One of our achievements of the past five years is our new Strategic Plan. I encourage you all to study it closely. It encapsulates our vision, mission, values and the key objectives of An Taisce’s work. I will refer to it in my remarks this morning. 

The overarching message is ‘Protecting Ireland’s heritage, safeguarding its future’.  

What has become crystal clear to me is that we cannot do the former without prioritising the latter. If we fail to safeguard the future, then protecting heritage may become impossible. Survival will take precedence. 

Some of you may have seen where Mary Robinson addressed the Seanad earlier this week. She recounted a meeting in Brazil in March of the Guardians of the Planetary Boundaries of which she is one. They received a scientific update from two prominent climate scientists. They said that there are not more than six years to radically change course. If we don’t do so then ‘nature may turn against us’.  Her conclusion from this was that we need to be in crisis mode. If we trigger the tipping points, future generations will have an unliveable world. 

I want to speak about these existential risks - and how they apply to An Taisce.   

It is a core principle of good governance to continually scan and screen for risks to the organisation and its programmes, to plan for them and mitigate them as far as possible. 

The Board has been very vigilant in this regard, assisted by the Governance, Risk and Compliance committee ably assisted by the CEO and other Board colleagues. There is a comprehensive risk register that is regularly being updated. 

Today I want to widen the lens to look at the overarching threats and associated risks that flow from the escalating climate and ecological crises.  

  • As most of you know we have transgressed more than half of the planetary boundaries and are en route to exceed more of them. 

  • As things stand, it is widely accepted that the Sustainable Development Goals will not be achieved by 2030An Taisce is an SDG Champion. 

  • Politically, the EU is in reverse gear on the European Green Deal, and 

  • Our own Government is failing by a very significant margin to comply with its own legally adopted and binding carbon budgets.   

Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK Government, in a recent Guardian OpEd says:  

"On our current path, civilisation as we know it will disappear. If we meet current commitments only – net zero by 2050 – perhaps some form of humanity will survive, managing the challenges of continued extreme weather events, ice loss, and sea-level and temperature rises."

As President Michael D Higgins said memorably in 2019 - “If we were coal miners, we would be up to our knees in dead canaries.”  By now we are up to our waist. 

The An Taisce climate committee has been in the vanguard of promoting a carbon budget approach. This is a method for identifying the amount of carbon that may be emitted while staying within a temperature limit - usually those specified in the Paris Agreement of 2015 - “well below 2.0°C and, if at all possible, 1.5°C”. 

A series of carbon budgets “consistent with” equitably meeting the Paris temperature goal is at the heart of the amended Irish Climate Act of 2021, setting legally binding limits across various sectors. As has been widely reported recently, the EPA has projected that we are on course to fail to meet those targets by a very wide margin.  

At the global scale the pattern is similar. A study led by The Indicators of Global Climate Change report published earlier this month estimates that there are less than 200 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide left in the global carbon budget. The researchers warn that if carbon dioxide emissions remain at 2023 levels of about 40 gigatonnes per year, the carbon budget will be exhausted by around 2029, committing the world to warming of 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. It concludes that the world has a 50% chance of locking in 1.5°C of warming before 2030. That is the toss of a coin. 

You would not step on a train or a plane with that level of risk or allow your children to be exposed to such a risk, but we all continue to tolerate it in relation to our primary life-support vehicle - the Earth and its biosphere. 

You are all familiar with the now established pattern of a continuing series of hottest months and years and other temperature records - particularly sea surface - being broken not by small increments, but recently beyond all previous expectations. 

What is the level of risk and what does it mean for us as one of the oldest environmental NGOs in this country? 

I propose that the overarching risk that we must factor into our strategy is that of collapse in the broadest sense of the term in the foreseeable future - not just economic collapse, but societal and civilisational collapse. 

I recommend this as a thought experiment at the very least (although I think it should be more than that.)  How would we reconfigure our operations and our communications if we really allowed in the full import of the scientific and other information with which we are now flooded? 

I suggest we would go onto an emergency footing. Our programmes would convey the scientific facts and the changes needed without any sugar coating. We would refocus our advocacy and other energies on these threats of catastrophic outcomes in the short-term. To safeguard our future and protect our heritage, we need to press our government and its agencies to plan for and discuss how society could navigate major risk and collapse scenarios. 

If we won’t do it, then who will.  We occupy a unique position in the spectrum of Irish NGOs. The breadth of our remit is arguably wider than any of the othersWe look at the whole picture rather than a sectoral perspective 

There is much equivocation and extensive greenwashing being practiced across the public service, in the media and the business sector and the wider public. There are exceptions, but for the most part all commentators, many scientists and even activists feel obliged to modify the message to give hope, avoid panic or reduce the escalating urgency of the requirement to do what is necessary without delay.  This ensures that Business-as-Usual remains the dominant theme and, if anything, the focus on climate action is slipping down the agenda as was evident in the recent elections. 

No Irish environmental NGO has fully grasped the nettle and taken really strong positions on energy demand reduction, restricting data centre expansion, limiting intensive livestock agriculture, opposing the proposed airport expansion and directly challenging the economic status quo as the fundamental driver of the polluting that will expedite collapse. Respecting nature’s limits is the only way to ensure societal survival. 

We have been in the vanguard of challenging duplicity or massaging of the figures, we have produced hard-hitting submissions and engaged in groundbreaking litigation. Many of our programmes are leading the way on community-based greening initiatives and nature restoration projects.   

We now must distill these activities into a very focused and coherent programme of challenge and critique, coupled with proposals for just transition across all sectors based on equity and a dramatic reduction in high-emission activity - especially amongst the wealthiest in society - the highest emitters. 

My core premise is that the overarching risks to ecological viability have now moved centre-stage, and this has a consequence for how An Taisce deploys its resources. 

This calls for collective courage and focus at all levels of An Taisce as epitomised in our values statement: ‘Acting with integrity, leadership, and courage.  

The basis for our stance must be crystal clear - as declared in our mission statement: To protect and celebrate Ireland's natural and built environment for present and future generations, and to ensure Ireland leads the way in defending a liveable planet. 

 

Philip Kearney 

President 

An Taisce 

June 2024