Europe’s air pollution crisis brings climate reality close to home

Below, my article as it appears in this month’s Village magazine…

WHILE global pollution crises, from climate change to plastics in the oceans, are showing no signs of abating, the worst effects are, we in the ‘developed world’ are reassured to believe, clustered in poorer countries and distant ecosystems.

One of the many environmental paradoxes is that, while global ecological indexes are in freefall, we in the more prosperous parts of the world have never had it so good. The outsourcing of heavy industry from much of Europe and the US to the Far East over the last two decades has been a win-win for the west. The cost of manufactured goods plummeted thanks to the vast new pools of cheap labour, leading to the last decade and a half turning into greatest shopping spree in human history.

While we shopped, they dropped. China today burns nearly half the world’s coal. Air pollution is now so severe that Chinese scientists have described its effects as being akin to a nuclear winter, with photosynthesis in plants being disrupted – potentially wreaking havoc on China’s food supply. A 2104 report from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences stated that that Beijing’s pollution levels made the city “almost uninhabitable for human beings”.

While the climate-altering greenhouses gases spewing from thousands of new smokestacks across Asia are demonstrably as much a threat to Ireland as they are to China or India, it remains alarmingly easy for our politicians and policymakers to poo poo such abstractions as the concentrations of an invisible, odourless gas like carbon dioxide (CO2) while instead tilting their ire, Don Quixote-style at ‘unsightly’ windmills.

And while the silent apocalypse being wrought by the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels inches ever closer, we can at least console ourselves that it’s a problem for ‘other’ people (those divided from us either by geography or by time) to deal with.

This narrow view was shattered by a recent report from the World Health Organisation (Europe) that took an in-depth look at the costs to Europe right now from air pollution. The word they used to summarise their own conclusions was “staggering”. It’s hardly an overstatement. The WHO study attributed some 600,000 deaths in Europe every year directly as a result of air pollution; it calculated the annual cost of illness and death at some $1.6 trillion (yes, trillion).

This enormous sum is the equivalent of some 10% of the GDP of the entire European Union. “Curbing the health effects of air pollution pays dividends. The evidence we have provides decision-makers across the whole of government with a compelling reason to act”, according to Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “If different sectors come together on this, we not only save more lives but also achieve results that are worth astounding amounts of money”.

The economic cost of deaths accounts for over US$ 1.4 trillion per annum. Another 10% is added to this to account for the cost of diseases from air pollution, resulting in the total of around US$ 1.6 trillion. The economic value of deaths and diseases due to air pollution is, according to the WHO, based on the amount societies are willing to pay to avoid these deaths and diseases with necessary interventions. In these calculations, “a value is attached to each death and disease, independent of the age of the person and which varies according to the national economic context”.

More than nine in 10 people living in the European Region are exposed to annual levels of outdoor fine particulate matter that are in excess of the WHO’s air quality guidelines. This translates into 482,000 premature deaths in 2012 from heart and respiratory diseases and strokes, as well as lung cancers. Indoor air pollution accounted for another 117,200 premature deaths, five times more in poorer than in higher-income European countries.

A related WHO study tallied that one in four Europeans falls ill or dies prematurely from environmental pollution. So much for this simply being a far-away problem affecting people and places we know and care little about.

The law of unintended consequences applies in attempts at curbing pollution. Many European governments, including the Fianna Fail/Green coalition, moved to introduce reforms in motor taxation to favour vehicles that produced lower CO2 emissions. While this undoubtedly nudged car makers into producing cleaner engines, the single biggest switch was from petrol to diesel combustion.

The massive shift to diesel on Irish roads has happened rapidly. This seemingly ‘environmentally friendly’ move (diesel engines produce around 20% less CO2 per kilometre travelled than petrol equivalents) has a nasty sting in the tailpipe. Diesel engines emit 10 times the fine particles and up to twice the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) of petrol. These toxins have been linked to 7,000 deaths in the UK each year.

A study in the medical journal, The Lancet in 2011 implicated traffic exposure to particulates as the single most serious preventable trigger of heart attack in the general public, and the principal cause of 7.4% of all attacks. Particulates are classed as carcinogens by the WHO. Fine particulates (those below 2.5 micrometers, or less than 30 times smaller than the width of a single strand of hair) are particularly dangerous.

These microscopic particulates penetrate deep into the lungs, and into individual alveoli, passing through cell membranes and migrating into other organs. Established health effects include asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, premature delivery, birth defects and premature death. Infants and children are particularly at risk from the effects of particulates, and these in turn are most intense in urban areas in proximity to heavy traffic.

In April 2015, its Supreme Court ruled that the British government must take urgent steps to tackle air pollution in cities. The UK is facing huge fines from the European Commission for failing to cut levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

The Supreme court ordered the UK Department for the Environment to draw up new air quality plans by the end of 2015, setting out how it plans to dramatically tackle air pollution.

According to the WHO analysis, the cost to Ireland of air pollution is just over $2.5 billion annually, estimated at around 1.3% of Ireland’s GNP. The figures are very significantly higher in many eastern European countries, where the annual cost of air pollution averages up to 20% of GNP.

Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency monitors domestic air quality, and in 2014 it raised concerns over levels of the cancer-causing particulates and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which are produced by burning solid fuels, and ozone which in high concentrations causes breathing problems, damages lungs and can trigger asthma.

The EPA noted that local air quality was significantly impacted by burning coal or peat in the home, as well as the level of vehicular traffic in urban areas. The EPA also expressed concern about the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air in urban areas.

“Ireland must develop and implement policies to reduce travel demand, emphasising sustainable transport modes such as cycling, walking and public transport and improving the efficiency of motorised transport,” according to the EPA.

In tandem with its atrocious performance on the Climate Bill, there is zero indication that the government or indeed the execrable current environment minister, Alan Kelly has any interest whatever in curbing pollution or tackling our spiralling transport and agricultural emissions, any more than he has in lifting a finger on climate change.

To the contrary, the science-illiterate Kelly appears to favour a return to industry-friendly light touch regulation in housing, coupled with vague and deliberately meaningless ‘targets’ on emissions reduction with no mechanism to actually deliver them.

We may now be witnessing a rapid regression to the cowboy building blitz of the boom years, coupled with toothless and useless climate legislation. Meanwhile, the new WHO data on air pollution is a timely reminder that what you can’t see can indeed hurt you. Right now, people are paying with their health and their lives for our failure to address air pollution.

The same steps needed to tackle this epidemic would also set us on the road to climate stabilisation by reining in the reckless burning of fossil fuels and rapidly transitioning to clean, safe alternatives. But as long as we continue to vote in politicians prepared to gamble with our health as well as our future, that prospect remains remote in the extreme.

– John Gibbons writes on climate and environmental issues and is online @think_or_swim

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Guardian seeks to rouse media from its climate torpor

Below is my article as it appears in the current edition of Village magazine:

THERE is nothing new about newspapers striking poses over climate change. On December 7th, 2009, some 55 major newspapers from all over the world (including the Irish Times) ran a joint editorial just ahead of the opening of the Copenhagen UN climate conference.

Who could forget the dramatic call to arms from some of the world’s most respected newspapers, which began: “humanity faces a profound emergency”.

“Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting… In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world’s response has been feeble and half-hearted.

“Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over short-sightedness. The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history’s judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.” Continue reading

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An economic analysis that just doesn’t add up

I was pleased to spot economist Prof John Fitzgerald among the audience at the recent EPA lecture in the Mansion House, Dublin, presented by Prof Myles Allen. As it transpires, Fitzgerald was doing some field work for an opinion article that appeared in the business section of the Irish Times earlier this week, under the headline: ‘Solution to global warming is technology’ (authors rarely get to write the headline, so we won’t hold that one against him).

This is one of only a handful of articles the otherwise prolific Fitzgerald has dedicated to the topic of climate change. It is always welcome to see a senior Irish economist to turn his quill to this vast, challenging topic (two fairly strong critiques of Fitzgerald’s piece, by Profs Barry McMullin and John Sweeney appeared in the Letters Page a week after publication)

To be fair, it started well enough, with phrases such as: “If urgent action is not taken the world’s climate will get worse at an accelerated pace”. That’s as good as it gets, alas. “Governments rarely choose to go to their electorates and tell them they are going to make life more expensive and that there will be no go financial reward for their pain” is how Fitzgerald sums up moves to address climate change. Continue reading

Posted in Economics, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sceptics | 13 Comments

Come back, Liz McManus – your country needs you!

In case you haven’t heard, our current Minister for the Environment is a Labour party TD called Alan Kelly. He is the man who brought us the no-lobbyist-left-behind Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2015, a piece of draft legislation that has been warmly welcomed by the IFA, ICOS, IBEC, etc., i.e. by the folks who have worked tirelessly over the last several years to ensure that no meaningful climate legislation ever found its way onto our statute books. In that regard, the Climate Bill looks like ‘Mission Accomplished’.

Kelly was interviewed by Sean O’Rourke on RTE Radio yesterday. It was, in a sense, revealing. Kelly is “a person of conviction”, we learned. We know this because he told us he was. We also learned that Kelly’s proudest boast is that Ireland has the “highest growth rate in Europe” (again), and that he pursues what he calls a “progressive agenda”. Kelly is also deputy leader of the Labour party, therefore the proverbial heartbeat from being Tánaiste.

To wind him up a bit, O’Rourke played a clip of former minister, Eamon Ryan describing Kelly as “an anti-green Minister for the Environment…he reads the political tea leaves and sees there isn’t a constituency (in tackling climate change)”. Ryan went on to describe Kelly as “our greatest electoral asset, every time he goes out, he saying Labour doesn’t give a damn about that vision of the future”. Continue reading

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Breaching our planetary boundaries, one by one

Below, my article, as it will appear in the latest Village magazine:

BACK IN 2009, some months before the ill-fated UN climate conference in Copenhagen, an Earth system framework was proposed by an international collaboration of environmental scientists. Their aim was to establish a measurable set of ‘planetary boundaries’ with a view to identifying a “safe operating space” for humanity.

The research team, involving scientists from a range of disciplines, developed a set of nine key boundaries, beyond which lay the risks of “irreversible and abrupt environmental change”. In January 2015, the team published an in-depth update on their investigations in the journal Science, and it was discussed in depth at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos. The findings took even seasoned environmental commentators and observers by surprise.

The paper confirmed that humanity has already breached four of the nine key boundaries, namely biodiversity loss, deforestation, atmospheric CO2 levels and the flows of nitrogen and phosphorus used in agriculture into the world’s waterways and oceans. Continue reading

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Sustainability | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Milking the (climate) system, Irish-style

Below, article as it appears in the current edition of ‘Village’ magazine. (I co-authored this piece with Paul Price).

“IT IS DIFFICULT to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”. Novelist Upton Sinclair’s famous observation could well have been describing Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney, a rare ambitious and ascending star on an otherwise jaded Fine Gael front bench.

Coveney’s understanding of the most basic of scientific facts will clearly not encumber his possible trajectory towards the goal of being Cork’s first Taoiseach since Jack Lynch. So, when Coveney appeared on a recent edition of RTE’s PrimeTime, only the thinnest of smiles betrayed the fact that he was selling a series of fat porkies on national television.

Coveney’s claim that the Irish dairy herd could be expanded by over 300,000 cows in the next five years “while maintaining the existing carbon footprint of the agriculture sector” is, he must well know, nonsensical.  To defend it, he engaged in some unconvincing waffle about higher yields per animal somehow magically offsetting the massive increase in our national herd. Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | 37 Comments

The Dream (A Fantasy at Christmas)

It was still dark when Enda Kenny fell awake from a fitful sleep. He rose unsteadily, exhausted, almost stumbling as he made his way to the bathroom. With the light on, he noticed his pyjamas were almost completely soaked in sweat; beads clung to his forehead and over his upper lip. He washed his face, changed his clothing and sat silently in near-darkness in the kitchen for around twenty minutes.

“Jesus H. Christ”, he muttered almost inaudibly, his thoughts interrupted by the ring of his mobile phone. It was Leo Varadkar. “Sorry boss to call so early, but there’s something really strange going on. My phone has been ringing since just after six am. People are freaking out”, said the Health Minister. “Slow down Leo, for feck’s sake”, said Kenny. “Who’s freaking out, what’s this about?”

“I really don’t know how to explain this without sounding like I’m losing my marbles, boss, but it’s this dream…” Kenny froze. “Dream…what…dream?” The words tumbled out, almost afraid of the answer. “Jesus boss, don’t laugh, but I’ve just had the worst dream of my life. I woke an hour ago and nearly threw up. Then, the phone started ringing. First, it was Coveney, crying like a baby, then Reilly, then a couple of lads from the constituency office, then my pal from Trinity…” His voice trailed off.

“Christ, man, get to the point”, said Kenny, who became aware that his own lips were bone dry and almost stuck to one another as he spoke. “Sorry boss, this sounds completely mental, I know, but everyone I’ve spoken to in the last hour has had the same dream…seriously, the same actual goddam dream, the same dream. And people are phoning in and emailing from all over the world saying the same thing. Twitter has nearly exploded. Jesus boss, I’m a feckin’ medical doctor and I can tell you for a fact this is impossible, completely impossible. But it’s also true.”

Kenny slumped back into the chair, the mobile phone almost slipping from his sweat-soaked grasp. “This dream, Leo, did it have anything…you know…to do with some kind of… disaster…. anything like that?”

“Em, yes boss, it was that exactly; I felt like I was trapped alive in the worst horror story you could ever imagine…everything had fallen apart, there was floods, storms, looting, rioting, chaos, the lights were out, no water or food, the guards, firemen, hospitals, army, everything gone…but it was right here in Dublin, well, all over Ireland in fact. There wasn’t much contact with the outside world, but from what we could make it, it was at least as bad everywhere else. I know it had to have been a dream, but I’d swear to you it was real, I knew exactly what was going on every moment of it…” added Varadkar.

“Hello, hello, boss, are you still there?” After several seconds of silence, Kenny replied haltingly: “You’ve just pretty well described my dream…Leo, call a Cabinet meeting for noon today; whatever ministers are away, get them back. We need to get the general secretaries of all departments in as well. The Garda commissioner, Civil defense, army chief of staff, you know, the usual suspects. We’ll meet with them later this afternoon. We need to get all the ambassadors on a teleconference too, see if we can get a clearer picture from around the world.”

“What about a press briefing?”, Varadkar enquired half-heartedly. “Christ Leo, what are we going to say to them, some kind of Martin Luther King ‘I have a dream’ moment, I don’t feckin’ think so. Get the press officers in and let them get together and figure something out”. A fit 63-year old, this morning Kenny felt more like 93. His wife Fionnuala appeared. She too looked exhausted and ashen-faced. “Christ Enda, you won’t believe the dream I’m after having…”

———————————–

And so it spread, all over the world. Billions woke that day frightened, confused and anxious. As news spread, churches, mosques and temples quickly filled to overflowing. The impossible had just happened. Years of warnings by leading scientific agencies that the world was on the path to catastrophic climate change and an epic global extinction event had gone unheeded. Nobody knew how it happened but now, everyone knew. The realisation fell like a hammer.

An emergency session of the United Nations was summoned, and leaders of over 190 countries, including Kenny, flooded to New York for an intensive behind-closed-doors briefing session with senior scientific members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the US National Academy of Sciences, the UK Royal Society and their counterparts from another 20 or so major nations, including China and Japan. Even the Russians came in from the cold. Long-standing enmities and even the bitterest of rivalries were, for now, put on ice.

CEOs and chairmen of the world’s major transnational corporations were also invited to participate, as were the publishers and senior editors of over 300 newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and news websites. Senior delegates from all the world’s major religious organisation also attended.

After several days and nights of intense negotiations, four figures emerged to make a joint address to the UN General Assembly. They were US president, Barack Obama, China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Jean-Claude Juncker on behalf of the EU. This was their statement:

“Something truly unprecedented has happened in the last few days. While we may never fully understand what has just occurred, its import is crystal clear. Together, we stand at the edge of the greatest crisis in human history. It is, quite simply, without precedent. Our scientists have been telling us this, in so many words, for years, but we, the politicians, the business community, religious and civil society, we haven’t been listening. We have been asleep. It took a dream to wake us up.

“Having consulted with other world leaders, we are today declaring a global climate emergency. With immediate effect, all energy production is being nationalised, and energy rationing will begin shortly. Every coal-burning plant in the world is to be fully decommissioned within 10 years. A trillion dollars is being ring-fenced for a multi-national renewable and nuclear energy programme. Work begins immediately.

“We are also declaring 500 million hectares of land off-limits to all human activity or encroachment. All logging and mining in these conservation areas is hereby declared illegal, and these will be rigorously enforced. We are also declaring the entire Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland regions, including surrounding oceans, as completely off limits to anything other than strictly regulated scientific activities. New laws are being put in place to enshrine the right of the natural world to exist and to flourish, and to be strictly protected from human encroachment.

“With immediate effect, couples will be limited to one child. To support this policy, policies, customs and religious rules restricting the rights of women and girls to full educational equality, including free access to family planning services, will be outlawed. Stringent new carbon taxes will be targeted at non-essential or luxury items. All tax shelters for corporations and rich individuals are being shut down, and we are restoring the top rate of income tax for high earners to the levels that applied in the early 1960s – ranging from 70–92%.

“Much of the proceeds of these new taxes will be used to improve conditions for the low-paid and those in poorer countries. Our shared ambition is to tackle income inequality, both between individuals and between states, as the only safe way of ensuring the social cohesion that is going to be essential in the extremely difficult times that lie ahead.

“Yes, these new regulations will impose hardships on some, but, as we all now know, the alternative is to be complicit in the greatest calamity in all of human history, and the destroy this world for all future generations. This would be the gravest stain on our species. We stand together, collectively determined that this generation will not and must not let this catastrophe come to pass.”

———————————–

Some called it a communications failure, but it might be better thought of as a failure of imagination. Decades of growth and seemingly endless economic and population expansion and its accompanying ideologies had inured the world to the reality of the ever-tightening resource crisis, spiralling emissions, collapse in global biological diversity and the great unravelling of complexity across the biosphere.

The consequences of this massive fraying of the very fabric of life on Earth were, until that fateful night, beyond the reach of people’s imagination, and thus, in a very real sense, unreal, remote and of no great consequence.

And so began a new era in human affairs, one that would, in time, become known as The Great Contraction. Whether even such radical steps could avoid or forestall the severe impacts of a battered biosphere and a restive climate system would only become apparent by mid-century.

But, in starting over, there was reason to believe once more.

Merry Christmas.

Posted in Global Warming, Psychology | 2 Comments

What next for the apes who went to space?

I have no idea where I was on the night of July 20-21, 1969, being far too young to grasp the historic events that were unfolding, as Apollo 11 became the first spacecraft to land humans on a world other than our own. It was, in every sense over my head, albeit in this instance by a good one third of a million kilometres.

In its specially extended coverage, RTE television was still on air at the then-scandalous hour of 3.56am on July 21st as Neil Armstrong took those famous first steps onto the surface of the moon. The RTE Guide, in its edition dated July 18, 1969, featured four solid pages detailing its planned radio and TV coverage of the monumental event.

The usual domestic news stories were swept from the editorial agendas as the dramatic story of Apollo 11’s eight-day journey to the moon gripped audiences around the world. I don’t know what the 1969 version of the water-metering saga was, but even a political soap opera on this scale would surely have been swept away in the dizzy excitement of Apollo 11.

Back then, scientists really were virtually rock stars – presidents and prime ministers listened to and – as often as not – acted under the guidance of the great scientific institutions, be they Nasa and the AAAS in the US, or the UK Royal Society.

Politicians and the media still argued furiously about how best to respond to given scientific findings, but only the truly bone-headed and marginal argued about the facts themselves. The 1969 moon landing was an astonishing triumph for science in its most literal sense, i.e. scientia, the Latin for knowledge. An insatiable thirst to better understand our world had actually propelled one insatiably inquisitive species of higher primates all the way from the African savannah to our neighbouring moon – and back.

A curious side-effect of Nasa’s space programme was that it offered us, for the first time, clear images of Earth as a small blue sphere cradled against the ink-black infinity of space. A famous photo known as ‘Earthrise’ was taken by a crew member of Apollo 8 on December 24th, 1968, the first vessel to complete a lunar orbit. From this new perspective, our limitless world suddenly appeared finite, delicate, yet exquisitely precious – the merest blue smudge in the Cosmos.

Less than two years later, 20 million people took to the streets of America for the first Earth Day, in April, 1970. That massive direct action shook up the political classes and, sensing the new zeitgeist, Republican US president, Richard Nixon signed the Environmental Protection Agency into being in December of that year.

For a long moment in the early 1970s, it really seemed that humanity’s relationship with the natural world might, for the first time since the start of the Industrial Revolution, be placed on a sustainable trajectory. This would mean awakening to the reality of our place within the living world, not as its master but its child, entirely dependent for our well being, our prosperity and our very lives, on the only known biosphere for a trillion kilometres in any direction.

The influential book ‘Limits to Growth’ was published in 1972, having been commissioned by a think tank known as The Club of Rome. It was chillingly prescient:

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

What the authors could not have foreseen back then was not just that growth trends would continue, but that they would in fact ramp up sharply, along an exponential curve, especially since the late 1990s, when vast countries like China and India began the most rapid spurt of industrialization in human history.

Fast forward some 45 years from the moon landings to another historic day: November 12, 2014. On this day, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta reached the comet known as 67P/C-G, a roughly 3-by-5 km chunk of rock (first detected in the year of the moon landing, 1969) last August.  Rosetta has travelled some 6.4 billion km since it blasted off in 2004 – the mission has cost around 1.4 billion euros – if you think that sounds like a lot, it’s less than a quarter of what our government pumped into just one rotten institution – Irish Nationwide – after the banking collapse.

Comets are flying time capsules, fragments that pre-date the formation of our solar system some 4.6 billion years ago, so they offer us unique opportunities to better understand our own planetary origins, including tantalising clues as to the origins of life on Earth, as well as possibly trapping ancient organic molecules. I herded the kids into the living room just ahead of 9pm RTE main evening news, so they could see coverage of this truly amazing story. We waited, and we waited, and we waited some more. Gerry Adams, water protesters, Ivor Callely, Ian Bailey, the 1916 commemorations were among the ‘top stories’ that filled the screen.

Not one of them was in any sense ‘new’; all have been rumbling along for days or even weeks. Nor did the bulletin offer any particularly notable advances on any of these stories. Eventually, after around 14 minutes, RTE News carried a piece, running to two minutes and 15 seconds. You couldn’t fault correspondent Will Goodbody’s report, but the same cannot be said for the rabbits who are operating the editorial levers in Montrose.

Wondering if I was simply losing my marbles about the significance of this story, I switched over to the BBC’s flagship TV news bulletin at 10pm, where, sure enough, it was the lead item, with the entire opening segment of almost six minutes dedicated to its coverage. Ditto for CNN and Sky News.

To recap: Rosetta is probably the biggest astronomy story since Apollo 11. Yes, the Mars Rover was another technological triumph, but chasing Comet 67P/C-G for billions of kilometres across the solar system and finally successfully intercepting with and then landing a probe on a rock hurtling along at over 50,000 km per hour, is one of those truly rare moments when science fact brilliantly eclipses even science fiction.

The triumph of the Rosetta mission shows how cutting edge science, enabled by ever more powerful computing resources, has continued to advance in the last four decades. Compare and contrast this latest titanic achievement with the media caricature of science being a disconnected series of random events and ever-changing ‘evidence’ and scientists a bunch of self-serving chancers who make stuff up to get research grants.

This incident also brought it forcefully home that, apart from being uninterested in science, just how entirely provincial the outlook of Ireland’s national media really is, whatever its pretentions to the contrary might be.

This point was hammered home the following morning, when our Newspaper of Record relegated the comet landing to the inside pages. If on the other hand Roy Keane is spotted out walking his dog, well hold the front pages! George Bernard Shaw once mockingly described a newspaper as being an institution unable to distinguish between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilisation. It doesn’t seem quite so far fetched a put-down now.

Cast your mind back a couple of weeks, to Sunday, November 2nd and the launch of the IPCC’s AR5 Synthesis Report. This was the Big One, pulling together the main threads of its findings, while weeding out some climate policy trolls (most notably the pseudo-scientific Panglossian hokum pedalled by one Prof Richard Tol) along the way.

To its credit, RTE did a fine job that day, leading its 6pm and 9pm bulletins, with environment correspondent George Lee leaving viewers in no doubt that as to the gravity of this report (I was interviewed by Lee for the bulletin wearing my An Taisce climate change committee hat).

Within 24 hours, the story was a dead letter as far as the Irish media was concerned. It didn’t make a line on the front page of the next day’s Irish Independent, with the Irish Times managing a meagre 2” single column front page piece. By Tuesday, it was business-as-usual, as the Independent’s knuckle-dragger-in-chief penned his latest piece of bilious anti-science twaddle.

In what I can only assume is a desperate search for attention, the author (who confuses being able to type with being able to write) plumbs the sewers of journalism every time he mentions climate change. The irony here is that the Indo’s actual environment corr, Paul Melia, seems to really know his stuff, but get precious little editorial space, while the poo-flinging Ian O’Doherty is promoted, presumably to serve as Daily Mail style click-bait.

When it isn’t conducting intricate manoeuvres with probes half a billion kilometres away, the European Space Agency is, along with its US counterpart, Nasa, at the bleeding edge of research into climate change. Both agencies deploy satellites to take a range of ultra-precise ongoing measurements of ‘the home planet’, from assaying atmospheric CO2 to sea level and ice thickness measurements.

Measuring and understanding the vital functions of a dynamic living biosphere and its ever-changing weather systems involves as phenomenally complex collaborative science as guiding Rosetta across the Solar System to rendezvous with comet 67P/C-G. Curious how as soon as the same scientists who deliver mind-boggling breakthroughs such as the Rosetta mission apply their expertise to measure the degree to which Earth systems are being impacted by climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, glacial ice loss, sea level rise, extreme weather events and widespread pollution, they are suddenly cast as cranks, alarmists and venial grant-seekers who’ll say anything for a couple of hundred euros. Like a certain kind of hack, come to think of it.

Well, that’s what the poo-flingers would have us believe anyhow. Personally, if forced to choose between believing the semi-literate babbling of neoliberal fantasists and the collective expertise and data sets of the world’s scientific institutions, frankly, it’s really not such a tough call.

I was interviewed on Monday’s RTE Drivetime (clip starts around 00.49) about the report. The interviewer asked me straight off the bat whether the IPCC’s findings could in fact be trusted. Seriously. Had he been tuning in, George Lee would probably have been pulling his remaining hair out in tufts. In the movie Groundhog Day, it’s always February 2nd, and nobody ever remembers anything about the day, no matter how many times the hapless weatherman, Phil Connors has to endure it.

As far as the media coverage of climate change is concerned, it’s always February 2nd, and the story is inevitably handled with the same eyebrow-lifted surprise and scepticism. Perish the thought that somebody might open their eyes wide enough and stay focused for long enough to realise: ‘holy crap, this is real, it’s happening, we’re stuffed, and absolutely everything I know, everything I’ve learned and pretty much everything I care about is either irrelevant or dead wrong’.

Not many people, especially media people, are queuing up for a cold shower epiphany like that. But, as the IPCC has laboured to warn us, the “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” of climate change are coming our way, ready or not, and, it appears, sooner than we feared.

*Hat-tip to Prof Brian Cox for inspiring the title of this post.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Another Fine (Gael) mess on climate change

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has in the last week or so taken political recklessness and cynicism to new lows. History may judge that he did more than any other politician of his generation to destroy the future of Irish agriculture. In attempting to dodge Ireland’s responsibility for dealing with climate change, An Taoiseach is also flying in the face of the scientific evidence that confirms that the greatest threat to Irish agriculture is not the regulations dealing with climate change, but climate change itself, to which agriculture is almost uniquely vulnerable.

A 2013 report, authored by Dr Stephen Flood of NUI Maynooth (‘Projected Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Irish Agriculture’ – this report was formally launched by Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney) states:

“Agriculture is one of the most climate-sensitive industries in Ireland, as its primarily outdoor production processes depend on particular levels of temperature and rainfall. The report projects the total economic costs of climate change in the region of €1-2 billion per annum by mid-century. This figure represents 8.2% of the current contribution of the agricultural sector to the national economy annually, and at the upper level is greater than the Harvest 2020 targeted increase of €1.5 billion in primary output”.

Enda Kenny over the last week expended valuable diplomatic capital in Europe attempting to argue why Ireland should be exempted from shouldering its fair share of the burden of the rapid and immediate decarbonisation that science says is now critical if the most severe impacts of climate destabilisation are to be avoided.

Barely four weeks ago, the same Mr Kenny, addressing the UN Climate Summit in New York, demanded that world leaders show “conviction, clarity, courage and consistency” in responding to climate change. Given the extreme urgency of the crisis, Mr Kenny added solemnly: “The hand of the future beckons, the clock ticks and we have no time to waste…Global warming is a stark reality that can only be dealt with by a collective global response. We are all interdependent and interconnected … we share a common humanity… and each of us must play our part.”

In less than a month, Mr Kenny appears to have suffered the political equivalent of a lobotomy – in September, climate change is the world’s greatest crisis, and “courage and consistency” is needed in dealing with this “stark reality”. And in October, the same Mr Kenny warned that Ireland would be “screwed” if it attempted to comply with emissions reductions targets it has already signed up to.

It’s a surprisingly short journey from demanding conviction, clarity, courage and consistency to espousing cowardice, cynicism, cute hoorism and chicanery.

According to the October version of An Taoiseach: “It would not be feasible to have targets set that are completely impractical for a country like Ireland. Targets, indeed, that were set and that were agreed by the administration before this one, for 2020, were based on different variations of information that does not stand up…but I don’t want whatever administration or whatever government is in office in Ireland from 2020 to 2030 to be completely screwed by virtue of a wrong base upon which targets were set originally for 2020.”

Mr Kenny’s conversion to the IFA position on climate change appears to follow closely the path taken by his cabinet colleague, agriculture minister, Simon Coveney. When in opposition, Coveney spoke passionately in public about the need for binding, no-excuses climate legislation, stating publicly that what he had read about the science of climate change “sent shivers down my spine”. Back in 2008, Coveney described climate change as “Ireland’s challenge – and we need to meet it”. More recently, Minister Coveney said that the EU’s climate change policy, the very policy he championed in 2008, “makes no sense to me, no sense on any level”.

It is easy to understand why public trust in politicians and the political process is now at such a low ebb. Given the scale and gravity of the global ecological and climate crisis, it has never been more vital that we our politicians break free from the lobbyists and spin doctors and exercise principled leadership guided by scientific evidence, not polling data. (for a quick recap on what FG, pre-election, said they would do on climate change, click here).

During his inauguration speech in 1961, as the world teetered on the edge of a nuclear conflagration, president John F. Kennedy said: “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Hilariously, Enda Kenny had the temerity to quote JKF in his New York speech, when saying: “President Kennedy reminded us over 50 years ago that we all live on the same planet, we all breathe the same air, and we are all mortal. These words are still true.” If JFK were alive today, he might well wonder what planet Kenny et al do in fact inhabit.

Today, the stakes are every bit as high as in the darkest days of the Cold War, yet all Ireland’s political leaders can offer are weasel words in public while doing highly damaging deals with powerful vested interests like the IFA in private.

Politicians like Mr Kenny and Mr Coveney appear to be prepared to put the safety and security of every citizen of Ireland at grave risk while also jeopardising the future of Irish agriculture in pursuit of a quick buck from ‘Harvest 2020’ – gains that, as the NUIM study confirms, will be quickly reversed as climate destabilisation yields the bitterest of harvests.

Mr Kenny is right: the clock is ticking. He and his government are on the wrong side of science and the wrong side of history and are engaged in a monumentally misguided and foolish policy. As the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) put it: “We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts. The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do. Waiting to take action will inevitably increase costs, escalate risk, and foreclose options to address the risk”.

Dithering and further delaying action displays just how profoundly out of touch the Irish government is with the state of science on climate change, and calls into question the calibre of scientific advice it is receiving – or responding to. Kenny and Coveney appear to believe Ireland can free-load on the efforts of other countries to address runaway climate disruption, while we continue a policy of ratcheting up our emissions from agriculture and transport in particular in pursuit of growth-led prosperity.

Environment Minister, Alan Kelly is clearly fully on board with this policy. In a press release last week, he bragged: “Having met two weeks ago with outgoing climate change Commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, I made it clear that Ireland would not be signing up to any future targets that would be unachievable”. And in a paragraph that reads like it was drafted in Farm Centre, Kelly added: “I am on record as stating that the 2020 targets were unrealistic and unachievable and that did not take into account Ireland’s dependence on agriculture or the fact that we have one of the most climate-friendly agricultural systems in the world.”

The Irish government’s disavowal of its sovereign responsibility to step up to the mark on addressing climate change, despite the overwhelming evidence that this is a vital strategic national interest, is a grossly immoral and inequitable position, and one that does untold damage to Ireland’s reputation as a good faith actor in international negotiations.

I honestly thought the electoral obliteration of Fianna Fail in 2011 must signal an end to the gombeen era in Irish politics, and would usher in a new phase of more responsible, accountable and transparent leadership, and a lowering of public tolerance for sleevenism. More fool me.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | 18 Comments

Which to choose: bare-knuckle capitalism – or a habitable world?

I finished reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything just as a major study by the WWF confirmed that, in a mere four decades, more than half of the wild animals on Earth had been wiped out. From the time I was in primary school to today, life on Earth has been impoverished more rapidly than at any time in the last 65 million years.

The calculus used to measure this is known as the Living Planet Index. It might be more accurately called the Dying Planet Index.

Humanity’s relationship with almost all life on Earth can be defined as extractavist – a phrase used repeatedly by Klein, in her sweeping, angry polemic against the rapidly unfolding madness of one species run amok in the world, destroying everything in its ever-expanding path.

Klein made her name in 1999 with No Logo, a withering assault on the hidden underbelly of the global brand business – the sweatshops, the crooked trade deals and the structural violence of the rich against the poor. This time, however, it’s personal. A neophyte to climate change, Klein admits to only having really tuned into it as an issue as recently as 2009.

She is, however, a quick learner and in the last five years, it has gone from being fodder for her next book to the awful realisation contained in the book’s title: climate change does indeed change everything – and truly understanding this issue inevitably changes you. “I denied climate change for longer than I care to admit. I knew it was happening, sure…but I stayed pretty hazy on the details and only skimmed most of the news stories, especially the really scary ones. I told myself the science was too complicated and that the environmentalists were dealing with it”.

Having, like Klein, come from an entirely non-environmental background, and slowly, reluctantly, coming to realise the true import of climate change, I could personally relate to her initial desire to look the other way, and simply tune out this avalanche of ecological bad news. “Remember and then forget again. Climate change is like that; it’s hard to keep it in your head for very long. We engage in this odd form of on-again-off-again ecological amnesia for perfectly rational reasons. We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything. And we are right”

As a society, as a civilisation, our response thus far has been about as nuanced as curling, child-like, into a ball and hoping it will just go away. “All we have to do is keep on denying how frightened we actually are. And then, bit by bit, we will have arrived at the place we most fear, the thing from which we have been averting our eyes”.

We’ve become truly accomplished at both understanding and ignoring climate change. In the 24 years since international climate negotiations began in earnest, global CO2 emissions have risen by 61%. Crisis, what crisis? I vividly remember watching on in horror as the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit ended in bitter failure. The Irish Times was one of 55 major newspapers that, in December 2009, ran a joint editorial urging – demanding – that world leaders grasp this last ditch opportunity to avert calamity. One month later, the same paper ran an editorial complaining about the severe cold snap and wondering aloud if global warming wasn’t all just a big ol’ hoax after all.

From the ashes of disaster, sprung clarity. “I have come to think of that night (in Copenhagen) as the climate movement’s coming of age: it was the moment the realisation truly sank in that no one was coming to save us”, writes Klein. After all the guff and rhetoric, this emerged from the ruins of Copenhagen: “our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on Earth, including human life”.

Klein spares some of her harshest critique for Big Green, namely those multi-million dollar environmental organisations, specifically the Environmental Defence Fund (EDF) and the Nature Conservancy. Hilariously, it turns out that the latter actually operates its own oil wells, while the EDF regularly partners with Big Energy and helps it sell the myth that shale gas can be a ‘bridge’ to a mythological renewables-powered future (Klein’s own rejection of nuclear energy as proven low-carbon technology is argued with little conviction and sounds to this observer more like a sop to her readership than a strongly held position).

Klein lambastes the various ingenious schemes, from emissions trading to carbon offsets, many backed by Big Green, that have given the illusion of action while achieving precisely nothing. In its early days, the unofficial slogan of the EDF was “sue the bastards”, and it and other groups enjoyed dramatic successes on a range of environmental issues. Latterly, the joke goes, the new EDF slogan is “creating markets for the bastards”.

Under the leadership of business-friendly Fred Krupp, the EDF ballooned 40-fold from an annual budget of $3 million to $120 million. With the cash rolling, the emphasis for Big Green was developing industry-friendly “solutions” to the obliteration of the planet and the wrecking of our climate system (‘green growth’ is a particular favourite). Anything, in other words, as long as it didn’t fundamentally challenge the neoliberal narrative.

“The refusal of so many environmentalists to consider responses to the climate crisis that would upend the economic status quo forces them to place their hopes in solutions… that are either so weak or so high-risk that entrusting them with our collective safety constitutes what can only be described as magical thinking”, Klein opines.

There should be a special place in hell reserved for cuddly, lovable Virgin chief Richard Branson, who, to huge acclaim, announced in 2006 his commitment to invest $3 billion to develop ‘greener’ fuels for his gas-guzzling airline fleet. His epiphany was Al Gore’s Powerpoint presentation: “As I sat there and listened to Gore, I saw that we were looking at Armageddon.”

Behind the crocodile tears for the future, Branson’s real message was: forget regulations, leave it to industry to innovate and solve climate change! And sure enough, the $3 billion evaporated as the new airline routes expanded. Waiting for telegenic messiahs like Branson or techno-optimists like Bill Gates to lead us out of the ecological wasteland their fortunes are helping create is delusional in the extreme.

Geoengineering is starting to surface in polite circles as our best hope for dealing with the symptoms of climate change, without of course troubling ourselves to actually address the causes. “The earth is not our prisoner, our patient, our machine, or, indeed, our monster. It is our entire world. And the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves”, says Klein. Fiddling with untestable global ‘climate management’ schemes is simply an extension of the hubris that brought us to this dire predicament.

In the words of environmental author Kenneth Brower: “The notion that science will save us is the chimera that allows the present generation to consume all the resources it wants, as if no generations will follow. It is the sedative that allows civilization to march so steadfastly toward environmental catastrophe. It forestalls the real solution, which will be in the hard, nontechnical work of changing human behaviour”.

Neither Big Green, nor Big Energy (or the political process it has captured) can save us from the unfolding cataclysm that is the Sixth Extinction, which daily gathers pace and steadily builds towards its furious denouement. Change, Klein observes, is coming, ready or not. Whether this begets more barbarism and profiteering or a wider social change that recognises neoliberal growth-obsessed capitalism as a tragic aberration depends on how we react now, in the time that remains.

Klein offers the example of the abolition of slavery as perhaps the best recent analogue for the rapid dismantling of an entire economic system. The slave-driven economic model didn’t end because it wasn’t successful; it ended when it lost its social sanction to operate.

If there is to be hope in challenging a system that seems bent on destroying the living world and everything in it, it must be along similar ground. “We will win by asserting that such (economic) calculations are morally monstrous, since they imply that there is an acceptable price for allowing entire countries to disappear, for leaving untold millions to die on parched land, for depriving today’s children of their right to live in a world teeming with the wonders and beauties of creation”, Klein concludes.

- John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator.
This article was published in ‘Village‘ magazine 

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

Clowns to left, jokers to the Right, stuck in middle with George

This may not be a news flash to most people, but science is hard. Really, really hard. Just how tough was brought home when I recently attended an international congress on multiple sclerosis (MS). The event brought together some 8,000 senior researchers academics and medical specialists from all over the world to spend several frenetic days attending symposia, reviewing poster presentations and debating controversies and advances in our understanding of the disease.

MS is a progressive inflammatory neurological disease. Much is known about the condition, but nature yields its secrets grudgingly, and lots remain unresolved. However, as science advances, more and more incorrect ideas are tested and then discarded, leaving medics and researchers with the least wrong version of reality. That’s how science advances, be it in medicine, technology or, for that matter, climate science.

The conference took place in Boston, home of the original 18th century Tea Party, but it occurred to me that what was missing were the counter-protests by the ‘MS is a hoax’ brigade, those who insist that the scientific research is purely driven by personal greed and ego, or is entirely manipulated by pharma companies and is fundamentally corrupt and its output is junk science.

In the view of the anti-MS folks, someone who develops this crippling disease would be far better off at home with a couple of jars of homeopathic remedies and a nice vapour rub than all these new-fangled intravenous corticosteroids and assorted interferons.

Yes, some scientists are egotists, and some doctors are arrogant asses. Yes, Big Pharma is profit-driven, yet only an utter fool facing a diagnosis of MS would turn his back on the immense strides in disease understanding and treatment in recent years and decades in favour of quack remedies, no matter how ‘natural’ they may claim to be. By and large we trust medical scientists, for no better reason than we simply do not have enough expertise ourselves to either confirm or refute the ‘consensus’ conclusions.

That doesn’t mean slavish obedience. There is still plenty of room for questions, just not the really, really stupid questions that just waste everyone’s time. It may sound offensive to suggest we have no choice but to trust experts, but it’s true nonetheless. Every time you use the internet, a smartphone, get onto an aircraft, swallow a pill or drive across a bridge, you are putting your trust – or even your life – completely in the hands of countless thousands of anonymous experts.

Modern society is far too complex for any one person to develop hyperspecialism in more than a tiny handful of areas. Even within such a seemingly narrow field as MS, there is a vast spectrum of sub-divided expertise, with teams focusing separately on fields from disease biomarkers and MRI imaging to PET scanning and autoimmune disorders. High science is also highly competitive – new ideas are rigorously challenged and ruthlessly dispatched if they fail to withstand repeated scrutiny. Does pharma money influence this process? Undoubtedly, but while the medical profession and industry may have quite different motives, they are bound by a shared objective of delivering better patient outcomes, and so the painstaking process of medical discovery and innovation rumbles along relatively well.

What if, on the other hand, the streets of Boston had been clogged with angry protesters decrying medical corruption, what if Fox News and the Wall Street Journal were demonising the medics who attended the conference and endless MS denier blogs were restating a set of well-rehearsed talking points to bring the science of neurology into disrepute, while harassing and making legal and personal threats against the researchers?

Yet, despite all the uncertainties, despite the many research cul de sacs encountered, despite the various areas of disagreement between leading experts in the field, this branch of science and its practitioners isn’t dragged through the mud on a daily basis. Why? Quite simply, it’s because it doesn’t threaten, by dint of its findings, to upscuttle the world’s political and economic status quo.

In contrast with the relatively narrow field of neurology, climate science is a behemoth, drawing on scores of specialist fields across the physical sciences with physicists, biologists, chemists, meteorologists, computer modellers, systems specialists and many more besides. The work is unfathomably complex, even to most insiders.

For all its well-advertised shortcomings, the IPCC has managed the near-impossible task of synthesising and unifying the most relevant findings from across this vast spectrum of scientific endeavour and drawing conclusions in its Summary for Policymakers that even you and I can, if we are so minded, clearly grasp with no more than an hour or two of close attention. That is no mean achievement.

The five massive IPCC Assessment Reports published over the last 22 years build up into an ominous catalogue of a rapidly evolving global crisis. With every report, the margins of uncertainty diminish as the full scale of our climate imbroglio becomes ever clearer. It’s worth repeating that the basic science of climate change, and the fact that it poses a unique threat to life on Earth, has been well understood for at least half a century. In 1965, president, Lyndon Johnson told the US Congress: “this generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through . . . a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

Since these scary scenarios were still, at that time, safely in the distant future, politicians and industry joined hands in making soothing noises about being ready and determined to act…at some indefinite future point, long after they were safely retired, of course.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny attended the UN Climate Summit in New York earlier this week. His attendance among 130 or so world leaders was of course welcome. The flatulent ooze that emanated from his speech, less so. The world needs to show “conviction, clarity, courage and consistency” in its response to climate change, according to a Taoiseach who has displayed precisely none of the above on this issue in his first three years in office. The blather continued: “The hand of the future beckons, the clock ticks and we have no time to waste.” Back in 2009, then Taoiseach Brian Cowen told a UN conference in the same building in New York that failure to immediately tackle global warming would “put at risk the survival of the planet”. He then flew home and did… nothing, just like Enda assuredly will this time.

While our Taoiseach was sounding off in downtown Manhattan, closer to home NewsTalk thought the Climate Summit an opportunity to re-run that hoary old chestnut called: ‘is climate change for real?’ Their vehicle to channel this nonsense is motormouth US radio presenter and Tea Bagger Michael Graham, who has a weekly teapot-stirring slot on The Right Hook. (Shortly before becoming president, Michael D. Higgins engaged in a public debate with Graham, and famously lambasted him as “a wanker” – the audio clip has been accessed over 2 million times on YouTube).

Screenshot 2014-09-28 20.39.58

 

NewsTalk asked me to ‘debate’ the issue with Graham and I decided it was better to engage than to cede the floor. It’s a tactic many on the environmental side of the argument would strongly disagree with, but we must each make our own decisions, depending on the circumstances.

As Graham began rolling out some standard denier speaking points and straw man arguments, the slightly wicked thought occurred to me that, rather than trying to battle each talking point to a confused standstill, might it not be more revealing to find out what Graham actually understood about the science he was noisily dissing.

When I stated that global average surface temperatures could rise by a catastrophic 4C this century, Graham audibly and repeatedly scoffed at this preposterous notion (the not-so-Leftist World Bank’s own report, here, says we’re bang on track for +4C this century) so, I asked him instead if he knew what the global average surface temperature actually currently is? Long pause, followed by no, he was forced to admit, he had no idea.

Once knocked off his script, Graham’s complete lack of even the most basic understanding of the science shone through. And, as the guy used to dishing it out, he was not taking this very well at all. Graham then rolled out the latest denier meme about there being no global warming since the early 1990s, something, apparently, that all those IPCC reports and models ‘failed to predict’.

The global warming ‘pause’ myth has been debunked countless times. But rather than try to explain the mechanics of how heat is transferred from the earth’s surface and atmosphere to the deeper oceans (“when you’re explaining, you’re losing”) I reversed the question and asked Graham if he could tell me how many of the hottest years on the instrumental record (i.e. since 1850) have occurred since 2000? (um, no he couldn’t).

Obviously, if ‘warming has stopped’, you would reasonably expect there wouldn’t be a cluster of record-breakingly hot years to be found since 2000.  The folks over at the US NOAA keep global instrumental records, and their Top 10 hottest years ever globally are, in descending order: 2010, 2005, 1998, 2013, 2003, 2002, 2006, 2009, 2007, 2004 and 2012. That’s quite some ‘pause’ alright.

Graham got his foot stuck firmly in his mouth when I challenged him, repeatedly, to defend this ‘warming pause’ line in the face of irrefutable instrumental evidence, so he switched instead to wondering aloud how come, given the colossal amounts of CO2 being ejected into the atmosphere annually, temperatures aren’t rising even faster? (a reasonable question, as it happens; the IPCC have it covered).

I then asked Graham if he had any idea how long a typical molecule of CO2 persists in the atmosphere as a heat-trapping agent? (see further down for the detailed answer) “Uh, ah, I don’t know, and you don’t know”, was his reply. When pressed further, he added: “what I know are the thermometers, that’s what I know, and the thermometers aren’t reading the way the IPCC said they would read….” Et ecetera, et cetera. I’ll put this one down to genuine ignorance on Graham’s part.

The problem with carbon emissions is their persistence, at least as much as their volume. “Carbon dioxide emissions and their associated warming could linger for millennia”, according to a report in Nature Climate Change, in an article headlined ‘Carbon is Forever’. For every 100 molecules of CO2 released into the atmosphere today, it takes between 20-200 years for 65-80% of them to be drawn down, principally into the oceans. The remaining 20-45% will persist in the atmosphere, trapping heat for many thousands of years into the future.

Anyone familiar with the exponential function will be aware that cumulative problems (like atmospheric CO2) tend, well, to accumulate. And they get very big, very quickly. This year’s 35-40 billion tonnes joins last year’s, and the last 50 years’ emissions in ratcheting up temperatures (and acidifying the world’s oceans in the process – this WMO report confirms ocean acidification now at its fastest rate in 300 million years). (please note my sources here: peer-reviewed papers from top specialist journals and an official report from an international science agency, not links to fact-free ‘news’ reports in the Daily Mail).

The debate ran on for a full 20 minutes. I don’t know Michael Graham personally, but he sounded mightily unhappy by the time George Hook brought proceedings to a close. It may even have been keeping him from his sleep. And sure enough, at 5.15am the following morning, he posted this 1,280-word riposte, complete with my mug shot, with the catchy heading: ‘Shouldn’t an “environmental journalist” know more about science than a dopey talk show host?”.

Screenshot 2014-09-28 21.29.41

Here, Graham engages in faux humility, with his aw schucks folks, why did he have to beat up on poor ol’ me line. He adds to the guy-next-door effect with: “But I’m sure that in the heat of an ad libbed radio debate I got some stuff wrong too.” That is putting it mildly.

By paragraph 3, I’ve been lumped in, inevitably, with “climate zealots”. Para 4 sees a long-since corrected typo in a supporting document to the 2007 AR4 report (Himalayan melt by 2350, not 2035) being wheeled out. Again.

Blogging in the middle of the night is never a great idea. Graham opens strongly, by accusing me of being “wrong during our debate on specific, glaring facts, like the warmest year on record…” Now that’s a zinger – if he’s right. According to Graham, 1934 was the warmest year on record. If you check the NOAA list above, you’ll note 1934 does not appear anywhere in the global top 10. 1934 was the warmest year in the US, alright, but the US accounts for 2% of the surface of the Earth. The source Graham links to for this, Bloomberg, is accurate. It says: ‘NASA has revised climate data to show 1934 as the hottest year on record in the US, ousting 1998…’. Graham was so busy copy-n-pasting he failed to notice the phrase “in the US”. Oh dear, this is what happens when you double down on dumb.

A caller to The Right Hook asked if Al Gore hadn’t said the Antarctic would be melted by 2013 (this, of course, is nonsensical). In 2008, after the record-breaking drop in Arctic sea ice extent in 2007, Al Gore did indeed suggest that, if that rate of decline were to continue, the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer within 10 years. He may or may not be right about the precise timing, but he’s on the money about the clear trajectory of Arctic collapse.

For the record, Al Gore is not a climate scientist, but he is entirely correct to be raising alarm about the ongoing disastrous retreat of Arctic sea ice (2014 is the 6th lowest summer extent on record) so quite what point Graham was trying to make in his midnight ramblings, I’m still unclear. Graham’s blog is full of hyperlinks, but when you follow them, it’s t o the usual denier factory sources, including the Daily Mail, Wattsupwiththat and Murdoch’s business rag, the once-respected Wall Street Journal.

Graham name-checked the IPCC numerous times in his radio interview. I searched in vain on his blog post to find a single reference that links to a primary scientific source, such as NASA, the IPCC itself, NOAA, NSIDC etc. Not one. Instead, he quotes serial liars like the disgraced ex-bank chief Matt Ridley to prop up his piece. And of course, everyone’s favourite eco-spoofer, Bjorn Lomborg gets a link too.

Graham explains: “Notice the embedded links for my information. Notice they aren’t “IHateLiberals.com”  I’m reporting what organizations like the New York Times, the BBC and the Wall Street Journal have reported.  Mr. Gibbons will point you to other sources. Who’s right? What’s really going on? Don’t take my word, or the word of the oddly uniformed “journalist.” Just think for yourself”.

That is excellent advice, and a pity Mr Graham couldn’t take it on board himself. I checked back over his blog to find the New York Times and BBC links he described above. They’re not there (I did warn earlier about the hazards of blogging in the middle of the night). The “other sources” I will point you to are, whenever possible, primary scientific sources. Graham will never point you to a primary source, mainly, I imagine, because he doesn’t use them, preferring instead to re-heat myths cooked up by serial dissemblers like David Rose .

Having already given an on-air masterclass in how poorly he understands climate science, Graham took to his blog to drive this point home: “Greenhouse gases (including water vapor) make up less than 2 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere.  Humans emit less than 4 percent of that 2 percent. So for us to get GHG levels down in any meaningful way, we have to drastically cut our little slice of the GHG pie”.

The link for this waffle is to a right wing ‘think tank’ called the Manhattan Institute. And it’s a favourite sleight of hand by deniers. The global carbon cycle is huge, but it’s a cycle, i.e. it’s in balance. Atmospheric CO2 levels have remained in the narrow range of 180-280 ppm (parts per million) for at least the last 800,000 years, and probably as far back as 3-4 million years.

Anthropogenic interference in this cycle over the last 150 years has thrown it wildly out of balance. Today, there is 40% more CO2 in the global atmosphere (400ppm, and rising) than at the highest level ever recorded prior to 1850. What Graham calls “our little slice of the GHG pie” is again simply putting his science ignorance up in lights. We’ve known since the mid-19th century that the trace gas CO2 is the critical greenhouse gas. More CO2 also begets more water vapour, hence still more warming.

While CO2 is indeed a trace gas (0.04% of total atmosphere), without it, average surface temperatures would plummet from their current c.15C to minus 18C. Nitrogen (77%) and oxygen (21%) have no atmospheric heat-trapping characteristics whatever. When you fiddle with CO2 (and related trace GHGs, like methane and nitrous oxide) you are literally fiddling with the thermostat for all life on Earth.

So, while the radio debate didn’t go so well for him, and his follow-up blog is risible, Graham did at least manage towards the end to inject some of that trademark Tea Party anti-libberul, um, humour: “they’re not going to agree to keep cooking on cow patty fires so EU liberals can feel good about themselves. Which means even there’s even less “magic unicorn wind” to distribute per person”.

I opened this post by pointing out just how hard science is. Attacking science, on the other hand, is so easy that any idiot with access to a microphone can do it. Effective science communication is hard too. Given the desperate gravity and urgency of the climate crisis, making it as hard as possible for climate deniers to flood the airwaves with misinformation, and calling them (and the media outlets who facilitate them) out at every turn seems to me like genuinely useful – and occasionally, enjoyable – work.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics | 5 Comments

If we tolerate this, then our children will be next

I’ve spent more than a decade first researching and then writing almost exclusively on  a range of ‘environmental’ topics, with a special focus on climate change. I joined Twitter in 2010 using the @think_or_swim moniker, determined to use it as a channel for strictly environmental pursuits and networking.

However, in the first week of July, something changed. I began to tweet about the Israeli onslaught into Gaza. Hearing the Israeli Ambassador, the disgusting Boaz Modai brag on radio: “I don’t feel even a bit of shame, I feel pride” for the carnage his country’s military was unleashing on a virtually defenceless civilian population left me shaken and outraged.

After all, this wasn’t the psychopathic dictator Assad pounding civilians in Syria with barrel bombs, this was the suave and sophisticated Israel, ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’, the folks with sleek PR and friends and fans everywhere from Dáil Eireann to Capitol Hill that was, in full gaze of the international media, launching a massive (and entirely illegal) collective punishment assault against the hapless and besieged population of Gaza.

Monitoring the assault, often in real time, via Twitter became a ghastly and emotionally distressing daily, often hourly pursuit for the last several weeks. As the bodies, especially of children, piled ever higher, my sense of anger grew apace. The cold-blooded murder of four young boys playing football on the beach was one of the egregious early outrages. Dr Mads Gilbert, Norwegian volunteer surgeon put it plainly: “the Israelis are relentlessly killing and injuring children”.

For me, one five-day-old baby girl will always symbolise the Israeli pogrom of 2014. The infant named Shimah was delivered by emergency caesarean from the body of her mother, who was pulled from the rubble when her home was bombed; she quickly became known as the ‘Miracle Child’. The miracle was short-lived. Shimah died a few days later when the power to her incubator failed as a result of Gaza’s main power plant being bombed by Israel (deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure is – yet another – war crime). It was a “telegenic death”, as the prime minister responsible for this double murder might well have put it.

Just a few weeks before the third round of slaughter unleashed by Israel on Gaza in the last seven years began, Charlie Flanagan was appointed as our Minister for Foreign Affairs. The timing was, to put it mildly, unfortunate. Back in 2010, Flanagan said this in an interview: “Israel has been demonised by an Irish media slavishly dancing to the Palestinian drumbeat for decades [yet] Israel has a far better and more progressive record on human rights than any of its neighbours. The truth must be told”.

The same truth-telling Flanagan is a member of the Oireachtas Friends of Israel group. I’m unsure whether he would be happy describing himself as slavishly dancing to the Israeli drumbeat, but it was instructive to watch Flanagan et al squirm as the naked racism and genocidal intend of Israel’s army and politicians (who enjoy 90%+ domestic public support for their latest bloody crusade into Gaza) drew widespread, perhaps even unprecedented, international odium on Israel.

I broke my own unwritten rule of trying to stay out of ‘politics’ to pen the below article, which appears in the current issue of Village magazine, under the heading ‘If Ireland were Palestine’.

———————————————

IT IS ALMOST 30 years since an IRA no-warning bomb exploded in the Grand Hotel, Brighton, killing five people. Its primary target, British PM, Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet, escaped serious injury.

Thatcher defiantly responded by saying that “all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail”. Her composure in the immediate aftermath of the blast won admiration even from among her critics. Just over a year after the attack, Mrs Thatcher and Dr Garrett Fitzgerald met in Hillsborough Castle in November 1985 to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Imagine for a moment that the British government instead chose to respond to this brazen terrorist attack the way in the style of the Israeli cabinet under prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. First off, air raids batter Dublin city. Large areas are leafleted, telling terrified citizens to flee. As they abandon their homes, some are blown to pieces in the streets. Others, unable or unwilling to leave, die under the rubble of their houses.

The brutality generates a reaction. More bombs explode across British cities, killing civilians. An army barracks is also targeted, while an effort to drive a lorry bomb to the House of Commons is foiled. This time, a massive wave of British armour sweeps over the border. Dundalk, then Drogheda, are pounded by 155mm mobile artillery pieces, while jets scream across the skies. Tens of thousands of refugees clog up the roads as they flee south.

The RAF cripples Ireland’s airports while the Royal Navy imposes a blockade on our ports. Goods can only enter or leave the country with direct British oversight. Food piles up and rots at the ports while officials refuse to allow it to be shipped. Imports are reduced to a trickle.

A police station in Manchester is blown up. The British retaliate to this ‘vicious act of terror’ by bombing Dublin’s main water treatment facilities. Next, they target power stations, permanently disabling Moneypoint in one air raid, while the Aghada and Tarbert stations are next to be destroyed. The Whitegate oil refinery in East Cork is also bombed. Most of Ireland is in darkness, with no clean running water and a growing health crisis as a result of untreated sewage.

International observers are shocked when British ground forces begin shelling UN-run schools and hospitals, where thousands had crowded for shelter as the attacks intensified. A British army spokesman explained how their military were the most moral in the world, and went to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties. Who knows, the attacks on hospitals and schools may have been IRA mortars that mis-fired, he explained.

British army howitzers pound Dublin’s Beaumont hospital, killing 18 and wounding 60, mostly patients and medical staff. “The civilian deaths, if they were as a result of our measured response, are regrettable, but the IRA terrorists bear the full responsibility for operating near a hospital”, the British army spokesman added.

Vatican-based journalist David Quinn, reflecting on the deaths of some 1,900 Irish (85% civilians, including 400 dead children), for the loss of around 60 British troops and three civilians, explained: “Britain* has the right to defend itself against brutal foes that are hell-bent on destruction”.

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The above vignette may seem a little fanciful, but it’s one way to try to bring home the savagery of the ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign waged by the world’s fifth most powerful army against a defenceless enclave.

Rather than cowering in shame for his army’s criminal rampage into Gaza, Israel’s prime minister instead took the time to ridicule the “telegenically dead” Palestinian babies and children being piled up just to try to make his army look bad.

And it certainly does look bad, and not just for the Israeli army. Former US president Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson jointly penned a devastating critique of the latest Israeli incursion in early August. What is not widely reported is that Israel’s brutal assault was both tactical and entirely premeditated.

“This tragedy results from the deliberate obstruction of a promising move towards peace, when a reconciliation agreement among the Palestinian factions was announced in April”, wrote Carter and Robinson.  Hamas had in fact made a huge concession, agreeing to open Gaze to joint control under a consensus government with no Hamas involvement.

The likelihood of reconciliation among the Palestinian factions leading to a peaceful framework for resolving conflict in the region with international approval and oversight was clearly a step too far for Israel, which prefers its own ‘open prison’ policy, where it keeps a semi-starved, humiliated and terrorised population on the edge of despair, presumably in the hope that they will eventually just beg to be deported from their own homeland.

“The new (Palestinian) government also pledged to adopt the three basic principles demanded by members of the International Quartet (UN, US, Europe, Russia): non-violence, recognition of Israel, and adherence to past agreements. Tragically, Israel rejected this opportunity for peace and has until now succeeded in preventing the new government’s deployment in Gaza”, they wrote.

While Israeli’s latest attack on Gaza is entirely illegal under international law, its conduct went even further this time: “There is no humane or legal justification for how the Israeli Defence (sic) Force is conducting this war, pulverising with bombs, missiles and artillery large parts of Gaza, including thousands of homes, schools and hospitals, displacing families and killing Palestinian non-combatants.

“Much of Gaza has lost its access to water and electricity completely. This is a humanitarian catastrophe. There is never an excuse for deliberate attacks on civilians in conflict. These are war crimes”, wrote Carter and Robinson, who also called for international judicial proceedings “to investigate and end these violations of international law”.

The appropriate channel for such an investigation should be the International Criminal Court (ICC) but neither Israel nor its sponsor-in-chief, the United States, accept the jurisdiction of the ICC, which conveniently keeps their personnel beyond the reach of the law.

Within Israel, the mood is increasingly hawkish, with some 90% of Jewish Israelis fully supporting the attack on Gaza, and just 4% feeling the slaughter indicated the IDF used “excessive firepower”. A popular view in Israel is that since the people of Gaza voted Hamas into power, the entire population is somehow culpable and therefore subject to the war crime known as ‘collective punishment’.

In a terrifying escalation, some politicians are now openly debating the ethnic cleansing of the entire population of Gaza. Martin Sherman of the Israel Institute of Strategic Studies published the following in the Jerusalem Post on July 31st last: “To prevent an even more brutal and extreme successor from taking over, Gaza must be dismantled and the non-belligerent population relocated.” The ICC regards “incitement to genocide” as a crime against humanity.

The delusional Sherman continued: “As counter-intuitive as it might sound, the policy of restraint fuels orgies of delegitimisation and demonisation of Israel across the world.” To his mind, the slaughter of 1,800 people, wounding of 10,000 more, the levelling of entire neighbourhoods, the repeated bombing of hospitals and UN-run schools, the destruction of vital civil infrastructure such as water, power and sewage treatment plants and the killing of 400 children all result from a “policy of restraint”.

Knesset member Ayelet Shaked took this ethnic hatred to its logical conclusion when demanding the deliberate slaughter of Palestinian mothers and their “little snakes”. She explained: “They have to die and their houses should be demolished so that they cannot bear any more terrorists.”

Meanwhile, back in Ireland, our Foreign Minister is a proud member of group known as the ‘Oireachtas Friends of Israel’, along with minister Leo Varadker, former minister Alan Shatter and Labour’s Joanna Tuffy. Ireland has to date pledged 500,000 euros to help rebuild Gaza ahead of the next Israeli blitz.

A far more useful step might be to offer the Palestinians some of the US-made Javelin anti-tank missile systems that the Irish military, at enormous expense, purchased. These compact weapons can destroy Israeli Merkava main battle tanks at a range of up to 2.5km, and would be ideal as a purely defensive weapon – and deterrent – against any future armoured assault on Gaza. When violence no longer pays as state policy, Israel may be forced to resort to politics.

[The seeds of the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, when over 750,000 were driven from their ancestral homes and lands by Israeli terrorists, can be traced back to even before the Second World War. In 1938, historian George Antonius wrote: “the cure for the eviction of Jews from Germany is not to be sought in the eviction of the Arabs from their homeland; the relief of Jewish distress may not be accomplished at the cost of inflicting a corresponding distress on an innocent and peaceful population”.

A year earlier, in 1937, Winston Churchill ruminated that “if ever the Jewish army reached the point (of being extremely powerful), who can be sure that, cramped within their narrow limits, they would not plunge out in the new undeveloped lands that lie around them?” This chillingly prescient observation is recalled by Bob Fisk in his definitive tome, The Great War for Civilisation – The Conquest of the Middle East. It’s recommended reading on the roots of the Palestine tragedy as well as the wider imbroglio in the region.]

 

Posted in Irish Focus, Media | 3 Comments

‘We asked for signs. The signs were sent’

We are the children of the Enlightenment. Our ancestors lived for countless centuries with only the vaguest idea of the world around or beyond them. Education and literacy was the preserve of tiny elites, usually in the service of religious or political ends. In the absence of the scientific method, bad ideas, superstitions and false reasoning held humanity in what must have felt like a permanent penumbra.

The Enlightenment swept in a brave new world. Science and technology raced forward in lock-step and those earliest to react found themselves masters of the Earth, as countries like England, Spain and Holland swept all before them in establishing and then gorging themselves on vast colonial empires thanks to their new-found technological edge in navigation and warfare.

The template for today’s globalised consumer society was laid down by the imperial powers, who were both the drivers and main beneficiaries of this astonishing leap forward. Human numbers surged exponentially forward, from fewer than a billion in 1800 to more than seven billion in 2014. No one species had ever come to so dominate the biosphere.

And then, in what felt like little more than the blink of an eye, the period historians refer to as ‘Western Civilisation’ had abruptly ended. Of course, civilisations have bloomed and failed many times in the past, but none of these were global in reach, and none before had the capacity and scale to drive humanity itself, along with much of the living world, towards the abyss.

“To the historian studying this tragic period of human history, the most astounding fact is that the victims knew what was happening and why. Indeed, they chronicled it in detail precisely because they knew that fossil fuel combustion was to blame”. This is how Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway frame it in their extended essay, The Collapse of Western Civilisation – a View From The Future.

The authors’ previous collaboration was the critically acclaimed Merchants of Doubt, an in-depth exposé of how the tobacco industry manufactured doubt and bogus controversy to protect their profits for decades, and how this highly effective blueprint for deception and disinformation came to be adopted by the global hydrocarbon industry in its trillion dollar battle to maintain its energy hegemony.

Oreskes and Conway’s latest project allows them to engage in literary and historical hindsight by setting the essay at the end of the tumultuous 21st century and casting a historian’s eye back at the unfolding tragedy of what they call the Penumbral Period (1988-2093).

There was enough, more than enough, clear scientific evidence available to both governments and corporations by the first decade of the century to signal that the current system was unsustainable, unstable and, unless radically altered, certain to lead to disaster. We knew, yet we did not act. The generation with access to more information than any other in human history chose not to act to save itself. Why?

“Our historian concludes that a second Dark Age had fallen on Western civilization, in which denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fixation on “free” markets, disabled the world’s powerful nations in the face of tragedy.

“Moreover, the scientists who best understood the problem were hamstrung by their own cultural practices, which demanded an excessively stringent standard for accepting claims of any kind – even those involving imminent threats.”

Western civilisation, the authors suggest, had become “trapped in the grip of two inhibiting ideologies: positivism and market fundamentalism.” Despite all the research undertaken in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the knowledge that accrued from this vast scientific enterprise did little or nothing to dent the powerful economic and political forces wedded to hydrocarbon extraction, a network they label the carbon-combustion complex.

“Maintaining the carbon-combustion complex was clearly in the self-interest of these groups, so they cloaked this fact behind a network of “think tanks” that issued challenges to scientific knowledge they found threatening. Newspapers often quoted think tank employees as if they were climate researchers, juxtaposing their views against those of epistemologically independent university or government scientists.”

The emergence of a powerful new ideology known as market fundamentalism, especially after the end of the Cold War in 1990, deepened the crisis. Market fundamentalism took on all the trappings of a quasi-religious cult, its proponents bitterly opposing even the most rudimentary forms of government intervention in the ‘free market’, such as ensuring broad access to healthcare, education and birth control, or implementing progressive taxation and environmental regulations to protect ‘the commons’.

The founding fathers of market fundamentalism, such as Friedrich von Hayek, respected science and saw it as the natural companion to capitalism. However, “when environmental science showed that government action was needed to protect citizens and the natural environment from unintended harms, the carbon-combustion complex began to treat science as an enemy to be fought by whatever means necessary. ”

The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change was published in 2006. Commissioned by the UK government, the 700-page report concluded that climate change was “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen”. This analysis was roundly and repeatedly attacked – by neoliberal economists and right wing media commentators.

Arguing against regulation of any kind had become so ingrained (and profitable) for corporations that even the repeated presentation of clear scientific evidence failed to shake them from their certainties – with tragic consequences. “It is hard to imagine why anyone in the 20th century would have argued against government protection of the natural environment on which human life depends. Yet such arguments were not just made, they dominated the public sphere.”

The irony here is rich: “The ultimate paradox was that neoliberalism, meant to ensure individual freedom above all, led eventually to a situation that necessitated large-scale government intervention”. Neoliberalism collapsed under the weight of its sheer irrationality, and took much of the world with it.

It is, the authors contend “difficult to understand why humans did not respond appropriately in the early Penumbral Period, when preventive measures were still possible. Many have sought an answer in the general phenomenon of human adaptive optimism”. Even more puzzling to future historians is how scientists, the very people whose job was to understand the threat and to warn society, they too mostly failed to grasp the sheer magnitude of the threat of climate change.

The key to understanding how poorly science responded may lay in its very structures, where science is divided up into precise disciplines. This meant scientists with deep expertise in one tiny area could in fact be relatively inexpert in related fields. “Even scientists who had a broad view of climate change often felt it would be inappropriate for them to articulate it, because that would require them to speak beyond their expertise, and seem to be taking credit for other people’s work.”

The establishment of the IPCC was supposed to provide this overarching system-wide perspective. While the collective expertise of the IPCC was vast, it concentrated on physical sciences, often ignoring the all-important social science dimension. “Scientists understood that those greenhouse gases were accumulating because of the activities of human beings—deforestation and fossil fuel combustion – yet they rarely said that the cause was people, and their patterns of conspicuous consumption.”

Many scientists shied away from addressing overpopulation, for instance, wary of being drawn into complex moral, cultural and religious debates they were ill equipped to address. This is despite the fact that exponential population growth, in lock-step with massive increase in average per capita consumption, were driving the very phenomena scientists were painstakingly cataloguing.

Another block for scientists was the concept of statistical significance. The gold standard of 95% confidence means reaching a level of certainty that a given event could have only happened by chance at being less than one in 20. In reality, this is setting the bar impossibly high when trying to make assessments of highly complex systems and the likely distribution of stochastic processes.

More importantly, this gave a field day to skeptics and deniers, who were able to throw back these impossibly high levels of proofs in the face of scientists and repeat the line that events that didn’t meet this level of certainty could simply be dismissed as ‘unproven’.

It is a canon of Western science that it’s worse to fool yourself into believing in something that wasn’t the case than not to believe in something that is. In science, these positions are known as ‘type 1” and “type 2” errors, the authors explain. “So while the pattern of weather events was clearly changing, many scientists insisted that these events could not yet be attributed with certainty to anthropogenic climate change” (Ray Bates comes to mind here).

“Even as lay citizens began to accept this link, the scientists who studied it did not…scientists missed the most important opportunity in human history, and the costs that ensued were indeed nearly “all costs.”

While the scientists dithered, the world burned. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was put in place in 1992. By any reasonable yardstick, it can be said that from that date, the world was in no real doubt other than that GHG emissions would have to be first reined in, then phased out entirely, as part of a global energy transition. Instead, the opposite happened. Between 1992–2012, total CO2 emissions skyrocketed by 38% globally. The ‘shale revolution’ began in 2005 in the Bush-era US, and gathered pace as ‘unconventional’ fossil reserves flooded onto world markets, lowering energy prices and crowding out low-carbon alternatives, be they renewables or nuclear.

Our historian from the future observes that the IPCC had projected a global doubling of atmospheric CO2 by 2050 – in fact, it arrived ahead of schedule, in 2042. The projected 2-3C surface temperature rise turned out to be 3.9C.

“By 2040, heat waves and droughts were the norm. Control measures – such as water and food rationing and Malthusian “one-child” policies – were widely implemented. In wealthy countries, the most hurricane- and tornado-prone regions were gradually but steadily depopulated, putting increased social pressure on areas less subject to those hazards”.

Much worse was to follow. The brutal Northern Hemisphere summer of 2041 led to global food crop failures, famines, food riots and unprecedented panic. “Mass migration of undernourished and dehydrated individuals, coupled with explosive increases in insect populations, led to widespread outbreaks of typhus, cholera, dengue fever, yellow fever, and viral and retroviral agents never before seen”.

By the early 2050s, social order was crumbling – first in Africa, but quickly sweeping through Asia and Europe. The US government declared martial law as its breadbasket dried out and famine swept the continent. As the situation became ever more desperate, the Unified Nations Convention on Climate Engineering & Protection (UNCCEP) began planning a global climate cooling project. Aircraft fuel was seeded with sulphate particles.

For its first three years, the project appeared to be succeeding, and temperatures began to edge downwards. However, an unintended consequence of this desperate geoengineering gamble was the virtual shutdown of the Indian monsoon, leading to famine sweeping across the sub-continent. The experiment was abandoned in 2063, but the shutdown led to a ‘termination shock’ as the heating rebounded fiercely – a projected 0.4C cooling quickly became a +1C of additional heating, pushing global temperatures to +5C over pre-industrial.

By the mid-2060s, a global climate tipping point was passed. There was a sudden and dramatic thaw of permafrost and methane (CH4) release. “Estimated total carbon release of Arctic CH4 during the next decade may have reached over 1,000 gigatonnes, effectively doubling the total atmospheric carbon load. This massive addition of carbon led to what is known as the Sagan effect (sometimes more dramatically called the Venusian death): a strong positive feedback loop between warming and CH4 release. Planetary temperature increased by an additional 6C.”

This methane pulse disrupted ocean temperatures and circulation, and dealt the death blow to the West Antarctic ice sheet. Between 2073-2093, rapid Antarctic melt sent global sea levels surging by five metres. Around this time, the Greenland ice sheet split down the middle and began to quickly slide into the north Atlantic, adding another two metres to sea levels.

Globally, some 1.5 billion people were displaced from coastal regions by the 7-8 metre sea level rise. Coastal cities, towns and ports were inundated and abandoned. Vast swathes of once-fertile agricultural land disappeared. Waves of ‘eustatic refugees’ caused huge disruption in the already distressed communities into which they poured. A second Black Death swept Europe and North America. There were no functioning health systems to arrest its spread. Up to half the affected populations died. Some 60-70% of all species on Earth went extinct during this period.

At +11C, we would assume the Sagan effect (named after Carl Sagan, the famous astrophysicist and science communicator) would have led to the obliteration of all life as a series of positive feedbacks led to runaway global warming and the death of the oceans. However, the authors flinch at such an outcome (after all, who’d have been left to tell the sorry tale of a civilisation that knowingly destroyed itself?).

Our (exceedingly improbable) redemption sprung from a Japanese genetic engineer, Akari Ishikawa, who synthesized a form of lichenised fungus which consumed CO2 highly efficiently during photosynthesis. “This pitch-black lichen, dubbed Pannaria ishikawa, was deliberately released from Ishikawa’s laboratory, spreading rapidly throughout Japan and then across most of the globe. Within two decades, it had visibly altered the visual landscape and measurably altered atmospheric CO2, starting the globe on the road to atmospheric recovery and the world on the road to social, political, and economic recovery.”

The authors can’t help concluding by ridiculing neoliberalism’s role in what happened next: “It might be viewed as a final irony of our story – China’s ability to weather disastrous climate change vindicated the necessity of centralised government, leading to the establishment of the Second People’s Republic of China and inspiring similar structures in other, reformulated nations. By blocking anticipatory action, neoliberals did more than expose the tragic flaws in their own system: they fostered expansion of the forms of governance they most abhorred.”

‘We asked for signs. The signs were sent’ – Leonard Cohen, ‘Anthem’

 

Posted in Global Warming, Media, Psychology, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 13 Comments

A monkey trap of our own construction

In parts of Asia, indigenous populations have developed an extremely simple yet ingenious way of catching the otherwise elusive wild monkeys. The trap involves a hollow object such as a gourd, which is securely staked to the ground, with a narrow opening on the top, just about wide enough for a monkey to squeeze its arm through. Inside, something sweet, like a banana or rice, is set as the bait.

Attracted by the smell, a curious monkey comes along to investigate, and pushes his arm into the gourd or jar to reach the treat. Then, because the hand is full, the monkey is unable to withdraw it. So far, nothing too unusual. What happens next is quite extraordinary.

The monkey continues to pull and twist his hand to no avail, and even the sight of the hunter returning to the trap is not enough to persuade the hapless monkey to give up what it believes is its prize. The trap in this case is entirely of the monkey’s own construction.

That inability to accept a modest, temporary loss of something seemingly within its grasp, even when weighed against the enormous loss that such tenacity entails would, at first, sound like one of those parables about how our cousin primates are, let’s face it, not very clever at all.

That judgement is harsh. Monkeys are powerfully programmed by evolution to hunt relentlessly for food, and to hang onto it for dear life – in this case, literally. What this primate is suffering from is an extreme example of short term reasoning, and a fatal weakness in an otherwise skilled scavenger and survivor.

Author Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance describes what he calls value traps. Of these, “the most widespread and pernicious is value rigidity. This is an inability to revalue what one sees because of a commitment to precious values…the facts are there but you don’t see them”. In the case of the monkey trap, Pirsig writes: “the monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped – by nothing more than his own value rigidity. He can’t revalue the bait. He cannot see that freedom without the bait is more valuable than capture with it”.

The wisest of apes, the highly evolved genus homo sapiens on the other hand would of course never trade certain future disaster for the possibility of avoiding modest losses in the here and now – right? The evidence that we have indeed evolved to be able to detect and so evade latterday monkey traps is, to put it mildly, unconvincing.

Over the 200 millennia or so since our species first evolved, we gradually overcame just about every obstacle that nature could fling in our path, from sabre toothed tigers to lethal microbes, expanding our numbers and our reach to now occupy almost every habitable square kilometre on the surface of the planet. While there are today over seven billion humans alive, our numbers have more than quadrupled in just over a century, and risen seven-fold since the 1830s.

Despite much talk of the population explosion having been defused, Earth’s numbers continue to balloon by the population equivalent of the Republic of Ireland every two-and-a-half weeks.

In just the last two centuries, we have figured out how to harness the colossal power of fossil energy to literally reshape the world to our enterprises. More than half the forest cover on the entire planet has disappeared since 1800, as humans pushed ever deeper into uncharted regions and brought them under the plough.

The evolutionary monkey trap has now been well and truly sprung. Science has, for probably the last half century or so, begun to grasp and quantify this massive unstructured reshaping of the biosphere by the actions and waste products, some deliberate, many incidental, of billions of humans simply going about their business.

Veteran broadcaster David Attenborough put it in the plainest of language recently: “We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.”

Oceans cover two thirds of the Earth’s surface and, since humans don’t actually live there, you would expect our impacts on these vast systems to be limited. The opposite is the case. A lethal cocktail of chronic overfishing, widespread pollution, eutrophication, increases in near-surface water temperatures, reef destruction and rapid ocean acidification has already taken a fearsome toll on the web of marine life.

Even if all human impacts stopped tomorrow, “the recovery from the changes we’re making will probably take a million years”, according to Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). A million years, bear in mind, is five times longer than the evolutionary history of our species. But of course we won’t stop fishing, we won’t stop polluting and, rather than conserving the world’s greatest reef system, the current Australian government plans to use parts of them as an offshore dump for mining waste.

The greatest monkey trap of all is climate change. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that our current business-as-usual trajectory will see average global surface temperatures increase by between 4 and 6 degrees centigrade this century, with ‘positive feedbacks’ in the climate system causing temperatures – and sea levels – to continue rising for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years into the future.

Back in 1992, leaders of all the world’s governments got together for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Even though the data was nowhere near as robust as is available today, scientific guidance on the scale and severity of the growing climate crisis was unequivocal. Climate change poses an existential threat to life on Earth, including human life.

What emerged from the conference were the 27 Principles of the Rio Declaration, a bold document drawn up to guide humanity onto a sustainable path with the natural systems upon which we depend. Environmental protection was finally to be placed as a key pillar of all future human progress, rather than some annoying afterthought.

And to make sure the politicians were left in no doubt as to the scale of this crisis, later in 1992, a panel of 1,700 senior scientists issued a public appeal, headlined: “Warning to Humanity”. Humans and the natural world were, they wrote, “on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment . . . if not checked, many of our current practices . . . may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life as we know it”.

What followed instead were two decades of the most relentless resource plunder, habitat destruction and pollution in the last two centuries, as China, India and much of the Far East raced to play ‘catch-up’ with the world’s major polluters. This unprecedented evisceration of the rich diversity of life on Earth has been celebrated as an era of record “economic growth”.

So what exactly is at stake? A major paper in the science journal Nature argued that Earth is on the cusp of one of the greatest ever die-offs, involving mass extinctions of species.

“When we kick over into a mass extinction regime, results are extreme, they’re irreversible and they’re unpredictable,” according to Dr David Jablonski of the University of Chicago. Prof Stuart Pimm of Duke University added: “We are living in geologically unprecedented times. Only five times in Earth’s history has life been as threatened as it is now.”

Mistaken ideologies and distorted politics make a resolution of our ecological crux all but impossible within the prevailing growth-fixated paradigm. “The current political system is broken,” according to the British government’s chief science adviser, Dr Bob Watson. “Nothing has changed in 20 years, we are not remotely on a course to be sustainable.”

Tackling climate change was, for a short few years, beginning to gain traction on Ireland’s political agenda. The electoral wipeout of the Green Party in 2011 heralded the sudden end of that brief dalliance. The appointment of a political fixer with zero interest in or understanding of the Environment brief was Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore’s two-fingered salute to sustainability.

In the 20 years since the Earth Summit, Ireland’s average temperature has increased by 0.75C, exactly in line with a projected 4C calamity this century. The last five years in particular have seen our once-benign climate turn distinctly hostile, with record-breaking flooding events followed by almost unprecedented Arctic conditions, followed by still more flooding. The fodder crisis in 2012 in particular was a wake-up call to those in Irish agriculture who think that climate change is somebody else’s problem.

Three major recent reports, from the World Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the European Environment Agency all point to the same stark conclusion: the climate crisis is rapidly turning into a planetary emergency that is fast moving beyond humanity’s ability to contain, let alone reverse.

“This isn’t about shock tactics, it’s simple maths,” according to Leo Johnson of PwC. “One thing is clear: businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world – not just 2 degrees, but 4, and, at our current rates, 6.” While this is strikingly unvarnished language coming from a firm of management consultants, PwC’s Johnson did gloss over one salient fact – neither individuals nor societies can possibly ‘plan’ for a 4-6C apocalypse.

The climate change monkey trap is a self-constructed trap into which humanity has plunged its right arm. Its left arm is up to the elbow in another gourd labelled ‘ecological overload’.

Extinction: Evolution and the End of Man’ was written by Prof Michael Boulter of London’s Natural History Museum. He summed up our existential conundrum pithily in an interview in 2008: “I think human beings are a failed species – we’re on the way out. Our lives are so artificial they can’t possibly be sustained within the limits of our planet.”

If this all sounds like bad news, Boulter, with the cold eye of a scientist, was able to point to a silver lining: “The planet would of course be delighted for humans to become extinct, and the sooner it happens, the better.”

Persisting in the belief that once the world wakes up to the certain fact that we’re in the process of wiping ourselves out we will decisively to draw back from the brink appears little more than a comforting myth. Author Chris Hedges explores this painfully when he wrote “We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilizations will blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.”

Even now, at two minutes to midnight, there are real steps we can take to at either delay or (if extraordinarily lucky) even dodge disaster. For starters, scientists now estimate that 80 per cent of all known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground to avert disaster.

We now have no choice but to forgo the easy wealth that comes from burning this vast carbon store and switch to low-carbon sources. Like it or not, this also means the winding down of consumption-based capitalism and major declines both in energy consumption and living standards.

And this remains, perhaps the greatest challenge of all. Homo sapiens, the ‘wise ape’, having struggled to overcome all natural obstacles, is now facing the most intractable evolutionary conundrum of all – learning and accepting our own limitations as but one species among many, which together form the web of life on Earth. Only by letting go can we hope to escape the trap our ingenious rapacity has sprung for us.

This description coined by the great 19th century naturalist, John Muir has never been bettered: “when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world”.

John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim. This article was first published in the summer 2014 issue
of An Taisce’s magazine.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Psychology | 5 Comments

Musing on the Climate (In-)Action Bill…

The Prologue

As anyone in Ireland with an interest in climate change is well aware, the present Government promised significant legislation on climate policy already in the programme for government agreed between the coalition parties when they took office:

Climate Change: We will publish a Climate Change Bill which will provide certainty surrounding government policy and provide a clear pathway for emissions reductions, in line with negotiated EU 2020 targets.

That was March 2011.

And funnily enough, we are still waiting.

But sure, that’s only three years. Thirty-eight months. We want to get this right after all. For goodness sake, it’s not like there’s any rush, and this Government has an awful lot of other Very Important Business to sort out. It’s Ireland — you know what they say: “if you don’t like the climate, just wait five minutes and it’ll change anyway”. Or is that weather? Ah but sure it’s all the same, isn’t it?

Anyway: it’s not like there hasn’t been any progress in the meantime. There’s been loads of it. Huge progress altogether. Absolute gobs of it. A consultation. A Roadmap. An Interim Report. A Statement of Progress. A Final Report. A Draft Heads of Bill. Submissions and opening Statements for Oireachtas Committee Hearings. Resumed hearings. Continued hearings. Still more hearings. A Ministerial meeting. Concluding hearings. (Yet another) Report.

But then … yes, well worth waiting for, a real result: Government agreement (yay!) and, wait for it … a revised Draft Heads of Bill. Taa daa!

Oh well. We are where we are, I suppose.

When Physics and Politics Collide …

So, without further ado, here is my entirely personal brain dump of visceral reactions to this long, long, awaited, revised, updated, and thoroughly modern Climate Action and Low-Carbon Development Bill (while there’s still maybe a tiny lingering chance to improve it before it finally becomes law).

  • In essence, the primary effect of the Bill is simply to enshrine in national legislation that the State will indeed abide by international agreements that it enters into. On the face of it, this seems to be of somewhat — what shall we say? — convoluted value. Surely, agreements are, and will remain, agreements, regardless of such hyperbolic belt and braces? Indeed, it suggests that the Bill might be cynically read as political posturing designed to deflect attention from a lack of genuine understanding or engagement with the true scale and urgency of the climate challenge.

    But on more mature reflection, maybe this core substance of the Bill does actually say something important — albeit more a possible insight into the Irish national psyche than the existential threat of climate change. In fact, a very literal reading of the Bill would seem to mean that the only thing it actually binds us to is that we will not, in any circumstances, act in advance of or go beyond mitigation obligations that arise through international (EU/UNFCCC) agreement. That is, the Bill seems to propose (accidentally? tacitly? covertly?) to bind us, as a matter of law, to make the minimum achievable contribution to global mitigation. This is hardly a recipe for good faith engagement in negotiations; but I can see that it’s an entirely “rational”, pragmatic, position to adopt. After all, the presumption is always that we are too small to matter either to actual absolute global mitigation, or to diplomatic engagement by the large scale emitters; so the logical thing is to keep our heads down, and just maximise our own scope, at the margin, to continue using the cheapest available global energy sources (i.e. fossil based).

    Ah, ‘twould be a great stroke, altogether.

  • In any case, scientific understanding has moved on even since the initial Heads of Bill were published: the IPCC has now definitively endorsed the finite GHG budget approach to global mitigation policy (see e.g., IPCC AR5 WG1 Technical Summary, Fig TFE.8, pp. 102-5). It follows that the Government now has a number of obvious obligations both to the Irish people and to the global community with whom we share a single atmosphere. Firstly, it should explicitly articulate our claim to a specific share of this finite and rapidly depleting global resource. Secondly it should explain how, in their view, this claimed share conforms with global justice and equity. Finally, given this budget claim, the Government should elaborate a timeline for its prudent consumption: one focussed on putting in place the best measures possible to adapt to the absolutely necessary aftermath of zero — or better, negative — nett GHG emissions.

    Now that would have been a Climate Bill worth waiting for.

  • And for the record: “low carbon development” is simply no longer an option. As a very minimum gesture of political honesty, that phrase should certainly be struck from the title and the text of this Bill. Only “zero carbon”, or, preferably, “negative carbon” development is now defensible.

  • Moving on. In a context where effective global mitigation will require approximately 80% of proven fossil fuel reserves to be left in the ground, the Government should clearly declare a moratorium on exploration for new fossil fuel resources in the national territory, whether conventional off-shore resources, or unconvenional on-shore resource extracted by so-called “fracking” techniques, and an explicit plan to ensure winding down of extraction from currently licensed deposits (including peat and off-shore gas).

  • But yes, Ireland is a small country, and its emissions are, in absolute terms, a relatively small part of the global challenge. It follows that Ireland’s climate and the welfare of its people in a globalised economy are now, in practice, at the absolute mercy of mitigation decisions by the large scale GHG emitters. Therefore, it is absolutely central to our national interest that we engage in intensive and sustained diplomatic effort to facilitate and encourage collective agreement to radical mitigation on a global basis. I can’t conceive of any higher national priority in the unique historical predicament in which we now find ourselves. Of course, that would require a commensurate allocation of dedicated, highly qualified, diplomatic resources. In fairness, in comparison to just about every other area of state expenditure, this would represent a tiny absolute investment in the interest of literally incalculable returns: what price a livable planet?

  • Of course, the credibility, and hence effectiveness, of any such diplomatic effort would depend completely on a willingness to show good faith: which would surely mean proceeding with aggressive unilateral mitigation ahead of global agreement. It seems to me that such “leading by example” represents the only significant leverage we might still have remaining under our own control that could be effective in mitigating the intensity of future global climate disruption. And without such mitigation, all efforts at effective adaptation will surely be rapidly overwhelmed.

  • To be clear, our own entirely selfish long term national interests absolutely rely on effective global action to bring nett global GHG emissions to zero with extreme urgency – within the next 20-30 years at the very most. (And yes, I’m painfully aware that the three years already squandered on this pitiful legislative tokenism already represents a tenth or more of that time period — just thrown away!) This points precisely at an overwhelming argument for unilateral local mitigation (ahead of EU/international agreements): it is the only way to achieve credibility in our diplomatic efforts — essentially trying to “shame”, or at least “embarrass”, the big emitters into the scale and urgency of action that we desperately need them to achieve.

    Now realistically, I don’t really believe that that sort of “short term sacrifice for long term security” approach is — yet — a “saleable” political proposition in this country. To the extent that we collectively think about the problem at all we either hope that maybe all those pointy-headed scientists have got it wrong after all (i.e., they are just all “over-alarmists”); or else that other “small nations” will take on the fight in our place (Costa Rica? Denmark?) and we can then simply be “free riders” on their early “sacrifice”. (An important irony here: this presumed “sacrifice” may be largely imagined anyway: facing reality, transcending denial and division, can be empowering for societies as well as individuals.)

    So is free-riding really the national vision of ourselves that this generation of Irish political leaders wishes to bequeath to their children and grandchildren? As we approach the centenary of the sacrifices of 1916 — which, regardless of any other judgement, were certainly selfless, idealistic, and dedicated to achieving freedom from tyranny — was it really for this kind of choice that those founders of this nation fought and died? Shall we really now fix forever the ne plus ultra to the progress of Ireland’s nationhood at the level of aspiring to be “the best small country in the world for business” — while that very world is being recklessly degraded around us?

    An Béal Bocht was intended as satire, not a policy manual.

  • But back to practical national and local policy action. Even with the most optimistic view of the prospects for urgent, radical, global GHG emissions reduction, we know that serious, disruptive, climate change is already committed to. While there will be significant regional disparities in the particular speed and severity of these impacts, Ireland will certainly not be immune. Accordingly, all Irish infrastructural investment should now be reviewed and prioritised to focus on building maximum resilience to unpredictable climate shocks, including the real possibility of abrupt regional climate regime shifts. The government should lay out their projected 50-year risk assessment scenario of “worst case” climate change impacts for Ireland — including international conflict, global food shortage, disruption of trade etc. — as a basis for gauging the adequacy of adaptation investment.

  • And what, you ask, of the “Expert Advisory Body” to be established under the new Act (when finally it arrives)? Surely that, at least, is worthwhile progress? Surely that, at least, will ensure that this, and future, Governments can have their policies informed by the best available, completely objective, scientific evidence, decoupled from denial, vested interests, and wishful thinking; and further, will be continuously held to independent account?

    Well, I hope so. I dearly wish so.

    But … a truly independent Expert Advisory Body would not contain any members who are constrained — by their employment — in commenting on government policy. And all appointments to the body would be made manifestly free of political influence through rigorous and transparent public scrutiny. For the moment at least, this Bill offers none of that. But yes, if there is still scope for something meaningful and useful to be recovered from this dismal and seemingly interminable legislative process then that is probably still the one aspect where it might be achieved.

The (Still) Open Future

They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent. Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger. The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences. We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now. — Winston Churchill, November 12, 1936

The climate change challenge is unprecedented and affects all aspects of government and societal well-being. It represents a “long emergency” of indefinite duration and severity. We are sleepwalking our collective way into a genuinely existential challenge for human civilisation. Merely passing an Act of the Oireachtas was never going to be an adequate response. But still: it could have been symbolic, it could have put down a marker. It could have said clearly that we recognise that it is no longer any use saying, ‘we are doing our best’: we have to do what is actually necessary.

So let me put my cards fully on the table at last: I long since gave up seeing this legislation as important in itself. To me, it has manifestly been a device to delay, procrastinate and deflect attention from any need to actually do anything at all — and it has served that purpose extremely well. I don’t see any scope at all for it to be somehow reformed, at this eleventh hour, into anything meaningful or effective. At the risk of repeating myself, it seems to me that the unpalatable truth remains that, neither at political or societal level is there remotely the degree of understanding or engagement with the climate issue that would allow serious debate about the steps that might now be physically necessary (as opposed to “politically possible”).

So: where are we in the end? Shall we just resign ourselves to a fatalistic acceptance, a prospect of hopeless inaction in the face of overwhelming fate?

Of course not. First, it is possible that the new Expert Advisory Body will confound my doubts and skepticism, and deliver firm, unflinching, truth to power; and further, that power will listen, will digest, and will, ultimately, act. But secondly, of course, this predicament is not going away. The laws of physics don’t compromise, they don’t listen to reason, they don’t do negotiation or engage in brinksmanship. So climate change impacts will grow, in both clarity and severity. This will be discontinuous — but inexorable. So, action will also grow. Tragically, it will be later than necessary, and much less effective for that. But there are good tipping points as well as bad. There will certainly be tipping points for progressive societal and political recognition of the reality of our situation, and the conviction that planetary boundaries are real and tangible forces constraining — but never dictating — our collective future. The future is open: and we can, always, choose how we engage with it. If politics truly is the “art of the possible” then political leadership can and must be the art of changing the politically possible to encompass what is actually necessary.

In the meantime, here and now each of us has the chance, the opportunity, and yes, even the moral obligation to do whatever we can to bring those good tipping points forward in time. So, honestly, pragmatically, knowing that our knowledge is always imperfect, yet knowing still that we must act anyway, let us speak the truth as best as we can know it, and plead for what is collectively necessary. Right now, the facts of the climate change threat are so stark that, in truth, the only rational response is to raise a commensurate, honest, alarm that can start to fuel truly effective action. By facing reality squarely we can still take a first great step.

“Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable;–and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made.” “It is no loss of time,” said Phineas, “to have taken the first great step in making it.” “The first great step was taken long ago,” said Mr. Monk,–”taken by men who were looked upon as revolutionary demagogues, almost as traitors, because they took it. But it is a great thing to take any step that leads us onwards.” — Phineas Finn (Anthony Trollope, 1868)


Barry McMullin is Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Computing at Dublin City University. He is also the Chair of the Climate Committee of An Taisce.

However, he rants (and occasionally tweets) on an entirely freelance basis!

Special thanks to Paul and Lizzie, and John G. for very helpful comments and improvements on the original draft: responsibility for the remaining excesses (grammatical and otherwise) rests, of course, with the author.

Posted in Global Warming | 4 Comments