‘If we were coal miners, we would be up to our knees in dead canaries’

21 Feb 2019

President Michael D Higgins addressing patrons at an event at Áras an Uachtaráin on 15 February 2019. Image: Áras an Uachtaráin

President of Ireland Michael D Higgins decried the world’s treatment of the planet at Ireland’s first national biodiversity conference.

On the second day of the National Biodiversity Conference in Dublin Castle, the country’s head of State opened proceedings with a stark warning not only for Ireland’s future in an era of uncontrollable climate change, but the world.

In his speech this morning (21 February), President Michael D Higgins was addressing the major flaws found in the current models of economic development that are detrimental to the natural world and the processes that have kept it moving for millions of years.

Higgins spoke on his own involvement and interest in biodiversity of several decades, particularly during his time as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht in the 1990s, which included the introduction of the Habitats Directive into law. However, it was his time as an attendee of the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992 that has stuck with him the most, simply because it shows how attitudes have changed drastically in less than 30 years.

What was once a “hopeful juncture” where policymakers seemed to be making major strides to reversing human-led climate change, is now replaced by one of great dread. Some of the greatest warnings of late include the UN report released in October of last year, which showed that just half a degree Celsius more added to the world’s average temperature would be catastrophic.

A lack of public understanding

“Around the world, the library of life that has evolved over billions of years – our biodiversity – is being destroyed, poisoned, polluted, invaded, fragmented, plundered, drained and burned at a rate not seen in human history,” Higgins said.

Describing the time we have left to make a change to stop ecological collapse as “perilously short”, he added that “if we were coal miners, we would be up to our knees in dead canaries”.

“We are the first generation to truly comprehend the reality of what we’re doing to the natural world, and we may the last with the chance to avert much of the damage,” he said. “With this knowledge comes an extraordinary burden of responsibility that we all share.”

He said he thinks society as a whole treats nature as a “limitless, bottomless resource from which to take” and that the price we pay for this greed is not “adequately comprehended, if it is considered at all”.

What is needed

While citing particular examples of steep population decline in native creatures such as the European eel and the pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly, the President commended the work of the Irish Environmental Network, saying it has “been a welcome voice in our public discourse in biodiversity loss”.

He added that along with major organisations such as this, NGOs and citizen scientists are voices that must be listened to, at a time when 91pc of Ireland’s 58 unique habitats have an ‘inadequate’ or ‘bad’ status. Among the people who need to listen, Higgins said, were those in Government.

“Politicians and public servants must equip themselves with the necessary expertise to adequately represent our citizens’ interests in this regard,” he said. “We can only succeed when those who oversee these sectors and those who are engaged within them understand the threat, accept the need to change our approach and act in our collective interest.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic