How financial sector fails to grasp climate risks

It has been described as a classic case of saying the quiet bit out loud, but jaws dropped when a senior banker (and former FT financial journalist) let his guard down and shared with his audience everything we’ve feared about the deeply sociopathic nature of banking in particular and economics more generally. As a footnote, Kirk finally quit HSBC in July, blaming “cancel culture” rather than his own odious remarks for the decision. Kirk, in his own words, “only ever tried to do the best for my clients and readers in a 27-year unblemished record in finance, journalism and consulting”. Quite. I filed the article below for the Business Post at the end of May.

THEY SAY THAT everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame, and for Stuart Kirk, global head of ‘responsible investing’ at British multinational bank, HSBC. It came, appropriately enough, after his 15-minute presentation to a recent Financial Times conference in London.

Kirk, who previously worked as a financial journalist with the FT, stunned his audience by explaining how everything they thought they knew about climate risk was simply wrong. “Who cares if Miami is under six metres of water”, he said. After all, “Amsterdam has been six metres under water for ages, and that’s a nice place, we’ll cope with it”.

Amsterdam is two metres below sea level, not six. There is a massive difference. Also, the Dutch have fought for centuries to protect their country from the sea. In January 1953, for instance, over 2,500 people drowned as their sea defences were breached. And all their battles to date have been against the backdrop of sea level that was stable, not rising fast.

That schoolboy error by Kirk in a public forum was indicative of a presentation long on ideology but painfully short on facts. It did, however, get worse. Climate change, he explained, “is not a financial risk we need to worry about”, adding that in his years in journalism and finance, “there’s always some nut job telling me about the end of the world”.

Noting that risk assets have increased in value at the very time that warnings about a pending climate catastrophe have been growing ever louder, Kirk concluded that in reality, climate risk must be negligible. After all, the alternative – that the investment community, made up of people like Kirk, is completely wrong – is clearly ridiculous.

Just because the entire financial sector was too busy making money to spot or acknowledge the massive speculative bubble that led to the disastrous global crash of 2008, there is surely no reason to think it could be making yet another catastrophic error, only this time with the future of life on earth at stake?

Kirk’s bosses at HSBC were quick to distance themselves from his remarks, which they described as “an individual’s comments completely unaligned with the company”. It is hard not to conclude that Kirk’s biggest crime is in saying the quiet bit out loud. After all, in the seven years since the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate was signed, HSBC has poured over $110 billion into financing fossil fuel investments that scientists say help lock us onto a pathway towards disaster this century.

His blithe dismissal of climate risk, based on a fundamentally flawed understanding of the science, is in fact widespread in both the financial community and, I would suggest, in financial journalism.

No sooner had he been suspended by his employers and denounced by climate activists, the inevitable backlash began. The editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal (owned by arch climate villain Rupert Murdoch) applauded Kirk for “exposing the hubris of the regulatory climate emperors, even as his superiors shrink in fear”.

While he may be smug, misinformed and complacent, in truth Kirk has done some service in cutting through the financial sector’s carefully worded PR guff about “net zero by 2050” while continuing its lucrative core business of financing the destruction of the living planet.

It is the worst kept secret on Wall Street and in other financial service centres across the world that nodding towards climate action is just an elaborate charade that companies feel compelled to undertake to protect their social licence to continue their sociopathic but lucrative lending practices.

Yes, the World Bank’s report on a likely 4ºC rise in global temperatures this century described this as a “doomsday scenario”. Yes, the World Economic Forum has confirmed that two billion people will face lethal 60ºC temperatures for up to two months a year by mid-century. And yes, the Bank of England has just warned of imminent “apocalyptic” food shortages and prices rises, but none of these trifles make the slightest impression on your average banker.

Kirk’s bullet-proof optimism about the long term future comes from the most unlikely source, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This body is best known for assessing scientific evidence, on which governments then make decisions. However, it also involves non-scientists, namely economists making projections. These can be, to say the least, problematic.

In his presentation, Kirk noted that the IPCC estimates the likely impact of climate change on global GDP at around five per cent by 2100. “What they fail to tell you is that between now and 2100, the world is going to get between 500-1,000 per cent richer. Lop five per cent off that and you wouldn’t even notice”.

Sounds good, but the problem with this Pollyanna view of the future is that is based on a profound misunderstanding of physical science by economists, who are social scientists with no training or expertise in physics, chemistry or other crucial Earth system sciences. Yet these are the people our politicians and media turn to for guidance.

A world where temperatures have risen by 4ºC or more is a world of collapsed ecosystems, economic and political chaos, forced migration and hunger and death on a global scale. The likely impact on GDP will be far closer to 100 per cent than the risible amount being suggested.

When assessing climate risk, senior economists routinely conflate weather variability with climate, and somehow fail to grasp the rock-solid scientific consensus on the lethal consequences of Earth’s core temperature rising rapidly.

Having absolutely failed to recognise the accumulation of systemic risk that led to the 2008 financial crash in an area in which economists have actual expertise, we should hardly be surprised at the inability of mainstream economics to grasp existential climate risk either.

“Fossil fuel companies may well have fired the guns in the war against climate action, but economists were the ones who supplied them with the bullets”, observed Prof Steve Keen of University College London. With decision-makers of the calibre of Stuart Kirk occupying positions of influence, we are all now truly in the firing line.

Posted in Economics, Global Warming, Sceptics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Message remains the same, but who’s listening?

I filed this comment piece for the Irish Examiner in May to coincide with the publication of the WMO ‘State of the Climate’ report. The science gets clearer and clearer, the direct evidence of global climate destabilisation is now evident for all too see first-hand, yet still the response remains muted.

“I GET ALL the news I need on the weather report”. That line is from a classic Simon & Garfunkel song from 1970 capturing the zeitgeist of an era, real or imagined, where the most you had to worry about was what to wear to the beach.

Half a century later, and now the weather itself is the news. The release this week by the UN World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) of its ‘State of the Global Climate in 2021’ was just the latest in a seemingly endless series of dire warnings emanating from the scientific community about the rapidly deteriorating global climate system.

The most direct and visible manifestation of this dangerous climatic disruption is in the escalation of extreme weather events around the world, with a heavy human toll as well as economic damages in 2021 running into hundreds of billions of euros. For those vested interests who have long argued that tackling climate change is “too expensive”, letting it spiral out of control is not proving to be much of a bargain either.

This report is “a dismal litany of humanity’s failure to tackle climate disruption”, according to UN secretary-general, António Guterres. Four crucial climate indicators, namely greenhouse gas concentrations, sea level rise, ocean heat and ocean acidification all breached new record levels in 2021. If these sound technical or abstract, think of them instead as the four horsemen of the coming climate apocalypse.

Were it not for the enormous heat-trapping potential of the world’s oceans, much of the Earth’s land surface would already be too hot for human habitation. Luckily for us, some 90 per cent of all the heat trapped by greenhouse gases last year were absorbed by the oceans.

However, our luck is beginning to run out, with ocean acidification now at its highest level in millennia and threating to unravel marine ecosystems. Further, the ocean itself is heating, with additional warmth now penetrating as far as 2,000 metres deep.

Warming on this scale is “irreversible over time scales of centuries to millennia”, according to the report. Human actions have, in the space of an average lifetime, fundamentally altered the chemistry of both the global atmosphere and oceans, with far-reaching consequences we are only now beginning to truly grasp.

Last year saw a series of climate-fuelled extreme weather events sweep the planet, from deadly floods across much of central Europe and in Henan, China to an unprecedented ‘heat dome’ that shattered temperature records in Canada and the US.

Meanwhile, over a billion people across India and Pakistan are still suffering under almost unbearable heatwave conditions that have persisted since March. Birds have recently been dropping out of the skies in western India as a result of heat exhaustion.

All these extreme events have occurred against a backdrop of global average surface temperature increase of just over 1.1ºC, but only nine days ago, the WMO warned there is an evens chance of one year in the next five breaching the 1.5ºC guard-rail.

It is mind-boggling to consider that, on our current emissions pathway, the world is likely to heat by 3-4ºC this century, with over a million species facing extinction and billions of people forced to abandon their homelands due to unliveable heat and humidity and rising sea levels.

This is science fact, not hype. Yet, in what must the greatest communications failure in history, most people in Ireland, even if they understand the basic science, still cling to the mistaken belief that this remains a crisis for people in faraway places or at some future time.

Physics is, however, indifferent to our indifference. As the climate clock ticks towards midnight, we are out of excuses – and we’re nearly out of time.

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator

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Shadow of war throws new focus on nuclear energy

One source of near-zero carbon for energy production that is often overlooked and excluded from serious consideration is that of nuclear energy. In ordinary circumstances this might be understandable, but in a dire climate emergency, I find it baffling that anyone serious about this issue would peremptorily dismiss nuclear without first subjecting it to detailed ongoing assessment. I wrote about this conundrum in the Business Post in May.

WE HUMANS are notoriously poor judges of risk. It’s a design quirk in an ancient brain system that served our ancestors well on the Serengeti but is woefully inadequate to deal with the deluge of complex and often contradictory danger signs and signals we face in the modern world.
Most of us instinctively fear flying, yet statistically, it is far safer than driving. In the 12 months following the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York in 2001, an additional 1,600 road deaths were recorded in the US as more people chose driving over flying. This is almost half the total fatalities in the attack itself.

For many people, nuclear power conjures up an instinctive fear reaction. Isn’t it dangerous? What if it blows up? What about the radiation? In the last 40 years or so there have been two major nuclear accidents – Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 – yet the total death toll from these and all other nuclear incidents is less than 50. In the same period, tens of millions have died as a direct result of fossil fuel burning.

In 2006, then German chancellor (and physicist) Angela Merkel declared: “I will always consider it absurd to shut down technologically safe nuclear power plants that don’t emit CO2.” Just five years later, the absurd became real as Germany, in a knee-jerk response to the Fukushima incident, set about shutting down its 17 nuclear plants.

As of now, only three remain operational, and these are slated to be decommissioned by the end of 2022. A study on the social costs of that decision found that it has imposed an annual $12 billion in pollution costs, as well as leading directly to an extra 1,100 deaths a year from air pollution in Germany, which has replaced nuclear energy with new coal, gas and lignite-burning power plants. And this is of course before the climate impacts of this “absurd” decision are tallied.

Across the EU, nuclear power stations in 13 states generated 26 per cent of total electricity in 2019. Globally, around 10 per cent of total electricity production is from nuclear, rising to 18 per cent in the richer OECD countries.

A paper published by NASA’s Goddard Institute in 2013 found that in recent decades, some 1.8 million lives have been saved globally as a result of replacing fossil fuels with nuclear power, and it has prevented the release of 64 billion tonnes of carbon emissions. The study projected an additional seven million lives being saved in the next four decades if nuclear were to displace fossil fuels on a wider scale.

An ironic footnote to the Fukushima incident occurred one year later, when the power plant operator, TEPCO admitted it had failed to take necessary safety measures, such as disaster-proofing its emergency diesel generators, largely for fear of inviting lawsuits or protests against its nuclear plants.

The environmental and anti-war movement share a common heritage, as seen in the title of the international organisation, Greenpeace. Cold War anxiety about the very real threat of nuclear obliteration became conflated with antipathy to nuclear power.

The oil shocks of the 1970s led to a partial re-think. France embarked on an ambitious plan to build a fleet of domestic nuclear power stations that would reduce its strategic dependence on oil from volatile regions. Today, it has 56 operational power stations that produce over 70 per cent of its domestic electricity. You have likely never heard the name of any French nuclear power station, as they are well run and remarkably uncontroversial.

Half a century later, the shock of a major war in Europe has once again thrown the spotlight on energy security. Germany’s rash decision to scrap its nuclear power plants has increased its worrying dependence on Russian gas imports.

Politically, the green movement has been the most consistent opponent of nuclear energy. There are signs this monolithic approach may be changing. In Finland, where 30 per cent of its electricity is from nuclear, the Green Party in 2020 modified its blanket opposition to nuclear power. It is now offering conditional support for so-called small modular reactors. This is an emerging technology with a good safety profile and are expected to be far quicker to deploy than traditional large nuclear power plants.

Ireland’s plans to build a nuclear plant at Carnsore Point in Wexford in the late 1970s were scuppered by a strong anti-nuclear protest movement led by activists and musicians such as Christy Moore. As a result of this pyrrhic victory, the giant coal-burning plant at Moneypoint was commissioned instead.

The Electricity Regulation Act, 1999 went a step further and prohibited the production of electricity for the Irish national grid by nuclear fission. Despite this bizarre ban, Ireland now imports nuclear power via the interconnector to Britain, and this will increase when the French interconnector becomes active.

Ireland has ambitious plans to both expand and simultaneously decarbonise electricity production to cater for an upsurge in heat pumps, electric vehicles and data centres in the decade ahead. Offshore wind holds out huge promise, but a grid with a large percentage of renewables still needs to be balanced by an “always-on” energy source.

For a truly zero-carbon grid, the final 20 per cent or so of “baseload” energy could be provided via one or more smaller nuclear power stations, and these would have the added benefit of improving our indigenous energy security. Ireland’s first commercial solar farm was recently opened and it now harvests energy from nuclear fusion in the sun.

Imagined fear of the nuclear power bogeyman has in recent weeks given way to fears of being captive to real-life bogeymen like Putin. South Korea has recently dropped plans to phase out its nuclear plants, while US president Joe Biden has earmarked $6 billion in new funding to extend the life of existing plants facing closure.

In an ideal world, we could achieve all our total energy needs purely from renewables, but in the real world, this is impossible. Given the overwhelming gravity of the climate emergency, we need to set aside our prejudices and preconceptions and do an honest, rigorous assessment of all available clean energy solutions. And yes, that includes nuclear.

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The 1.5C danger line draws ever closer

I contributed the article below to in mid-May to mark the publication of a worrying new report from the World Meteorological Organisation. Tried to stress for the umpteenth time that physics is indifferent to the many political, economic, social, cultural and indeed psychological barriers that have to somehow be overcome if we are to act collectively and decisively in line with the science. The piece attracted over 100 comments from readers which, for what it’s worth, turned out to be a lot more nuanced than the online reaction I have received to similar articles in previous years.

FROM POLE TO pole and across every continent on Earth, the broadly benign and predictable climatic conditions under which humanity has flourished for centuries are rapidly destabilising.

Two months ago, scientists were astonished to report on simultaneous polar heatwaves. Multiple weather stations in Antarctica reported temperatures up to 40C above normal, while in the Arctic, temperatures 30C above normal were recorded. “We have entered a new extreme phase of climate change much earlier than we had expected,” warned Professor Mark Maslin of University College, London.

His concern has been borne out this week with the publication by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) of a new report indicating there is now an evens chance of the 1.5°C threshold of extremely dangerous climate change being breached within the next five years.

A similar analysis carried out by the WMO ahead of the Paris climate conference in 2015 found an almost zero chance of 1.5°C being breached in the near future. It is astonishing to consider how quickly the global climatic situation has deteriorated in just the last seven years.

“The 1.5°C figure is not some random statistic. It is rather an indicator of the point at which climate impacts will become increasingly harmful for people and indeed the entire planet,” according to WMO secretary-general Professor Petteri Taalas.

Data for 2021 indicated that global average temperatures have already risen by around 1.1-1.2°C. While this may sound modest, it is likely the greatest temperature shift Earth has experienced since the last ice age ended some 12,000 years ago, but today, the rate of change is far more rapid than at any time for millions of years.

Measurements of global average surface temperatures also include the surface of the oceans, so in reality land surface temperatures in many areas have already risen far more rapidly. Much of India and Pakistan has been suffering under sustained and unprecedented heatwave conditions since March, with Pakistan’s Sindh province recording its hottest-ever April temperature of 49ºC.

Across India, crops are wilting in the fields and the wheat harvest is likely to be down 50% in some regions this year, putting yet more pressure on global food security.

This region is home to some 1.5 billion people and it is nudging ever closer to a situation where it is simply too hot for humans or most animals to endure, or for crops to grow.

A research paper published two years ago warned that, on current emissions trends, within just 50 years, between 2-3.5 billion people will be living in areas of the world that will be effectively uninhabitable due to extreme heat. The vast majority of the world’s poor do not have access to air conditioning, and even if this could somehow be provided, the emissions arising from the huge amounts of energy required to power these would make the situation even worse.

This portends the greatest forced migration crisis in human history, with billions of hungry, desperate people having to abandon their homelands. The likely political and humanitarian consequences of a displacement on this scale almost defy imagining.

We are approaching a near future of escalating conflict, including warfare, over access to dwindling food and fresh water resources and the near-complete collapse of globalised trade as countries struggle to maintain order while closing borders in a desperate bid to look after their own citizens. As a result, countless millions of climate migrants face a bleak future of barbed wire and persecution.

There is no mystery whatever as to what is driving this rapidly escalating global crisis.

“For as long as we continue to emit greenhouse gases, temperatures will continue to rise. And alongside that, our oceans will continue to become warmer and more acidic, sea ice and glaciers will continue to melt, sea level will continue to rise and our weather will become more extreme”, added Prof Taalas.

Climate extremes

Last summer saw a series of savage climate extremes around the world, including severe floods that left 125 dead across Germany, Belgium and Holland. The town of Lytton in once-chilly Canada recorded an almost unimaginable 49.6ºC temperature, shattering all national records. Yet there were two La Niña events last year that should have exerted a cooling effect on overall global temperatures.

When, as expected, an El Niño (which has an overall warming effect) event next occurs in the near future, this will again push global temperatures to new record highs.

The only thing that can now prevent the climate system from breaching a tipping point into irreversible global collapse is urgent action by governments around the world to reduce emissions. The Covid lockdown saw emissions fall slightly in 2020, only to fully rebound last year to their highest level in history.

The greatest onus to act strongly rests on wealthy countries like Ireland. We have laudable ambitions to cut our emissions by 51% by the end of 2030, but with that deadline fast approaching, it is clear that none of the main parties, including Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil have the slightest appetite to push through measures that are unpopular with the public or resisted by lobbyists. It is clear that Ireland is still paying lip service to climate action.

For instance, despite energy imports into Europe from Russia helping Putin to fund his war on Ukraine, there isn’t even political appetite in Ireland to reduce speed limits, a proven and equitable method of cutting our fuel consumption. Nor have there been any moves whatever to require the aviation industry to pay any taxes or duties on the fuels that its business model of climate-destroying cheap flying demand.

The recent political imbroglio over turf underlined how cynicism and political opportunism trumps any form of leadership or vision on this issue. What was truly depressing is how Sinn Féin is every bit as disengaged on climate as the other main parties, despite it being a growing concern among the younger voters it has successfully courted.

It will probably take our coastal cities and towns being routinely flooded, international trade collapsed and our agriculture system devastated by extreme weather for politicians and the media to wake up and start taking the climate emergency seriously.

By then, of course, it will be far too late.

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator

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Turf wars signal betrayal on climate action

The bizarre and pointless recent ‘turf wars’ are a throwback to an Ireland many of us thought was gone forever. The scramble by politicians to outdo one another in capitulating to a handful of industrial turf cutters and their noisy acolytes, while ignoring the climate and biodiversity crisis has been one of the most depressing episodes in recent years. I wrote in the Business Post about this shameful yellow streak running right across our political classes and how it augurs badly for tough decisions that lie ahead.

THIS WEEKEND, hundreds of millions of people across the Indian sub-continent continue to endure almost unliveable conditions as the region remains gripped by a deadly heat dome that scientists have confirmed has been intensified by climate change.

Neither this ominous humanitarian crisis nor the horrific conflict in Ukraine could even begin to compete for political or media oxygen in Ireland this week with the bizarre rolling controversy surrounding, of all things, turf. Continue reading

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The magic porridge pot is finally running out

To mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of the landmark ‘Limits to Growth’ book, I contributed the below article to the Business Post. We are now precisely half way through the century modelled by the Club of Rome, and the conditions pointing towards the “sudden and uncontrollable decline” in industrial civilisation they projected to occur in the early to mid-21st century appear to be coalescing right on schedule. How could we have ignored such clear warnings? The answer may lie in the fantasy of infinite economic growth peddled by leading economists that has been accepted as not just rational, but inevitable, by governments around the world.

FIFTY YEARS ago this month, a book was published that caused a global firestorm of controversy. Titled ‘Limits to Growth’ (LtG) it warned that the century from 1972 would, on current growth trends, see the world reach and then breach key boundaries. These included food production, natural resources, pollution and population. Continue reading

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Can we reimagine a better, safer world?

It sometimes feels like our collective inability to respond to the global climate and ecological emergency is first and foremost a failure of imagination. We are conditioned to see the world the way it is, and can easily assume there are no serious alternatives. I contributed an op-ed to the Irish Examiner to mark publication of the latest IPCC report and opened by trying to imagine how, in a parallel universe, we might be squaring up to the existential challenges that confront us.

TRYING TO contemplate how a civilisation guided by science and reason would deal with the rapidly unfolding climate emergency requires paying a visit to a parallel universe. Here, the global climate and biodiversity crisis is front and centre of every part of our everyday lives; children learn about it from pre-primary onwards. Continue reading

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Food and energy insecurity mean double trouble

The long-banished spectre of food insecurity has returned to Europe for the first time since the 1940s. I wrote the below piece for the Business Post in late March which looked at the intersection of energy and food security in the light of the radically changed geopolitical landscape across Europe and beyond.

IN THE HYPER-globalised world of the 21st century, such notions as national energy or food security until very recently may have seemed almost quaint. Ireland has bet heavily an economic model of exporting most of what we produce while importing almost everything we actually need. Continue reading

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Polar heatwaves sound global climate alarm bells

Polar heatwaves are, as you would imagine, rare events, but in March, simultaneous heatwaves were recorded at both poles, an event without precedent in the instrumental record. I wrote the following Opinion piece for the Irish Examiner discussing the phenomenon and its wider implications.

AT NEARLY 14 million square kilometres in area, Antarctica is a gigantic landmass, around one and a half times the size of the continental United States. The ice shelves perched on top of this vast southern continent contain an almost unimaginable 26 million cubic kilometres of frozen water. A single cubic kilometre of ice weights one billion tonnes. Continue reading

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The ecological point of no return draws ever closer

The first invasion of a sovereign European state since the second world war got underway on February 24th with the Russian assault into Ukraine. Just four days later, the IPCC Working Group 2 report, “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” was released. It would be almost impossible to overstate the gravity of the IPCC’s findings, yet it was largely pushed to one side as the eyes of the world turned to the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine. The existential struggles that today face millions as a result of conflict, famine and inequality will, in the decades ahead, be dwarfed by a looming global immiseration as the conditions for life on Earth rapidly deteriorate and destabilise, sweeping away societies, economies and entire ecosystems. This is not – yet – inevitable, but on our current path, it is all but certain. I wrote about this for the Business Post earlier this month.

UNITED NATIONS general secretary António Guterres is rarely stuck for words. This week, however, he seemed genuinely flummoxed.

At the launch of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, Guterres spelled out the reasons for his distress plainly: “I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this”. In many ways, the sober document, signed off by 195 countries, reads almost like science fiction. Continue reading

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Big trouble as world’s tiny empires crumble

As recently as 30, even 20 years ago, when at night across Ireland, by the time you reached your destination, the front of your car would be caked in hundreds, even thousands, of dead insects. Commonly known as ‘bug splat’ it was a minor inconvenience usually remedied with soapy water to clean off the windscreen. This is now a thing of the past. After aeons of abundance, the world’s insect populations are in a state of accelerated collapse. I filed this book review for the Business Post recently.

IT IS A MARK of the enduring resilience of the insect kingdom that in the course of its 400 million year reign, it has weathered four of the Earth’s great mass extinction events relatively unscathed. Today, however, the world’s insect populations face an array of existential threats far greater than at any time in the past.

“Our Pyrrhic victory at the very last gasp of Earth’s history means for the first time that a single species is the primary cause of an extinction episode to impact the only known life in the universe”. This is how Guardian journalist Oliver Milman summarises the bleak state of affairs that confront what he calls the “tiny empires that run the world”. Continue reading

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EU decries attacks on Irish environmental defenders

The well-worn narrative emanating primarily from the Irish agri sector and amplified by a cohort of vocal rural TDs is that, despite being the true custodians of the natural environment, they are being constantly “demonised” by over-zealous environmentalists, animal welfare activists, vegans, etc. It’s a line that has been spun so often that many, especially in the Irish media, have taken it uncritically to be broadly true. It must have come as quite a shock when a senior figure from outside the Irish media/political bubble came along recently to point out forcefully that this narrative is in fact a complete inversion of the truth. I reported on the background to this in a recent Business Post article.

WHEN A HIGH-RANKING EU Commission official recently denounced a member state for its “increasingly aggressive stance” against environmental campaigners and its “worrying” undermining of the rule of law on environmental protection, you might be forgiven for thinking he was discussing Poland or authoritarian Hungary. Continue reading

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Things are Looking Up as climate crunch hits funny bone

It will come as no surprise to regular ToS readers to learn that the biggest ‘story’ of the 21st century, or perhaps 66 million years of Earth history, is the rapidly unfolding climate emergency and simultaneous global mass extinction event, only the sixth such episode in the last billion years or so.

Yet, of the tens of thousands of films made in the last two decades, probably only two could be said to have addressed global warming head-on. The first, The Day After Tomorrow, a disaster blockbuster, was released in 2004. Two years later, Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, became a surprise hit, though as a non-fiction piece, only reached a very limited audience. We’ve had to wait till the last month of 2021 for a smash hit film taking on our (non) response to the climate crisis via the metaphor of an incoming ‘planet killer’ meteor. ‘Don’t Look Up’ has already been viewed for over 250 million hours on Netflix, which translates to around 115 million households and likely around 250 million individual viewers. It’s still number one worldwide, so these numbers are likely to rise significantly. Continue reading

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Confronting consumerism for a safer future

Among the many challenges we face this decade is how to achieve radical decarbonisation in a way that does not entirely alienate the public. This is no mean challenge. After all, we are all bombarded with constant advertising and promotional messaging telling us “we’re worth it” and encouraging us to forge our self-identity, even our self-worth, via the things we buy and the things we consume.

As the retail economist, Victor Lebow famously wrote in 1955: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption”.

Now we see all too clearly that consumption is itself consuming the natural world, yet changing course means first of all, acknowledging and then confronting these forces profiting from nihilistic consumption that goes far beyond meeting our fundamental needs, and in so doing, threatens us all.  In a recent article in the Business Post, I teased this out in a little more detail.

A FAMOUS pair of photos were taken several years apart on New York’s Fifth Avenue. The first was shot in 1900, and shows a street scene crowded with horse-drawn vehicles. Pictured amongst the melee was a solitary automobile. Continue reading

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No national security without food security

We often hear about Ireland’s supposed role in “feeding the world”. The reality is altogether different. Despite the hype, domestic food insecurity is a very real concern in the difficult decades ahead. I explored this issue in detail in a recent Business Post article.

AS THE government this week unveiled carbon budgets for the next decade, the sectoral group scramble for special treatment has gotten underway in earnest.

Livestock agriculture in particular is now coming under sustained scrutiny, given its emissions trajectory is in direct conflict with government policy.

Agriculture minister, Charlie McConalogue found himself in the uncomfortable position this week on RTÉ Prime Time of attempting to defend this situation and to pitch the implausible notion that “efficiencies” or new technologies were going to somehow reduce spiralling methane emissions from Ireland’s oversized livestock herd. Continue reading

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