Conference of the parties (COP) turns 26 this year. So too does an environmental organisation in our back garden: Cork Environmental Forum
Bernie Connolly wants to talk about COP26. That’s not surprising. The conference of the parties is on right now, in Glasgow, and it’s a make-or-break climate summit. We either get our house in order, or else we keep on suffering the consequences of rising temperatures, sea levels, and a biodiversity crisis.
But, Bernie wants to go right back to Cop 1 in Berlin, in 1995. Because that’s the same year Cork Environmental Forum (CEF) was established.
“There’s a little parallel process in there,” Bernie, a development coordinator with CEF since 2000, tells me over Zoom from her home, between Bandon and Clonakilty.
“That whole notion of sustainable development, of planetary boundaries, of needing to do things differently, and I suppose to protect, preserve and restore the environment was there a long time ago,” Bernie says, pointing back to the origins of CEF.
But as she points out, back then it was very much on the margins. Contrast that to the nonstop coverage and attention COP26 and the climate crisis is getting, not just in the media, but in education, business, industry, and online and it’s a very different environment.
“The media are for the first time ever giving the climate conference the coverage it deserves. It’s really captured the public’s attention this time,” Bernie tells me.
There’s nearly 40,000 people attending COP26, including more than 20,000 delegates from parties that have ratified the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, who will be taking part in the negotiations. More than 3,700 members of the media are attending COP26, a few hundred less than the press corps at this year’s Olympics in Tokyo.
Bernie has a point about this year’s conference getting the attention it deserves. While mentions of and reports from COP26 are not in short supply, you’d be hard pressed to find many people who remember more than a couple of preceding COPs or where they were held. And maybe therein lies the problem - not enough changed over the preceding 25 COPs. But, there’s only so much blame you can apportion to climate conferences.
Bernie’s not naïve though, likely the result of working on the frontlines of environmental issues locally, but it also comes from observing years and years of high level summits, which, while they might have went hard on promises, they didn’t result in enough changes.
“Whether it’s still a talking shop, or whether we get the leadership and action out of it that we need…it sill begs lots of questions?”
If we’re going to alter our course away from the red line, radically curb carbon emissions and climb down from a 1.5 degree Celsius increase, what Bernie thinks we really need to change is our economic model.
“It’s actually really the economic model we need to change,” she says. Bernie’s doubtful that we’ve fully woken up to just how difficult - but necessary - those changes are.
She cites a segment on a recent episode of The Claire Byrne show on the cost of retrofitting homes. “The cost is beyond most people’s budgets to be honest,” Bernie says.
As she says, perhaps part of the problem is that people don’t prioritise or they pay more attention to other fixes, but really Bernie thinks the problem is more structural.
“What’s happening is you have the same business model that wants to reap huge profits from doing a lot of the same things. It has to be a redistributive economic model. We can’t have huge profits going into a person, or a board or a shareholder, or a small minority. We have to have a more redistributive model.”
“There’s a million people in this country not paying PAYE (a tax on income) because they’re just not earning enough to pay it, and that’s not a model that’s sustainable in the long term.”
Another thing Bernie thinks we need to change is how we measure, well, measurements. Bernie’s list of changes runs long.
She’s not alone in thinking Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is too narrow in what it measures. As she points out, Germany is looking at including indicators that would go beyond measuring the economic wealth of a country. They’re folding in measurements for the environment but also well being.
“We really need to start looking at indicators that are delivering for people and also delivering for the planet.”
What about China?
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first. For some the climate crisis is a zero sum game, usually with China as the adversary. Unless the world’s biggest factory drastically reduces emissions, then what’s the point in a country as miniscule as Ireland doing anything?
“John Sweeney has a great one on that,” Bernie tells me. (Sweeney is a professor at Maynooth University and was part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007).
Basically it goes, if you see someone drop rubbish on the street, does that give you licence to do the same?
Bernie says that while it’s disappointing that Xi Jinping, China’s leader, and Vladamir Putin, the long-term Russian president, both decided against attending COP26, “Ireland needs to do what Ireland can do completely, and Ireland needs to show leadership, and we can be that model, if we want to be.”
Over the course of our interview I was struck by the similarities in the arguments and agenda that Bernie was presenting and how similar they were with Orla Murphy, an Extinction Rebellion (XR) activist, whom I interviewed a few months previously.
While they are a generation apart, and no doubt the two Cork women would approach overhauling our current system differently, they have similar ends in sight. And they also speak a very similar language.
In talking about the psychology of the climate crisis Orla, who has twice been arrested for vandalising government buildings, told me that she goes through ”phases of different emotions.”
“There is an overall sense of panic and terror but also a feeling that we could create something really amazing even if it's only for a little while.”
One of the things I wanted to ask Bernie about is eco anxiety, which, as the term suggests, stems from worries about the damage already wrought to the planet and what’s to come.
One morning this week I had the radio on before school and in the background they must have ben talking about COP26 because my son, who’s eight, asked me this question:
“Is it our fault the Earth is getting hotter?”
It is. Now that we’ve established that beyond any doubt, it’s about ensuring it doesn’t get any hotter.
Clearly there’s no quick fix for the planet, it’s a mix of long-term and perhaps not as long-term pain, as we adjust to new ways and models of living and working, but Bernie thinks that doing something positive will make us feel better and alleviate at least some of our worries.
“We all feel better when we actually do something and it doesn’t matter what that action is, whether it’s doing a citizen science survey for Coastwatch, or maybe taking the bus instead of driving your car.”
“You feel better because you’re at least doing what you can do. And we all have parameters and we all have constraints in our lives, but we can only do what we can do.”
On that point she’s forceful that leaders in business and government need to give people choices: “We need to make it easier for people to make those choices.”
Bernie thinks some of this infrastructure is coming in Cork, and the pandemic has sped up its delivery.
“Build the infrastructure for cycling and walking and people will use it. The whole public realm in Cork city was transformed with pedestrianisation. So there does need to be top down support, and you saw how easy it was with the legislation for doing it during the pandemic,” Bernie says.
CEF and the city
Beginning this month Cork City Council and Cork City Public Participation Network (PPN) together with CEF launched the Community Climate Action Programme which will run for the next couple of months in each of the five local electoral areas in the city.
Ultimately, what’s expected is that each city network will develop a local climate and biodiversity action plan for the next two to three years.
The pilot program will cover eight different areas including food and water, transport and energy, and biodiversity and nature based solutions.
“Part of the programme is about building understanding about the causation, effects and what possible solutions might be,” Bernie says.
CEF’s role is to bring its experience in working with a broad variety of groups: they’ve worked with farmers, tidy towns groups, local action groups, environmentalists, but they’ve also had a lot of experience dealing with local bureaucrats and politicians in the city and county. CEF will be able to give guidance on case studies that have worked, and haven’t, but also to help out with resources and funding.
Bernie says they’ll be working with local community groups to help them make changes in their communities.
“One of the other things we see in CEF is that it’s good to take action as a collective and a community because it has a bigger impact than as an individual.”
According to Bernie’s thinking, what happens at community level will filter down to the individual and that will in turn influence others in the community.
“If we can get communities to understand better where the blocks or obstacles are in the system, and why things are the way that they are, and why we need a different system than GDP, or how we need a different system in how we finance things, and that there are different models we can apply in communities, then that’s a good thing and we can get people more engaged in demanding more as well,” Bernie says.
“All of our lives and the whole of society needs to transform radically in the next 10 years and this is just a way to try and begin to build that basis so that people are much more engaged in the process,” Bernie says.
In her years with the CEF and working with communities Bernie says that part of the long-term problem was disengagement “and a silent majority.”
What’s changed she thinks is that the youth are leading and pushing - they’re the ones forcing a reckoning.
“The youth strikes, Fridays for Future, Greta Thunberg, all of that has completely transformed attention and dialogue around the climate crisis.
“Parents have sat up because their children are saying this isn’t good enough, this is our future, and (they’re) sharing their eco anxiety.”
While CEF is officially a charity with a voluntary board and a small team of paid staff., it works as a social enterprise. Their funding comes primarily though local authorities.
“What we try and do is bring a little bit of energy and support and get things off the ground,” Bernie says talking about CEFs work. Bernie was recently engaged in a project around sustainable fashion with students in St. John’s Central College.
She thinks that the city should be providing incubation units to the students - along the lines of Benchspace - a maker space started by teachers at Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa.
“Give them a unit to work out of, to make their label and build up their name. Cork does that thing really well,” Bernie says, adding that the city could really make a name for itself in sustainable fashion if the supports were there for fashion students.
We need to talk about glyphosate, and leadership
This past September, Cork City Council announced that it would reduce use of chemical weed killers by up to 90% in 2022.
Bernie thinks though that councils need to show far more leadership to ensure that these policies are enacted on the ground.
“All of this stuff has to make sense for the person carrying it out,” Bernie says.
“It’s hugely frustrating because we’ll have someone who is a director of services telling us ‘Yeah, yeah I know biodiversity is in crisis and we want to support it and all of that.’”
But Bernie claims that on the ground it’s a different story, where the message has not been delivered or reinforced that there’s a new or different way of doing things.
CEF wants to help with training, and it wants to move the dial. “We’ve offered it to the County (council) to go in and offer training,” Bernie says.
She thinks that all levels of management need to be involved in training.
“What’s the point in doing blue and green infrastructure studies and putting out a development plan that aims to X,Y and Z around biodiversity if you’re not actually going to get the basics right?”
“And the basics are very simple in a sense. It’s about stopping the use of Roundup and glyphosate, it is about not hammering trees and vegetation and excess removal when you’re doing some works.”
“It’s just ridiculous at this stage that that’s going on and it is frustrating, but it has to happen at a higher level within the local authority and also at the practical application level.”
And in a way that’s what CEF is trying to get right; to get all levels of society working together for the good of our environment, because the sense of urgency has never been greater.