“Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”
These lyrics from Do They Know It’s Christmas?, which was written to raise aid for the 1983–1985 famine in Ethiopia, have been lauded and despised in equal parts as being either the most powerful or the most offensive part of the song. The line was given to Bono, who loathed singing it. No one wants to admit that if pain and suffering is to exist in the world at all, then we would prefer for it to happen elsewhere. While these words, written nearly 40 years ago, are not spoken out loud today the sentiment is expressed very clearly in numerous ways across the Irish media and society in the context of ecological destruction, carbon pollution and the climate crisis.
We sit in soggy Ireland and observe the utter destruction which is being unleashed in several places across the globe. The fires which ripped through Maui, Hawaii last week (8th and 9th August) has completely devastated a portion of the island – with hundreds of people still left unaccounted for, the death toll is guaranteed to rise making it one of the worst wildfire disasters in US history. This unimaginable disaster for thousands of people on those islands, who have to contend with the loss of family, friends and neighbors, their homes and livelihoods, was preceded by wildfires closer to home. Several locations in Greece, another popular tourist location, burned causing several fatalities triggering mass evacuations and massive ecological destruction in fragile ecosystems. Floods in India, China, Norway, and Slovenia were accompanied dangerous heatwaves across southern Europe this summer.
Not unlike in the ’80s, we watch while the horn of Africa experiences a devastating climate-crisis fueled drought leading to starvation, migration and death. The hunger of thousands of people – and the uncomfortable truth that we have contributed, in our own small way, to dry their lands – is overshadowed by the constant stream of crises fueled by ecological degradation and the carbon pollution streaming from our cars, homes and industries.
We do not wish this on anyone but we regularly dismiss the good fortune we possess in avoiding more severe climate impacts – instead we lament the absence of an Irish sun in summer. The closest we came to recognising our lucky pot was the recent report which flagged the tourist opportunities for Ireland. The narrative surrounding this capitalisation of climate change were simplistic and largely overlooked the catastrophic conditions which would lead Ireland to become an attractive location for holidays in summer. Thank God it’s them… so they can spend tourist money in Ireland instead?
We express this sentiment in our failure to do what we need to do to ameliorate these impacts felt by others by reducing our own carbon pollution. A recent report published by the EPA revealed that we only reduced our emissions by 1.9% in 2022 with an increase in transport emissions by 6% accounting for a large proportion of this failure. In Ireland we tend not to deny the climate crisis but some of us doubt the impact it will have on us personally at a local level. Our resistance to necessary changes, such as increasing active transport infrastructure and opposition to vital renewable energy infrastructure illustrate a streak of climate delayism which is the newer, but equally dangerous form of climate denial.
We are not prepared
It may not be us yet but we are not prepared for the impacts of climate change still to come and we cannot rely on the hope that in a world where climate reigns, we will feel no consequences. The Climate Change Advisory Council report, published its 2023 annual report in July. In it we are warned that we will not meet our emissions reduction targets. On adaption to the impacts it stressed that:
“Measures to build resilience are still largely small scale, reactive, incremental and underfunded, with most focusing on immediate impacts or near-term risks. The disparity between today’s levels of adaptation and those required persists in large part because of the lack of specific public funding and limited investment from the private sector.”
We are not yet feeling the worst impacts of climate change. However, this summer’s wetter than normal weather has already played havoc with the agricultural industry, reducing growth and impacting harvesting. Imagine the impact of more widespread flooding, or the compounding impact of several years of climate induced poor yields. Our reliance on a very narrow range of environmental conditions and our failure to build up our environmental resilience is incredibly risky. Adapting to climate change and increasing our resilience to the changes offers huge opportunities to create safer, healthier communities which are more sustainable. Restoring ecosystems to good ecological function represents an incredible opportunity to adapt to climate change while actively reducing carbon pollution and creating beautiful and healthy spaces which communities can thrive in.
Many of the impacts of carbon pollution and climate crisis are actually exasperated by additional environmental degradations issues. The horrific wildfires in Maui were not only influenced by climate change induced drought but also the proliferation of the invasive flammable grasses throughout the island which created fuel which allowed the fire to spread. In the same way a human body has to fight harder when multiple infections and diseases attack, natural ecosystems, when faced with multiple disturbances, often have worse outcomes. Reducing the intensity of these disturbances or strengthening the system in other ways can be a powerful way to adapt to climate change. In Ireland this could mean rewetting peatlands which would previously have been used to harvest peat and may be susceptible to wildfires. Raising the water table not only allows function to return and biodiversity to thrive but it also reduces the risk of fire in the newly wet environment.
Our good fortune in terms of the relatively mild impacts we have thus far experienced also points to another area in which we are woefully unprepared. As others experience these extreme climatic events they will inevitably search for safer places to live. Climate refugees will turn to Ireland. As a wealthy country which produces a large amount of carbon pollution we have a responsibility to welcome them. Our preparation must include finally grappling with the housing crisis, creating a resilient public health system and a just system through which those fleeing dangerous environmental conditions can progress.
This is a summer where one would need to wilfully turn away from the impacts of ecological destruction in order not to see it. In the 1980s “Do they know it’s Christmas?” was penned when the news of the famine sunk in for Bob Geldof and the horror of human suffering was revealed. There was no longer the option of doing nothing. It appears the realities of the impacts of the climate crisis may not yet be fully embedded into our consciousness. There is another tonally off-putting point in that chart-topping pop song where the celebrity singers shift from the Ethiopian famine to declare, “Here’s you / Raise a glass for everyone.” We run the risk increasingly of imagining we can just will the disasters away with empty toasts. Even as we watch footage of the devastation wrought in Lahaina, we are not yet seeing that this emergency also engulfs us. Our refusal to face reality does not make that reality go away. We cannot toast our way out of the climate crisis.