Build back differently: How tackling the climate crisis requires systematic change

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In a moment of great technological innovation, how can we save our natural ecosystems from collapsing? And what part can concerned citizens play to encourage political and business leaders to radically change their climate priorities and actions? These are just some of the questions posed at this month’s TEDxStormont Countdown, a global initiative to champion and accelerate solutions to the climate crisis. Held by webinar due to the Covid-19 pandemic, guests explored how in Northern Ireland and beyond we can establish a safer, cleaner, and fairer future.

Hosted from Belfast by Sinead O’Sullivan, guests including NI Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon and Queen’s University Professor John Barry joined the socially distanced studio. Others, by video link, included President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, the Duke of Cambridge, and former US Vice President Al Gore. According to Gore, we are entering a period of ‘great awakening’ in which many who once refused to take the climate crisis seriously are now beginning to see the error of their ways.

Countdown reminded us that we are all part of the same fragile ecosystem — dependent on nature and one another. We saw what a healthy, zero-emission future can look like and what progress is already being made. We also learned three powerful lessons on how we as a society in Northern Ireland can take collective action to implement the changes we need.

  1. Meet the Need for Urgency

We are not on a countdown to when action against climate change must begin. We are on a countdown to when this action will be too late. The climate emergency is a crisis of both health and equity. As a result, the most vulnerable people in our world are being forced to adapt to more frequent cases of extreme weather, rising sea levels, prolonged droughts, and the gradual eradication of biodiversity.

Although the vast socio-environmental impacts of climate change continue to become more pronounced, it is not too late to respond. By acting quickly — supporting innovative research, making use of renewable energy technologies, and creating more efficient, emission-free and widely accessible public transit systems, we can lay the path to a self-sustaining future.

2. Provide Effective Leadership

For too long we have risked the prosperity of future generations in the pursuit of short-term returns. To systematically change the manner in which we tackle the climate crisis, we need effective leadership — at Stormont, at council level, and throughout our communities. There are numerous occasions in which people power in Northern Ireland has changed things for the better. Take, for example, the civil rights movement in the 1960s and, later, those who helped to initiate the peace process.

According to Professor John Barry, we have an opportunity to establish a brighter future not by ‘building back better’ but by ‘building back differently’. In the aftermath of the pandemic, in exchange for government bailouts we should create a climate-resilient, post-carbon and post-capitalist economy. Whilst a tall order, responses to COVID-19 have shown that nations can act with speed, determination and at scale for the common good when faced with an emergency. We need governments to treat the climate emergency in the same vein. By supporting sustainable goods and services, voting for leaders who will prioritise our longer-term future, we all can help to instigate positive change.

3. Transform our Approach through Engagement

Over the last five years many NI policy-makers have acknowledged the importance of working together to mitigate climate challenges, yet fracking and mining activities continue to be considered as viable options. Approval given to multi-story city developments that ignore evident social needs, and projects such as the further expansion of ‘factory’ farming sites continue to present huge environmental and health concerns. As citizens we must become ‘time rebels’. Locally, nationally and internationally, we must urge political leaders to transform how they approach the climate emergency.

Steven Agnew, former leader of the NI Green Party, spoke of how large portions of his early career were clouded with frustration at political inactivity in the face of environmental change. Many of these same feelings, he said, are shared by activists today. Rather than allowing his frustration to curtail his work, he transformed this ‘anger’ into a productive energy to intensify his efforts. He focused on engaging with communities and trying to understand what they needed to live a sustainable lifestyle. We can’t expect citizens to ditch their cars for public transport or to switch to renewable home energy sources when their government doesn’t make it easier for them to do so. Getting involved in electoral politics enabled him to instigate this kind of change.

According to young campaigner Anna Kernahan, this is all the more important today as NI falls well behind other places with regards to environmental commitments. Until now we have operated without definitive targets regarding the lowering of carbon emissions, the enhancement of renewable energy production, and the protection of natural environments. All of this has slowed progression towards sustainability and done little to prevent the exploitation of our natural resources.

The recent announcement that a Stormont legislative bill on climate change has been drafted is welcome. The fact that this bill has been designed in consultation with academics, environmental experts and campaigners demonstrates the role that all of us can play in the democratic process, not just through electoral politics.

Tackling the Climate Crisis Together

Just as climate change will affect us all, we each have a responsibility to help tackle it. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that disruptive and radical action is possible in a time of crisis. As governments have flexed their financial muscles to support communities in recent months, they must be prepared to take similar action in the planet’s greatest fight of all. By meeting the need for urgency, providing effective leadership, and using this opportunity to transform how we engage with communities, together we can tackle this crisis before it’s too late.

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