5 reasons to feel positive about the climate

28 Mar 2024

Coral reef in Indonesia. Image: © Brook Peterson/Ocean Image Bank

From robots counting hedgehogs to smart pebbles on the beach, the fight against climate breakdown takes many forms.

As we face an accelerating climate crisis, all positive climate actions, from the passing of major legislation to local community initiatives, should be celebrated in the hope that as a society we can change our behaviours and work together to save ourselves and the planet.

Over the last few years, the effects of the climate crisis have become increasingly obvious. Extreme weather events including floods and hurricanes are more frequent and severe, the ice caps are melting faster than ever, global temperatures are reaching record-breaking heights and insect numbers are declining at a rate of up to 2pc every year, among many other examples.

With the increased awareness of the crisis has come an increase in the level of climate anxiety. However, the good news is that increased anxiety leads to greater climate action. Research from Yale University found that people who suffered from climate distress (defined as anxiety or depression because of global warming) were more likely to take climate action compared to those who didn’t feel any climate distress. This included signing a petition (46pc v 10pc respectively), volunteering at an organisation that is tackling the crisis (19pc v 2pc) and engaging in non-violent civil disobedience against corporate or government activities that contribute to the crisis (35pc v 9pc).

“Experiencing a certain level of distress in response to the realities of climate change is natural and understandable,” the researchers argue. “Channelling that distress into climate action can both help these individuals cope constructively and address climate change at the same time.”

With that in mind, here are a few positive climate action stories to shine some rays of hope into the climate gloom.

The people want climate action

Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released the results of a nationwide survey about people’s attitudes to the climate crisis, which found that the Irish public sees the crisis as a high priority.

The report, Climate Change in the Irish Mind, shows a high level of climate awareness among the population (95pc), an acceptance of the human cause of the crisis (92pc) and the belief that climate change will impact them personally (89pc).

A notable change in this year’s survey of 1,330 people is the increase in anxiety about severe storms (74pc) and extreme heat (54pc).

On a positive note, four-fifths of those surveyed trust scientists, educators and journalists on the topic of climate, and the same proportion think the crisis should be a very high or high priority for Government.

A close-up of two protest signs - one saying 'Stop Climate Change' and the other saying 'Stop Global Warming' with a drawing of the Earth on fire.

Image: © Longfin Media/Stock.adobe.com

More than half of those surveyed believe that climate action will provide new job opportunities and 74pc believe it will improve their quality of life.

“Despite the many challenges, including cost of living increases, people remain positive about the benefits of climate action for our economy and quality of life,” EPA director general Laura Burke said of the survey results.

“There continues to be majority support for a range of climate policies. In particular, we see overwhelming support for improved public transport and renewable energy, which can deliver significant emissions reductions [and] air quality improvements, as well as delivering cost savings for individuals.”

Renewables on the charge

The public support for renewables is borne out in the growth of these energy sources. Wind energy supplied a record 35pc of Ireland’s electricity last year, and this figure continues to rise as January recorded 36pc of electricity coming from wind and February recorded 41pc.

Speaking after the release of the February figures, Wind Energy Ireland CEO Noel Cunniffe highlighted the importance of renewables. “Every unit of power they produce pushes fossil fuels off the electricity system, helping to cut our carbon emissions and reduce our reliance on imported fossil fuels,” he said.

“In Ireland, we are fortunate to have natural resources such as wind that can generate clean, affordable electricity and we should be doing everything we can to develop these resources in 2024 and beyond.”

As an island, Ireland is also fortunate to have abundant access to hydro and wave energy. Maynooth University’s Dr Andrei Ermakov says that Ireland has “one of the best wave resources on the planet”. He and many others are working on tapping into this massive resource to further decarbonise Ireland’s energy sector.

In the UK, a team of engineers have developed an efficient hydropower system to transform hills into renewable energy ‘batteries’ to store and release renewable energy as needed.

Retrofitting is another area where people are decarbonising energy use. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) has called for 2024 to be “the year of the heat pump”. By improving home insulation and installing solar panels people are reducing their energy use, and by installing heat pumps people are switching from burning fossil fuels to using the electricity grid which, as mentioned above, is becoming greener every year. The SEAI said last year was “exceptional” for the numbers applying to retrofit their homes.

There is also the rise in electric vehicles on our roads, which also reduces fossil fuel use. However, more exciting than EVs is the increase in walking and cycling as modes of transport. The National Transport Authority (NTA) published a survey which found that 71pc of Dublin Metropolitan Area adult residents walk five times a week, up from 64pc in 2021, while 25pc cycle at least once a week. Nearly three-quarters of survey respondents are in favour of building cycle tracks that are separated from traffic, even if this means there is less room for other traffic.

The NTA’s Walking and Cycling Index estimates that walking, wheeling (using a wheelchair or mobility scooter) and cycling saves 120,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in Dublin each year.

Tech at its best

Technology is certainly a double-edged sword in the climate fight. The demand on natural resources for more and more devices, the huge amounts of data we store and the massive energy use is a major contributor to the crisis; however, there are some technological solutions to environmental problems that are definitely worth celebrating.

Just recently, Dublin Port and University College Dublin launched an eco-engineering project to boost marine biodiversity.

Researchers evaluated 32 natural rocky shorelines across Ireland and Wales to identify the best topographies for biodiversity. The team then created 3D-printed units which mimic these craggy topographies and are now installing them to improve conditions for intertidal species at Dublin’s artificial port wall.

Another Dublin city initiative, the Urban Sense project, involves deploying sensors that use mobile phone mast infrastructure across residential and commercial locations to measure greenhouse gases and other air quality parameters and weather variables. Speaking at the launch of the project, Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications Eamon Ryan, TD, said: “This real-time visual pulse of the city will be key to assisting Dublin City Council in developing the policy actions that can help reduce emissions and make the city a better place to live, work or visit with cleaner air, safer transport and less congestion and noise.”

Also in Dublin, and in Sligo, students are helping to tackle coastal erosion using radio frequency identification (RFID) enabled smart pebbles. As part of the €10m European SCORE project – which aims to increase the climate resilience of coastal cities – researchers working with school students will monitor the pebbles they have placed on Killiney and Raghly beaches. The aim is to raise awareness about coastal erosion and track its impacts.

A hedgehog standing on a tree stump against a green background.

Image: © DenisNata/Stock.adobe.com

Meanwhile, down in Cork, the Smart Whale Sounds project is using acoustics, AI and machine learning to detect the position of whales, dolphins and other animals in bodies of water. The aim is to develop the tech to notify ships if animals are nearby to protect the animals and to help in the planning of marine infrastructure to minimise the impact of noise pollution on marine habitats.

Elsewhere, the latest technologies are being used to track and protect endangered species. One project uses GPS and conservation management software to track giraffes across 21 African countries to better understand how habitat loss and illegal hunting affect their populations. While in the UK, the National Hedgehog Monitoring Programme has trained AI to track these prickly mammals when they are captured on cameras set up in parks, private gardens, woods and farms to understand why their population is in decline. And researchers in Canada are developing radar technology to locate polar bear dens to better protect polar bears and their young cubs when they are most vulnerable.

Nature: The return

Although nature is extremely vulnerable to the climate crisis, it is also incredibly resilient. In his award-winning book, An Irish Atlantic Rainforest, sculptor turned rewilder Eoghan Daltun catalogues the regeneration of a small native Irish forest in the Beara Peninsula through his rewilding efforts.

By fencing the land to protect it from grazing animals such as sheep and deer and by removing invasive species, Daltun witnessed incredible regrowth of the forest and a massive increase in biodiversity within just 10 years. With just 1-2pc of native forest cover left in Ireland, initiatives like Daltun’s provide an example of how relatively cheap and simple actions can boost the country’s biodiversity.

Described by oceanographer Dr Sylvia Earle as “a jewelled belt around the middle of the planet”, coral reefs are another high-profile example of a habitat that is being severely damaged, in this case because of global heating. Reefs are home to a quarter of all marine species even though they make up just 0.2pc of the ocean floor. The UN estimates that 14pc of reefs have died since 2009 due to rising sea surface temperatures. However, researchers and local communities working together on the Mars Coral Restoration Programme have developed steel devices called ‘reef stars’ which can be installed on damaged reefs to stabilise loose rubble, support the growth of new coral and provide habitats for reef animals. After installing these devices in a reef in Indonesian waters, researchers found that within four years, the restored reef was growing at the same speed as a healthy reef and providing the same ecosystem functions.

One of the world’s most biodiverse regions, Sumatra’s Thirty Hills, has been the focus of recent World Wildlife Fund restoration efforts. As a result, many species including Sumatran elephants, tigers, Malayan tapirs and Sunda clouded leopards have all been seen to benefit, according to a recent monitoring survey.

And decades-long conservation efforts in Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo have resulted in an increase in the population of mountain gorillas, a critically endangered species that was predicted to go instinct by the end of the last century. Incidentally, mountain gorillas support a healthy forest ecosystem by dispersing seeds and creating small clearings which allow plant species to absorb more sunlight and thrive.

The kids are alright

When thinking about climate action, it’s never too long before Greta Thunberg is mentioned. The passionate young activist inspired hundreds of thousands of young people around the world to go on school strikes every Friday and attend protest marches in 2019. Since then, Thunberg has spoken at UN conferences, met with world leaders, written books about the crisis and spearheaded many protests. Last week was strike number 292 for the tireless climate leader.

Thunberg is one among many young activists taking action to protect the climate and inspiring others to do the same.

Barcelona-based Alba Forns has co-founded Climatize, a platform for people to invest in climate-positive initiatives. She is an engineer by training and uses her knowledge and passion for the environment to inspire people to invest in technologies that will mitigate the effects of the crisis.

The UK has seen some of the most high-profile protest action in response to the climate crisis in recent years. The recently founded Just Stop Oil movement engages in civil resistance, vandalism, traffic obstruction and other forms of direct action to highlight the severity of the crisis. They have one clear aim – to stop the extraction of oil and gas resources in the UK, with the goal of ending the reliance on fossil fuels completely by 2030. Speaking to SCI:COM in Dublin last year, Alex de Koning, a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil, made the case for the group’s direct tactics. “Nobody is going to listen to you if they can’t hear you. You can’t make change without millions of eyeballs,” he argued.

“It’s time to stop sugarcoating. To do something proportional to what we’re facing. Writing a petition to stop the end of everything is simply not going to cut it. Because never forget what we’re fighting for: not just to lower emissions but to survive the climate crisis.”

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Rebecca Graham is production editor at Silicon Republic