Urgency, leadership and inspiring action against climate change: Reflections on ‘Countdown’

(Image source: TEDxStormont)

On Saturday October 10th 2020, TEDxStormont curated Countdown, a global initiative to champion and accelerate solutions to the climate crisis. The focus of this unique webinar was to examine how we can turn innovative ideas into action and establish a safer, cleaner and fairer future for Northern Ireland and beyond.

Even more important given the ongoing health and economic crises that we are handling, Countdown brought together a range of speakers who reminded us that we are all part of the same fragile ecosystem; dependent on nature and one another. We saw what a healthy, abundant, zero-emission future can look like, learnt how progress is already being made and heard a multitude of powerful reasons as to why we must act in this post-crisis moment before it becomes too late.

Looking back at the event, a number of key themes and messages stood out. This reflective article will touch upon many of these major points, drawing out their substance and considering what they mean going forward. In a nod to the progressive outlook of the event, this piece will also illustrate how we can all take the leap from acknowledging the problems facing our climate, to acting against them. A full stream of the webinar is available on the TEDx Stormont Facebook page.

Countdown: We are already making up for lost time in the battle against climate change, further action can’t wait (Image source: Unsplash)

Designed to inspire everyone to act, from political leaders and decision-makers to community members and school children, Countdown highlighted how we must all step up and participate in building a better, more sustainable future. We are in a position of no return, where decades of neglect, ignorance and inaction against the breakdown of the climate has presented us with the greatest challenge mankind has ever faced.

Not least because of the title of the event, but there was a distinct feeling of urgency embedded within presentations. We are not on a countdown to when action must begin, but a countdown to when action will be too late. The opening speakers reminded us of two key factors that highlighted this. One, that we have pushed our planet to its absolute limits. Two, that everything in our global ecosystem is connected.

We saw sobering images of the reality of a changing planet and how it is those who have contributed the least that are often feeling its greatest impact. The climate crisis is a crisis of both health and equity. The most vulnerable 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. These impacts are changing social operations and traditions for good and are putting communities in heightened levels of danger. There is evident urgency, therefore, to slow this collapse and to repair the damage already done.

To tackle these issues, Countdown emphasised the importance of strong environmental leadership. For too long we have been risking the prosperity of future generations in the deluded hope of short-term returns. In reality, we’ve been playing poker with the environment when the environment isn’t even at the table. It is preoccupied attempting to survive the constant pollution, deforestation and unsustainable development that we throw at it. The need to systematically change the manner in which we manage the climate is crucial and it must be driven by leaders.

Commitments and international promises regarding emission levels, species protection and sustainable growth have come and gone, yet we have seen mixed progress made towards these. We’re in a moment of vast technological and employment innovation, but there remains widespread resistance from global leaders and businesses to radically change their actions. Too often opportunities are missed due to trepidations regarding the potential impact of change upon our handling of broader challenges. In reality, however, tackling climate change can help to cure many of the earth’s problems. Continuing to ignore the climate will only serve to further deepen economic, housing and public health issues that have been born out of poor environmental management.

Infrastructure Minister Nicola Mallon and Professor John Barry offered alternative, more hopeful contributions, emphasising the role and capacity of civic society to drive change. People power has consistently changed the course of history for the better, with NI as a prime example, and it is clear that we must consider our individual responsibility when thinking about how the impacts of climate change can be mitigated. Building on this, Minister Mallon illustrated how COVID-19 presents a fork in the road. She highlighted how communities must come together and work to encourage those in power to take the path less travelled and to explore a green future, rather than sleep walking back into our pre-COVID normality.

Indeed, Professor Barry made it clear that the future that the pandemic has halted wasn’t one that we wanted anyway. It would have been a repackaged vision of growth based on neoliberal ideology, stripped of social justice and sustainability. We have an opportunity to avoid this for good and to establish a brighter future; not by building back better but by building back differently. We all have a stake in climate change, even if we pretend it can only be fixed by others. We can slow the damage caused by mass consumerism, support local and sustainable food production, utilize public and emission-free methods of travel, and vote for the change-makers who will genuinely prioritize our future.

Young activists were at the centre of the Countdown webinar (Image source: Flickr)

We know both the importance of acting on climate change and the role that we, as citizens, have to play. But has a clear path been identified to transition us from our carbon-led past and into a greener future? Not really. Not in NI, anyway. The fault of this lies largely with government, with many Countdown speakers directing their frustration at the inability of political decision-makers to think in more long-term perspectives. We heard multiple critiques of the government’s preference to extract the greatest possible output from existing resources, which has put the brakes on many sustainable initiatives. To combat this, we were encouraged to become ‘time rebels’ and to campaign for a transformation of the very nature of our decision-making systems.

Indeed, we heard presenters question the value of local councils announcing ‘climate emergencies’. In reality, there is little evidence to suggest that they are treating the breakdown of the environment like an emergency. In the last 5 years many NI authorities have acknowledged the importance of working together to mitigate climate challenges, yet we continue to see fracking and mining considered as viable options going forward, approval given to multi-story city developments that ignore evident social needs and the further expansion of ‘factory farming’ sites that present huge environmental and health concerns.

Stephen Agnew, former Green Party leader, spoke of how large portions of his early career were clouded with frustration at political inactivity against environmental change. Many of these same feelings are felt by activists today. Rather than allowing his frustration to curtail his work, however, Stephen Agnew spoke of how he transformed this ‘anger’ into a productive energy and used it to intensify his work. It is a useful lesson to learn, particularly in a time when transformation in both our thinking and decision-making is so desperately needed.

The global nature of the Countdown initiative was epitomised when Al Gore joined the conversation. He spoke of how we are entering the ‘great awakening’, a period of time where many of those who once refused to take the climate crisis seriously are now beginning to see the error of their ways. An avid environmentalist throughout his career, the former US presidential candidate discussed the value of engaging with citizens of all ages and backgrounds, ensuring that this wave of climate campaigning is both socially just and inclusive. Importantly, he also referenced the role of the younger generation in recent years.

We heard from young campaigner Anna Kernahan, who clarified the importance of seeing a climate act created for NI. She spoke of how NI is falling behind other nations by failing to implement a legislative act, meaning that we are still without definitive targets regarding the lowering of carbon emissions, the enhancement of renewable energy production and the protection of natural environments. She also reaffirmed the degree to which young activists are acutely aware of the corruptive systems that are growing up within and are clear in their intention to support a more open future for themselves and others.

Climate strikes have occurred across the world in recent years (Image source: Unsplash)

Whilst it is encouraging to see this awakening happening before us, it will mean little should it not be sustained and supported by the wider population. Climate change will eventually impact us all, from those at the top, to those fighting to find their place in the world. Although its message has been politicised, climate change should not divide party lines. It must become rightfully positioned at the core of all decisions. Likewise, as populations become increasingly conscious of the need to protect our planet, they must be facilitated with the means of becoming more green. Affordable, accessible and efficient public transit, as well sustainable housing and food providence, is crucial.

The pandemic has made it clear that disruptive and radical action is possible, and we have seen how governments are more capable of financially supporting change in the wake of an emergency than they often suggest. What Countdown clearly emphasised was the importance of facilitating similar action in the fight against climate change. The desire amongst citizens is clearly rising, particularly amongst the youth, but it must be met by those in power. It is a crisis that we face and, as almost all speakers touched upon, it deserves to treated like one.

Research assistant at Queen's University Belfast

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