Out of the frying pan? A tumultuous decade draws to a close

The hottest month ever recorded on Earth occurred in July 2019, during what has been yet another year of record-shattering extremes. France was hit this summer by two ‘once-in-500-year’ heatwaves in rapid succession. Expect extreme weather to dominate the 2020s.

The most dramatic manifestation of this dangerous new world were the more than 80,000 fires that swept across the Amazon jungle this summer, destroying more than 2.2 million acres of forest. Meanwhile, massive blazes from Alaska to Greenland and Siberia burned millions more acres of boreal forests, in a vicious spiral of heating and fire begetting more fire and more heat.

At the beginning of October, Ireland braced for hurricane Lorenzo, the largest recorded storm ever to appear so far east in the north Atlantic. Just two years earlier, hurricane Ophelia became the worst storm to hit Ireland in over half a century.

Happily, Lorenzo failed to follow its projected path over Ireland. However, hurricanes aren’t supposed to be capable of reaching anywhere remotely near the west coast of Europe. Ireland’s chief climate vulnerability is to extreme flooding, and while there were few major domestic flooding events in 2019, a new European scientific study pointed to ‘a continent-wide pattern of changes in flooding in line with what we may expect in a warming world’.

Another thing heating up dramatically in 2019 was public awareness and anxiety about climate change and biodiversity collapse. The emergence of Swedish wunderkind Greta Thunberg as an international figure energised and mobilised millions around the world in a year that has seen the greatest number of people ever take to the streets demanding action on the climate crisis.

The first global school strike was called for March 15th, and upwards of 12,000 students flooded onto the streets of Dublin in a noisy, colourful gathering demanding that the adults in Leinster House start acting like grown-ups and take action.

Later that month, the joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (JOCCA), chaired by Hildegarde Naughton TD, published its eagerly awaited report. Its work built on the much lauded Citizens Assembly climate recommendations, published in late 2017.

Knowing that politicians love to wax lyrical about targets in the distant future, JOCCA demanded that binding five-yearly carbon budgets be put in place, but this has yet to happen. The European Climate Foundation reviewed Ireland’s draft National Energy & Climate Plan (NECP) and gave it a poor 38% rating. While good on policy detail, it came up woefully inadequate on actual targets, achieving a shocking 5% score.

When announcing Budget 2020 in early October, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe described climate change as “without a doubt our defining challenge”. Carbon tax rose by €6 to €26 in the Budget – an increase reckoned to be high enough to annoy the public but far too low to trigger behavioural change. This will rise to €80 a tonne by 2030, a level at which it may begin to bite, but the question remains: who gets bitten?

Defining it may be, but there is still no inkling of political appetite for the kind of radical societal shift in energy, agriculture and transport needed to achieve decarbonisation by mid-century.

Climate action minister, Richard Bruton clearly has little support around the Cabinet table for any genuinely radical actions, especially those that might tread on the toes of the business and agri-industry lobbyists who hob-nob freely with senior Fine Gael figures.

In fact, they don’t even feel the need to be discreet; Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney were photographed in early March strolling to an international rugby match with IFA president Joe Healy and EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier.

In many other countries, such blatant high-level political access by lobbyists would be verbotenbut here in Ireland shure it’s just the lads off to the match followed by a few pints and a bit of a chat, so what’s the harm? Oddly, the same revolving door of political access remains firmly shut in the face of the entire e-NGO sector.

Awkwardly for this government , fobbing off climate activists is getting harder by the week. As the Spring tide of student strikers receded, they were replaced by Extinction Rebellion activists, who have run a series of brazen but effective publicity stunts to keep the pressure on for climate action.

Any hope among the political classes that this storm of protest had blown itself out was extinguished with a second international school strike in September, this time drawing over 20,000 onto the streets of Dublin and thousands more across Irish cities and towns, with upwards of seven million strikers worldwide. Letting the future burn in favour of short-term gain may be profitable, but it is manifestly no longer all that popular.

May’s European elections brought a political dividend to the Greens, with Ciaran Cuffe and Grace O’Sullivan picking up seats and newcomer, Saoirse McHugh putting in a creditable performance in the west. Whether this will translate into a bounty of Dáil seats will largely depend on the party’s ability to field quality candidates.

The publication in late October of the EPA’s emissions data for 2018 showed both agri and transport emissions continuing to rise. The launch at Hallowe’en by the Taoiseach of the first update to the Climate Action Plan was an opportunity to gauge the government’s thinking, and Leo did not disappoint.

Reading straight from the agri-industry’s Little Book of Fairytales, Varadkar parroted about Ireland ‘”feeding 50 million people” (this is utter nonsense; Ireland is a major net food energy importer, according to UN-FAO data), hinting darkly about having to “treat food production differently to the way we treat transport or electricity”. For anyone still in doubt, Varadkar has made it clear that the most important step to climate action in Ireland is to vote his government out asap.

While whooping it up with the farmers ahead of the election plays well locally for Fine Gael, Varadkar needed a green fig leaf for his recent UN speech in New York, and he pulled a stroke even a Healy-Rae would be proud of when announcing a ban on offshore oil (but not gas) exploration. Ireland, of course, never has and never will bring oil ashore, so his statement was deliciously Machiavellian.

The Climate Change Advisory Council unwisely advised government that gas could be used as a ‘transition fuel’ and this counsel was gleefully jumped on. Not content to keep drilling for gas, the government added a liquid natural gas (LNG) facility in Shannon to its EU list of Projects of Common Interest, a fast-track to funding and high-speed planning.

If offshore gas is bad, LNG imported from the US is much worse, as it’s the product of fracking and is actually significantly worse than even burning coal. The move sparked fierce opposition, including from the Incredible Hulk (aka actor Mark Ruffalo), who pointed out the huge damage done by fracking to poor families in Pennsylvania.

On the home front, an industry group called Renewable Gas Forum Ireland were touting emissions savings of over two million tonnes per annum for a slurry-to-biogas plan. The catch? They want annual subsidies of €116 million, or well over a billion a decade. And one of the big proposed uses of this new gas source? Producing milk powder to sell to Chinese and Saudi mums to help wean them off vulgar, old-fashioned breast milk.

More tree-huggers rushing to help battle climate change are Ibec’s Forest Industries Ireland (FII), a lobby group keen to make sure that as many of the government’s proposed 8,000 hectares of trees planted annually are fast-growing Sitka spruce. FII is under the impression that barren monocultures of Sitka are forests, even quoting David Attenborough, as if the famed naturalist might approve of these wildlife-free industrial timber wastelands.

However, my environmental hero award for of 2019 goes to Cement Roadstone Holdings, which successfully applied to convert the kiln at its Limerick plant from dirty fossil fuels to, um, animal carcasses, used tyres and plastics. The CRH eco warriors naturally argued that the move was really all about… cutting carbon emissions.

As 2019 draws to a close, it’s hard to believe that the Oireachtas actually declared a climate and biodiversity emergency back in May. The fact that only six deputies bothered to show up in the Dáil for this announcement suggested it was really just a bone to throw at the increasingly restive climate action movement.

And so it has come to pass. The lobbyists are more tightly embedded with government than ever before, while hard-core climate deniers like David Horgan of Petrel Resources still have the run of RTÉ current affairs shows, where they can spread disinformation with impunity.

Still, after years of systemic neglect, RTÉ’s Dee Forbes was embarrassed this year into ‘doing something’ about climate change, which it duly delivered in a creditable ‘Climate Week’ series of programmes in November. Just months earlier, all three panellists on Brendan O’Connor’s ‘Cutting Edge’ agreed that environmentalists were just “crusty hypocrites”.

Happily, the years of neglect bordering on hostility from Montrose towards climate science, are all forgotten, now that the national broadcaster has had its woke moment on climate. For now, at least.

And finally, as the COP25 conference in Madrid ended with a cop-out, with negotiators agreeing to disagree, then firmly kicking the can down the road all the way to Glasgow and COP26 next autumn, a recent report by fund management giants, Legal & General sees areas of the world currently home to up to 2 billion people being simply too hot to be habitable later this century.

“What we are likely to see, for the first time in human history, is parts of the world being so hot and so humid that human beings would not be able to survive for more than a few hours without access to air conditioning.” Put that one in your spreadsheet and suddenly the costs involved in maintaining a climate compatible with human (and animal) life don’t seem quite so onerous.

The EU was by some distance the best of a bad lot when it came to climate negotiations, with Trump’s thuggish populist demagoguery empowering others to also welch on their commitments, from Brazil to India, China and Australia (the latter, long known as the Lucky Country, may be fast running out of luck as soaring temperatures and raging wildfires cast a smoky shadow over this major coal exporter’s own continued existence in the longer term).

And, as this piece in the Verge put it, the 2010s was the decade that ‘climate change slapped us in the face’. Compared with what the 2020s has in store, this may come to seem like the mildest of rebukes.

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RTÉ finally spins spotlight onto concerted climate action

Over the last decade and more, I’ve been in an uncomfortable position regarding RTÉ. On the one hand, I’ve long been a stout defender of public service broadcasting as a vital bulwark against total domination of our media landscape by agenda-peddling billionaires and the vagaries of advertisers.

Public funding should, at least in theory, free our state broadcaster to be able to give due attention to what is genuinely important in society, not just what is popular at a given moment. Some of its output, such as the ‘RTÉ Investigates‘ unit, fulfils this public service mandate superbly, uncovering wrong-doing and investing resources in journalism that looks past the headlines to the stories hidden from view.

On the other hand, its output over the last decade and more on climate change, biodiversity and crunch environmental issues generally has been, with one or two exceptions, abysmal. A recently published paper by DCU researchers noted the overall low amount of media coverage climate issues receive in Ireland compared to other European countries, adding: “Climate change is predominately framed as a political or ideological game, emphasising the personalities or parties involved, rather than the extent of the challenge”.

RTÉ has time and again failed utterly to discharge its public broadcasting obligation on what is demonstrably the biggest story not just of this decade but of the 21st century. For its troubles, it has shipped a fair amount of well-earned censure, here and elsewhere for platforming cranks, cynics, curmudgeons and outright deniers, while absolutely failing to grapple with the overwhelming evidence that the climate emergency poses an existential threat to human civilisation and life on Earth.

Failure on this scale makes the station’s undoubted successes in some other fields fade into irrelevance. After decades of slumber, the Montrose media giant began to finally stir fitfully earlier this year, stung into wakefulness I reckon by the extraordinary show of strength last March when thousands of students flooded the streets around Leinster House demanding radical climate action.

The station simply didn’t see it coming, and has been scrambling to play catch-up ever since. The grilling of DG Dee Forbes by the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action last January also seemed to have had an effect, but it still took heat from the street to tip the broadcaster into gear. This culminated in a week-long station-wide focus on the climate emergency, something entirely unprecedented for environmental coverage (I took part in the Late Debate Climate Special that week).

Whether Climate Week is remembered as the moment that public service broadcasting in Ireland came of age in the era of climate breakdown or as just another once-off cynical PR stunt to piggy-back on the school strike movement very much remains to be seen.

Below, my opinion article that ran in the Irish Times on November 18th on Climate Week:

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WHAT WAS most remarkable about RTÉ’s Climate Week was not that the climate crisis dominated the news cycle, with relentless daily media coverage on TV and radio, backed up by documentaries, science explainers and studio discussions. No, given all that is at stake, what is truly puzzling is that this is seen as exceptional at all.

This unprecedented media blitz from the national broadcaster is as welcome as it is overdue, especially given the Cinderella status of climate as a topic for the last decade and more. The genesis of Climate Week can most likely be traced back to a dressing-down RTÉ’s director-general, Dee Forbes, received at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (Jocca) earlier this year. She promised to do better, much better, and the station has delivered.

And, whatever about saving the planet, this kind of editorial boldness may yet help save RTÉ, as it was a reminder of the unique power of public broadcasting to both challenge and shape our national dialogue.

While far from perfect, the report of the Committee on Climate Action, chaired by Hildegarde Naughton TD, had offered a genuine blueprint for strong climate action in line with the scientific evidence, and should in turn have guided the Government’s Climate Action Plan, which boasts an impressive-sounding 182 “actions”.

Worrying complacency

It was during the first update report on this action plan that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar recently triggered a storm of controversy when talking up the supposed “benefits” of climate change. Varadkar argued he was merely talking off the cuff, yet his gaffe betrays a worrying complacency at the highest level of Government.

Some of the so-called “actions” are anodyne in the extreme. One, relating to “the effectiveness of climate-related communications, network building and deliberative capacity”, simply re-badges the long-running EPA climate lecture series.

As RTÉ have proven this week, effective, coherent and scientifically informed climate coverage really works, but a once-off effort like this must be seen as the spark, rather than a substitute, for a coherent all-of-Government plan.

Rapid decarbonisation of all aspects of Ireland’s economy, from transport and energy to our homes, institutions and agricultural systems, is probably the biggest, most complex challenge we have faced since the foundation of the State.

Changes on this scale will inevitably encounter concerted resistance from vested interests and contrarians, and, without a coherent communications plan that wins wide public support, inertia may be impossible to overcome. After all, how can you expect people to change their lifestyles when you haven’t bothered explaining why this is even necessary or important?

The Jocca report argued that education has to be the bedrock of climate action, with a call for a full review of all primary and secondary curricula. The committee was also worried that without effective and sustained communication and education strategies in place, “the necessary policy interventions may quickly become unpopular, leading to substantial challenges in implementation”.

Awareness campaigns

Well-funded, sustained public awareness campaigns such as those run by the Road Safety Authority have, on the other hand, proven to be successful, and the Jocca report argues for “a significant awareness-raising programme by Government”.

While there is no mention of any such programme in the Climate Action Plan, a spokesperson for Richard Bruton’s Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment says the Government “will design a nationwide communications campaign early next year”. No further details were forthcoming, other than to note a number of ongoing environmental initiatives also being supported.

Some 10 years ago the then-government rolled out the “Power of One” campaign, backed by a €10 million budget. Its aim was to change individual behaviour and so reduce fossil fuel usage. A follow-up study by the ESRI found it had “no persistent effect” and any behavioural changes were short-lived.

This experience is a clear warning to the Government that pushing the onus on individual behavioural shift while failing to fundamentally reform a system that locks the public into high-carbon lifestyles is again doomed to failure.

The Jocca report also urged that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland be empowered to impose climate quotas on all licensed broadcasters, as is already the case for news, current affairs and the Irish language. It further warned that advertising pressures “cannot undermine broadcasters’ obligations to climate content”. Regrettably, this advice has been ignored.

As a stark reminder of what is now on the line, President Michael D Higgins warned last week that humanity is “at the precipice of a global ecological catastrophe”. Failure to plan now means planning for the bitterest failure in the decades ahead.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

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Meat & dairy sector turns to chemical industry PR playbook

Below, my article as published on the investigative website, Desmog UK on October 4th. Ireland’s meat and dairy industries have been feeling the heat, both from a public turning increasingly towards vegetarian and vegan options as concern over the environmental impacts of ruminant agriculture mount and from the high profile Go Vegan World billboard campaign drawing attention to the ethical issues involved in animal farming. The rapid rise of social media mean that the once-mysterious workings of abattoirs as well as the horrors of much of the live export trade (especially involving very young calves) are now there for everyone to see. However tempting it may be for Agri industry interests to blame do-gooder environmentalists, these trends are real and aren’t going away. The question now is whether the new ‘Meat and Dairy Facts’ campaign is going to be, well, factual, or just double down on cherry picked industry talking points while ignoring all inconvenient data. Time will tell.

IRELAND’S embattled beef and dairy sector has taken the unusual step of bringing in a public relations and lobbying firm with links to the tobacco and agri-chemicals industries to defend the sector against a growing chorus of critics.

A consortium of farmers, food processors and state agencies has been formed under the banner of “Meat & Dairy Facts“ to counter what it claims is “disinformation” aimed at beef and dairy products. The initiative is co-funded by six Irish participating bodies.

It will stress the role that meat and dairy plays “in a healthy balanced diet and the incredible efforts that Irish farmers are taking to care for their animals and protect the environment”.

Red Flag

The agency chosen for this campaign, Dublin-based Red Flag, was last year instrumental in setting up the astroturf Freedom To Farm campaign. The group was an industry-funded effort to create the impression that ordinary farmers were spontaneously rallying to demand the controversial weedkiller, glyphosate, not be banned by the EU.

Red Flag CEO, Karl Brophy was quoted as saying: “We are grateful to several clients for supporting the project,” he said, adding, “we’re proud to have played a small part in providing the information” to help defeat the proposed ban.

Brophy explained to the Independent that Red Flag was working “to bring a number of our clients and contacts together in order to help those people who would be most affected by a potential glyphosate ban”.

The EU’s Europa Transparency Register lists Red Flag’s lobbying clients in 2016 as including the North America Meat Institute, British America Tobacco, Monsanto and Barclay Chemicals Manufacturing (another major glyphosate producer).

When contacted by DeSmog, Brophy stated: “we don’t represent Monsanto, any other ‘agri-chemical’ interests or, outside the Meat & Dairy Facts initiative, anyone in what you would describe as the ‘Agri-Industrial’ arena.”

When asked to clarify whether this meant the company was not currently working for Monsanto, he declined to comment, other than to say: “the work we conduct for our clients is based on fact and science and stands up to scrutiny. We suggest you might actually wait until you see what the Meat & Dairy Facts initiative produces before prejudging it”.

Vegan pressure

Ireland’s almost complete dependence on emissions-intensive beef and dairy production has left the agriculture sector exposed to a clamour for action to address climate change, while the growing popularity of vegetarianism and veganism (for health, environmental or animal welfare reasons) has added to the pressure.

An Irish group called “Go Vegan World“ has run a series of high-impact billboards and posters targeting animal agriculture. Its campaign, which it describes as the first of its kind in Europe, claims to “present information to the public that counters socio-cultural acceptance of speciesism and offers veganism as a just alternative”.

Commenting on the upcoming Meat & Dairy Facts campaign, Sandra Higgins, director of Go Vegan, told DeSmog: “If they were interested in protecting the livelihoods of farmers, they would transition to sustainable food production”.

Meat and Dairy Facts is not the first move of this kind. Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board (and a member of the new consortium), last year issued a tender to firms who could develop strategies to “win these (vegetarian) customers back or reassure them about their food choices”. Some eight percent of Irish people are vegetarian and two percent are vegan, according to Bord Bia.

Bord Bia CEO Tara McCarthy stated that the industry needs to “showcase our pride on how we treat our animals in Ireland”. When asked by DeSmog if Bord Bia would now support the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in opposing what it calls the “brutal and cruel” live export of calves, the agency responded: “the transport of live animals is approved and strictly monitored by the Department of Agriculture”.

A similar agri-industry project, Meat The Facts, involving interests from several EUcountries, is also underway. Apart from information, it presents imagery of small-scale animal farming, to distract from the reality of intensive animal production.

Agriculture emissions

Agriculture accounts for one third of Ireland’s total emissions, even though the sector is a relatively minor part of the economy. According to Teagasc, the state agricultural research agency, the contribution of “primary agriculture, fisheries and forestry’” to the Irish economy in 2017 was 1.2 percent of GDP, which is close to the EU average.

Since the removal of EU milk quotas in 2015, the Irish dairy herd has expanded rapidly, with over 300,000 cows added to the national herd, which now numbers over 1.4 million. As a result, agricultural emissions, which had been falling steadily in the early 2000s, began to rise sharply, with an almost 10 percent increase in overall emissions from the sector.

This has been one of the key contributors to Ireland’s disastrous performance. Its EU-mandated target was to reduce non-traded emissions from 2005 to 2020 by 20 percent. But, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, emissions will, “at best”, have declined by just one percent in this 15-year period.

The EPA also noted a sharp recent deterioration in the quality of Irish fresh water, describing it as “completely unacceptable”. A total of 269 Irish waterways fell in quality between 2015 and 2017. Increased nitrogen and phosphorus levels from artificial fertilizers have been identified as the main reason for the decline.

While Ireland has invested heavily in promoting its “Origin Green” branding for its products,  it has the second lowest percentage of land farmed organically in the EU, while barely one percent of Irish farmland is used to grow vegetables, the lowest percentage in the EU.

The Irish beef sector, on the other hand, accounts for over 30 percent of total agricultural output, yet is a loss-making enterprise for many farmers. The average Irish beef farmer in 2018 received 158 percent of his gross income in subsidies and supports in 2018, according to Teagasc data. The new Meat & Dairy Facts campaign seems intent on doubling down on this losing formula.

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How flawed logic puts the world in danger

Below, my review of ‘The Irrational Ape’ by David Robert Grimes, which was published in the Irish Times on September 22nd last. In an era of fake news, with crackpot theories and conspiratorial nonsense ricocheting around social media at dizzying speed, it’s well worth taking a few hours to step back from the fray and read Grimes’s thoughtful foray into the neverlands, where fact and fiction lose all meaning. If you’ve read Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, you’ll be broadly familiar with much of the ground covered here, but Goldacre’s book is now a decade old, and the world has changed almost beyond recognition since then so The Irrational Ape is as timely as it is readable.

SPARROWS are hardly your typical counter-revolutionaries. Yet, in 1958, the Chinese government, under Chairman Mao Zedong, declared the humble sparrow to be “public animals of capitalism”. What happened next is where farce meets tragedy. Having seen that sparrows eat grain, the authorities ordered a nationwide persecution of the hapless birds. Within a year, more than a billion sparrows were dead, and the species was functionally extinct. Continue reading

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Why you should take to the streets with your children

Below, my article as it appeared in the Irish Times on September 20th, to coincide with the Student March for climate, which saw some 20,000 take to the streets of Dublin, with thousands more joining protests in cities and towns across Ireland and around the world. In all, an estimated 7 million people marched that day for climate action, making it the single largest such day in the history of environmental activism.

YOU COULD call it the Greta effect. In recent decades, as the global climate and biodiversity crises deepened, the environmental movement has at times seemed almost moribund. It has been essentially the same tiny handful of activists facing off in an asymmetrical struggle against public indifference, media disengagement and political apathy.

That this wall of wilful silence could remain intact in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence about the depth and gravity of the global ecological crisis is of itself astonishing. What is no less remarkable is just how quickly things can change. Continue reading

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The Story of the Decade – Media and Climate Change

Below, my piece as commissioned as one of a series of retrospective articles to mark the 10th anniversary of the Irishenvironment.com website, run by Bob Hernan.

THIS TIME 10 years ago, the portents for real climate action seemed genuinely encouraging. With the science-literate Obama regime in Washington, Merkel in Germany and a Labour government in the UK that seemed prepared to listen to the advice of experts, steady political progress was being made towards the crunch climate conference to be held in Copenhagen in December 2009.

That was then. With the clarity of hindsight, it should have been obvious that despite all the political posturing and media column inches, there was almost no clear public awareness or understanding of the true depth and existential nature of the climate and biodiversity crises. Continue reading

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2029 – A letter from the future

We live in consequential times. “What we do over the next 10 years will determine the future of humanity for the next 10,000 years”, is how former UK chief scientific advisor Prof David King put it recently.

There is no shortage of scientific evidence presaging the grim price our civilisation will pay for failing to prevent climate breakdown while in the process inflicting near-fatal damage on the natural world. What is however most striking in 2019 is just how rapidly the climate system is unravelling. For instance, scientists had not expected the permafrost within the Canadian Arctic to begin melting at depth until the 2090s. Instead, it is happening on a wide scale right now, 70 years ahead of schedule.

The scorching European double-heatwave of June and July saw all-time heat records smashed right across the continent, with temperatures approaching 35ºC within the Arctic Circle in northern Finland. Both these heatwave are considered to be once-in-500-year events, yet six such episodes have now occurred in Europe since 2003. Continue reading

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Drafting a roadmap for a climate-altered world

I was delighted back in May to receive an email from Andy Revkin letting me know he was coming to Ireland in early June and offering to meet up for a chat when he was in Dublin.  We spent a very pleasant couple of hours in a city centre café one Sunday morning, where we were joined by environmental broadcaster, Duncan Stewart for an animated conversation. Afterwards, myself and Andy headed across to Stephen’s Green and found a quiet spot where I recorded an interview with him on his thoughts and insights after more than three decades in the front line of climate and environmental reportage. Below, is the interview, as carried on the Life Science page of the Irish Times in early July (since this was recorded, Andy has taken on a new role as head of a new communications initiative at Columbia University)

ANDREW Revkin is an acclaimed US science and environment writer who has reported on the climate crisis since the late 1980s for the New York Times, Discover magazine and ProPublica. Author of several award-winning books, in 2018 Revkin joined the National Geographic Society as strategic adviser for environmental and science journalism. He is also a musician and song writer. Continue reading

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Rout of global biodiversity comes with a heavy price tag

Below, my article as it appeared in the summer edition of ‘Irish Wildlife’, the magazine of the  Irish Wildlife Trust, an organisation well worth supporting. I gave a one-hour presentation followed by a Q&A at an IWT ‘Green Drinks’ event in Dublin in early March, and was really taken by the level of interest and engagement among the audience that evening, and so was delighted when asked to chip in an article for their magazine.

VETERAN Harvard biologist, Prof E.O. Wilson first achieved fame through his study of the complex social and communal lives of ants – myrmecology, to give it its proper title. Wilson, who turns 90 this summer, is also known as ‘the father of biodiversity’.

Apart from his stellar career as a scientist, he is also a gifted writer and commentator. In his 2002 book, ‘The Future of Life’, he wrote presciently: “An Armageddon is approaching at the beginning of the third millennium. It is not the fiery collapse of mankind foretold in sacred scripture. It is the wreckage of the planet by an exuberantly plentiful and ingenious humanity.” It’s a phrase that has stayed with me since I first encountered it. Continue reading

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Thirty years closer to the End of Nature

Below, my review of ‘Falter’, the new book by veteran environmental writer, Bill McKibben, as it appeared in the Irish Times in May.

UNLESS you’re an economics graduate or a billionaire, chances are you may have never heard of Ayn Rand. Although she died in 1982, her legacy as arguably the most important political philosopher of our time casts a lengthening shadow. Her influence is no reflection of the quality of her output.

“Rand might as well have written in crayon; her ideas about the world are simple-minded, one-dimensional and poisonous,” Bill McKibben writes. But, he adds, “you don’t have to be right to be influential”. Former Exxon chief executive and US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson calls one of Rand’s volumes “my favourite book”, as does his erstwhile boss, the US president Donald Trump.

It might seem incongruous that a celebrated environmental writer finds it necessary in his new book to undertake such an in-depth excursion into the neoliberal swamp watered by far-right thinkers like Rand, but McKibben feels it’s worth the detour. Continue reading

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Eerie media silence as climate breakdown gathers pace

Below, my article as it appeared in the Irish Times on April 26th last.

BY ANY objective standards, the global climate and biodiversity crisis should be front page news almost every day. Rationally, you would expect updates on the battle to maintain a habitable biosphere to also be leading most TV and radio news bulletins. We do not, it seems, live in a world governed by reason.

Some years ago, a former editor of Fortune magazine ran a thought experiment: imagine that the world’s scientists had confirmed, with 90 per cent confidence, that a huge meteor would collide with the Earth within a decade. “The media would throw teams of reporters at it and give them the resources needed to follow it in extraordinary depth and detail”, argued Eric Pooley. “After all, the race to stop the meteor would be the story of the century.” Continue reading

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A society of altruists, governed by psychopaths

Below, the article I filed for Village magazine’s first edition of 2019, which appeared in the middle of March. The Guardian’s George Monbiot has long been the gold standard for excellence in environment and climate reporting, analysis and campaigning.

Like many others, I’ve been an avid reader of his works for many years, but hadn’t had the opportunity to meet with him until his visit in March to Queen’s University, Belfast, in March. They say beware of meeting your heroes, as they usually disappoint. Happily, this was anything but the case.

Monbiot remained polite, engaged, cordial and good humoured throughout, even though clearly fatigued by the end of what turned out to be a long evening (he has also had to contend with serious ill health in recent months). Continue reading

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Duck, dither, dodge, delay: the new, improved climate denial

Below, my report as it ran on DeSmog UK on the latest climate denier get-together, involving our old friends at the ICSF, in what is their 10th sort-of-public meeting. For an organisation with no known membership list and no apparent way of joining (or donating), it is doing a remarkable job in hosting so many meetings involving, in most cases, bringing in speakers from the international denier circuit.

For this latest meeting, they changed tactics and brought in some Irish speakers to answer the question: “Climate Action to 2030 – What is really Feasible?” Many eyebrows were raised at the decision by Teagasc, the state agriculture research agency, to allow one of its senior figures to attend. Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan was clearly unhappy at their presence. He feels ICSF’s talks are “designed to undermine climate science… [and that] is not being open to enquiry and listening to different views”.

My favourite slide from the mini-forum was by a mechanical engineer from UCD. It showed a Tesla in flames, and the chilling headline: ‘Tesla battery reignited twice after fatal crash in Florida’. They’re death traps, I tells ya! Among the shock conclusions: “CO2 benefits of Electric vehicles are highly questionable”; and “Current EV financial subsidies are unsustainable” and, of course, “Internal combustion engines have a long future”. So, business-as-usual, in other words.

We have, it appears, been well warned about these new fangled exploding EVs. Somebody must have forgot to tell those backward Norwegians. In March 2019, 58% of all new car sales in Norway were electric, with Tesla the number one brand. What a bunch of dummies, eh? Didn’t anyone tell them the internal combustion engine has a long future behind it?

Running a talking shop like the ICSF can’t be cheap. All those flights, transfers, speaking fees, hotel room rentals, website, agendas, flyers etc. etc, must be running at this stage to tens of thousands of euros, but, according to its chair, one Jim O’Brien, “ICSF operates to a very modest budget and is entirely self‐funded. It has no vested interests other than disseminating the latest climate science in the public interest”.

Someone should get these guys to build the National Children’s Hospital, given how far they’ve managed to stretch their ‘very modest budget’. The public interest is no doubt already in their debt for their selfless work.

Our plucky band of retired and semi-retired have-a-go iconoclasts have modestly debunked those know-nothings at the IPCC, which is great news all round as we can get back to business-as-usual, now that the most powerful international scientific consensus in history has been so brilliantly unpicked.

Or, in Jim’s own words: “the ICSF proposes that national climate policy should be based on ongoing energy innovation, efficiency and conservation measures compatible with continued economic growth (my emphasis) rather than imposing any economically and socially‐regressive measures”. Brilliant, truly brilliant, gents. A grateful world thanks you for your service.

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THE climate science denying Irish Climate Science Forum (ICSF) held another behind closed doors meeting, and this time a government agency accepted the invitation.

The group has previously invited infamous climate science deniers from around the world to speak at its events, casting aspersions on the veracity of mainstream climate science. It has also submitted arguments to the Irish Parliament, suggesting climate change isn’t as bad as scientists make out.

The ‘economic’ arguments on climate change are understood to be the topic of the ICSF’s latest event, with the ‘mini-seminar’ on 13 March 2019 titled ‘Climate action to 2030 – what is really feasible?’

Among the guest speakers were scheduled to be Trevor Donnellan, head of economics and farm surveys at Teagasc, Ireland’s national agriculture research agency, David Timoney, a mechanical engineer from University College, Dublin and Kevin O’Rourke, described as ‘an independent specialist in sustainable energy policies’.

Once again, the press, including DeSmog UK, was barred from attending this invitation-only meeting of the secretly funded ICSF, which has in recent months strengthened its ties to the London-based climate denial group, the GWPF, with whom it regularly shares speakers.

The Teagasc press office declined to comment on whether it was aware of the ICSF’s climate science denial. It also declined to comment on whether it considered it appropriate that a government agency official would be speaking at an event from which the public and press were barred, for an organisation which refuses to disclose its sources of funding.

A spokesperson for the Teagasc told DeSmog UK:

“Teagasc has presented results from its research to multiple organisations. This is another opportunity to outline which mitigation measures can contribute to reducing Ireland’s emissions from the land-use sectors”.

Leader of the Irish Green party, Eamon Ryan, criticised Teagasc’s decision to allow Donnellan to speak at the event. He questioned why a Teagasc representative was involved with a group whose events have been “clearly designed to call into question climate science”, GreenNews.ie reports.

Lagging Behind

This week, the Parliamentary All-Party Committee on Climate Action concluded that “Ireland cannot meet its international emissions targets without tackling agricultural sector emissions”, according to a draft report.

Various reports have ranked Ireland as the worst country in the EU on climate action, with much of this failure attributable to the work of powerful lobby groups such as the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) and IBEC, the business lobby group.

In another reminder of the close personal ties between agricultural lobbyists and top politicians, the IFA president was photographed accompanying Ireland’s prime minister and foreign minister to the international rugby match in Dublin last weekend. The foreign minister’s brother, Patrick Coveney, is CEO of the agri-food giant, Greencore.

Ireland’s agriculture sector is the number one producer of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for well over a third of total emissions. Greenhouse gases from this sector have begun to rise since 2015, following the removal of milk quotas and the rapid expansion of Ireland’s dairy herd.

Ireland’s has a 2020 EU target for to reduce emissions 20 percent on 2005 levels. However, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the country will “at best” manage a one percent reduction.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sceptics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

A harrowing but narrow vision of our climate-wrecked futures

Back in July 2017, I wrote a précis of an astonishing essay published earlier that year in the New York magazine. Titled ‘The Uninhabitable Earth‘, it set out an uncompromising picture of the rapid unravelling of the global climate system and the ensuing collapse of human civilisations.

While the article itself received massive public attention, the reception within the scientific community was markedly cooler, with criticisms mainly claiming that he had ‘gone too far’ in presenting scenarios on the apocalyptic end of the spectrum. His response to these charges was to pen an annotated version of his article, backing up, line by line, the statements and claims he made. It was an extremely impressive piece of work. Continue reading

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Incoherent, inconsistent – and not really funny at all

Below, my article as it appeared on DeSmog UK earlier this month. This is my 13th piece to appear on DeSmog since May 2017, when I reported on the inaugural ICSF meeting in Dublin, featuring big-name US denier, Richard Lindzen. While barred from attending that meeting (and every meeting since) I did drop by the Sandymount Hotel that first evening to snap a shot of the meeting in progress, and was struck by the uniformly ‘male, pale and stale’ profile of the attendees.

I also dropped by earlier this month to do some more light reconnaissance in and around the meeting, to the same venue, and took the opportunity to snap a new photo discreetly from the rear of the meeting room (see below). You will note, once again, the overwhelmingly elderly white male profile of the attendees (the only person who looked remotely under the age of 50 was one of the speakers, a young GWPF ‘researcher’). Continue reading

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