Climate change battle on the Great Barrier Reef

She’s more than 15,000 kilometres from home... but Cork woman Kate O’Callaghan, who now lives in Cairns, tells EMMA CONNOLLY about her work in protecting the Great Barrier Reef and fighting climate change
Climate change battle on the Great Barrier Reef

IMPRESSIVE: The Great Barrier Reef “is the largest living structure on the Earth. It is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, home to thousands of species of fish, coral, mammals, plants — it’s remarkable!”

Climate change battle on Great Barrier Reef

A BALLINCOLLIG woman living in Australia is working to save the iconic Great Barrier Reef from the impact of climate change and is urging people to play their part and find more sustainable ways of living.

Kate O’Callaghan, daughter of Manus who is known for organising the Cork Person of the Year Award, moved to Australia in 2010 where she lives with her husband and nine month old Finn.

“Like so many other stories begin, I followed a man here! I met my now-husband Som, nine years ago when I moved to Glasgow. He had lived in Dublin previously so mutual friends put us in touch and I was charmed by his fun-loving Aussie ways.

“He eventually ran out of working holiday visas to use so we moved to Australia in 2010 — I had no idea then that I’d still be here now,” explains the Science graduate from Trinity.

Kate works for Cairns-based Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef which was started last year by Andy Ridley, who founded Earth Hour — the global movement to turn your lights off for an hour to raise awareness of climate change.

She explains: “Andy wanted to bring this same global vision to the Reef, the world’s largest living structure, and build a movement of people taking action to protect it.

NEW HOME: Kate, a Trinity Science graduate, moved to Oz in 2010 with her boyfriend, now husband, Som.
NEW HOME: Kate, a Trinity Science graduate, moved to Oz in 2010 with her boyfriend, now husband, Som.

“Back-to-back coral bleaching events hit the Reef in 2016 and 2017, following two extremely warm summers. A significant amount of coral cover was lost, which was totally unprecedented.

“For the first time we were witnessing the impact of climate change on one of our most celebrated natural icons — the need for urgent action was apparent.

“But at the heart of it all, we’re using the Great Barrier Reef as a touchstone for what’s happening all over the world — over- consumption is fuelling biodiversity loss, climate change, and the plastic crisis.

“Essentially, we need to find a better, more sustainable way of doing things.”

The Great Barrier Reef is 2,300km long — that’s longer than the west coast of the USA.

“It’s not a single reef, but made up of thousands of different reefs which together make it the largest living structure on Earth. It’s one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, home to thousands of species of fish, coral, mammals, plants — it’s remarkable! To think we are losing it due to inaction on climate change is something we cannot accept. If we do, then we have really failed.”

The project Kate is involved in is, she explains, all about the power of collective action and demonstrating the power of the individual to create change.

THE PLASTIC CRISIS: Kate said the Great Barrier Reef is at the heart of the organisation’s work, but they are using the reef as a touchstone for what’s happening all over the world.
THE PLASTIC CRISIS: Kate said the Great Barrier Reef is at the heart of the organisation’s work, but they are using the reef as a touchstone for what’s happening all over the world.

“Climate change is such a huge issue and apathy has really crept into the debate — how can I an individual make a difference? Things like ditching single-use bottles and reducing your food waste may seem small and pointless, but if you can get 10,000 or a million people doing it, then you have change.

“We’re seeing huge companies like McDonalds and Starbucks reducing single-use plastic, which is amazing. And if you can convince someone to care about plastic straws, you can start to talk to them about bigger issues and ultimately get them thinking about who they vote for.

“We’re already witnessing the consequences of current path and it’s quite scary.”

Ireland is much more progressive on climate and environmental policies than Australia, she points out.

“I was thrilled to read that Ireland has become the first country to divest from fossil fuels. The Australian economy is still heavily dependent on coal exports which means climate change and the transition to renewable energy has become extremely politicised, which has hampered any real progress.

BUILDING A LIFE IN OZ: Kate O’Callaghan, from Ballincollig, with son Finn, aged nine months. Kate works for Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef.
BUILDING A LIFE IN OZ: Kate O’Callaghan, from Ballincollig, with son Finn, aged nine months. Kate works for Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef.

“Even on things like single-use plastics, Ireland is strides ahead. Queensland for example has just implemented a plastic bag ban and people are going crazy about it — I am so proud that Ireland had the foresight to deal with this issue back in 2002.”

Before this project, Kate was working mostly in the non-profit sector in Sydney and Brisbane, doing a variety of roles like marketing, campaign management, and fundraising.

“Apart from conservation and climate, asylum seeker and refugee rights is a big passion of mine and unfortunately an area where Australia is really falling behind.”

Kate is also mum to nine month old little boy, Finn, and is, she says, “on a steep learning curve that is being a first-time mum. We’re visiting home for the first time with him this month so I can’t wait for that.”

WORKING TOGETHER: Kate O’Callaghan and co-workers at Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, which was set up by Andy Ridley, who founded Earth House, the global movement for climate change.
WORKING TOGETHER: Kate O’Callaghan and co-workers at Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, which was set up by Andy Ridley, who founded Earth House, the global movement for climate change.

Obviously she enjoys Australia’s weather and the outdoors lifestyle it allows: “I never wear socks and have grown to love camping — no wellies or soggy sleeping bags required.

“Do I miss home? Absolutely. Apart from family and friends (which never gets easier), I miss so many things — frosty mornings, fish suppers, Clonakilty pudding, the wild beauty of West Cork, not having to specify which tea you want, and just the people and ease of conversation. I can’t wait to get home.”

Given its nature, there’s not a timescale to the Great Barrier Reef project.

“I think we’re going to be at this for a long time yet! At the core of the Citizens movement is the need to move away from our current linear economic model (make-use-dispose) towards a circular one.

“At the moment, we only reuse 9% of everything we dig out of the ground, so 91% is used only once. This is simply not sustainable and we’re really seeing the impacts of this wasteful way of doing things.

“But there has been a significant shift in people’s thinking over the last year and we’re finally seeing some momentum building around the issue of waste and overconsumption. There is hope, if we all take individual action, and demand better from our political and business leaders.”

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