by Aoife Kiernan
Hi Yvonne, welcome and congrats on the new role- so tell us how long have you been in Trinity, what brought you here?
Nearly 8 years, I arrived in January 2014. I was working at the University of Queensland in Australia and when the Chair of Zoology came up at Trinity, I jumped at the chance to return home with my family and take up a once in a lifetime opportunity. I have two children and they were just about to start school, so it was great timing.
What is the first thing you’re going to do when you take office?
Resourcing and recruiting to an office that will mainstream climate and biodiversity action and sustainability practise throughout the College’s operations, research and teaching. That means recruiting new professional staff to manage our sustainability work, progress the climate action plan and work on a biodiversity strategy. It also means seconding existing professional and academic staff to the office to enable us to take advantage of existing skills and ingenuity from within the TCD community. I would like to see students represented in this office through a sabbatical or internships and I’d like to talk to students first to figure out the best way of doing this.
I will also establish a new governance structure for how sustainability will be worked on throughout College. The Green Campus Committee done excellent work in getting staff and students working together on sustainability issues and I want to make sure that sustainability is embedded in formal College management structures.
How do you think you can facilitate the student voice on campus when it comes to climate issues? Is it important to you that students play an active role in climate action on campus?
Students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels are incredibly important in shaping our response to the climate and biodiversity crises. The actions (or inaction) we take now will determine what kind of world you will be living in in 50 or 60 years time. Our current students, from all over the world, will feel the brunt of climate & biodiversity change in the coming decades. I would like to see students very actively involved in all levels of climate and biodiversity action on campus and in society more generally and I will facilitate this through inclusion of the student voice throughout the new governance structure for climate and biodiversity action, from the ground up. The Green Campus Cttee has been really great in integrating student and staff ideas and actions. It’s important that students retain their independent voice and I’d like to support ways that students have an opportunity to contribute, examples include your own magazine Evergreen which was supported by the Provost’s sustainability fund.
What do you do in your own life to live more sustainably?
The whole family is bought into sustainability. I think the most important thing we do is consuming less, we have a plant-based diet and grow some of our own vegetables, we try to minimise new purchases of clothes by buying second hand, swapping clothes, using “hand-me-downs”, and I like to make and mend what I can. We have an electric car and we’re working through retrofitting our suburban semi-detached house to make it more energy efficient. Wherever I’ve worked I’ve always taken public transport or cycled, I’ve recently taken advantage of the bike to work scheme to get an electric bike to make my commute a bit easier. We’re lucky to have a city centre campus which makes it easier to get to from surrounding suburbs.
How can we encourage hope and optimism in the face of the climate crisis?
Before we move to hope we need to acknowledge that this is an existential problem. It is very rational to have emotional reactions to what is going on. As a scientist the data scare me – I feel overwhelmed, sad, fearful and anxious. I feel great hope however when I’m surrounded by people who are taking action, doing what they can to mitigate climate and biodiversity change and working hard to find ways to adapt to the new world we’re living in. I have great respect for my colleagues who work with the IPCC and IPBES to build the scientific evidence base for what we need to do to avert the worst impacts. It’s up to the rest of us to lobby for change, take action where we can and importantly, transform the environmentally destructive systems that we have been constrained by for so long.
How can climate change action benefit the health and quality of life of the college community?
I’m excited to be working with Healthy Trinity in this new position. There are loads of parallels between what we can do to improve our own health and that of the planet. One of the biggest problems is that we live in environments where the easy choices are bad for us and bad for the planet. Part of my job will certainly be looking at where we can make changes to the systems within which we make choices to make the sustainable, healthy choices easier. There are significant win-wins for the environment and our own healthy lifespans by taking action on our diets, air quality, safe and accessible blue and green spaces to exercise and travel in and cutting down on excess consumption.
Do you feel like you will have room to make mistakes and experiment?
I think it is inevitable that I will make mistakes, whether I have the room for it or not! I try to use my mistakes and failures to learn how to do better next time. I think it’s important that I step up and takes responsibility for my mistakes, work with the people affected to understand the mistake and its consequences, and make amends where possible. As a scientist I value experiments, I’m also a big fan of observational studies and using systems as “Living Labs” in which we can intervene and evaluate the effects of the intervention. As an ecologist I’m used to dealing with unique and complex systems that are not amenable to a traditional lab scientist approach of multiple replicated interventions, sometimes we just have a single replicate and in my research work I use models, data and a priori working hypotheses to evaluate what has happened. Trinity is certainly a complex and unique ecosystem!
As a professor of zoology working in college did you ever find it frustrating knowing the changes that could be made, but not having the power/resources to do so? What are you most looking forward to?
Meeting new people around college who are doing great things in changing how the College operates, changing how we teach in all kinds of disciplines to stimulate students to think about climate and biodiversity challenges and solutions, and researchers across all disciplines finding solutions to these challenges or bringing new ways of thinking to bear on the problem. We have some of the best thinkers in the world right here at Trinity so I look forward to learning more from them and putting their brightest ideas into action.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge?
Finding the resources we need to invest in sustainable practises and changing the way things are done so that sustainability becomes “baked in” to how we do things, rather than an “add-on”.
Do you think that Trinity, as an institute of research and education based in the centre of Dublin, can influence more than just the college community when it comes to climate action?
Absolutely! We occupy an important cultural space in Dublin, Ireland and the world. We have brilliant people based in Trinity who influence society from political leaders to their own communities. We get hundreds of thousands of visitors who want to learn more about us and what we do. We have seen through the Covid-19 pandemic how TCD academics have become household names due to their commitment to work with government and society, and there has been healthy debate and dissent as well. As part of the university sector and as part of society in general Trinity grapples with many of the same challenges as other sectors – decarbonising our buildings, reducing the GHG emissions of work travel, reducing waste, promoting biodiversity on a multi-use campus where people and nature can come into conflict, these are all issues that we will work on, learn more about and contribute back into the public arena.
Do you think there will be an opportunity for the college to engage with the residents and business owners of neighbouring communities to decrease our collective climate impact?
Absolutely! We have an ongoing dialogue with DCC, and will continue to work with them to find sustainable transport solutions, including safe cycling routes between TCD campuses. I am currently involved in a couple of art projects that work with local communities around the city centre on climate change and sustainability issues. We need to keep principles of just transition and transformation to the front of our minds; where we have influence we need to ensure that climate and biodiversity solutions are fair and do not place a burden on those least able to bear it. Trinity has a responsibility to the communities that our campuses are embedded in. I look forward to working with the civic engagement office at Trinity to find new ways of engaging with our communities for mutual benefit.
As the first ever vice president for Biodiversity and Climate Action, you have a lot of influence in the direction of the role. What do you see in the future of the office? Where will it be in 10 years?
In 10 years’ time it will be 2031, we will have passed our first big climate action milestone which is halving GHG emissions by 2030. We only have nine years remaining to get there, I hope here at Trinity we will have done our bit to meet this national target. The sustainability office will be well established, and climate and biodiversity action will be embedded in how we operate, teach and do our research. Not only will we have changed our own practises but as a community we will have lit the way for new solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises through our research and sparked new ways of think about the crises and potential solutions through our teaching.