|Drowned Galway photomontage by Joe Lee, a HopeItRains project for Galway 2020|
The recent United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report signed off by 195 governments is a truly terrifying read. It makes clear that Global Warming- characterised by more intense and frequent heatwaves, storms, rainfall, flooding and melting glaciers as well as rising sea levels- is due to human activity. It further stated that no part of the world is safe from its consequences and that these changes are accelerating.
July was the hottest month since records began and possibly in over 125,000 years. Temperatures have risen by an average of 1.1 degrees since the Industrial Revolution started. A rise of 2 degrees can be expected and up to 3-4 degrees within the next few decades if urgent action is not taken. Such an increase would make life unbearable in many parts of the globe, causing large scale population migration from areas worse affected as people desperately try to escape to places more climate stable leading possibly to conflict within and between nations. Antonio Guterres, the UN’s secretary general, stated bluntly that the report is a ‘Code Red for Humanity’.
What is particularly poignant is the fact that the causes of these catastrophes, namely greenhouse gas emissions from carbon (deforestation, fossil fuels etc.) and methane (livestock, landfills etc), have actually doubled since the IPCC gave its first report in 1990 and nineteen years after the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change signed by 154 states agreed to drastically reduce these gases.
Linked into Climate Change is the collapse in biodiversity worldwide. The UN has stated there is an urgent need to rewild and restore an area the size of China to meet commitments on climate and help save one million species from extinction.
The failure of the global political system to honour these commitments represents a serious dereliction of duty as governments everywhere prioritised ‘development’ in the form of jobs and economic growth with little concern for the repercussions. Many politicians and others wrongly portrayed environmental protection as a barrier to progress. Unfortunately this outmoded and dangerous philosophy still holds a powerful influence today in our city and in our country.
For the people of Galway, Climate Chaos is right here, right now and it’s personal.
Most scientists accept that COVID (and other recent pandemics), which has caused so much disruption and tragedy to our lives, was due to wildlife with their naturally occurring viruses being removed from their ever-decreasing habitats and sold in food markets.
Many Galwegians use to regularly take holidays in sunnier Mediterranean climes. But this region stretching, from Spain to Turkey, is now suffering from unprecedented heatwaves, wildfires and floods, with Sicily experiencing the hottest temperature (48.80 degrees) ever recorded in Europe.
Lying at the political and economic heartland of our European community, Germany and Belgium were devastated in July by flooding which Belgian Minister Annelies Verlinden described as "one of the greatest natural disasters our country has ever known.” It will cost Germany €30 billion to repair the damage caused. Australia and western USA, where so many of us have family members, are caught up in a vicious cycle of menacing heat, drought and fire.
NUI Galway’s Atmospheric Research Station at Mace Head in Carna recorded its highest ever atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.
Gordon Bromley, climate scientist of NUI Galway, warned that Galway will suffer badly from the rising sea levels and coastal erosion which is already happening, is irreversible and is worsening.
But the battle to save the human species from self-destruction and to stabilise Climate Change will not be lost or won in the shrinking tropical forests or the warming acidic oceans. It is in the cities that the ‘call to arms’ has to be heard and heeded, planetary saving technologies forged and the necessary strategies implemented.
Cities consume two thirds of global energy supply and generate three quarters of greenhouse gas emissions. It is where 56% (and rising) of the human population live and represents the primary markets for the meat and palm oil products responsible for 80% of rainforest loss.
Galway’s geographical position of expansive Atlantic shoreline and fast flowing high volume Corrib waterways, its high level of oil-based energy consumption, its car-centric transport infrastructure, and its urban sprawl means that it is especially vulnerable to the new climatic conditions. Unless there is a drastic cultural shift locally, it is questionable whether we can meet the required targets of a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050.
In a time of such a crisis, the need for visionary political leadership and a unity of purpose from all sectors of local societies is called for with everyone being given an opportunity to play their part and where policy makers are leading by example. ‘Think Global, Act Local’ has never been more important.
Is this happening in Galway? On the positive side, Galway City Council has done some great things this year. It passed a motion to declare a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency. Additional state funding, from a government which is prioritising Climate Change, has meant that cycle ways along main roads are being bult, construction will take place of a pedestrian/cycling bridge from Woodquay over the Corrib as the terminus for the Connemara Greenway, the position of a city biodiversity officer has been advertised, the All Ireland Pollinator Plan adopted, Nature for Health and Love Your Beach programmes rolled out, planning is underway for a flood protection scheme and a decarbonisation zone in the university catchment area has been mapped out. Mayor Colette Connolly and Deputy Mayor Martina O’Connor have publicly declared their intention to make Galway a National Park City, a designation that represents a wonderful opportunity post-COVID to reimagine our city and to build back greener and bluer.
But sadly there seems to be a reluctance by some in City Hall to move away from a ‘business as usual’ model and have meaningful engagement with those from Civic Society who represent a new way forward. The Climate and Biodiversity Emergency motion has a proviso that such a declaration should not interfere with development; policies adopted in 2002 to create a safe city wide pedestrian-friendly cycling-friendly infrastructure and wildlife corridors (linking parks and waterways) have yet to be implemented. Planning for new ‘living’ inner city villages of affordable housing occupied by families and peoples of all ages has not been prioritised. Hydro power as a renewable energy source is not being tapped and there is no plan to ensure that we know what the city’s current (baseline) carbon usage is. The call for the transformation of the Dyke Road (that is below water level) into a largely unique cycling-walking route through a riverine and woodland zone has been ignored. The council recently failed to buy privately-owned grassland within Terryland Forest Park, which was advertised for sale at €30,000, thus impacting negatively on the city’s capability of planting new woods as per government policy and undermining over twenty years of volunteerism in developing this park as a ‘carbon sink’ and ‘wildlife sanctuary’. There is a refusal to give our main public parks the legal status necessary to protect from being used for future built development.
Some senior officials said that a proposal to include a Galway National Park City (GNPC) designation into the Galway City Development Plan 2023-2029 was ‘premature’ and could interfere with ‘development’ whilst one councillor thought it was ‘airy fairy’.
The GNPC designation with over 100 champions reflecting a wide strata of local society, with President Michael D. Higgins as patron and Duncan Stewart as its national champion is clear, with a mission statement for our beloved city “achieving a Greener, Bluer, Healthier, Safer, Beautiful, Sustainable, Equitable, Harmonious and Wilder environment where people value, benefit from, and are strongly connected to the rest of Nature.” It is about promoting a strong sustainable development ethos in our buildings and neighbourhoods as much as in our open green spaces. Its champions and their organisations are already working together on new exciting cross-sectoral eco-projects around concepts such as the Outdoor Classroom, rewilding, the Circular Economy and renewable energies. It is attracting offers of funding for eco programmes from philanthropists and corporations.
When London became the world’s first National Park City, its Mayor Sadiq Khan said: “This status is a truly fantastic reflection of our vibrant and dynamic city and our amazing network of green spaces, rivers and natural habitats…(will)…help tackle the global climate emergency and ecological crisis and address the decline in biodiversity.”
Lord Benyon, UK Minister for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity, stated last month that the National Park City model fitted in with government policies, offering an opportunity to deliver a quantum shift in improving access for all to green spaces, protecting more natural landscapes and helping in nature restoration as well as in benefiting the mental and physical health of citizens. The government of South Australia wants its capital Adelaide declared a National Park City in time for COP26. Environment and Water Minister Derek Spiers said this designation was a call to action for the people of Adelaide, was leading to increased community involvement particularly in restoring and in enjoying the natural world. Kathryn Tierney, GNPC European Champion and a former policy coordinator at the Directorate General Environment of the European Commission, pointed out that the Galway National Park City, with its grassroots and wide cross-sectoral champions membership base, is the embodiment of the EU ‘Green Deal’ in action at a local level.
The Climate Chaos that is upon us will impact on all aspects of our lives. Galway can only become resilient and ensure a viable future by an active partnership of all key local stakeholders. ‘Ní neart go cur le chéile’. The city belongs to us all and local government cannot do it on its own. City Hall has to reach out and embrace partnership not ignore it. The GNPC membership represents the widest potential collaboration possible with an array of expertise and talents that should be enthusiastically welcomed and be put at the service of our citizenry. Membership of the ‘coalition of the willing’ includes world renowned scientists, engineers and others involved in habitat restoration, renewable energies, climatology, green innovation, waste reduction, marine science, smart technologies; medical professionals who are using Nature as a ‘green prescription’; teachers, artists, community volunteers and waterways advocates; youth wanting to play their part, have their say and implement their ideas; architects promoting new sustainable built development; and businesses using green jobs and eco-industrial processes such as SAP whose strategy is to be carbon neutral by 2023, and Thermo King whose parent company is committed to reducing its customers’ carbon emissions by one gigaton by 2030 – equivalent to 2% of the world’s annual emissions.
Thankfully the council has agreed with our request to participate in a September meeting addressed by Daniel Raven-Ellison, founder of world’s first National Park City, and internationally-renowned UK-based developers (who are supporters of the London National Park City). It will be chaired by Dr. Micheál Ó Cinnéide, ex director of the EPA and of the Marine Institute.
According to legend, opening “Pandora’s Box” unleashed evil forces into the world. But ‘Hope’ remained and Hope springs eternal. Yet we may still feel that the small population of Galway can have little impact on tackling global Climate Chaos. But not so. For we only have to pay heed to what EU President Ursula von der Leyen, quoting American anthropologist Margaret Mead, said at the launch of Green Week 2021, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
This article first appeared in the Galway Advertiser on August 25th 2021. I wrote it in my capacity as Convenor, Galway National Park City initiative