Increasing global temperatures and natural disasters caused by human activity all point to one indisputable truth: climate change is very real and the next eight years are critical in shaping what happens next. Environmental scientists almost unanimously agree that while the need for change is urgent, the damage done is not irreparable.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a division of the United Nations, issued a statement to policymakers in 2021 saying that immediate steps to reduce carbon emissions could reduce global temperatures and enhance the quality of the atmosphere. While the consequences for the planet are indisputable, the human cost of this crisis is also significant.
The task may seem daunting but these Irish women are blazing a trail on a national and international level, finding sustainable solutions and forging viable ways of living for the future generations to come.
Karin Dubsky is a German-Irish marine ecologist, zoologist and environmental justice campaigner based in Wexford. An early adopter of the climate-conscious mindset, she founded Coastwatch Europe in 1987, a voluntary organization dedicated to the preservation of wetlands in Ireland and in Europe.
Dubsky is a passionate educator and has worked extensively with secondary school students across Europe, promoting awareness of coastal management.
She recently worked with a small group of students based in Waterford, helping them prepare a sustainability and water pitch for an international conference hosted by Caretakers of the Environment which will take place in Costa Rica this July.
The early years are instrumental in shaping young people’s opinions and developing their relationships with the environment, says Dubsky.
She grew up on a farm and moved to the seaside at the age of 10, an experience she describes as “magical”. She loved to observe animal behavior as a child, especially those that were brought to her grandmother by her who was said to have ‘healing hands’.
“A lot of injured animals, particularly birds, were brought to us and my earliest memory was getting up and being told, ‘okay, there’s a new invalid today and you have to be very careful.’ And there was a nappy put across my shoulders, with their safety pin and this little owl sat down on my shoulder. It was my ‘job’.”
Dubsky believes that teaching children to respect animals from a young age goes hand in hand with cultivating a love and respect for the environment.
“One of the reasons why my mom had so much success was that she had this empathy with animals. They weren’t put in a box, in a cage to heal.”
Dubsky’s first job out of college was to develop a pilot scheme for the curriculum of secondary schools across Europe, her base being in Trinity College Dublin.
The more she taught on the program and the faster the curriculum progressed, the less effective she felt it was becoming.
“We were actually inadvertently teaching people to be knowledgeable, passive citizens. Beforehand, they were ignorant. But suddenly it clicked. We were doing everything wrong. We’re actually teaching them now that with knowledge comes the responsibility to act.” It’s vital to make environmental science and sustainability education as diverse and far-reaching as possible as there is a tendency to hone in on the privileged,” says Dubsky.
Sharing resources and respecting local people’s knowledge can enhance our understanding of local coastlands, she says.
“With climate change, we have to have those two; integrating traditional local knowledge, that interpretation of nature, is just as important. And we need both. We need highly trained scientists. We need the lab scientists, but we need the others too.”
If Dubsky were to offer one piece of advice, it would be instilling a love of the outdoors in your children, she says, and learning to interpret the signs of nature.
When I call Dr. Cara Augustenborg for our interview, she tells me she has had a very busy morning “fighting turf wars,” contributing to articles and providing comments on Leo Varadker’s reservations about the proposed smoky coal ban. Also known as The Verdant Yank, multi-tasking is par for the course for the Irish-American environmental scientist who is also Assistant Professor of Landscape Studies and Environmental Policy at University College Dublin. Host of Newstalk’s Down To Earth podcast, where she covers topics from the ‘plastic pandemic’ to the future of the wasp and the efficacy of the Green Party’s approach, she is passionate about making environmental issues an accessible subject for everyone.
Augustenborg has brushed shoulders with some of the world’s leading climate change activists and was the first-ever Irish person to participate in Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. President Michael D. Higgins appointed her to the Council of State in 2019 and the Climate Change Advisory Council. This was a significant step in the right direction towards making systemic change, says Augustenborg and although her role has been largely ceremonial to date, she is on call to review any breaches of the constitution in upcoming legislature.
It’s one thing to be passionate about environmental issues, says Augustenborg but another to harness that passion into a vehicle for positive change.
So, how does she advise cultivating that interest in people? Having the knowledge at your disposal is key, she says. Her formative years of her growing up between New Orleans and Washington State made an indelible impact and a young Augustenborg vowed to see change in the world.
“We couldn’t drink the water coming out of the taps and there were a lot of cancers related to industrial manufacturing nearby and stuff. That made me realize that the stuff we do can have a profound impact on our own health.”
When Augustenborg was a teenager, her parents relocated the family to Washington State where her father, Col. Jay Augustenborg, was hired in the role of Deputy Director of Waste Management at the Hanford nuclear power station, the largest nuclear waste facility in the world. The example shown by her father de ella is something that she mirrors to this day and her own daughter de ella is one of Ireland’s youngest accredited beekeepers.
Educating and arming people with the right information in the era of fake news has never been more important, says Augustenborg. When she moved to Seattle from Washington State, there was a perception of people who grew up near Hanford as contaminated, per se.
“There were a lot of rumors about that we all glowed in the dark; a lot of resistance and anger.” This kind of misinformation and fear-mongering only served to inspire Augustenborg to ensure that future generations were getting evidence-based information from scientifically-accredited sources.
“I did see that dichotomy between environmental issues and how political they are – and how polarizing. I always wanted to try and bridge that gap between science and communication and policy and politics.”
Last July, the government passed the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act, setting out goals for Ireland to reach sustainable goals by 2050. To achieve these, we need to focus on the dissemination of information and cultivate that awareness in everyone from children to the larger corporations, says Augustenborg.
This new normal would involve learning a whole new roster of skills, she says including learning new and innovative ways to reuse existing items and interact with the natural world around us.
Kinsale-based environmental scientist, Dr. Tara Shine is a leading authority in the field of climate change.
With over two decades of experience as a policy advisor and sustainability consultant, Shine’s achievements run the gamut from evaluating the progress of the goals set out at the Paris Agreement to implementing community-based initiatives to reduce single-use plastic. After working for eight years as Special Advisor at the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, Shine reached an epiphany – she wanted to impact change on the ground in local communities around Ireland.
“I needed to do something in Ireland because at that stage, we were the laggards of Europe in terms of climate action. Businesses weren’t doing enough. The Government wasn’t doing enough. There was a real desire amongst individuals to do more but they were confused and they didn’t know where to start.”
It’s fitting that Shine met her future business partner, Madeleine Murray through her local sea swimming group.
Feeling an increasing “impatience for change,” the pair decided to conduct a focus group in 2018, gauging attitudes towards sustainability.
The appetite for change was evident immediately amongst the study’s participants and Shine and Murray co-founded social enterprise Change by Degrees, a sustainability consultancy that to date has worked with An Post, the department of the Taoiseach and Gas Networks Ireland to name but a few .
The issue of sustainability needs to be viewed through a different lens, says Shine. While sustainability is often linked to wealth and privilege, it is a human right that should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Radically reframing the discourse surrounding climate change needs to happen on a Governmental level, says Shine.
The infrastructures need to reflect the Sustainable Development Goals as outlined by the United Nations and make things like composting, recycling and responsible consumption easier for people to participate in.
“Sustainability is about bringing more people into that conversation, it being a normal thing and not being something special.”
Shine’s contribution to demystifying the topic comes in the form of her beautifully illustrated book, How to Save Your Planet One Object at a Time (Simon & Schuster). Part manifesto, part blueprint for reform, in this take Shine encourages the reader to evaluate their lifestyle and adapt this roadmap according to their own habits and practices.
Shine moves through the household and offers suggestions on how to use everyday objects more sustainably in a simple, easy-to-follow guide.
“It’s not a hard choice when you boil it down – these changes are in our self-interest. They are not just for the planet, they are for us.”
The objects you choose depend on your lifestyle, says Shine and whether you rent, drive, shop regularly and so on.
She wants us to question the way we do things and to find better solutions. Is car sharing an option? Can I turn down the thermostat or shut it off completely?
Is it too late to change our habits? Absolutely not, says Shine.
“We are all well able to adapt to things that we thought weren’t possible. It’s about how we create this ripple around conversation and demand for change. In the end, it’s only going to make us healthier, fitter and hopefully happier.”