Can direct democracy succeed where politics has failed?

Earlier this month, I was pleased to have my third article appear on Guardian Environment. The topic was one I have previously teased around the edges, here and elsewhere, on numerous occasions. In a nutshell: once we’ve figured out our elected representatives don’t represent us, once we’ve finally grasped that yes, the system is indeed crazy enough to literally burn the world down, destroying itself the rest of us in the process….what then?

Direct action, legal action, protest, civil disobedience; given what’s at stake, and given that everything is on the line, then surely absolutely every option has to be considered. It’s not like time is on our side. Twenty-five years ago, a stark ‘Warning To Humanity‘ was issued by 1,700 top scientists. We ignored it and carried on regardless. Now, it has been reissued, this time signed by tens of thousands of scientists.  Well, I’m with Don McLean on this one: ‘They would not listen, they’re not listening still, perhaps they never will‘.

While the Guardian’s reach is global, I did manage to smuggle in some coverage of two important recent Irish initiatives; first, the highly successful deliberations of the Citizens’ Assembly, and second, the FIE legal challenge lodged in the High Court to the government’s wholly inadequate response to the climate crisis. These are two flickering lights in an otherwise desolate landscape of denial, distraction and delay that typify our execrable national ‘response’ to date.

This has been capped off by confirmation that we now rank as the worst country in all of Europe when it comes to climate action. Regular ThinkOrSwim readers will be none too surprised at this reality; the only wonder is how long it has taken for Ireland to attract the international opprobrium our cynicism and foot-dragging so richly deserve.

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IN THE medieval legend made famous by the brothers Grimm, the German town of Hamelin is besieged by a plague of rats, until the mysterious pied piper appears and agrees, for a fee, to rid them of the infestation. The mayor then reneges on payment and the piper exacts a savage revenge on the town’s ingrates by luring away their children, who are never seen again.

The tale could also be an allegory for today’s grim intergenerational smash-and-grab – the global economy. As environmentalist Paul Hawken put it: “We have an economy where we steal the future, sell it in the present, and call it GDP.”

Like the hapless mayor of Hamelin, elected officials all over the world are today blindly pursuing growth-as-usual, while the gathering climate catastrophe rumbles ever closer. We adults may, if we’re lucky, get to die peacefully in our beds, but it’s our children who will be left to pay the ecological piper.

Despite determined efforts by lobbyists to quash the case, it is now set to be heard in February 2018. “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society” was the view of US district judge Ann Aiken, in denying motions filed by the Trump administration opposing the suit.

Last month NGO Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) filed a legal challenge against the Irish government over its failure to take steps to honour its climate commitments under the Paris agreement, and so endangering future generations. The FIE suit is modelled on a successful similar action taken in the Dutch courts by the Urgenda Foundation. They ruled in 2015 that the Dutch government had acted unlawfully in failing to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by 2020. Similar cases are being brought in New Zealand, India, the Philippines and South Africa, among others.

Despite being on track for climate neutrality by 2030, the Norwegian government is being sued by citizen activists for issuing oil drilling licences in the Arctic Ocean, which make a mockery of its supposed domestic green credentials.

Pope Francis, the first pontiff from the global south, weighed in powerfully on the moral arguments against the havoc to the biosphere wrought by neoliberalism: “The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market.”

Geophysicist Dr Brad Werner made waves five years ago with the publication of his paper titled: Is Earth F**ked? (the asterisks are his). When pressed for an answer to his own question, he ventured: “more or less”. In his analysis, the system itself is incapable of internally responding to the deepening ecological crises that encircle civilisation. The only possible hope, he suggested, lay in active resistance. He identified this as “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers and other activist groups”.

Those who resist face arrest, harassment, and worse. Almost four murders a week of environmental and land defenders were recorded in 2016.

With politicians failing to step up to the climate challenge, what are the alternatives? One intriguing experiment in direct democracy has just concluded in Ireland, where a government-appointed Citizens’ Assembly composed of a nationally representative group of people selected at random heard detailed expert testimony on climate change from a range of experts. No lobbyists or politicians were allowed in the room.

The result: 13 recommendations for sharply enhanced climate action were overwhelmingly endorsed early this month, including citizens being personally prepared to pay more tax on high-carbon activities. The recommendations will now be discussed in parliament. Democracy may be dysfunctional, but rumours of its death have, perhaps, been exaggerated.

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The Citizens have spoken: no more excuses, climate action now

I spent all day Saturday November 5th in the Grand Hotel, Malahide, covering the penultimate session of the Citizens’ Assembly hearings on climate change. Having watched much of the previous weekend’s deliberations via live stream, I had the sense that something genuinely important, perhaps even historic, was unfolding. The eight hours or so I spent observing the process up close reaffirmed that impression.

If parliamentary democracy is terminally clogged up with fearful politicians and choked with special interest groups, then think of the direct democracy on show from the Citizens’ Assembly as a powerful enema to unblock the BS that has made even the most rudimentary progress on tackling climate change all-but-impossible. My impressions of the process were published on Desmog.uk the day after its Recommendations were issued. It was a privilege to be there to witness it. The full text is below:

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IRELAND’S political response to climate change has received a stinging rebuff from a group of citizens participating in an innovative new government-supported policy forum.

The parliament-appointed Citizens Assembly voted at the weekend in favour of 13 new recommendations to strengthen action on climate change.

The Assembly was established in 2016 and tasked with addressing hot-button topics, including abortion and climate change, and making recommendations to parliament. The Assembly comprises 99 ordinary Irish citizens, randomly selected to give a fair representation across society, under the chairmanship of senior judge, Mary Laffoy.

The Assembly sat for a total of four days to hear detailed expert testimonies and to engage in round-table discussions on ‘Making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change’. No politicians or lobbyists were permitted to address the Assembly, which aimed to deliver a scientifically robust, balanced presentation on the issue.

National and international experts, including Denmark’s former climate minister, Connie Hedegaard, Dr Peter Stott of the UK Met Office and Prof Andy Kerr of Edinburgh University, addressed the Assembly.

Prof Kerr pointed out how Scotland, though similar in population and climate, has taken a radically different path on climate action. This is, Prof Kerr, explained, mainly as a result of clear political leadership across the party divide.

Scotland set ambitious targets of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 42 percent by 2020 versus 2009. It actually hit this target five years ahead of time, and is on target for 100 percent renewable electricity production by the early 2020s.

In stark contrast, Ireland has been sending politicians to Brussels throughout 2017 to demand that even its modest 2020 targets be renegotiated, as DeSmog UK previously reported. This is largely being done at the behest of the politically powerful farming and agribusiness lobby.

On Sunday, the citizens agreed the wording of a list of 13 recommendations, which were then voted on in a secret ballot. All 13 proposals were carried, many by an overwhelming majority. The results were a powerful endorsement of urgent action and a rebuff to the Irish government for its stance on this issue.

A constant theme to emerge from the discussions at the Citizens Assembly was the absence of clear political leadership on climate change. One member of the assembly asked if the Irish government had, for example, funded any public information campaigns on the issue (it hasn’t).

Assembly members voted by a huge margin (97 percent) in favour of either setting up a new or tasking an existing independent body, with resources and appropriate powers, to “urgently address climate change”. This is seen as a pointed rebuff to Ireland’s ‘Climate Action’ minister, Denis Naughten, who regularly publicly defends inaction by claiming it is “not his job to tell people what to do”.

There was unanimous citizen support for the Irish State taking a “leadership role in addressing climate change through mitigation measures, including retrofitting public buildings, low-carbon public vehicles, renewable generation on public buildings, as well as climate adaptation measures. There was also near-unanimity (96 percent) on the need for the Irish State to carry out a comprehensive audit of vulnerability of critical infrastructure.

Importantly, some 80 percent of citizen respondents stated they themselves would be ‘willing to pay higher taxes on carbon intensive activities’, showing the willingness of the Irish public to ‘take a hit’ financially if it means a safer future for all. The case for carbon taxes was put to the Assembly by Prof John FitzGerald, chair of Ireland’s Climate Change Advisory Council.

An overwhelming 97 percent of citizens voted in favour of removing all subsidies for peat-burning, favouring these to be phased out over a five-year period. This could prove particularly problematic for Naughten, as one of Ireland’s three peat-burning plants is located within his Galway/Roscommon constituency.

Naughten issued a luke-warm response to the Assembly findings, pointedly not commenting on any of its contentious recommendations.

There was near-unanimous agreement (99 percent) among the Assembly’s participants that the State should legislate to enable the public to sell back micro-generated clean electricity to the grid at a fair price. The so-called ‘rooftop revolution’ of having thousands of farmers, schools and ordinary homes generating solar electric power is being stymied by lack of market access for small energy producers.

A strong majority (89 percent) of citizens favour taxing greenhouse gases from agriculture, on condition that there also be rewards for farmers involved in land practices that sequester carbon. The recommendation added that revenues from agricultural greenhouse gas taxes should be directed into supporting climate-friendly agriculture.

The argument in favour of climate taxes on agriculture was presented by Prof Alan Matthews of Trinity College, Dublin, who stated that minor tweaks in ‘efficiency’ in Irish agriculture were simply inadequate to meet the challenge for a sector that is on track to produce almost half of Ireland’s total emissions. He added that there was an inherent injustice in expecting ordinary Irish taxpayers to have to pay EU fines incurred as a result of agricultural policies.

Critically, Matthews pointed out that most Irish beef farmers actually lose money on their operations, and are only remaining solvent as a result of EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) transfers. With Brexit on the horizon, CAP farm payments are likely to come under increased pressure.

The Assembly’s proposal to tax agriculture emissions was rejected by the Irish Farmers Association, which is expected to use its formidable lobbying power to deter politicians from implementing this plan. Ireland’s emissions in both transport and agriculture are continuing to rise when they should be falling sharply.

An equally strong majority (92 percent) of the participants favoured prioritising all future infrastructure spending to be weighted by at least 2:1 in favour of supporting high quality public transport, especially in rural areas, while there was near-unanimity (96 percent) on the need for the government to support the rapid transition to electric vehicles.

Some 93 percent of participants voted to support a switch in transport priority towards bus and cycle lanes, and that these should be given priority over private car use. Support for organic farming (99 percent) was virtually unanimous, while there was strong support (93 percent) for specific measures to reduce food waste.

Total unanimity was achieved by citizens in favour of the State ensuring all future renewable energy projects have community participation, consultation and ownership built in from the outset.

The next step is for the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations to be debated by Ireland’s parliament, and this is where the pitched battle involving vested interests from the business, transport and agricultural sectors will likely take place.

Having been unable to directly influence the deliberations of ordinary Irish citizens, lobbyists will be betting that elected representatives prove altogether more pliable.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | 1 Comment

Eating the future, one bite at a time

Futurology is a favourite journalistic parlour game, usually reserved for a slow news week or the lifestyle section. When I saw the following bold opening statement in a recent Irish Times magazine cover story, “Half of the babies born today in industrialised countries will live long enough to celebrate their 100th birthday”, it got me thinking about the chasm that separates ‘environmental journalism’ from that altogether rosier alternate world where the rest of the media seemingly reside.

The below was published last Friday on the Irish Times OpEd page, partly in response to the futurology piece the previous weekend. Kudos to the IT for being open-minded enough to print a critique of their own journalism; the mark, in my book, of a responsible, diverse media outlet.

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NOBODY knows for sure what the future holds, either for us as individuals or as societies, but if you look closely, there is a growing body of scientific evidence to suggest it will be quite unlike the present, in ways we can yet barely imagine.

This newspaper recently engaged a panel of what it called ‘big thinkers’, spanning economics, futurology, planning, medicine, psychology and beyond, to gaze into the middle distance and ponder what life might be like for a baby born this year towards the end of the 21st century.

Physicist Niels Bohr once cautioned, half in jest, that: ‘prediction is very difficult, especially about the future’. Take this bold pronouncement from Klaus Mogensen of the Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies: “each generation lives five years longer than the previous generation. It’s possible we’ll get a breakthrough that will allow people to live indefinitely”.

Possible, but extraordinarily unlikely. Among the stellar cast of future gazers, there was not a single representative from any branch of the physical sciences. This is perhaps just as well, since their views might conflict sharply with the future fantasies of holographic meetings, space tourism and hyperloops.

A few days after the prognostications of the ‘big thinkers’ appeared in print, the World Meteorological Organisation published an altogether different view of the coming decades. Its ‘Greenhouse Gas Bulletin’ began by describing the abrupt changes in the global atmosphere witnessed over the past seventy years as being “without precedent”.

The atmosphere today contains 45 per cent more carbon dioxide (CO2) than in the pre-industrial era. This, the WMO cautioned, is leading to ever more “severe ecological and economic disruptions”. The pace of change is what is most unnerving.

Since 1990, there has been a 40 per cent increase in what’s known as the total radiative forcing – the warming effect of greenhouse gases, according to data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This is a quite staggering change in the fundamental conditions for life on Earth in barely a quarter of a century.

The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was between 3–5 million years ago. Then, global average temperatures were 2-3°C warmer than today and sea level was 10–20 meters higher. Climate system inertia means there is a delay before permanently high CO2 levels trigger these devastating effects.

Sea level rise of even a fraction of that would create tens of millions of climate refugees, triggering ever-worsening crises that would likely cause many nation states to fail, while bringing the global economy to its knees. Quite how hyperloop construction and space tourism might fare in such chaotic conditions remains unclear.

In an Irish context all our main cities, ports and airports are in coastal locations and at risk of inundation and abandonment over time. While dreams of infinite lifespans tempt the imagination of futurologists, a major recent study in the medical journal ‘The Lancet’ found that: “the delayed response to climate change has jeopardised human life and livelihoods”.

The Lancet report detailed how global warming is aiding the spread of disease-carrying insects, worsening allergies, and increasing exposure to ever-worsening heat waves. Globally, it found “125 million more vulnerable people over the age of 65 years were exposed to heatwaves in 2016 than in 2000.” It warned that if global temperatures are allowed to rise by 4ºC, frequent ‘super heatwaves’ would sweep Europe and elsewhere, with temperatures hitting a lethal 55ºC.

Recent increases in Irish air temperatures are already having serious impacts. This week, Health Protection Surveillance Centre inspectors reported that 53 different mosquito species have been found in Ireland, including species that transmit West Nile virus and malaria.

This weekend, the Citizens’ Assembly, chaired by Justice Mary Laffoy, meets in Malahide to discuss ‘Making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change’, and to issue recommendations to government. With the third worst per capita emissions in the EU, for Ireland to strive towards being simply mediocre would represent huge ambition.

In July, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar stated that tackling climate change would require “fundamental societal transformation”. Yet last month, his ‘climate action’ minister Denis Naughten flew to Brussels to demand that Ireland be allowed to opt out of even the basic commitments we had already signed up to. In so doing, we are helping undermine the EU’s collective resolve to take vital action now to protect all future generations.

Back in 2014, then Taoiseach Enda Kenny solemnly told the UN in New York: “The hand of the future beckons, the clock ticks and we have no time to waste”. Within a month, he redacted that position to state instead that Ireland “would be screwed” if we were to comply with modest emissions targets.

Naughten has used less colourful variants of this line ever since, while displaying reckless disregard both for global climate justice and intergenerational fair play. What the minister and his phalanx of sharp-suited advisers have failed to grasp is that physics doesn’t do deals.

Thinking only of present comfort and beholden to powerful vested interest groups, Ireland is today eating the proverbial seed corn tomorrow’s children will depend on.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

 

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Nuclear near-miss a chilling portend of our climate future

Below, my article as it appears in the current issue of ‘Village’ magazine. I’ve included links to watch the film in its entirety, as well as the subsequent ABC studio discussion. A third of a century later, it’s still strangely gripping and, in the light of all that has happened in world politics in the last year or so, in the words of Yogi Berra, it feels like déjà vu all over again.

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ON THE NIGHT of November 20th, 1983, US network ABC aired a made-for-TV film entitled ‘The Day After’. By some estimates, around 100 million people sat down to watch the film, which dramatized the build up to and the immediate aftermath of an all-out nuclear war between the US and the USSR.

It must have made it to RTÉ sometime shortly afterwards, as I vividly recall watching it and being transfixed by the terrifying transformation of the familiar into the ruined, order into chaos, and the overwhelming feeling of individual helplessness in the face of such an unspeakable calamity.

I was not alone. US president Ronald Reagan sat through the entire film, while his joint chiefs of staff held a private screening before it aired on TV and Reagan wrote in his White House diary that the film had “greatly depressed” him. History records that, shortly afterwards, Reagan held a series of summits with Mikhail Gorbachev to discuss reducing the massive nuclear stockpiles on both sides.

The resulting INF treaty led to the destruction of over 2,500 nuclear warheads (many were converted for civilian use by being dismantled and their cores burned to generate nuclear energy). Film director Nicholas Myer related in recent years: “Reagan’s official biographer, Edmund Morris said to me that the only time he saw Ronald Reagan become upset was after they screened ‘The Day After’, and he just went into a funk”. Reagan had, after all, come to power in 1981 as a military hawk, arguing that the best way for the US to end the Cold War was to win it.

In the atomised multi-screen media landscape of 2017, it’s hard even imagine a time existed when not just whole families but entire nations sat down together to watch the same broadcast, and when a fictionalised account like this had the power to both grip the public imagination and sway the political discourse.

Immediately after the film was aired ABC went to debate the issues raised with a high-powered panel comprising politicians, scientists, philosophers and military experts in front of a live studio audience. Opening the discussion, ABC presenter Ted Koppel intoned: “There is – and you probably need it about now – there is some good news. If you can, take a quick look out the window. It’s all still there. Your neighbourhood is still there. So is Kansas City, and Lawrence, and Chicago”.

All this extraordinary reaction was, lest we forget, over a made-for-TV drama, one that set out, according to its director, to deliberately be as banal as possible. “It’s about people going shopping. It snuck into the back door of the national consciousness in this sort of innocuous way, because it wasn’t preaching to the people who were already saying, oh my god, this is happening, let’s put our head into the oven”, recalled Nicholas Myers. “No! It took the people by surprise that it showed them: this, this, this is what’s waiting if you don’t do something, if you don’t take charge, if you don’t become involved, if you don’t protest.”

What seems even more extraordinary is that, some 34 years after that broadcast, and having seemingly stepped back from the brink of nuclear suicide, we now find ourselves in a situation where the person who controls the world’s largest nuclear arsenal has expressed his frustration at not being able to use these weapons and has casually and repeatedly threatened to “totally destroy” a country and its population of 26 million people.

One of the panellists on that ABC show was physicist Dr Carl Sagan, who calmly explained that the reality of a nuclear war, even a limited exchange, would in fact be vastly worse than the grisly portrayal in ‘The Day After’. “The ‘nuclear winter’ that will follow even a small nuclear war…would reduce the temperatures pretty much globally to sub-freezing temperatures for months…agriculture will be wiped out…there’s a real possibility of the extinction of the human species”.

The famous Doomsday Clock has been maintained for the last 70 years since its launch in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It has tracked over the decades as events drew the world closer to or further from obliteration.

Little could those scientists back in the 1940s have realised that while the shadow of nuclear catastrophe would still darken the second decade of the 21st century, it would in fact be eclipsed by an even more pervasive threat – that of wide-scale climate collapse.

What makes this danger so insidious is that for the very worst to happen no longer depends on the actions of a crazed dictator or a mentally unhinged leader of a nuclear-armed democracy. This time, global catastrophe is simply a matter of humanity continuing on its current track.

In January last, the Bulletin declared that the Doomsday Clock had moved forward to two and a half minutes to midnight, its most dangerous position since the early 1950s. “Over the course of 2016, the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats – nuclear weapons and climate change.”

It is almost certain that the clock will lurch even closer to midnight when set again in January 2018. “President Trump’s intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice, and questionable cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse”, they wrote.

That statement, bear in mind, was issued just days after he took office, and well before he took a Twitter-powered wrecking ball to international nuclear and climate diplomacy.

In a world in which anthropogenic climate change is an even more intractable threat than nuclear war, it is richly ironic that the Bulletin singles out nuclear energy as a potentially vital part of a global rapid decarbonisation effort.

In recent years, climate communicators have, by and large, striven to accentuate the positive, the feeling being that negative messaging was turning people off. This habit has even spread to the scientific community, which earlier this year collectively poured scorn on a ground-breaking extended article in ‘New York’ magazine entitled ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’.

Yet, the article was deeply grounded in science, and was based on interviews with many of the world’s top climatologists, as well as extensive reviews of the published literature. That bothered people the most was that the article spelled out in black and white just how dire the situation is. Scientists, many of whom have been harassed and intimidated by deniers for years, panicked and furiously distanced themselves from author David Wallace-Wells’ conclusions, even though these findings were simply extrapolating from their own research and modelling.

We’ve now had a quarter century of positive climate messaging, and in that 25 years, carbon emissions have continued their ineluctable upward trajectory, while the condition of the biosphere has deteriorated markedly in the same time frame. Whatever about scare stories allegedly not working, we can say with certainty that all our attempts at putting a positive spin on the gargantuan task of reining in climate change have failed utterly.

Having sat down recently to re-watch ‘The Day After’, I was struck by its matter-of-fact pessimistic tone. It seemed to be saying to viewers: ‘this is what you get if you let your leaders screw up; now, what are you going to do about it?’ Such a calamity remains a distinct possibility today: military experts now estimate a 10% likelihood of a nuclear war with North Korea.

Given the downsides, most people would regard that is a monstrously unacceptable level of risk, and rightly want to see it reduced. Yet an even more colossal failure of both policy and imagination on environmental stewardship leaves us teetering on the brink of an even more acute tragedy. This time, the odds of avoiding ruin are vanishing small.

Given what’s at stake, maybe it might be time to see if it’s possible to somehow shock humanity from its somnolent stupor of misplaced complacency and into sustained action. After all, what – apart from absolutely everything – have we got to lose?

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim
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When our leaders won’t lead, can Citizens’ Assembly step up?

Below, an article I ran in a well-known magazine earlier this month in the light of what we learned from the first weekend of the Citizens’ Assembly. I wasn’t able to attend the session in Malahide, but spent much of the weekend following the excellent live-streaming coverage of the event. Regular ThinkOrSwim visitors will know I’m not prone to irrational exuberance, but it did feel like something different was taking place.

I’m not sure who dreamed up the title: ‘Making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change’, they may perhaps have done so with tongue in cheek. A more accurate way of framing it might have been ‘Dragging Ireland kicking and screaming into grudgingly doing the absolute minimum in tackling climate change’. We are, after all, international laggards when it comes to climate change. Our unfortunately named ‘Climate Action’ minister Denis Naughten is just back from his latest foray at the EU pleading an béal bocht and demanding that the goalposts be shifted – yet again – to allow Ireland to wriggle even further from the very commitments we signed up to as part of the Paris Accord in 2015.

The Citizens’ Assembly meets again over the weekend of November 4-5th to conclude its deliberations. I aim to be in attendance and will be following its Recommendations closely and hope to be reporting on them for an international audience.

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WHEN politicians want an issue to go away, a favourite ploy is to bury it alive in a talking shop. If that was the real motivation behind the establishment of the Citizens’ Assembly, then they appear to have made a major miscalculation.

Last weekend the assembly discussed how to deliver on the tall order of ‘Making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change’. What was so unusual about the proceedings, chaired by Ms. Justice Mary Laffoy, was the absence of the usual suspects from the room. The 99 citizens representing the people of Ireland were spared the parade of politicians mouthing empty soundbites scripted by their civil servants about climate change.

They were also free to weigh up the issues without having to unpick the doublespeak of lobbyists and contrarians explaining how climate action was too costly, or too inconvenient for Ireland to play even its legally mandated part. All in all, it may have been a bad weekend for Official Ireland, but it was a ringing endorsement of the value of direct democracy as an antidote to the capture of politics by special interests.

Earlier this year, the Citizens’ Assembly sent shockwaves through the political establishment with its recommendations on abortion. These revealed a staggering gulf between the (surprisingly tolerant and liberal-leaning) views of a cross-section of ordinary Irish people when compared with their elected representatives.

Even pro-choice Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell was so taken aback by the open-mindedness of her own electorate on the political hot potato of abortion that she had to query Justice Laffoy into asking if assembly members were “somehow misled into voting as liberally as they did” (they weren’t).

One of the most eye-catching presentations at the Citizens’ Assembly weekend on climate change came from Marie Donnelly, formerly of the European Commission. She pointed out that, astonishingly, you can get a grant to install a new gas or oil boiler, but there are no subsidies for installing renewable technologies, such as heat pumps and geothermal systems.

What’s more, Ireland, almost uniquely among EU states, refuses to pay people who produce clean electricity from, say, solar panels and upload it to the national grid. There is no technical reason for this, she added, it is simply a matter of politics.

More politics is at play in peat burning. Taxpayers are being forced to transfer vast subsidies via the PSO to prop up the burning of peat for energy, which is a dirty, ecologically damaging activity. EPA director general Laura Burke described peat burning as “a triple negative hit”, and damningly pointed out that, per megawatt of electricity, peat receives four times more subsidy than clean wind power.

This is what happens when you leave ‘climate policy’ to our political classes and semi-states. Joseph Curtin of the IIEA noted how Ireland had “failed spectacularly” on addressing climate change, pointing out how the massive recent expansion of Ireland’s dairy herd is causing agricultural emissions to spiral. This policy, called Food Wise 2025, was written by the food industry and simply adopted as national policy by the government.

A low point of the weekend was the presentation from Met Éireann, an organisation that is fast becoming a national embarrassment on climate change. It was in stark contrast to the no-nonsense delivery by Dr Peter Stott of the UK’s Met Office

A mantra of ‘climate action’ minister, Denis Naughten is that it isn’t his job to tell people what to do. What in fact emerged from the Citizens’ Assembly is that leadership, vision and courage is precisely what the public desperately wants from their politicians. Who would have guessed?

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Climate denial and the ‘white male effect’

In recent months I’ve found myself in a bit of a running battle with some of Ireland’s leading (I use the word advisedly) climate contrarians. It stems back to the inaugural meeting of the so-called Irish Climate Science Forum in a Dublin hotel on May 5th last. I did my bit to draw critical attention to a secretive group with the stated aim of influencing (aka ‘hobbling’) Ireland’s response to climate change.

While barred as a member of the media from attending, I did drop around to the venue, the Sandymount Hotel in south Dublin, to meet one or two of my moles for a post-meeting debrief. While there, I wandered upstairs to see what I could see. As luck would have it, the back door of the room where the meeting was taking place featured a glass panel, so I whipped out a phone camera and snapped the picture below, which DeSmog.uk subsequently used to illustrate my report.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While it won’t win any photojournalism prizes, the photo does have its value. Notice anything at all unsual about the age and gender profile? Me too. That got me thinking about what exactly would make such a bunch of highly experienced, educated people so suddenly gullible, so giddily susceptible to swallowing junk science on the biggest, most critical issue human civilisation (and I use that term advisedly too) has ever faced?

Then, more recently, I was on the receiving end of a formal complaint from one of the lead contrarians (watch this space for a full account once this process has run its course). Among the smorgasbord of charges he levelled against me was one of…ageism. This came as a genuine shock. I was brought up to respect my elders – which is not the same as blindly accepting something somebody says just because they’re a good deal older than me, or indeed because they have more academic qualifications than me.

I’ve certainly never engaged in any of the assorted activities (harassment, bullying, threatening behaviour etc.) levelled by my contrarian accuser against assorted ‘NGOs and activists’, but what about ageism? Nope, not guilty on that count either. The whole encounter brought a 2011 research paper – entitled ‘Cool Dudes’ back to mind. It teased out the intriguing ‘white male effect’, one most predominant in older males.

Could this help solve the riddle of how long-retired cherry pickers like Richard Lindzen or William Happer could get away with peddling their anti-science spiel to audiences you would think are old enough and wise enough to smell the bullshit? I took that idea to The Guardian a couple of weeks back, and this led to a commission, and the article first appeared in Guardian Environment on Friday last.

It caused a bit of a stir (which is usually what happens when you give the denier hornets’ nest a poke), with over 1,100 online comments – a big number, even by Guardian standards. Next, I had the dubious honour of Spectator blog, entitled ‘Are old white men really to blame for climate change denial?‘ (apparently not). Next up, the world’s most popular denier website, Wattsupwiththat, waded in: ‘Guardian: Climate Denial is the Fault of Old White People‘.

And on it went. A denier blog called ‘Climate Skepticism’ certainly had the best headline: ‘More sexist, racist filth from the Guardian’. Quite. Wondering about the identity of the author, the article engaged in a more authentic brand of racist, sexist filth: ‘Is it John Gibbons the dishy young black transexual who sells her body to elderly engineers in the washrooms of Dublin public houses venting her understandable spleen? Or is it John Gibbons the environmental activist and former environmental columnist at the Irish Times, sacked in 2010, much to the dismay of its highly educated, mainly elderly white male readership? I think we should be told’.

Regular ThinkOrSwim visitors will be relieved to learn that, whatever about my alleged nocturnal activies, I am indeed still a regular contributor to the Irish Times; my weekly environment column did indeed come to an end in 2010, but, after 100+ straight weeks, it had probably run its course by then, and I was certainly happy by then to be relieved of the heavy burden of filing a research-based column 50 times a year.

Below is the full version of the article, which the Guardian trimmed slightly for brevity and clarity:

FROM MY vantage point just outside the glass doors, the sea of grey hair and balding male pates had the appearance of a golf society event or active retirement group. It was instead the inaugural meeting of Ireland’s first climate denial group, the self-styled Irish Climate Science Forum (ICSF) in Dublin last May. All media were barred from attending.

Its guest speaker was retired physicist and noted US climate contrarian, Richard Lindzen (77). His jeremiad against the “narrative of hysteria” on climate change was lapped up by an audience largely comprising engineers and meteorologists – mostly retired. This demographic profile of attendees at climate denier meetings has been replicated in London, Washington and elsewhere.

How many of the people in the room had children or indeed grandchildren, I wondered. Could an audience of experienced, otherwise intelligent people really be this blithely indifferent to the devastating impacts unmitigated climate change will wreak on the world their progeny must inhabit? These same ageing contrarians doubtless insure their homes, put on their seat belts, check smoke alarms and fret about cholesterol levels.

Why then, when it comes to assessing the greatest threat the world has ever faced and when presented with the most overwhelming scientific consensus on any issue in the modern era, does this natural caution desert them and, collectively, they are prepared to quite literally bet their children’s lives on the faux optimism being peddled by contrarians?

As a journalist, I have long found climate denial an intriguing topic, but as a citizen and parent, I’ll admit to being mad as hell about this callous disregard for our future by those who likely won’t be around when the climate hits the fan.

“We’ve been repeatedly asked: don’t you want to leave a better Earth for your grandchildren”, quipped comedian and US talk show host John Oliver. “And we’ve all collectively responded: ‘ah, fuck ‘em!’” This would be a lot funnier were it not so close to the bone.

Short-termism and self interest is part of the answer. A 2012 study in Nature Climate Change presented evidence of ‘how remarkably well equipped ordinary individuals are to discern which stances towards scientific information secure their personal interests’.

This is surely only half the explanation. A 2007 study by Kahan et al. on risk perception identified the “white male effect”, or the ‘atypically high levels of technological and environmental risk acceptance among white males’. An earlier paper teased out a similar point: ‘Perhaps white males see less risk in the world because they create, manage, control and benefit from so much of it’. Others, such as women and non-whites, who haven’t enjoyed such an armchair ride in life, report far higher levels of risk aversion.

The 2011 paper ‘Cool Dudes – the denial of climate change among conservative white males in the US’ observed uncontroversially that: ‘conservative white males are likely to favour protection of the current industrial capitalist order which has historically served them well’. It added that ‘heightened emotional and psychic investment in defending in-group claims may translate into misperceived understanding about problems like climate change that threaten the continued order of the system’.

A paper earlier this year from Vanderbilt University pinpointed what motivates many who choose to reject climate change. It’s not science denial, but ‘regulation phobia’. Most deniers accept science in general, and even pride themselves on their science literacy. However, combatting climate change not alone means more regulations, ‘almost uniquely, it demands a transformation of internalised attitudes’. This, the authors conclude, ‘has produced what can fairly be described as a phobic reaction among many people’.

Facing up to climate change also means confronting the deeply uncomfortable reality that the growth-based economic and political models upon which we depend may be built on sand. In some, especially the ‘winners’ in the current economic system, this realisation can trigger an angry backlash.

“To the extent that assertions of environmental risk are perceived as symbolising a challenge to the prerogatives and competence of social and governmental elites, it is hierarchical men—and particularly white ones – whose identities are the most threatened, and who are thus most likely to form an extremely dismissive posture toward asserted risks”, according to the Kahan study.

This at last began to make sense of these elderly engineers and assorted non-specialists crowding into hotel rooms to engage in the pleasant and no doubt emotionally rewarding group delusion of imagining climate change to be some vast liberal hoax.

In truth, the arguments hawked around by elderly white male climate deniers like Fred Singer, William Happer and Nigel Lawson among others are intellectually threadbare, pockmarked with contradictions and offering little more than a cherry-picked parody of how science actually operates. Yet this is catnip for those who choose to be deceived.

It is, however, deeply unfair to tar all elderly white men as reckless and egotistical. Celebrated naturalist Sir David Attenborough (91) and former Nasa chief, Dr Jim Hansen (76) are examples of courageous climate leadership. But their voices are often lost in a fog of denial.

A century after elderly military leaders cheerfully dispatched millions of young men from the trenches to their slaughter in the First World War, the defiant mood of today’s climate deniers is best captured by the stirring words of Blackadder’s General Melchett: “If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through!”

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics | Tagged , | 61 Comments

‘I have fed – and starved – species greater than you’

Back in the bleak 1980s, some 500 Irish river locations boasted pure, clean water. What of today’s modern, sustainable and super-green Ireland? Now, a mere 21 river locations remain of very high quality, according to the EPA’s newly published Water Quality in Ireland, 2010-2015 report. This represents an astonishing collapse in water quality in just 30 years, and agricultural intensification is the chief culprit.

This may also come as quite a shock to Irish TV viewers, who have been treated to Bord Bia’s latest lush, evocative ‘Origin Green’ advertising campaign, which ironically opens by panning from a height across seemingly pristine rivers and bucolic pastoral scenes reminiscent of a Constable painting.

The campaign was developed by agency Rothco with a whopping €536,000 production budget. Bord Bia will spend at least as much again this year on TV, press and online ads, including advertorials pushing the message that the Irish agri sector is not only uniquely sustainable, it is also somehow involved in “solving one of the planet’s most pressing problems”. Quite.

This miraculous gift to problem-solving is known as the National Food Sustainability Programme, to which thousands of Irish farmers are signed up. I wondered just how tough it was to receive Origin Green certification, so I contacted Bord Bia to find out. They confirmed to me that, to date, some 0.5% of applicants have been deemed ‘not eligible’. In other words, 99.5% of farmers in Ireland are practising sustainable, ecologically friendly agriculture.

With such a uniquely talented, well-regulated and conscientious pool of farmers, small wonder we are the envy of the world when it comes to sustainability. Which makes it all the more mysterious as to how some two thirds of total water pollution is attributed by the EPA to the agricultural sector. And why it is also the number one threat to biodiversity, as well as Ireland’s largest source of greenhouse gases.

Indeed, it’s equally baffling to the Irish Farmers Association; its press release on the report talks at length about the ‘disproportionately negative impact on water quality’ of…urban areas. Nowhere did the IFA spin doctors mention agriculture being in any way culpable, let alone the chief offender. Perhaps they were too mesmerised by the stunning overhead photography and silken prose in that lavish new ‘Origin Green’ ad to actually read the EPA report?

The current advert follows an earlier Bord Bia series from some years back featuring a very young Saoirse Ronan wandering dreamily through a monocultural landscape while cooing about greenness, sustainability, nature etc. etc. It too was as visually stunning as it was vacuous, appealing to an Ireland that exists only in the minds of commercial filmmakers.

Nor is Bord Bia alone in schmaltzy, deeply deceptive advertising. Fellow semi-state, Bord na Móna faces huge problems over its environmentally destructive core business. Its answer has been to hilariously rebrand itself as ‘Naturally Driven’ and churn out soft-focus ads that glibly feature butterflies, ladybugs and sphagnum moss, while glossing over the massive and ongoing environmental wreckage it makes its actual money from.

This blizzard of eco-blarney did some unintended good in annoying ecologist, Pádraic Fogarty sufficiently to inspire him to research and write a hard-hitting book entitled ‘Whittled away – Ireland’s vanishing nature’. For him, Bord Bia’s deeply cynical Saoirse Ronan ad campaign was the last straw.

It is no coincidence, as Fogarty points out, that Bord Bia received three times more in taxpayer funding for its PR work than the National Parks and Wildlife Service to look after our actual natural heritage. It is equally unsurprising that during the recent recession the NPWS – now under the ministerial remit of agri industry-friendly Heather Humphreys, found its funding top of the list to be slashed.

Imagine for a moment that Mother Nature had access to a top creative agency, with celebrities willing to do the voiceovers – what might such an ad campaign look and sound like? The NGO Conservation International put together such a series a couple of years back, featuring the voices of Julia Roberts, Liam Neeson, Kevin Spacey, Ed Norton and Penelope Cruz, among others.

The series, entitled ‘Nature is speaking’, is beautifully produced, but the charity didn’t have millions in taxpayers money, like Bord Bia to buy TV space. It relied instead on social media to spread the word. My favourite, entitled ‘Mother Nature’, has so far been viewed over 6.8 million times on YouTube. “I have been here for aeons”, Mother Nature warns us. “I have fed species greater than you, and I have starved species greater than you…your actions will determine your fate, not mine”.

So much for that ridiculous ‘saving the planet’ conceit. Saving ourselves is always what this has really boiled down to, despite our fonder delusions about planetary stewardship. And frankly, even that more modest project looks to be well beyond our collective abilities.

Posted in Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Irish Focus | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Right here, right now. Climate change impacts get real

Below, the original version of my article, which ran in the Irish Times last week, including some links:

THE US National Weather Service is not noted for making alarmist pronouncements. So, when it earlier this week described Hurricane Harvey as “unprecedented – all impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced”, it became clear we are fast moving into dangerous new climatic era.

Meteorologist and science communicator Eric Holthaus set the facts out bluntly: “in all of US history, there’s never been a storm like Hurricane Harvey, but there’s an uncomfortable point that, so far, everyone is skating around. We knew this would happen, decades ago. We knew this would happen and we didn’t care… Harvey is what climate change looks like”.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Ireland again felt the latest lash of extreme weather with the sudden recent deluge that caused havoc in Donegal’s Inishowen peninsula. Met Éireann labelled it a “once in 100-year event” and pointedly avoided discussing any possible climate component. Continue reading

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An Inconvenient Truth – then and now

Below, my article as it appeared in the Irish Times on August 19th last. I had been, along with my family and some friends, to the preview screening of ‘An Inconvenient Sequel – Truth To Power’ in the Lighthouse Cinema on August 1st last, and confess to having found it disappointing (a view not shared, incidentally, by the kids who attended).

Maybe it was a little too much to expect the sequel to pack anything like the raw emotional punch of the 2006 original There was also that nagging feeling that it really was time for Al Gore, having done so much to inspire, mobilise and broaden the so-called ‘environmental movement’, to step aside and let other, newer, voices lead the next phase.

None of this takes from the debt of gratitude I and many others owe to Gore for his outstanding leadership and morally grounded activism at another time of great despair and science denial within US politics. Hard to believe that anyone would ever look back ever-so-slightly wistfully at the GW Bush era, but such is the state of play with the current incumbent that anything other than profound pessimism on our remaining chances of avoid climate meltdown seems borderline delusional.

Meanwhile, I asked six well-known figures from environmental science and campaigning for their reflections on the impact of the original movie: Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Sceptics, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A goose wrapped in tinfoil, pushed further into oven each year

Earlier in July, New York magazine ran a thumping article titled ‘The Uninhabitable Earth‘, by writer David Wallace-Wells. It was a meticulously researched piece of long-form journalism, based on an extensive review of the scientific literature as well as interviews with leading climatologists.

It then did something highly unusual for an article about climate change: it went viral. The article quickly became the most viewed piece in the magazine’s history, as well as attracting a slew of reaction pieces, many critical, from across the media and scientific spectrum. The respected website, ‘Climate Feedback‘ invited 17 scientists to review the article, and they gave it an overall ‘Scientific Credibility’ ranking of -0.7, meaning its credibility is ‘low’.

This, to many, seemed unduly harsh. There are execrable articles published about climate change, usually motivated by ignorance, ideology or a combination of both; this article is absolutely not in that camp. The author made every effort to understand the science and present it fairly. The criticisms, some would speculate, come from a scientific community so used to being harangued and harassed by deniers and witch-hunting politicians that they are collectively scared witless at sticking their head over the parapet at at all. Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Media, Psychology, Sceptics | Tagged , | 4 Comments

An outside view on Ireland’s ‘climate action’

Below, my article, as published last week on the Guardian – my first article on what is arguably the world’s foremost news media source for environment and climate news and opinion.

Having been banging on about these issues domestically for years, and trying to draw attention within the national media on Ireland’s generally woeful performance, (as well as the rise of organised climate denial) in recent months I changed tack and began looking at non-Irish media outlets. Since May, I’ve had a total of four news features published on DeSmog.uk, a leading site focusing on identifying and calling out climate denial in all its many guises.

From there, I approached the Guardian earlier this month and this led to the below piece being commissioned (ok, to fess up, I’ve been knocking on their door, on and off, for around three years. These things clearly take time, lots of time). It appeared on Guardian.co.uk last Wednesday morning, and spent almost the entire day ranked as first or second on the ‘most read’ list on Guardian/Environment. To date, it has garnered almost 30,000 views just from Ireland, as well as 530 comments posted online under the article. And finally, the inevitable  article about the article, on Joe.ie no less. Continue reading

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In deep water: Naughten approves major offshore oil drilling plan

Below, my story, as it appeared a few days ago on DeSmogUK:

IRELAND’S first minister for Climate Action, Denis Naughten, quietly signed off this month on the Druid/Drombeg exploration field off Ireland’s west coast which is eyeing an estimated five billion barrels of offshore oil.

The department issued no press statement about the initiative and it didn’t even merit a mention on the department’s website.

The news instead leaked out via an industry website, Proactive Investors, which revealed that Providence Resources PLC had confirmed that drilling operations had begun for the exploration well near Porcupine bank off the Irish coast.

As the website stated, it is “expected to be a high impact exploration programme, if the well successfully confirms the prospects seen in pre-drill analysis.” Continue reading

Posted in Energy, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Irish Farmers Journal: fearlessly on the side of fake news

Back in the 1970s, there was striking advertising poster in Kilkenny Mart featuring a powerfully built bull with a ring through its nose. The unsubtle slogan: ‘No bull in the Irish Farmers Journal’. The old Kilkenny Mart building is long gone, but the Farmers Journal rumbles on. Founded in 1948, it is approaching its 70th birthday and, in an age of plummeting newspaper sales, continues to have a robust weekly circulation of nearly 70,000.

And while never at the journalistic bleeding edge, the Journal has enjoyed grudging respect, both for its commercial savvy and for wielding significant political clout in the agribusiness sector. In recent months, however, the proverbial bull has not only returned to the Journal, it has run amok. Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Too big to fail? Great Barrier Reef nears final collapse

Below, my article on the plight of reef systems worldwide, with a focus on the Great Barrier Reef, as it appeared in the Irish Times earlier this month…

AUSTRALIA’S Great Barrier Reef is best described in superlatives. Covering an area the size of Italy, it is the only living structure clearly visible from space. Rather than a single reef, the mighty Barrier Reef, which extends much of the length of Australia’s east coast, is instead an archipelago of some 3,000 co-habitating reefs.

Although covering barely one-tenth of 1 per cent of the ocean floor, globally, reefs are the nurseries for around a quarter of all marine species. Their importance to the oceans’ ecosystems vastly outweighs their physical extent.

Despite its size, the Barrier Reef is manifestly not too big to fail. Marine scientists have been ringing alarm bells as an unprecedented series of major recent “bleaching” events have left large parts of the reef system dying or dead. Continue reading

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Habitat/Species | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Doubling down on climate denial: ICSF hosts Happer

Below, my latest article on Desmog.uk, covering the recent ultra low-key visit of well known climate contrarian, William Happer to Dublin. Publication was delayed by around a week as Desmog turned its editorial focus to the UK elections – including the climate-denying DUP’s surprise ascent to centre stage.

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The second meeting in a month of the newly formed climate sceptic group, the Irish Climate Science Forum, took place behind a veil of secrecy and a media blackout in Dublin on June 1, DeSmog UK can confirm.

Guest speaker was noted climate science denier William Happer, a retired Princeton professor who is currently understood to be on a shortlist for the role of Science Advisor to the climate-denying Trump administration in the US. Continue reading

Posted in Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment