Now Westlin’ Winds

IRELAND is among the worst nations at dragging its feet over climate change. Stormont is only now arguing about legislation and the Dáil has been dithering over effective measures for a decade. The main political parties have short-term priorities and the public mind-set seems to be driven by a wait-and-see approach in the hope more powerful countries will solve the crisis for them. Ireland should follow the example of Denmark. It produces almost 40% of its electricity from the wind and leads the world in turbine technology. If this summer of Biblical floods and fires in Germany and Greece has taught us anything it is how time is running out unless all nations pull together and we consumers mend our wasteful ways. Mother Nature has given us clear warning signs and the scientific community is of one mind. Ireland, which prides itself upon its green and pleasant land, must step up to the plate or face catastrophe. All our major cities are on the coast and at risk from rising sea levels. There are other forecasts which are quite simply terrifying.

I remember the winter of 1963-64 because of the big snow. It was so thick that I ran out the door of our house in Rathcoole and disappeared into a deep drift leaving only my woolly hat behind. I had to be rescued by my panic-stricken mother. The winter playground seemed to last forever. We threw snowballs, built snowmen and raced toboggans. I seem to recall there was snow almost every winter and how my cousins, visiting from Rhodesia one year, were enthralled because they had never seen it before. We turned the sloping path down to the bus stop into a skating rink, heedless of the danger to grown-ups, and sent stones skittering across the ice of frozen ponds. The last cold winter I can recall was 2010 when temperatures fell to 14 degrees below in parts of Ireland and much of Scotland. Pensioners, including my poor mother, were confined to quarters and starving animals had to be rescued from the fields. But things have been changing fast. I cannot recall the last time there was a severe frost at my home in Bangor. According to the Status of Ireland’s Climate, a study released last month, the decade between 2006 and 2015 was the wettest on record while 15 of the 20 warmest years in Ireland have occurred since 1990. Former Irish President Mary Robinson chairs The Elders, an international group which campaigns for peace, justice and human rights. She speaks her mind on the matter. “The blunt truth is that we have wasted too much time in the six years since the Paris Agreement. The policies we need to cut emissions – including an end to fossil fuel extraction, production and subsidies, a meaningful carbon price and investment in renewable energies – have been fitful, inconsistent and uncoordinated.”

Ireland, which is a major exporter of meat and dairy products, must tackle the methane emissions from the national herd of 6.5 million cattle and generate more electricity from wind and wave instead of burning oil and gas. Like Scotland, on the blustery western edge of Europe, it has the potential to become a major exporter of clean energy if only political will and private investment can be brought to bear upon the issue. The public has long been opposed to nuclear energy on safety grounds but Ireland buys electricity from Britain which has been produced at nuclear power plants. This must be debated again for nuclear energy could be part of the solution. The infrastructure must be put in place for the electrification of transport and consumers given incentives to purchase battery powered vehicles. Householders must be given assistance to move to domestic heating systems which are sustainable. The oil tank and the gas boiler must move to the museum. Ireland is capable of radical change and should set high standards which will point the way out of this crisis before we reach the so-called tipping point after which our actions will be too late to avert catastrophe. Our politicians and scientists have solved seemingly intractable problems before. Surely we can come up with solutions which will ensure an equitable transition to a new economy.

The world’s fossil fuel culture is so embedded, and the vested interests of big business so powerful, that this seems like an almost impossible task. It is easy to despair and join the doomsayers though the technology and the politics of change are within our grasp. There are lessons to be learned in our literature. I read the work of the Blasket Islanders for a degree in Irish studies. They abandoned their homes in the 1950s due to many pressures but among them was the fact they had burned all the available peat and had to import coal from the mainland which was difficult during the stormy winters. One wind turbine might have saved this most Irish of communities from extinction.

I will not be around in 2050 to see what becomes of the world. But I have 10 grandchildren who are all dear to me, children who I hope will enjoy comfortable and fulfilling lives free from the natural and man-made disasters that blighted the days of my parents and grandparents. We have defeated deadly diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis which claimed millions of good people before us and in time we will defeat Covid 19. World wars have become a thing of the past and even our own Troubles have been brought under control. In my lifetime we have put men on the moon and sent spaceships to explore Mars. I am confident we can find a way to share this world without destroying it.

If I listen closely, I can hear Robert Burns sing of the charms of nature in Now Westlin’ Winds. It should be the theme for November’s COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow for the time to save them, and ourselves, is at hand.

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