Sleepwalking off history’s cliff
Listening to Al Gore and others talk hunger, nutrition and climate justice.
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"We can make changes in our own lives and reduce the amount of CO2 production we are personally responsible for."
“We must win the conversation on the environment,” Al Gore said, at a conference about hunger, nutrition and climate justice in Dublin earlier this week. “We cannot keep sleepwalking towards the edge of history’s cliff”. I was delighted when I heard Al Gore would be speaking in Dublin and, even better, that I would be there to hear it.
Al Gore’s eye-opening film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ came out when I was in sixth year. We’d learned about global warming before in school, but mainly just about saving the polar bears rather than the serious impacts of climate change. The film was shocking, but it was also uplifting and inspired us to believe we could do something. I learned to cycle. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
Al Gore flew over from the States especially for the conference in Dublin Castle, held as part of Ireland’s six-month Presidency of the Council of the EU. He was probably the most famous speaker there. When he arrived on the second day, everyone - attendees, media, staff - packed into the hall to hear him talk.
He spoke about how hunger, nutrition and climate change are closely linked.
Humans are treating our air like an open sewer, he said, pumping 90 million tonnes of pollution into our atmosphere every day. Mainly this is carbon dioxide (CO2), produced when we use fossil fuels (petrol, oil, coal, gas) to power our engines, central-heating or factories. CO2 traps heat from the sun. Hot air holds more water, which causes massive downpours and floods in some part of the world.
Al Gore pointed to how rain patterns have changed, including in Ireland and England where we’ve had terrible flooding (and unusually heavy snow) in recent years. Near Al Gore’s own home they have had “once in a thousand year” floods happening far more often than once in a thousand years. ‘Freak’ weather events are happening far more often across the world too.
This has the worst effect on farmers - particularly those who depend on growing their own food to survive. Because of the changing climate, they can no longer rely on traditional knowledge of when to plant. Crops are destroyed by floods in some places, by droughts or ‘heat stress’ in others. This ruins farmers’ livelihoods and increases the likelihood of hunger and poor nutrition in developing countries where most people grow their own food.
A point that was made often at the conference, and not just by Al Gore, was that the people worst affected by climate change are often those who had the least to do with causing it. Most CO2 is produced by us in the developed world – places like Ireland, Australia, the United States and Europe – but the developing world suffers more. The term ‘Climate Injustice’ is used to describe this huge and unjust imbalance.
Climate change doesn’t just affect poorer countries though. There have been several spikes in the price of food globally in recent years, particularly in grain which was badly affected by heat stress. This affects food prices in places like Ireland where - even though we have a lot of farming - most people buy rather than grow their own food. Food price spikes are likely to get worse if global warming continues. For every 1oC rise in the temperature of the atmosphere about 10% more crops fail, Al Gore pointed out.
If we continue to treat our air like an open sewer, it is predicted that the temperature of the atmosphere will rise by about 4oC by 2050, which is only 37 years away. Add this to the predicted growth of the earth’s population to 9 billion by 2050, and it’s clear that if we do not come up with solutions to the problem of climate change now, we could all be facing food shortages and malnutrition by the time we are our parent’s age. And yet, not nearly enough is being done about it.
I had the opportunity to attend a press conference with some of the event’s organisers after the main conference. I asked what, in their view, young people could do. Mary Robinson, a former President of Ireland and one of my favourite Irish political figures, had perhaps the best answer. She suggested we think of the issue in personal terms; how will climate change affect me and my future? What can I do? She will not be around in 2050, so she thinks about how it will affect her four grandchildren, the eldest of whom is nine.
Eamon Gilmore, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, said young people understand the issues more, and that we have a vested interest in making sure they are fixed, because it affects our futures more than the current generation of leaders. He suggested young people put their minds to innovating solutions to the issues. Joe Costello, Minister for Development, echoed Mary Robinson and Eamon Gilmore.
Personally, I have no intention of falling off the edge of history’s cliff. There is a lot we can do on these issues. We can make sure that Ireland keeps helping tackle hunger and climate change at a global level, and convincing other countries (and corporations, and anyone who has the funds) to do the same. We can make changes in our own lives that reduce the amount of CO2 production we are personally responsible for. Most of all, I would say, we can and should listen to the people worst affected, work with them, and speak out about it whenever possible.