especially in Ireland, the agricultural industry. He said that books are important and conferences are important, but most important is organising people to stand up to those vested interests. The best way to do this is to campaign for investment funds to remove fossil fuel from their portfolios – and this is beginning to happen. Bill also drew attention to ‘Laudato Si’ – although not a Catholic, he said it was an “astonishing document” and noone now had any excuse for saying they did not know. Appealing to the older generations in the audience to engage in direct action, he said “If you have kept your powder dry till now, waiting for a big cause, your time has come.”
In closing the conference, the Executive Director of Trócaire, Ēamonn Meehan, said that Ireland had a heavy responsibility for climate change. The carbon footprint of one Irish person is equivalent to that of 88 Ethiopians. Or, to put it another way, the carbon footprint of the whole nation is equivalent to that of 400 million of the world’s poorest people. “We as a nation cannot allow that to continue. We cannot allow our politicians to continue to believe that that is acceptable because quite clearly it is not.” The conference was just the beginning – he urged everyone to become involved and put pressure on the Government to take serious action to dramatically reduce Ireland’s carbon footprint and to take a leading role in ensuring the UN conference in December results in the necessary agreement to tackle climate change. Ēamonn said that climate change was “the greatest challenge facing any of us. That includes the war in Syria, human rights abuse, development and poverty – all of these are compounded by climate change. That is our great task and Trócaire is committed to continue that struggle – but time is not on our side.”
More details of the Maynooth conference, including videos of the talks, can be found on the Trócaire website at www.trocaire.org.
Laudato Si’ can also be downloaded from the website at or a hard copy can be purchased from Veritas www.veritas.ie.