Q&A: Dr Cara Augustenborg - Solutions for a Broken Planet

As part of Dublin Cycling Campaign’s Bike Week programme, Dr Cara Augustenborg, environmental scientist and activist gave a talk Climate Change - we need to get Real! Solutions for a Broken Planet

We asked Cara some questions about the challenges and opportunities brought by climate change.

Why has public interested in climate change declined ?

In my experience and that of my colleagues, public interest in climate change has actually increased over the past few years - We’re witnessing the effects of climate change with far more frequency than we used to due to increased storms, flooding, and generally wacky weather. People are seeing these climate-related impacts and asking more questions about climate change. Celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo are bringing the topic into the popular realm and those of us who speak publicly on climate change are run off our feet with lecture requests, but generally the media and politicians haven’t caught up.

The media feel the need to provide “balance” on every topic and it’s getting harder to provide that kind of balance on climate debate when the impacts are so obvious and the solutions are so necessary, so the stories around climate get buried when there’s not a clear controversy and immediate urgency for media to latch on to. -There’s always more urgent and controversial stories that trump stories on climate impacts and solutions for media attention. There’s a false perception that the public aren’t interested in climate change, but when you ask them directly, you usually find out that they are interested and concerned about climate change but they just don’t hear much about it in a way that relates to their daily lives.

Does solving climate change mean we will have to make sacrifices in how we live our daily lives ?

Far from it! The sooner we tackle climate change, the less extreme the measures need to be to solve it. In fact, most of the things we need to do to solve climate change are things we would want to do anyway for health, economic and social reasons. There are a lot of great reasons to move to a transport system that’s dominated by cycling and public transport options over traffic-inducing, isolating and dirty cars. -Check out my TED talk if you want to learn more about them.

Switching from a fossil-fuel dominated energy system to a renewable energy system doesn’t mean sacrificing anything in our daily lives - Our lights will still work and our homes will still be heated, but in a way that isn’t dependent on foreign imported fuel but rather by clean, plentiful energy sources. Eating a more locally produced, more plant-based diet would have lots of positive health benefits too and opportunities to reconnect with our food and farmers. Solving climate change is an opportunity to change everything for the better for society provided we don’t leave it until it’s too late.

Why would cycling campaigners be interested in climate change ?

Cycling has lots of positive benefits to society and tackling climate change is just one of them. Cycling campaigns are usually perceived as something addressing a local need, but in the case of climate change, it’s an opportunity for cycling campaigners to contribute to a global issue too. In this era when we have so many battles to fight to protect social and environmental justice, it’s good to make global connections and foster global solidarity. My hope is that cycling campaigners involved in fighting for one solution to climate change solutions will feel more empowered and energized to continue the great work they were already doing.

We don’t hear much about transport’s impacts on climate change from the media or politicians. Why do you think that is ?

Last May, Ireland’s EPA reported that transport emissions are projected to grow 13%-19% between now and 2020. Given where our country’s greenhouse gas emissions need to go (way way down), the EPA’s announcement was shocking but it didn’t even make the news.

I think we’ve been letting transport away with a free pass and shrugging our shoulders while we all bicker about how agriculture needs to do its fair share to address climate change and complain about the prospect of ever more wind turbines on the horizon. Part of that is probably due to our media’s reliance on advertising from car manufacturers and our government’s reliance on car sales to boost the economy and another part of it is probably pure ignorance on the part of our politicians who can’t envision anything but a car-dominated Irish society. I think those of us who have seen what a cycling and public transport dominated system can look like and all the benefits of that system have an obligation to really push all those who are ignoring that option to think outside their tiny boxes.

Read more in Cara’s blog post on Ireland’s Transport Silence

Can Ireland become energy secure ?

Absolutely! There is great peer-reviewed evidence to show that Ireland can become 100% renewable in its energy production by 2050 and create 100,000 new jobs in the process! We’re very fortunate to have some of the highest wind speeds in Europe and we’re surprisingly ideal for solar power because we receive 80% of the solar radiance of places like Italy but have an added advantage of having natural rainfall to wash our solar panels to maintain their efficiency. It’s a rare day in Ireland when we find that either the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining, but on those rare occasions we could use nationally-sourced biomass as our spinning reserve instead of imported fossil fuels. With improvements in energy efficiency of our building stock and technological improvements in energy storage happening every day, it’s only getting easier and easier for Ireland to become energy secure through renewable resources if we have the will to do it.

Without destroying the planet, how can we feed ourselves in a healthier more efficient way ?

That’s the million dollar question and a topic I’m really interested in. Unfortunately, cows and sheep release far more methane (a potent greenhouse gas) than most other animals and we have a lot of cows and sheep in Ireland so this is a big challenge for us. Both for health and climate reasons, it would be good for us to reduce our meat and dairy intake. Even just cutting down the amount we cook (Demitarianism) is a great step in the right direction. Eating more seasonally, chemical free, and buying locally are great steps too and growing your own food is probably best of all if you’re fortunate enough to be blessed with green fingers!

What are the wider reaching social affects of climate change ?

If we let climate change continue unabated, it will affect the most vulnerable first. Those who live in the Global South who already struggle with access to food will find life even more difficult, and those who live in low-lying regions such as the South Pacific Islands and Bangladesh will have to relocate. The climate projections indicate that Ireland won’t experience the same levels of drought and heat as other parts of the globe and therefore we’re likely to become a climate refuge, having to house those migrants who had to flee their own countries due to climate change.

For our own population, we can already see that flooding is affecting the more vulnerable members of our society first - Mid-land farmers who were already struggling to make a decent wage are finding it harder as their farms are flooded in the winter, and more intense Atlantic storms are causing more hardship for farmers in the west of the country. One of the biggest impacts of climate change on Ireland will probably be around access to food. We import one tonne of food per person per year into this country, which will become more difficult and expensive as climate change makes it harder to grow food around the world. We’ve experienced a bit of this already when Russia’s fires caused a huge spike in grain export prices a few years ago. We’re beginning to see it again now with coffee, which has suffered a 30% decline in production this year. We can expect imported food to become more expensive as climate change takes its toll and food supply decreases.

Does Ireland have a credible climate policy ?

Maybe that question should be, does Ireland have a climate policy, let alone a credible one! The only answer I have is “watch this space” - The last government was just horrendous on climate policy. They delayed passing climate legislation until the very end of their term so that they didn’t have to come up with any real plans while in government. As a result, nothing tangible has happened on climate action over the past five years and we’re not going to meet our 2020 EU emission reduction targets.

Tax payers will have to cover the cost of millions of euros in fines as a result of the government’s inaction. I’m still mildly hopeful that the situation will change now that we have national climate legislation and a government advisory committee on climate change, along with a few TDs in the Dail finally who are strong on climate action. We’re all waiting to see what the national climate mitigation plans look like to determine if Ireland has any credibility when it comes to climate. The last plans expired in 2012 so we’ve been waiting a long time!

If we would like to see a better way of doing things rather than just continuing on with “business as usual”, what action can we take ?

The first and easiest thing we can all do is to push our elected representatives (national and local) and keep asking them what they’re doing right now to make the low-carbon transition that Ireland has committed to in its national legislation and as part of the United Nations climate agreement. Politicians pay attention to the issues they think their constituents are interested in so it’s important to remind them that we’re interested in climate action even if it doesn’t seem like the most urgent issue when we meet them.

But we can’t wait for politicians to make the transition for us because we know how slow-moving they can be, so we also need to look around at the things we can influence to see how we can make the transition for ourselves. Maybe we can start doing things in our communities or households to make our energy, transport, and food systems lower-carbon or “fossil free”. Plenty of communities are starting to do that around Ireland (Cloughjordan just to name one) but they don’t get much attention because we don’t tend to see many good news stories in the mainstream media. Maybe we can get together with neighbors and work out a bulk deal to have solar panels or insulation installed in all our homes or maybe we can start community grow-your-own food projects or make a community partnership with a local farmer or find ways to make cycling safer and more attractive in our locality. There are so many ways that we can start becoming low-carbon, we just need to start asking for it and take a step in the right direction.

Take an Action - ASK the Minister to give cycling a much better share of the transport pie !

The above photo of Cara was taken last summer in the U.S. while cycling on the Hiawatha Trail between Montana and Idaho.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

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