Dire warnings falling on deaf ears

Late March saw the launch of the IPCC’s AR6 Synthesis Report, which brings together the three main strands, as well as other IPCC special reports, into a unified, albeit hefty, document. Despite its quite shocking conclusions, it made barely a ripple in terms of media coverage, and had largely disappeared from the Irish news cycle within 24 hours

IT IS SAID that at the start of every disaster movie, there’s a scientist being ignored. They are usually portrayed as ashen-faced nerds waving sheafs of data as the politicians and media stifle a yawn. Until, of course, calamity strikes.

Still, the great thing about the movies is that, no matter how scary things get, the audience can enjoy the white-knuckle ride in the certain knowledge that, as the final credits roll and the lights come up, the world will be exactly as they left it a couple of hours earlier.

And while the newly released Synthesis Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at times reads like the script of a Hollywood B movie, this one is for real.

“The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years”, according to the report. In what has to be the least reassuring assessment of the IPCC’s findings I have ever read, Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at Imperial College London added: “It does not mean we are doomed”.

Here we stand, on the cusp of the greatest disaster in human history, as the global climate rapidly destabilises and ecosystems buckle under the relentless weight of human pressures.

Lots of bad impacts are already locked into the system, but a full-scale collapse of human civilisation may yet be averted. There’s a catch. Everything, yes everything, has to change, and soon.

“Rapid and far-reaching transitions across all sectors and systems are necessary to achieve deep and sustained emissions reductions and secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”, as the IPCC report put it. The key word in that sentence is “liveable”.

Unless we in wealthy countries like Ireland are prepared to accept tough choices right now, and bear our full share of the burden of keeping the global climate system within the 1.5C to 2C threshold beyond which lies climate collapse, to be absolutely clear, we are instead choosing to dig our children and our grandchildren’s graves.

I appreciate many will find this choice of language uncomfortable, but frankly, we should be long past sparing one another’s feelings. If we’re to have any kind of a liveable future on this uniquely beautiful, once-bountiful planet, then we’re going to have to square up to what the science has been screaming at us for decades.

Despite modern civilisation being built on the fruits of scientific discovery, we’ve collectively taken an a la carteapproach to science, cherry-picking the bits we like and denying the mountains of evidence that says we’re on a pathway to disaster, while ridiculing and marginalising those attempting to raise the alarm.

It is sobering to contemplate that in the decades since the intergovernmental process of tackling climate change as a global crisis began in earnest, total emissions have more than doubled. More heat-trapping gases have been released into the atmosphere since 1990 than in all of human history before that date.

It’s easy to lay all the blame on politicians, but they regularly respond that if they were to introduce unpopular measures, such as strong carbon taxes or limiting air travel or livestock, they would be thrown out at the next election.

Surveys show high levels of concern among the Irish public about climate change, yet the paradox remains that this somehow does not translate into voting intentions. It’s said that the ‘end of the month’ trumps the ‘end of the world’, and in our busy lives, it is easy to focus on immediate issues and tune out the drumbeat of the climate emergency.

After all, it is still a marginal issue for our media. The IPCC report may be front page news today, but it will likely have vanished from the news agenda within a day or two. And all the while, we are bombarded every waking hour of every day with advertising and marketing messages urging us to fly, drive, shop and spend like there’s, well, no tomorrow.

Surely, most people may reason, if this truly was an emergency, wouldn’t the government and our media outlets act accordingly? The national response to the Covid crisis, including a €20 million government spend on advertising, left no one in and doubt that it was being taken seriously.

In contrast, have you ever seen a single government advert explaining the climate emergency, or why whole-of-society change is urgently needed and what are the steps we should take next?

To be clear: the choices we make or fail to make lead to either a difficult, dangerous future – or no future at all. Those still peddling fantasies such as ‘net zero by 2050’ simply haven’t engaged with the hard science, either through ignorance or by design.

By now, the special interest groups will be flooding the airwaves explaining why someone else should take the pain while their sector gets a free pass. UN secretary-general, António Guterres had them squarely in mind when he said: “Every country must be part of the solution. Demanding others move first only ensures humanity comes last.”

Posted in Global Warming, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

To save our world, we must fall in love with nature

In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught”. These words were spoken at the 1968 General Assembly of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature by Senegalese forester, Baba Dioum, and they came to mind when reading ‘Wild Embrace’, ecologist Anja Murray’s new book. My review was published in the Business Post in March.

IRELAND HAS fallen out of love with nature. Our famously green island is now ecologically depleted and almost bereft of truly wild places. Most of us live lives entirely separated from the natural world.

While we may choose to deny it, humans are but one species among millions, all connected by the long thread of evolution, all interdependent and sharing a profoundly rich common heritage. In this book, ecologist and broadcaster Anja Murray seeks to rekindle our love affair with the world around us, if only we take the time and effort to seek it out.

Opening our eyes to the incredible variety, mystery and beauty of wild nature is both invigorating and deeply disturbing, as we come to understand the depth and severity of the ecological crisis that threatens to tear down its very foundations.

Consider the plight of the majestic salmon, the king of fish. Venerated in Irish legends for their wisdom and grace, salmon have come to represent “good health, long life and knowledge”, Murray writes.

Their epic life cycles are also legendary. Salmon undergo a year-long migration of up to 3,000 km before returning to the exact river from where they were spawned, swimming upstream against the current and leaping natural obstacles to reach their own spawning grounds. In recent decades, Murray notes, “their trips upstream [have become] blocked by dams, weirs, culverts, road crossings and bridge foundations, all of which are barriers to migration”.

Worse, many of the pools and shallows along rivers essential for spawning have been destroyed, “as river channels are dredged to drain off farmland as part of arterial drainage works”. As the final insult, more than half our rivers are so polluted by fertiliser run-off that oxygen levels are too low for successful spawning.

While not flinching from reporting on the destruction of nature, Murray’s writing is most animated when she is describing the quotidian wonders that surround us. Take lichen, a symbiosis of fungi and algae, of which there are some 1,200 species in Ireland. Some lichen may be 5,000 years of age, making them our oldest living organisms by far.

Insects comprise more than half of all animal species in Ireland. “Our entire existence depends on them,” Murray adds. She is bewildered to find that “otherwise enlightened, nature-loving people reach for ant spray as soon as an ant appears on the garden patio.”

With thousands of tons of highly toxic pesticides applied to Irish fields, gardens and roadside verges every year, it’s as if we are at war with nature. Murray singles out recent dairy intensification for driving the “subsidised annihilation of Ireland’s biodiversity, which is a scandalous use of public money and a tragic demise of the rich tapestry of life” that was once associated with traditional agricultural landscapes.

The Irish name for ladybird is “bóin Dé”, which delightfully translates as “the little cow of God”. It arises from the medieval belief that ladybirds were sent from the heavens to save food crops from being destroyed. An average ladybird consumes 5,000 greenflies in its lifetime, making them superb natural pest managers. We could, Murray suggests, do with reviving some of the respect our ancestors held for the natural world and all the creatures, small and great, who inhabit it.

For the author, the magic of wild places is both intimate and personal. She sees nature as a balm that heals the body and calms the mind. While caring for her terminally ill mother, Murray experienced acute sadness and emotional distress that only reconnecting with the wilderness could ease. “I craved the reassurance of being bathed in dappled light, and the soothing soundtrack of the rust brown river running over pebble banks and gurgling around boulders.”

To love is to experience loss. Murray’s anguish at the relentless assaults on our environment, whether via bog mining, grassland monocultures or marine destruction, is palpable.

Ireland needs to rekindle its lost love of nature, and Anja Murray’s sparkling, accessible and often romantic personal account, with illustrations by Jane Carkill, is a very good place to start.

Wild Embrace: Connecting to the Wonder of Ireland’s Natural World by Anja Murray, Hachette Books, €14.99

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Irish Focus, Sustainability | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Feeding aircraft while people go hungry

As the squeeze on heavy users of fossil fuels to be seen to be cleaning up their act intensifies, there is now a flurry of activity especially from the aviation sector behind promoting “renewable” fuels such as biofuels and synthetic fuels. There are, however, some pretty major downsides, as I set out in the Irish Examiner in March.

IT IS SAID that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple – and wrong. Few problems are more complex than decarbonising the aviation industry, and the simplest solutions now being touted include turn vast swathes of farmland into fuel to feed its voracious appetite for energy.

A report published earlier this week by Aircraft Leasing Ireland claimed that the use of biofuels and synthetic fuels could reduce emissions by up to 90% compared with aviation kerosene.

Ireland, the report’s authors argue, is well placed to develop and produce what it terms sustainable aviation fuel, thanks to our expanding renewable energy sector, as well as the use of residues from agriculture and forestry. It is looking for government support, in other words, subsidies, to bring these claimed new energy source to fruition.

Food production in Europe and beyond is already being acutely stressed by climate-driven extreme weather events, as well as the ongoing war in Ukraine. Is this really a good time to take millions of hectares out of food production, so putting upward pressure on food prices for millions while feeding aircraft instead?

An area of land in Europe larger than the island of Ireland is already exclusively dedicated to producing biofuels, according to the Brussels-based NGO, Transport & Environment (T&E). This is mostly to meet the EU’s “lower carbon” E10 mandate (this means 10% of a given fuel is biofuel).

This regulation is ostensibly to aid in decarbonising motor transport, but many argue that with the advent of electric vehicles, it is instead a pointless diversion of both land and resources to simply extend the dominance of the internal combustion engine.

Analysis by T&E found the 9.6 million hectares of agricultural land in Europe now used to grow biofuels is 40 times more than the mere 250,000 hectares that solar panels would require to provide the same amount of energy if it were instead powering electric vehicles.

“Crop biofuels are probably the dumbest thing ever promoted in the name of climate”, commented Maik Marahrens, biofuels specialist at T&E. “Biofuels are a failed experiment. To continue to burn food as fuel while we face a growing global food crisis is borderline criminal”, he added.

According to Department of Transport data for 2022, around 307 million litres of what it calls ‘renewable fuel’ was placed on the market. Transport minister, Eamon Ryan recently announced that Ireland would move from E5 petrol to E10, meaning a doubling of the biofuel element of every litre of petrol sold in Ireland. This comes into effect, appropriately enough on April Fools Day.

Ryan described the move to E10 as “one of several transport measures to achieve a 51% reduction in transport emissions by 2030”. While upping the percentage of biofuel in a litre of petrol may effect a 5% cut in emissions, there is no acknowledgement in the Department of Transport’s statement as to the knock-on effects of increased biofuel usage.

While converting croplands to fuel cars may offer some slight reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, these gains are likely to be wiped out by the double whammy on food security and biodiversity of the land involved.

This of course is before considering the impact of oxymoronically titled ‘sustainable aviation fuels’ are taken into account. Aviation currently contributes around a billion tonnes of CO2 a year. The UK’s Royal Society last month published a report investigating the resource requirements and environmental impacts of so-called net zero aviation fuels. Its key conclusion is that there is simply no sustainable alternative to jet fuel that could be deployed to match the vast amount of flying now undertaken.

Powering the UK’s current aviation demand with biofuels, including ‘energy crops’ such as rapeseed, miscanthus and poplar, would require around half the UK’s entire agricultural land area. Would people really rather fly than eat?

An alternate option is to power aircraft in future with green hydrogen, but this is massively energy-intensive. The report found that even if the formidable hurdles involved in modifying aircraft to run on hydrogen could be overcome, it would use twice to three and a half times the UK’s entire renewable energy’s 2020 output.

There is in fact a simple answer to these complex technological conundrums, and the Royal Society Report hinted as much when it noted that “reducing the amount of air travel” would ease all these pressures simultaneously.

Unsurprisingly, the Irish aviation industry report this week made no reference to demand reduction or effective pricing of CO2 as solutions, nor did it seriously address the crucial issue of converting valuable farmland to fuel aircraft.

Ironically, if the land in the EU currently given over to growing biofuels were instead simply allowed to re-wild, the T&E study found it would absorb more than twice the CO2 that biofuels claim to save, as well as providing a vital lifeline to biodiversity and climate protection. Now there’s an idea that could really fly.

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

Bringing airborne plastic pollution down to earth

What goes up, must eventually come down again, and so it is with helium balloons, a pernicious form of pollution that rarely receives the critical attention it warrants. One happy side-effect of writing the below piece for the Irish Examiner was that it may have helped persuade my teenager’s school to forego a planned balloon release to ‘celebrate’ the end of term for sixth year students.

IT WAS A bright, chilly morning as I emerged from a ceremony at the crematorium at Dublin’s Mount Jerome Cemetery. In the distance, dozens of balloons drifted overhead, having just been released by another funeral party to honour their deceased relative.

It’s a nice idea. As one Dublin-based balloon company describes it: “balloon releases at funerals are becoming more popular as a visual expression of love. This growing trend seems like the appropriate metaphor for a loved one’s spirit as it ascends through the air”. A number of Irish funeral directors list balloon releases among the services they provide.

What goes up, however, must also come down again. According to the Ocean Conservancy charity, balloons are now the third most harmful form of marine debris, behind discarded fishing gear and plastic bags.

A key finding in a 2017 report from the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was the “lack of knowledge — many people do not understand that no balloon is ‘environmentally friendly’ and that every released balloon becomes litter and can be harmful”.

The report added that terms like ‘biodegradable’ were understood by the public to mean that such balloons were not an environmental hazard, but this is absolutely not the case. Once released, helium-filled balloons can travel huge distances. A balloon released in Nagano, Japan crossed the Pacific Ocean and 49 hours later landed in Los Angeles, more than 8,500 kilometres away.

When they land at sea, balloons are a major choking hazard for turtles (who mistake them for jellyfish), sea birds, whales, dolphins, and a host of other marine animals. Apart from the dangers of ingesting them, animals risk being entangled in the attached strings.

While so-called biodegradable balloons are made of latex, they can take between six months and four years to fully decompose, meaning they are an environmental hazard for a long time after their release. Other balloons made from mylar or vinyl are not in any way biodegradable and are simply plastic waste.

A number of US states have already brought in bans on balloon releases, as has Australia and dozens of local authorities in Britain, including four in Northern Ireland. Ironically, here in Ireland if you fly-tipped a pile of balloons you could face prosecution for littering, but if you inflated the same balloons and released them into the air, there is no sanction for this form of littering.

Environmental NGOs here, including the Irish Wildlife Trust, Birdwatch Ireland, and the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group all support an outright ban on balloon releases, as their members see first-hand the dire consequences for wildlife of an activity that many people mistakenly believe is completely harmless.

The only regulation that appears to exist in Ireland relating to balloon releases is from the Irish Aviation Authority, which states that you cannot release more than 1,000 balloons “within the aerodrome traffic zone of an aerodrome”, while releases exceeding 2,000 require written permission from the IAA. In other words, we regulate these hazards when they impact humans, but not when they threaten the wider environment.

Last July, while walking through a field in rural Kilkenny, I encountered a deflated foil balloon and posted a photo of it on Twitter. A number of farmers replied saying these are a common sight in rural Ireland, with reports of instances of livestock as well as wildlife being affected. Cattle, for instance, are naturally curious and have been known to choke on swallowed balloons, which can lodge in the throat or even lungs.

A Department of Environment, Climate and Communications spokesperson confirmed that EU regulations relating to balloons were signed into Irish law last November as part of the EU’s 2021 Directive aimed at curbing the use of single-use plastics. Items covered in the directive account for around 70% of all marine litter in the EU.

From 2025, balloon producers will be charged a fee to fund awareness-raising measures to encourage responsible use, as well as to help pay for cleaning up of litter waste. While these new regulations may put an extra few cent onto the cost of balloons, they in no way limit the ongoing environmental hazards posed by the release of helium-filled balloons.

Globally, there is a chronic shortage of helium gas that threatens far more than balloons. Liquid helium, a non-renewable element, is a vital cooling component without which medical MRI scanners could not operate. Four of the five main helium suppliers in the US are now rationing it to healthcare customers, partly due to cuts in Russian helium exports since its invasion of Ukraine last year.

Let’s be honest: there are lots of far less damaging ways to mark a special moment — whether it’s a birthday, a graduation or commemorating a loved one — than releasing toxic balloon litter into the wild.

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Pollution | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A 15-minute walk on the wild side

There is no idea too moderate or sensible that conspiracy theorists can’t tar as a Marxist plot to turn us all into slaves in some dystopian new world order. Well, at least that’s the impression you might have gotten in seeing how, of all things, plans to make city and town centres less awful is in fact some fiendish plot to take away our liberties, as I explored in the Business Post in early March.

IF YOU COULD somehow start from scratch and design the perfect city or town for the 21st century, what might it look like? Ideally, you could comfortably reach your workplace, schools, shops, healthcare locations and recreation spaces on foot or by bike in 15 minutes or less, as well as being able to stroll to a public transport hub to take you further afield.

In this ideal world, rather than people sitting in traffic for hundreds of hours every year, car ownership in urban areas would be very much the exception, with most people opting for car rental or sharing for the odd occasion when a set of wheels is needed.

A recent YouGov population study found that one in three people in Ireland would ideally like to live in a so-called 15-minute city, yet only one in ten say they are within comfortable walking distance of these key amenities today.

To make the 15-minute city a reality requires compact urban development, with enough people living in close proximity to support local shops and services, and high-frequency public transport. A study titled Close to Home published in 2021 concluded that Irish cities “have a unique opportunity to increase the quality of urban lifestyles, catalyse local economies and support the country to live and work more sustainably”.

For many of us, the 15-minute city arrived unexpectedly and as an unwelcome intrusion when, in March 2020, the first national pandemic lockdown came into force. This initially limited people to venturing no more than two kilometres from home.

In a matter of days, the patterns of working, commuting and recreation that had dominated our lives for decades were swept away. Many worked from home for the first time in their lives, while children endured endless Zoom classroom sessions from their bedrooms.

Amid the gloom, there were some tangible upsides. My teenagers dusted off their long-neglected bikes and cycled off to meet their pals every day, scooting around the near-deserted streets of south Co Dublin. They finally got to enjoy the kind of freedom of movement our car-choked roads have denied to generations of children. They cycled more in those first few months than in their entire lives prior to March 2020.

Those fortunate enough to have key amenities close at hand are likely to have found the whole Covid lockdown experience far less stressful. Indeed, 59 per cent of respondents to the YouGov study described walkability as making their neighbourhood a more desirable place to live.

In some respects this is all painfully obvious, yet the overwhelming primacy of the private car has so distorted both the built environment and our ideas of what freedom and choice are that for many, their belief in their absolute right to drive and park anywhere, any time, is unshakeable.

Indeed, opposition to this most benign of notions – building urban areas that meet the needs of the people who live there without forcing them into their cars – is gaining traction. It has been co-opted by right-wing conspiracy theorists as some kind of Marxist attack on your freedom and part of a cynical ploy to enforce what they describe as ‘climate lockdowns’.

Many of these strange ideas were incubated online during lockdown, when medical professionals attempting to control a dangerous novel virus were denounced as part of a sinister plot to imprison and subdue the population.

While it is understandable that a minority might prefer to believe conspiracy theories than trust their doctors, given the very real constraints that Covid regulations placed on people’s lives, the storm around something as innocuous and benign as progressive urban planning has caught many by surprise.

This spilled on to the streets of Oxford in England last month as a result of a planned trial by the local authority of a low-traffic neighbourhood – an area within the city where, as the name suggests, vehicular traffic is restricted to allow more safe space for the public.

Astonishingly, this most fringe of conspiracies attracted around 2,000 people on to the streets, toting signs with slogans like: ‘Say NO to the new world order. Say NO to 15-min prison cities. Wake up, people!’

Years of decline, worsened by growing inequality, while politicians stoke up anti-migrant xenophobia to distract from the post-Brexit economic fiasco, has seen the once politically moderate Britain become a breeding ground for paranoia and extremism.

Climate deniers have for years attempted to portray action on the climate emergency as cover for a sinister globalist agenda to take away people’s liberties. Prior to the pandemic, this absurd fallacy had limited traction.

However, Covid changed everything. The trauma it created “has been weaponised by the anti-climate lobby, who now condemn any public policy as an ‘infringement on civil liberties’ and draw direct comparisons with Covid”, Jennie King of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue told Desmog.com.

The group styling itself ‘Not Our Future’, which stirred up opposition to traffic restrictions in Oxford by promoting conspiracy theories, is supported by a network of climate denial groups – including the London-based Global Warming Policy Foundation, an organisation that has consistently refused to disclose its funding sources.

While not embracing far-right conspiracies, proposals in Ireland involving even modest modal shift away from the absolute hegemony of the car have sparked bitter opposition.

Residents in Sandymount in Dublin took a successful High Court action against a six-month trial of bike lanes, while attempts to provide safe cycle lanes to a local school in Deansgrange sparked sustained opposition from local businesses. Meanwhile, in car-choked Galway, councillors last year rejected plans for a trial cycleway out to Salthill.

Last week, it emerged that a memo on developing a new strategy to cut Ireland’s dependence on the private car was deemed too controversial to be included on the cabinet agenda, with politicians from both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael running scared of offending motorists.

The net effect of this is to leave Ireland’s 2030 transport emissions targets in tatters. For as long as politicians are more concerned about lobbyists and special interests than they are about climate breakdown, this failure of ambition and of imagination will persist.

Posted in Global Warming, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Violent words beget violent actions

By and large, Ireland is a tolerant country, spared the worst excesses of polarisation that have blighted post-Brexit Britain and the US after Trump. There has, however, been a creeping slide towards ugly extremism in the last couple of years, and this is seen most clearly in efforts by agri-industrial pressure groups and their political cheerleaders to demonise environmental defenders. This hasn’t happened by accident, but what I have found so astonishing is how little media traction or even political comment this has attracted. Were these same level of abuse being aimed at women, immigrants, the travelling community or almost any other sector you care to name, there would be thundering editorials and current affairs programmes and phone-in shows calling this out. There are, however, no consequences whatever for attacking people whose only ‘vested interest’ is in fighting climate change and biodiversity loss, as I discussed in the Irish Examiner in late February.

THE VITRIOL being aimed at public representatives was explored on the Late Late Show recently, when TDs Holly Cairns and Neasa Hourigan told of the sustained and often deeply misogynistic abuse they received.

At the weekend, junior minister Anne Rabbitte described the trauma for her and fellow TD Ciaran Cannon of being pelted with a bag of cow dung at a public meeting in Galway last month. Rabbitte says she is now limiting her public appearances as a result.

Holly Cairns described being left “absolutely terrified” when online harassment turned into a stalker showing up at her home in an isolated rural area. “Is it the way discourse in social media, you called it the wild west, is that seeping out into society in the way that we see people behave?”, she asked rhetorically. Words have consequences.

Ireland has to date been largely spared the more extreme political polarisation that has swept both Britain and the US in recent years, but it is equally clear that we are not immune from such radicalisation. While much of it emanates from anonymous online figures, a surprising amount comes from a small number of public representatives.

Early last year, a senior EU Commission official hit out at the ongoing attacks on environmental defenders, a pattern he described as “highly unusual to witness in an advanced society like Ireland”.

The official, Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea oversees governance, enforcement and compliance on EU environmental legislation, and expressed the Commission’s concern at Ireland’s “increasingly aggressive stance” against environmental defenders.

His comments are understood to relate to sustained political attacks by rural TDs on environmental NGOs, specifically An Taisce, Ireland’s national trust, with the Fine Gael group calling for its state funding to be withdrawn, arising from its opposition to a cheese plant being built in Co. Kilkenny.

Ciobanu-Dordea noted that Ireland is “the most expensive member state in which to make an environmental claim before the courts”.

There was little or no political or media reaction to his comments. One can only imagine what the EU Commission will have made of the apoplectic response to an advance copy of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientific report on land use and forestry.

Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice described the report as an attempt at “ethnic cleansing of the agricultural community”, adding that it would do more damage to rural Ireland than Oliver Cromwell.

Another TD, Michael Collins said the report was a “vicious strike against the heart of rural Ireland…and should be incinerated”. The latter phrase was repeated by TD, Mattie McGrath.

There “will be an uprising in rural Ireland if the Government were to do anything like this…rural Ireland would revolt”, warned Irish Farmers Association president, Tim Cullinan.

Dialling the rhetoric up several notches was Dermot Kelleher, president of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association who claimed that “a small cabal of unrepresentative but noisy activists were salivating at the prospect of ripping out the heart of economic activity in Ireland”. Yes, salivating.

The future, Kelleher added, was an “insane vision of a tiny minority where wolves would roam a rural wasteland and consumers would be forced to eat insect protein and fake burgers”. All this hysteria, remember, was in response to a single draft scientific report.

To balance this article, I should now be able to list off multiple instances of incendiary ad hominem attacks by environmental NGOs on farmers, but frankly they are the absolute exception, not the rule.

The reason agriculture is in the firing line has nothing to do with vendettas; it is because total emissions have shot up by a fifth in just the last decade, due mainly to dairy intensification, while excessive use of nitrates has led to sharp declines in river and estuary water quality, with livestock agriculture identified as the chief source.

Further, biodiversity loss is intensifying, with sharp falls in populations of farmland birds in particular, while annually, thousands of kilometres of hedgerows are being destroyed. Meanwhile, burning and overgrazing is devastating the ecology of upland areas.

These are the painful facts. Rather than set out a plan on how to address them, we are seeing instead wave after wave of outrage, with inflammatory language being brandished rather than viable solutions.

Lacking cogent arguments on how they can actually reduce emissions and boost biodiversity, agri leaders and their political supporters resort instead to culture wars and repeatedly playing the victim card.

I spoke face to face with Michael Fitzmaurice on the Tonight Show on Virgin TV last week, and pointed out to him that the term “ethnic cleansing” explicitly relates to the mass expulsion, persecution or killing of ethnic or religious groups.

I added that such words have consequences and could well lead to violent actions. Regrettably, Fitzmaurice rejected my request that he retract his deeply offensive statement about “ethnic cleansing”, choosing instead to double down.

If the ugly rhetoric outlined here is tolerated and normalised, it is only a matter of time before there are tragic outcomes, and it will by then be too late to ask why nobody shouted stop.

Posted in Agriculture, Agriculture, Global Warming, Irish Focus | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Oil giants struggle to wash blood off their hands

It may be making more money than ever, but the fossil fuel industry is rapidly losing whatever semblance of social licence it could still cling to. And despite the high salaries on offer, more and more young people are turning their backs on this most toxic of sectors, as evidence of its pathological greed, deceit and ecocidal business model becomes ever more incontrovertible. I filed this piece for the Business Post in February. 

THE BIGGEST TV show of the 1980s, Dallas, followed the fortunes of the Ewings, a family of oil tycoons in Texas, and showcased their glamorous, opulent lifestyles, as well as the wheeling and dealing and back-stabbing in the industry.

Fast forward to the 2020s and the industry is arguably more profitable than ever. In 2022, the combined profits of ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, Total, BP and Equinor surged to nearly $250 billion, the highest in their history. It is, however, unlikely in the extreme that there will ever be another major TV show lionising the oil billionaires.

According to Bernard Looney, the Kerry-born chief executive of BP, “there’s a view that this is a bad industry, and I understand that”. Looney took over at BP in February 2020 and recognised that the entire sector was “socially challenged”, and struggling to recruit new talent to replace an ageing workforce.

“Good people don’t come to work for a bad company – good people have choices; a lot of people are really energised about what we’re doing,” Looney said in an interview shortly after his appointment. He committed to cutting BP’s oil and gas production by 40 per cent by 2030, on the path to a promise of “net zero” by 2050.

That was then. Earlier this month, fresh from announcing record profits, BP quietly scrapped the 40 per cent target, downgrading it to 20 to 30 per cent. Explaining his change of heart, Looney said: “At the end of the day, we’re responding to what society wants.” In truth, this has nothing to do with society and is simply about short-term gain for shareholders.

This is not BP’s first rodeo. In the early 2000s, it famously rebranded itself as ‘Beyond Petroleum’ and began investing in renewables. A few years later, to help pay off the costs of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it sold off its renewables division. If money talks, nothing speaks louder than the easy fortunes to be made from simply digging up oil and gas and selling it at a huge mark-up.

At a commencement speech last May, António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, implored the young university graduates he was addressing to turn their backs on dirty industries.

“Despite mountains of evidence of looming climate catastrophe, we still see mountains of funding for coal and fossil fuels that are killing our planet. But we know investing in fossil fuels is a dead end, economically and environmentally,” Guterres said. “You hold the cards; don’t work for climate-wreckers. Use your talents to drive us towards a renewable future”.

The message is getting through. Despite the high salaries on offer, the number of US business school graduates choosing careers in oil or gas has fallen by over 40 per cent in the last 15 years. Graduate numbers from petroleum engineering courses in America have slumped by 83 per cent in the last five years, while Imperial College London and the University of Calgary have cancelled postgraduate courses in petroleum geoscience.

Imperial College’s website states that “suspending both MSc Petroleum courses provides us with the opportunity to reassess the skillset needed in today’s broader geo-energy industry”. While the oil and gas is still flowing, the pipeline of new talent into these dirtiest and most deceptive of industries is rapidly drying up.

An EY study in 2017 found that the young were “much less likely” than older people to believe that fossil fuels were good for society. Two thirds of the 16 to 19-year-olds surveyed described the idea of working for the industry as unappealing.

The term ‘climate quitting’ has now entered the vernacular to describe how more and more people are turning their backs on industries that are seen to be helping destroy the planet.

Last summer, students at leading US universities disrupted on-campus recruitment events being hosted by Exxon Mobil, the energy giant that has, over the last decade, spent millions on advertising its commitment to producing ‘clean’ energy via biofuels from algae. In recent weeks, just as it announced record 2022 profits from oil and gas, it scrapped its algae research investments in a move that would likely have drawn gasps of admiration from JR Ewing, the arch-villain of Dallas, himself.

At Shell’s 2021 annual meeting, Charles Holliday, its then chairman, recalled a conversation with an employee who told him that their 13-year-old daughter was embarrassed to tell her friends at school that her dad works for Shell. Ben van Beurden, the company’s then chief executive, said in 2019 that when his daughter was ten years old, she came home from school one day crying because she’d heard oil and gas companies were destroying the planet.

In both cases, these senior executives invoked emotive references to children to convey the impression that they were personally committed to steering their business towards a safer future. Today, Shell is making more money than ever selling planet-destroying fossil fuels. And this industry wonders why it has a credibility and recruitment problem.

Later this month, entries will close for the long-running Texaco Children’s Art competition. Texaco is owned by Valero Energy, a corporation with a long track record of lobbying against climate action, a position that threatens the future of the very children who are encouraged to enter their art for consideration.

The Irish Museum for Modern Art last year cut its links with this competition, and it is well past time that our schools and media outlets followed suit.

Any young Irish person considering a career in the oil industry is unlikely to have been swayed by the recent appearance on Newstalk radio by David Horgan, chairman of Petrel Resources, where he flatly denied basic climate science, stating that “there is no crisis”.

Who could possibly want to build a future in an industry so mired in denial and stuck in the past?

Posted in Energy, Global Warming, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Watch out for quick-fix climate techno solutions

Decades of abject failure to curb carbon emissions has left us in a perilous situation as global climate destabilisation begins to bite in earnest. Numerous techno-fixes are now being seriously explored, backed by some big names as well as attracting serious interest at governmental level. However, trying to engineer a system as complex and dynamic as an entire planet’s climate may be as dangerous as it is implausible, as I explored in the Irish Examiner in February.

IN APRIL 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia underwent the largest eruption the world had seen in more than 1,000 years. This triggered a ‘volcanic winter’ that caused global average temperatures to quickly drop by around 1°C.

As a direct result, the summer of the following year saw crop failures and famines from China to Europe, North America and beyond. Ireland also was impacted, as a typhus epidemic resulting from widespread hunger killed thousands in what has become known as the ‘Year Without A Summer’.

Author Mary Shelley, confined to indoors in a villa in Switzerland as a result of incessant summer rainfall and darkness, was inspired by the dank conditions to write the famous horror novel Frankenstein — which explores the dangers of humans dabbling in technology and tampering with forces we barely understand — in June 1816.

While its cooling effects were short-lived, the Mount Tambora eruption showed how sensitive the global atmosphere is to large-scale disruption, yet for the last two centuries, humanity has been engaged in an uncontrolled experiment involving altering the basic chemistry of the entire planet.

Following the clearing of vast areas of forests as well as burning of billions of tons of fossil fuels, the level of carbon dioxide, a key heat-trapping gas, in the global atmosphere has increased by 50% versus pre-industrial. while methane levels have trebled.

This rate of change is the fastest in millions of years, and is already having dramatic impacts on the global climate, as heatwaves intensify, flooding events become more extreme and droughts and desertification accelerate.

In the three decades since intergovernmental efforts to curb global warming got underway in earnest, total emissions have actually increased by more than in all of human history up to 1990. As the old joke goes, ‘we’ve tried nothing, and now we’re all out of ideas’.

While the climate situation deteriorates, ever more desperate measures, once thought too dangerous to ever be seriously considered, are now on the table politically. Chief among these is what’s known as solar geoengineering.

The US government recently announced it would study the effects of spraying chemicals such as sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to essentially mimic the effect of a major volcanic eruption and artificially engineer a global cooling event.

When released high in the stratosphere by a fleet of aircraft, aerosols such as sulphur dioxide disperse and block some of the incoming solar radiation. This effect also occurs as a result of emissions from coal plants that haven’t been fitted with scrubbers.

Ironically, pollution from these coal-burning plants, largely in China and India, currently masks nearly half a degree of global warming.

Right-wing groups who have long opposed action on climate change, such as the Heritage Foundation in the US, now support geoengineering, as they see it as a business-as-usual way of continuing to burn fossil fuels while using geoengineering to offset ever-rising temperatures.

This is as dangerous as it is convenient. First, one of the critical weaknesses of the very concept of geoengineering is that it dangles the prospect of an easy techno-fix in front of governments that are already struggling to cut emissions and are facing strong resistance from vested interests. Simply having the option of geoengineering ‘on the table’ is likely to stall vital action to cut emissions.

Second, who exactly gets to decide the rules? What happens if for instance Russia, the US, or China decides to embark on a solo global geoengineering project they think may benefit their region?

Such an initiative in one part of the world could lead to disastrous unintended consequences elsewhere. For instance, an intervention by the US government to tackle the deepening drought in its western states might cause the annual monsoon rains to weaken or fail in Asia, leaving hundreds of millions facing disaster and setting in motion a massive geopolitical crisis.

“Solar geoengineering is an extremely risky and intrinsically unjust technological proposal that doesn’t address any of the causes of climate change”, according to Silvia Ribeiro, of the ETC group, an NGO that monitors the impact of emerging technologies.

Another issue that geoengineering has no answer for is: what happens when you stop? If say global temperatures have been artificially lowered by aerosols in the stratosphere or a marine cloud brightening project and this is no longer possible in the future because of war or economic collapse, the atmosphere would experience a ‘termination shock’, triggering a devastating sudden temperatures spike.

There are forms of ‘natural’ geoengineering that don’t require scientists to play God with the global climate system. These include afforestation and peatland restoration, as well as rewilding.

These may be less of a quick fix but ultimately the problems caused by technology can never be solved by simply applying ever more technology.

In the words of philosopher Francis Bacon: ‘Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed’.

Posted in Energy, Global Warming, Sustainability | Tagged , | Leave a comment

There’s no vaccine for the greenhouse effect

The future is an Undiscovered Country. Things are done differently there. For those who follow the science of the climate and ecological crisis, it’s also an overwhelmingly scary place. Climate fiction, or cli-fi, is our best available vehicle with which to venture beyond the bourns of the present and into the near-to-medium future, and ‘The Deluge’ by Stephen Markley. Buckle up, it’s a bumpy ride, as I outlined in the Business Post in February.

HOW EXACTLY DO you set about telling the biggest story of them all, one almost nobody even wants to talk about and which has no happy ending? This conundrum has engaged a growing number of writers in the rapidly emerging field of climate fiction.

Yet, at first glance, the scenario is all too familiar. After all, hasn’t Hollywood’s conveyor belt of blockbuster disaster movies already inured us to the end of the planet?

Oddly, the ultimate fiction of these dystopian imaginings is that once the lights go up and the credits are rolling, we can all return to the reassuring normality of our lives, confident that the world outside is just as we left it.

Stephen Markley’s approach to tackling this biggest of stories is with the heftiest of cli-fi novels. Weighing in at almost 900 pages, The Deluge feels almost as overwhelming as the crises it elucidates.

Set in the United States, its multi-layered and dense narrative thread spans from the present day until around 2040, as rolling ecological calamities fray and then fragment the very fabric of society, tossing its motley cast of characters around like straws in a sandstorm.

“It’s pretty simple: we fight to the fucked and bitter end or we die,” says central figure Kate Morris, a firebrand political organiser mockingly titled the “manic pixie dream girl of global warming”. She tries the impossible – to shock the deeply dysfunctional Washington DC system out of its terminal anomie – and pays a terrible price for her pains.

While Markley’s consuming passion is in exploring the brutal machinations of US politics, The Deluge is anchored firmly in actual climate science. This is conveyed through the character of Tony Pietrus, a geophysicist who in the opening chapter receives a death threat along with a package containing an unidentified powder. Science has been a contact sport in the US for quite some time.

“You want the world to be this place of rational actors, but no one’s rational, Tony,” says his wife, Gail, explaining how evidence-based arguments are dashed against the rocks of human intransigence. “We’re all guided by our crazy.”

What’s unnerving about the future-scape mapped out in The Deluge is how familiar it all is. Life plods relentlessly on for a decade or two, even as the wildfires lay waste to cities and flood waters ruin vast areas of low-lying land. Many people simply retreat into immersive VR headsets where they can escape the gathering storm, at least for a while.

Markley switches the narrative voice in alternating chapters, while also interspersing fictional articles from The New York Times and other media outlets as well as dense political briefing documents. The author’s wonkishness shines through, but mercifully this often technical material is leavened with wicked humour. One protagonist “looked like she was watching her cat burn to death but had been told if she intervened, her other cat would get it as well”.

Even Tony, the buttoned-down climate scientist, gets to deliver some zingers, such as when a politician is trying to reassure him about climate models. “Fuck the models. You saw the numbers coming in from Greenland this summer and the Antarctic ice sheets are frying… yet you’re sitting there with all the concern of a happy baby in a fresh diaper.”

As the novel progresses, a confluence of events draws the protagonists through their Sisyphean and ultimately doomed task of “trying to unfuck the world”, in the words of another character called Ashir. He catalogues on the government’s behalf how a relentless toll of extreme weather events and rising sea levels is crippling society and sending the US economy into a death spiral of slow but relentless collapse.

“The difference between 2037 and 2020 is that there is no vaccine on the way for the greenhouse effect,” Ashir observes wryly.

The Deluge is an ambitious, sweeping novel, its darker passages illuminated by some sparkling turns of phrase. It is in turn an enthralling and infuriating read. I can’t help but wonder how much more enjoyable it might have been had Markley managed to compress his impressive storylines into a book several hundred pages shorter.

The Deluge by Stephen Markley, Simon and Schuster, €30.20

Posted in Global Warming, Psychology | Tagged | Leave a comment

Oh! What a Lovely War for fossil fuel profiteers

While 2022 may have been the year when full-scale war returned to Europe for the first time since 1945, with massive spikes in energy prices impacting tens of millions of households, it was also a great year for fossil fuel industry war profiteering, as oil companies raked in a record $200 billion in profits in 2022. That works out at around $4 billion a week, every week last year for an industry whose decades of lies and deception have taken us to the brink of a global calamity, as I explored in a piece for TheJournal.ie in early February.

CONSPIRACIES, REAL AND imaginary, come in all shapes and sizes. None however are more real or more dangerous than the vast, decades-long conspiracy by the global energy industry to deceive and mislead us on the existential dangers of fossil fuel burning.

At the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, UN secretary-general António Guterres called out the conspirators by name, identifying the fossil fuel industry and its financial backers as “racing to expand production, knowing full well that their business model is inconsistent with human survival.” Continue reading

Posted in Energy, Global Warming, Sustainability | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Best of times, worst of times

The annual ritual of seeing whether the famous Doomsday Clock moves closer to or further from midnight took a worrying turn this year, as it inched to its closest point to the witching hour in the last 75 years, in response to a confluence of events and escalating risks, as I described in the Irish Examiner in early February.

“IT WAS THE best of times, it was the worst of times”, Charles Dickens wrote in 1859. “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”.

Today, a century and a half later, his opening lines from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ still ring true. There are more people alive now than at any other time in history, and more are living free from the shackles of abject poverty, hunger, disease and early death than ever before.

By many objective measures, especially for those of us in prosperous, stable countries like Ireland, these are indeed the very best of times. We enjoy levels of personal freedom, material wealth, comfort and physical well-being almost unimaginable even to our grandparents’ generation. Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Nuclear | Leave a comment

Spreading a deadly smokescreen of disinformation

Long before the fossil fuel industry began using its money and influence to spread doubt and disinformation about the climate crisis, the book on how to dupe and deceive the public by peddling doubt had been practically written by the tobacco industry and its PR advisers, as I discussed in this Irish Examiner piece in January.

AS RECENTLY as two or three decades ago, cigarette smoking was part and parcel of life. People lit up indoors, in cars, pubs and on public transport, even aircraft. In fact, the GAA All-Stars awards were sponsored by PJ Carroll until 1978.

Posters, billboards and media sponsorship normalised a product whose manufacturers had known for decades kills one in two smokers. Slowly at first, then quickly, the smoke cleared and cigarettes were pushed almost completely out of the public domain. Continue reading

Posted in Energy, Global Warming, Irish Focus | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Bracing for the coming climate refugee crisis

The millions of people displaced by wars and conflict in the 20th century and in the early part of this century are likely to be eclipsed by a vast waves of forced migration in the decades ahead, as rising temperatures, droughts, desertification and coastal inundation render more and more places virtually uninhabitable. Yet little real thought has gone into how societies around the world will cope with this coming human tsunami, as I explored in the Business Post in January.

ALTHOUGH World War II ended in 1945, tens of millions of refugees displaced by the conflict continued to seek safety and shelter for years after the fighting stopped. This humanitarian disaster, which affected well over 50 million people in Europe alone, spurred the creation of the UN Refugee Convention in 1951. Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ozone recovery offers sliver of optimism on climate action

Good news stories on the climate beat are few and far between, and offer occasional relief from the quickening drumbeat of bad news on the climate and biodiversity front. I didn’t have to be asked twice to file this piece for the Irish Examiner on a newly published WMO report showing the slow but steady recovery of the global ozone layer. While it undoubtedly holds some lessons on tackling the wider climate emergency, there are also limits to the parallels, as I explore below. 

GLOBAL EFFORTS to tackle both climate change and biodiversity loss have been underway in earnest for at least the last three decades, yet our best efforts to date have been an unmitigated failure. Emissions continue to spiral, temperatures climb and ecosystems buckle under ever-expanding human impacts. Continue reading

Posted in Arctic, Global Warming, Pollution, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Step by step towards a lower carbon future

Here’s a piece that ran in the Irish Daily Star in the first week of January, my 10-point guide for those dipping a toe in the water of climate action in 2023. It’s not intended to be either definitive or comprehensive, rather, a starting point for people considering getting involved but not quite sure where or how to begin.

AFTER YET another year of record-breaking extreme weather around the world, public concern about the climate emergency is now at an all-time high. More than four in five Irish people now say they are “alarmed” or “concerned” about the crisis, according to research from the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, while people are anxious and want to take personal action, many are unclear as to what are the most important steps to take to help tackle climate change. A study by the ESRI in early 2022 found that many people incorrectly thought recycling was more important than driving or eating meat in tackling climate change. Continue reading

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