Thursday 17 October 2019

Cool Planet champions make climate change a hot topic

Ambassadors leading the drive to educate schools and communities about global warming, writes Paul Melia

Michelle Maher with Caoimhe Byrne (10), Tim Swan (11) and Ella Mulvey (10) from St Patrick’s National School during their visit to the Cool Planet Experience at Powerscourt Estate. Photo: Frank McGrath
Michelle Maher with Caoimhe Byrne (10), Tim Swan (11) and Ella Mulvey (10) from St Patrick’s National School during their visit to the Cool Planet Experience at Powerscourt Estate. Photo: Frank McGrath
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

It was the realisation that his nine-year-old daughter faced living in a vastly different world which prompted Eoin Hamilton to become a climate ambassador, keen to spread the word about the danger of global warming.

The fact his daughter Katelynn keeps reminding him that the world needs to protect her future also spurs him on.

Eoin is one of 26 Cool Planet Champions who have received specialist training to communicate the science of climate change, and set out the possible solutions. They visit schools, community groups and businesses - anyone who wants to learn - and form part of a major drive to educate people about one of the most pressing problems facing humanity.

But how aware are people about the problem? And what is needed to spur them into taking action? It begins with starting a conversation, he said.

"I've always had an interest and passion for the environment and climate action. A major inspiration would have been Katelynn. She was starting to get a little bit older, it was becoming a concern and we were seeing more and more about it in the news and seeing the implications down the line.

"It was a combination of seeing her grow up and analysing what her future would look like. When she is 18 or 19 and going to college, is she going to be fighting different battles? Becoming a champion was a perfect opportunity to do something about this, not to change the world, but to at least start a conversation."

Westmeath Cool Planet Champion Claire Lemass
Westmeath Cool Planet Champion Claire Lemass

Whatever about the naysayers, the science is clear - climate change is happening, and human activities are largely to blame. The Government has undertaken a series of initiatives to educate the public, including the National Dialogue on Climate Action, and there are also two climate ambassador programmes.

One is hosted by An Taisce and a second by the Cool Planet Experience (CPE) in Wicklow, an interactive exhibition around climate change based on the Powerscourt Estate. But educating people about the need for behavioural change, such as switching to cleaner forms of transport and energy and tackling emissions from agriculture, is difficult.

It's compounded by the fact that people, in general, aren't aware of Ireland's emissions levels.

"A lot of people are shocked at the level of emissions produced by Ireland on a daily basis, or the rate of acceleration," Eoin said. "People know climate change is an issue and is happening, but I'm unsure if they understand the severity. People need to be talking about it now, and thinking about our children, nieces and nephews."

Eoin Hamilton with daughter Katelynn
Eoin Hamilton with daughter Katelynn

Much is made of the awareness among the younger generation about environmental problems, with programmes including the Green Schools, Green Flag and work by ECO Unesco helping. Powerscourt national school teacher Rachael Kinkead, who teaches third and fourth class, says there is a realisation among children that some behaviour is changing the planet.

"They're aware of it, but at a very basic level," she said. "They're aware of pollution like fumes from cars. They would be aware that they cannot litter, but they wouldn't be aware of the ozone layer or anything like that."

Part of starting that classroom conversation is equipping teachers with the necessary information (see panel). But Claire Lemass, who is the Cool Planet Champion for Westmeath, says educating younger people is key. From Athlone, at 19 she is the youngest of the 26 champions, and says while there's understanding about what needs to be done, there is a sense that individual actions don't matter.

"The majority of the students I've spoken to are very interested," she said. "What's great is there are so many competitions like the Young Environmentalist Awards and Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition and they're encouraged to take part. But a lot think it's an adult or Government problem. They also think it's hard to assess the impact one person can make.

"But in an average school there's about 700 students. If you think about the problem of water bottles - if each student loses one bottle a week, that's 700 which is a lot over a year. They [students] were asking what if it was a rule that all bottles had to be re-usable, it would be easy to implement and it would make such a huge difference. Students are willing and it would be so much more efficient if there was a real push."

An engineering student in Trinity College Dublin, she says people are taking the issue more seriously at third level, but there is a difference between "knowing what needs to be done and actually doing it".

"I find the best thing with students and younger kids is there is a lot of hope," added Claire. "Younger students seem optimistic about it, which is great. I've spoken to a lot of people doing my course and people seem very willing to help out. Everyone is well aware and interested in it.

"But the trick is getting people to listen to you. The people in disbelief are the ones we need to impact. But as long as we keep showing the hard facts, people will come on board."

The Irish Independent is media sponsor to the Cool Planet Experience, which is seeking 50 climate change champions to spread the word in their local community. Applications can be made to colin.miley@coolplanet.ie. See cpe.cool for more information.

Climate change: The science

Explaining the science of climate change is difficult. It's complicated, and the facts can be somewhat overwhelming. But a new primary school programme aims to make it accessible to younger students.

The Cool Planet Experience (CPE) Education Programme explains not just the reality of global warming, but makes it understandable and digestible. It's designed to accompany a tour of the interactive exhibition in Powerscourt, Co Wicklow, which highlights the problem of global warming while also setting out ways in which it can be tackled.

Visiting schools are sent a 'Climate Action Survival Toolkit' in advance of visiting so they can familiarise themselves with the concepts and terminology around climate change.

"One of the big things for us is that it's operating through inquiry or problem-based learning," said CPE Education Manager, Michelle Maher. "It's a STEM programme, but one which links directly to climate change education. It's designed to reinforce the interactive tour that students do.

"Rather than doing an experiment, you pose a problem to the class which they have to solve. It doesn't have to yield perfect results, but they should be able to draw conclusions. The hope is that follows all the way through from primary to senior cycle and into third level."

Workshops after the tour include an introduction to wind energy and electricity, another on solar cars, and a third about ocean acidification, where participants can explore the link between carbon dioxide emissions and acidification. After that, teachers receive a lesson plan to allow the learning to continue back in the classroom. Ms Maher says an outreach programme is being considered for schools which cannot visit.

Irish Independent

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