Pádraic Fogarty 6th May 2023
2050 is only 27 years away. It’s at the same point in the future as 1996 is in the past, when Hotmail launched on the internet, Mission Impossible, Twister and Independence Day were in cinemas and the ‘Macarena’ was driving people on to, and away from, the dance floor.
2050 is also the year when we are supposed to be reaching ‘net zero’ emissions of greenhouse gases in order to stay within 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming and so, maintain a habitable world for millions of people. That is not the course we are on however.
At current rates of emissions we could break through the 1.5 degree threshold by the end of this decade and hit 2 degrees by 2050. This would see extreme flooding, heat and water stress to many parts of the world, precipitating migration, conflict and misery on a scale this generation has only read about in history books.
On current trajectories, and based on a ‘business as usual’ approach, a number of birds will be extinct from Ireland by 2050 as breeding species including the curlew, hen harrier, dunlin, redshank and twite. A few dying freshwater pearl mussels in a mountain river or two may be all that’s left of Ireland’s longest-living animal. Overfishing will have extracted the last of the fish shoals from our coasts so the few whales that visit us today will be long gone for want of food.
We like to say that nature has great capacity for recovery but this is only up to a point. You can lean back on your chair and return to your original position when you let go, but there is a point where instead of landing back on your feet you end up on your arse. In nature this is called ‘hysteresis’ – a point where there is no recovery, even when a pressure has been removed. A warming climate with more frequent and longer droughts may mean that treasured ecosystems cannot recover, such as the moist Atlantic rainforests of the west, or our peat bogs which could turn from greenhouse gas absorbers to emitters, even when every effort has been made to rewet them. A combination of warming, more acidic and polluted seas could mean that even if we stop fishing, the fish will not come back. In other words, a point where restoration and recovery are no longer possible.
In 2050, all going well, I will be celebrating my 77th birthday. My daughter, Maia, 16 today, will be only 43, younger than I am now. She may have children of her own, who knows. She can’t vote (even if she wanted to) and has had no say in the decisions that have led us to the brink of calamity. I’m sure her future self will have some choice words for my generation in 2050 as we enjoy our retirement, just like I feel a certain resentment for those in power in the 1980s and 1990s who made such disastrous decisions in the full knowledge that we were heading for climate and biodiversity meltdown.
We often hear platitudes towards the generation coming behind us, saying that their voices need to be heard and, thanks to the publication last week of the Children’s and Young People’s Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, we know exactly what they are saying.
This process, the first in the world of its kind, was held in parallel to the Citizens’ Assembly (which produced its report in April, and which was for over-18s only) and heard from 35 citizens between the ages of 7 and 17. This is a heavy topic for children; our past, present, and potential future have paid them – never mind the natural world – scant regard.
The report, written by the young people themselves says that “it is so important that children and young people in Ireland can have their say on biodiversity loss because we are the ones who are going to have to live with whatever happens”. The report shows off their creativity, their art, stories of the friendships they made and the fun they had in exploring their love of nature and in coming up with their recommendations. It has no hint of blame or anger. We learn from it that children have rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and that “biodiversity loss is a children’s rights issue”.
Through their work, they have created a vision for Ireland “where we are connected to and care for the rights of nature (and each other) so that biodiversity is restored and protected and we live and grow up in healthy, clean and fair environments”. “We must treat the Earth like a member of the family or a friend” and “future generations must live in a world where there isn’t a biodiversity crisis and where children don’t have to take action because of the incapability of past generations”.
They have produced 58 recommendations around the teaching of biodiversity and climate, governance (“every decision being made must consider biodiversity and the rights of nature”), a switch to renewable energy and public transport, and reducing waste and pollution. They want more nature reserves, reintroductions of native species including wolves, green jobs and reforestation of our denuded island. They want an end to overexploitation, including an end to overfishing and a halving of the national cow herd. Above all they want to be listened to and they want action on their recommendations.
There are no children or young people in the Dáil, the chambers of County Councils or the boards of companies. Yet everyone in those institutions is making decisions that directly impact them, for good or for ill. Ireland in 2050 doesn’t have to be a struggling, depleted place where we are forced to adapt to a new, frequently hostile nature. But if it is to be different we must listen to the articulate, empathic young people who have laid it out for us in no uncertain terms. We have to start acting now.