It’s hard to believe it’s my last week with Reef-World already. This time next week I will be on Irish soil, straight back into fieldwork season at home. Looking back over the last four months, I can’t help but be filled with those familiar “warm and fuzzies” I had leaving the Philippines two years ago. Having the opportunity to work with, and see firsthand, the communities most likely to be affected by climate change is nothing short of inspiring, eye-opening, heartbreaking, and incredible all at once. This is where the state of the marine environment means food to feed a family, or no food. Where a healthy reef can provide livelihoods and where sustainable tourism supports entire communities.  

When I consider all those fighting the good fight in marine conservation, I often find myself toppling on a seesaw of inspired optimism and total hopelessness. On a good day in the office, you see the impact, recognise the big picture and leave feeling like you’ve changed the world. But on a bad one, you can be left asking if you’re wasting your time.

I was first confronted with this feeling of impending doom at 16 years old while writing an essay on climate change. In hindsight, if it wasn’t the newfound love of scuba diving that made 16-year old Áine catch the conservation bug, it was this homework assignment. I can still remember feeling captivated learning about the ozone layer and the Greenhouse Gas Effect. It blew my mind that part of the Earth’s stratosphere could be both the reason our planet can sustain life yet also the reason our planet was getting warmer. Whenever I’m edging more on the hopeless side of the seesaw I think back to that evening, because as recent reports have shown – the ozone layer is healing!

According to a UN-backed report released in 2018, the near catastrophic damage caused by CFCs to the ozone layer since the late 1970s is on its way to a full recovery. The upper ozone layer above the Northern Hemisphere should be completely repaired in the 2030s and the hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic should disappear in the 2060s. In the chaos of climate strikes, climate emergencies and cries for action, it can be hard to imagine governments of the world coming together to implement effective change. The Montreal Protocol (the international treaty for reducing emissions of ozone-depleting substances) is proof that international co-operation and effective global policy change is possible. It’s a reminder that’s particularly apt as we approach 2020, which marks the deadline put forward in the Paris Agreement for countries to comply with their emissions reduction commitments and move on to tougher targets for 2030.

For me, prioritising recognising hope - big or small, personal or global - keeps me going on the days when I consider becoming an accountant (no offence to any accountants out there!). During my time with Reef-World there were no pivotal inspirational moments quite like getting out into the field. The run up to fieldwork might be spent daydreaming about island life and diving (and for my trip to Palau, the guilt-free sustainable seafood and more sharks than I could ever dream of). But in reality, it’s always the people I meet that leave me coming back to the city feeling optimistic and fulfilled. It’s meeting the people whose livelihoods depend on the environment, whose communities are built on respect for the ocean and marine life that leave a lasting impact. When you’re engaging with people at a grassroots level, signs of hope are everywhere. It’s in the moment you see a spark in someone’s eyes during an awareness raising presentation. It’s in the spotlessly clean pathways “adopted” by local businesses and families. It’s in a community’s ingenious ability to turn a lack of resources into real solutions. Seeing the impact of how working locally will increase the resilience of these communities makes every difficult day worth it. It reminds me that the single-use coffee sachet I’m harping on about represents something much larger.

There’s no denying that climate change is here. Entire countries are now feeling its direct effects. While we need to be realistic about the challenges ahead, we can’t lose sight of what we have achieved so far. After all, it’s in celebrating our successes that we can harness the momentum to keep moving forward. I’m glad to say I’m finishing my four months with Reef-World on the hopeful side of the see-saw and I’m excited to see what my next adventure will bring.