We won’t act on climate change until our own comfortable lives are threatened — and that day is coming

It seems we are waiting until it’s too late to do anything

Protesters in Spain lie on the cracked ground of a reservoir near Malaga. Photo: Jon Nazca/Reuters

Caroline O'Doherty

On an otherwise lovely morning last week, an uneven bit of paving behind a bus shelter seized its chance and upended a pedestrian who was simultaneously squinting and looking sideways around a tree to try to make out a sign.

That’s how I came to be flat out on a footpath in Coolock with two bloodied knees and rips in my jeans — which the fashion pages declare are bang on trend (again).

Instantly, three faces appeared from around the front of the bus shelter offering sympathies, a hand up, and a vow to get on to the council because that bit of footpath has been a disgrace for ages.

The world is full of caring people who, when they see someone in a spot of bother, respond quickly, kindly and practically. Outside of the bus-shelter audience, the reaction would probably be different, particularly if you assess humankind from the vantage point of social media.

There would be personal remarks (“clumsy half-wit”). There would be the pedantic comments (“a responsible person would get their eyes tested more often”). And there also would’ve been political snipes (“it wouldn’t have happened if you’d driven to the door instead of believing all that active travel propaganda”).

Someone would order the tree be cut down, and someone else would declare the whole incident a ruse to control freedom of movement by making the public fearful of footpaths.

But from those who saw it with their own eyes, there was just innate humanity.

The incident happened the morning after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its latest report, condensing all the science currently known about climate change — its causes, impacts, direction of travel — and the steps needed to stop it in its tracks.

It stopped some of us in our tracks because though there have been many warnings about our heating planet and escalating climate breakdown, each new one is a reminder that we’re still not responding as required.

Still not responding — even though the stakes get higher as the opportunity for action diminishes.

The report received media attention on the day, and it occupied a few moments of Dáil time the following afternoon. Leo Varadkar used that occasion to rule out raising national ambition in terms of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, despite a call by the UN for rich countries to bring forward their zero-emission targets.

Then it more or less disappeared, referenced chiefly by polite people who email links to climate-denial tutorials, and more direct folk who tweet their thoughts in language normally reserved for bad pints and rival football teams.​

Yet the report, for all its science, is really about people whose lives have been, are being, and will be upended by climate change.

That’s the simplest take on climate change — yet it always seems the hardest for people in countries at a safe remove from current impacts to grasp. It seems that unless an example literally falls at our feet, we won’t truly accept the reality, or react appropriately.

In Ireland, we’re unlikely to find too many examples in the here and now.

Farmers face a fodder crisis when summer drought stops the grass growing, but the State steps in with an aid package — doesn’t it?

Coastal communities and riverside residents see their homes flood more frequently, but that’s because of bad river management and building on flood plains — isn’t it?

Shoppers search empty shelves for tomatoes and peppers, but that’s just a market blip that will soon right itself — won’t it?

Migrants seek refuge from countries riven by instability caused by complex stews of adversities, but they can only blame climate change a little bit — can’t they?

The picture won’t always be so fuzzy. If greenhouse gas emissions and global warming continue unabated, at some point, maybe in just 100 years, our island will become “geographically distinct”.

That’s how Professor Peter Thorne, our leading climatologist and an IPCC author, gently described an Ireland minus vast amounts of its coastal settlements — its cities — because of two metres of sea level rise.

On the plus side, that may not happen for 2,000 years — it depends how sudden and dramatic the glacial ice melt occurs. On the downside, two metres is conservative, six metres is possible.

That won’t just upend some unlucky individuals, but the entire country. Very few will be left standing in the safety of a metaphorical bus shelter able to lend a helping hand to those caught in the catastrophe.

And yet here we are, better informed about climate change than any generation and better equipped with the know-how to tackle it — and instead we’re arguing about the right to drive fossil fuel-guzzling SUVs and fighting over a few euro drop-off charge to put someone on a carbon-spewing holiday flight.

So how to make people care? I once flippantly told an aid worker of an idea for a reality TV show where climate sceptic politicians and industry leaders were sent to sub-Saharan Africa or south-east Asia to plant crops that would die of drought or be washed away in flood, or both.

This would be their only food and income source, and no social welfare system would buffer them, so they would have to fall at the feet of some charity or western government and beg for help. TV audiences would rate their begging skills and vote them into a feeding station, an adaptation scheme for climate-resilient livelihoods, or a migrant boat.

The aid worker didn’t laugh, she was thinking... ‘if only’.

If only climate change wasn’t so distant and abstract that we don’t care — but at the same time, no one wants it to become so real and so present that we must.

It’s a dilemma that’s hard to resolve, but there is a positive note in this tale.

The sign I was checking when upended was for Coláiste Dhúlaigh College of Further Education, where the media students are making a documentary on climate change and asked me to be interviewed.

They were sharp, knowledgeable, well-prepared, passionate and probing. Why? Because they care.

All is not lost.