Diving off the north coast of Donegal I am at peace. Watery sounds flood my ears as I move through carpets of kelp and seaweed ranging from deep burgundy to dark grey and green. I drift past walls of jewel anemones and dead man’s fingers, hovering over dogfish staring into their shark eyes and peering into cracks to see crabs, lobsters and crayfish. Grouper swim close, not shy at all, while mackerel skit and nurseries of tiny fish abound; the diversity of life is striking and impressive.

Enjoying this underwater world I am struck by two things: first, the immense power of this ecosystem to absorb and store carbon — at least 25 per cent of all CO2 emissions are absorbed by the ocean — making it a vital carbon sink. So all the kelp and seaweed folding in the current is playing an important role in protecting us from climate change. The seas off our coast are our ally when it comes to taking action to get global heating under control. According to Nasa, the oceans have absorbed 90 per cent of the global warming that has occurred in recent decades. We would be in far worse shape without them.

Discussion on climate action is important — we have had too little of it for too long

The second thing that strikes me on my dive is that this amazing ecosystem is at risk and that we are the cause of that risk. Our actions, as a single species, have the capacity to place systems as vast as our oceans in danger of collapse. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is of one mind — that global warming has altered marine ecosystems worldwide, causing species loss and mass mortality events. Our oceans are acidifying and experiencing heatwaves that could lead to ecosystem collapse.

Yet under the water off the Donegal coast all is calm. I am struck by the stark contrast between my quiet watery experience and the debate that has been raging on our airwaves and in Cabinet meetings as sectoral emissions targets to reduce carbon pollution were debated before the Dáil recess. Instead of being inclusive, empathetic and productive, these interactions were, predominantly, shouty, polarised, personalised and divisive. Discussion on climate action is important — we have had too little of it for too long. But my dive reminded me of the bigger picture, of what is at risk and of the many ways we are connected to each other and dependent on the natural world. Can we find a more productive way to collaborate in the face of an emergency that will outscale the coronavirus pandemic, an emergency that we know is coming and that we know how to prevent and manage? Do we have what it takes to rise above our differences and embrace a different reality? To accept that we will all have to make and support changes.

It seems to me that our fear of change paralyses us to act and prevents us from seeing opportunities.

What we have now is far from perfect. Growing inequality, homelessness, rising prices, energy shortages, war, a climate and nature emergency … things I increasingly struggle to talk to my children about for fear of terrifying them. It is after all their future and not mine that is at stake. So if the present way of doing things is so broken why do we fear change so much? There are, for example, exciting new ways to use our land in Ireland, that benefit farmers by reducing risk and creating value, that protect nature and that provide renewable energy and landscapes for human enjoyment. There are also ways to revitalise our cities and towns so that we can walk and cycle, meet friends, form connections and belong.

Key to this is dialogue, real dialogue. Where people listen and share. Where vested interests are set aside and humility is a valued characteristic

Imagine if instead of being fearful of change we planned for it, embraced it and funded it?

To do this we need a form of leadership that co-creates a vision of the Ireland we want to live in and pass on to our children — and that sets about creating a plan to deliver that vision that everyone feels comfortable getting behind. Key to this is dialogue, real dialogue. Where people listen and share. Where vested interests are set aside and humility is a valued characteristic. Where we look across sectors to find shared and mutually beneficial solutions (like creating clean energy from farm waste). All the time we keep our eye on the prize. We remember what it is we are trying to achieve: an Ireland that provides equal opportunities for everything from housing to education, health and wellbeing and quality of life to be proud of. To get there we need to redefine what it is to be a leader, in service of the citizens of Ireland and committed to delivering the shared vision of a better future.

This leadership must be diverse and inclusive of new and unheard voices. It must strive to share power rather than hold it and invite feedback and new ideas. When we stop being defensive we can see new avenues and opportunities. When we open our minds, as so many great Irish thinkers and creators have done before us, we have a real chance of being proud of our small island.

Read The Irish Times here.

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