On September 2nd, I was asked to give the graduation speech at University College Dublin for the Class of 2019 in Degrees in Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy, Geography and Engineering Science & Structural Engineering. - No easy task when you're used to telling people bad news on climate change! Read my speech or listen to the audio below if you're craving a dose of inspiration amid a climate crisis...
Or Read Here:
It’s true, the future could be bleak if we fail to act quickly. You’ve heard the media headline “we have 11 years to solve climate change” and that has terrified a lot of young people into thinking that in 11 years, we’re going to be underwater and starving. But what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change really said is that we have 11 years to reduce emissions by just under 50% to have a chance of staying below 1.5C of warming. What that means for you, is that the next 11 years of your career could and should be a time of radical change and disruption in the business-as-usual model. I am talking about a societal transformation in the same way we transitioned during the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s to the early 1800s, when the invention of the internal combustion engine powered by fossil fuels allowed us to expand food production, improve public health and grow our global population to the incredible extent we see today. Now, we know that if we want to continue to thrive as a species, we need to evolve beyond fossil fuels, and You, as new graduates, can provide the skills to make that transition possible.
When I was in secondary school and even as in third level studying biochemistry, we never learned about climate change, but YOU are coming out of an education system that has embedded the issue across the curriculum and therefore you’re bringing a modern, cutting edge perspective to an older work force that is desperately looking for solutions. And I have to say, fair play for getting here because I would have struggled in the Irish education system. First, you have the challenge of memorizing and regurgitating information to get to third level (including Irish!) only to have to switch gears once you get here to think critically in order to succeed.
You may have presumed that someone whose been asked to speak to you for your graduation has been successful in the Irish system but – I love the visualisation of an ice-berg to describe my own career path, including my academic history – where the tiny bit of the ice-berg you see floating above the water has been my successes, and the enormous chunk you can’t see below the water has been my failures.
To give you an example of one of my own failures, in 2014, I was asked to stand for local election -knowing nothing about Irish politics and really identifying as a full-fledged scientist at the time. When I was asked, I actually felt like vomiting at the thought of having to knock on doors and ask for votes, which is exactly why I decided to do it – because you learn the most from the things that scare you to death (including giving this speech, actually).
For 6 months, I gave it my best shot – I spent EUR 5000 of my own money; I was stressed beyond belief trying to hold down a job, raise my 4 yr old and canvass in my spare time; I tested my marriage to the point of collapse; and after all of that – I lost the election by just 100 votes. I spent 6 months afterward starring at a wall wondering why the heck had I put myself and my family through that ordeal But two years later, I could tell you it was worth every penny and all the hardship because it was a 6 month crash course in Irish politics, media training, and understanding the pulse of my community, and that has put me on the career path I have today, which I adore. (I hope President Deeks heard that because I really love my job here!). Your careers going forward may also look like ice bergs. Honestly, I hope they do because the failures teach you so much and are just a way of putting you onto a different and exciting path.
My co-host on Newstalk, Ivan Yates, is just a little younger than my father, so it’s a bit like talking to my dad when I’m talking to him (don’t tell him I said that) and he’s often quite critical of your generation not being as hard working as ours. When I sat in your seat, I wanted to live the definition of success and the values I’d been taught by my parents – to have permanent job with a pension, be a homeowner, get married, have children, but then as I finished my education, the economy collapsed and all that was on offer was “the gig economy” and zero hour contracts – so I couldn’t live the life that my parents told me was successful. However, in that process of having to adapt to this uncertain world, I learned having a career just to buy stuff isn’t the most important thing for me. Autonomy, creativity, being allowed to speak my truth, and have more time to invest in raising my daughter – those are the things I value most. I hope, for you, that you can always put your own values at the front of your career and life choices and not be swayed away from them by others.
I can already see how your generation and those younger than you are less impressionable than mine maybe due to more access to information via the internet. I see how you respond to authenticity and can mobilize in seconds on an issue you care about through social media, and we’ve seen that in the climate strikes happening all over the world. I can see how you look for experiences rather than the acquisition of more stuff and aren’t defined by ownership of a house/car, by the over-consumption that threatens our planet.
I’ll give you one more personal story to illustrate my point about this moment of crisis as a moment opportunity for you. One hundred years ago, my family’s farm in County Kerry had no electricity. My Grandfather, who was a dairy farmer that never attended secondary school, built a water turbine and a wind turbine to power a single light bulb in their home before the national electrification program. One hundred years later, today, I am seeing new graduates finding ways, not to bring power farms in Ireland, but for farms, schools and homes to help power the whole country. As a country with a low manufacturing base, a high percentage of rural land, and a vast supply of renewable resources, the opportunities to innovate here as part of a global low-carbon transition are limitless.
And every discipline is needed in this transition: scientists, engineers, policy makers, designers, communicators, but particularly the disciplines represented in this room because everything needs to be redesigned to adapt and mitigate against a changing climate and address our biodiversity crisis. Transport, energy, cities, towns, villages, how people work/shop/eat – all have to be reconsidered. If you can’t see how your new careers are a part of this new low carbon revolution, please come talk to me because I guarantee you, there is a way.
I’m not just talking about recycling at home, bringing your keep cup or cycling to work -because I get frustrated hearing the constant mantra of “the power of one” and “it starts with you”. Yes, individual responsibility and behavioral change is something we should all do to help, but I will quote the words of the journalist Bill McKibben when he came to Ireland a few years ago and said: “The best thing an individual can do to address this crisis is to stop being an individual”. That advice applies whether you are an activist or an employee – collectively, we need to look at our entire supply chains and our entire business models to figure out where we can transition quickly away from fossil fuels, inefficiency and waste. I am sure you guys are ready for that challenge.
The writer and conservationist, Terry Tempest Williams, once said, “The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time” When I look at all of you, I see a radically different future than today and it gives me enormous hope in the midst of a crisis. So go forth -fail, learn, collaborate, be authentic, be disruptive! I wish you the best of luck in being a significant part of this new Revolution.