A race between climatic and political tipping points

Some weeks back, in the course of researching an article on ecological grief, I reached out to US author, David Wallace-Wells for comment, and to my surprise probably as much as his, this led to a wide-ranging discussion that ran to over 90 minutes. I had filed a mixed review of his book for The Irish Times in February 2019, so welcomed the opportunity for a deeper dive into his thinking, and the resulting interview was published in early October, also in The Irish Times.

WHAT MOST disturbs best-selling science author David Wallace-Wells about climate change isn’t so much that the worst-case scenarios may come to pass. Rather, it’s how astonishingly dangerous even the so called best-case scenarios actually are.

When he began his deep dive into the science of climate change in 2016, his initial fear was that Earth was on the cusp of runaway climate change, also known as the Venus syndrome, where the planet transitioned from being capable of supporting life to a cauldon with a mean surface temperature of over 450ºC and an atmosphere mostly comprising the heat-trapping gas, carbon dioxide.

It was with genuine relief that he came to understand that this most catastrophic of outcomes for Earth is considered extremely unlikely. However, he remains deeply shaken by the realisation that the world he had grown up in is “much more fragile than I really was willing to accept; that emotional experience stayed with me well past the time when I realised that runaway climate change wasn’t happening.”

Wallace-Wells, deputy editor of New York magazine, shot to international attention with the publication in 2017 of an apocalyptic extended essay titled ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’. It went on to become the most read article in the magazine’s history. Two years later, he expanded it into a book of the same title, which topped the New York Times bestseller list.

Intentional or not, his timing was impeccable: as the book hit the shelves, teen campaigner Greta Thunberg was fast becoming one of the most famous people on the planet, while millions of schoolchildren and Extinction Rebellion activists were flooding the streets throughout 2019 demanding immediate action on the climate crisis.

For a Bronx-born native New Yorker with no background whatever in environmentalism and cheerfully admitting to having precious little interest in the natural world, Wallace-Wells has become an unlikely, even reluctant, hero of the climate movement. His book was described as ‘this generation’s Silent Spring’ by the Washington Post, referencing the landmark text by Rachel Carson credited with triggering the 1960s environmental awakening in the US.

He believes being an outsider has allowed him to focus more on the human threat posed by climate change. “I think part of that is also because the science is evolving in a way that does showcase the human cost more than it did 10 or 15 years ago, but I think it’s also something I’ve done to really focus on it.”

Facing the reality of a future irreparably blighted and impoverished by climate breakdown and ecosystem loss involves a wrenching psychological adjustment, perhaps even more so for those whose expectations are greatest.

“As an American I came of age at the end of the Cold War, I really was raised to believe almost like a natural iron law of history that successive generations would be wealthier and more just than the last”. These certainties are climate casualties too.

The crown of climate alarmism sits uneasily on Wallace-Wells; the fatalism it infers runs against the grain of the can-do optimism and boundless expectation of the great American middle-classes. This is evident in his analysis: “when I look at the global economic system, I do think it is theoretically possible to grow considerably while reducing our carbon emissions, even all the way to zero.”

While accepting that traditional measures of growth such as GDP are deeply flawed, he disagrees fundamentally with the de-growth movement, arguing that poorer countries need to be allowed to grow their way out of poverty. “I suppose for all my environmental radicalism, I am enough of a neoliberal to think that some of the innovations we develop in the US can be distributed to boost the developing world.”

While this aspiration is admirable, in the real world, resources are mainly mined from the global South, to the overwhelming benefit of the global North. What the world’s poor mostly get in exchange are the climate impacts.

Wallace-Wells acknowledges this when adding: “there is something of a moral crime in how much you and I and everyone we know consume, given how little is available to consume for so many other people on the planet.”

He accepts that it is already nigh-on impossible for the global climate to avoid heating by more than two degrees centigrade, and this points to a world with “hundreds of millions of climate refugees and, scientists tell us, tens of millions of people dying of air pollution and once-in-a-century storms becoming annual events.”

With epic firestorms currently laying waste to much of the western US and eerie orange skies reminiscent of scenes from science fiction films, climate change as an issue has finally been seared onto a political process that for years has seemed hell-bent on not engaging. When in California recently, President Trump dismissed climate concerns by blithely stating: “it’ll start getting cooler – you just watch.”

Wallace-Wells acknowledges the danger posed by Trump retaining power next month, specifically in his scuppering the “bilateral effort led by China and the US to really address this issue”. He sees this relationship as even more crucial than the Paris Agreement in terms of bending the climate curve.

He is energised by the extent to which the Biden campaign is now far more ambitious on climate action than either president Obama ever was or Hillary Clinton even contemplated. “We’re very much moving in the right direction, at a speed I literally didn’t think possible as I finished my book. It’s still hopelessly too slow, but it’s self-accelerating”, he argues. “Right now, it’s like a race between climatic tipping points and political tipping points.”

A key point of divergence between Wallace-Wells and the mainstream climate movement is his skepticism on renewable energy. “When you consider the resources we would need to make sufficient solar panels and wind turbines to power the world entirely via renewables, it’s not clear the planet even has these resources in sufficient capacity today.”

Further, he argues that even if it were possible, this would mean “real ecological devastation in parts of the world where they’re located.” The counterpoint to this is that ongoing fossil fuel extraction, apart from its climate impacts, also leaves deep ecological scars around the world.

As a writer and father of a young daughter, the last four years of awakening to the climate crisis has been life-changing for Wallace-Wells. Writing about it has, he feels, been cathartic, allowing him to “channel my anxieties towards something”. He feels a combination of journalistic training and temperament “has helped me cauterise myself against some of the more terrifying and alienating aspects of the material I’ve studied.” Notwithstanding this effort at distancing, he adds: “even so, it’s impossible to do it entirely and impossible to regard even a best case future as anything other than a human tragedy.”

While he sees evidence of more and more people awakening to the climate crisis, Wallace-Wells remains adamant that “many more people are fatally complacent than are really panicking.” We have, he notes, “already today brought the planet entirely outside the window of temperatures that enclose all of human history…I often think of it like we’ve landed on a new planet.”

It has long been an article of faith in the environmental realm that once things started to get really bad, global action would rapidly scale up. Yet, our capacity to normalise and the ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ mean public shock at the latest disaster is quickly internalised and forgotten. We now need, Wallace-Wells concludes, “to also normalise climate alarm, because we have every reason to be alarmed.”

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator

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Eco-plenary indulgences won’t save our souls or environment

The below is a guest post from an occasion ToS contributor and concerned citizen who uses the pseudonym ‘Jeremy Hughes’. He takes a wry look at the new trend towards establishing tiny pockets of biodiversity while the bigger picture is one of relentless decline.

IN THE Catholic Church, an indulgence is a way for a person to reduce the punishment from God for their sins. The recipient of the indulgence has to perform a good act to receive it. They became notorious during the Middle Ages when indulgences could be bought from clergy to atone for sins and the sale of indulgences eventually led to the Reformation.

Biodiversity areas have sprung up in many towns, villages and parishes but I’m wondering if they are the eco plenary indulgences of modern times – a good environmental deed designed to make people feel better about their excesses and wipe out sins of their consumer lifestyles that are wreaking havoc on our natural environment.

This is not to denigrate or knock the hard work of many committed volunteers and environmentalists who toil to create these areas. Their work and commitment is welcome and we need more of these people.

But when I see trees in local biodiversity areas sponsored by a person or a company, I wonder if they are doing it for environmental reasons or is it purely for the optics and to ease their consciences? It’s an easy way to convince yourself that you’re doing a good act for the environment while your lifestyle suggests otherwise. Sponsor a tree and you can justify that flight to Florida. Plant a few wild flowers and nobody can question your environmental credentials when you upgrade the car again or buy another 40 inch flatscreen TV to replace the 36 inch one you got last year.

Any wildlife area is welcome but given the tiny size of many of these biodiversity areas, are they just window-dressing? The problem with these actions – as welcome as they are – is that they reek of tokenism and are a sticking plaster for the gaping wound of biodiversity loss and the ecological crisis all around us. Are they box-ticking exercises by town councils and parish committees to show they’re on message? Are they the ordinary person’s equivalent of carbon off-setting to allow them to continue living their not very eco-friendly western lifestyles?

A harsh judgement maybe, but close scrutiny of wildlife or biodiversity areas around me all have a common theme. First of all, many of them are too small, isolated and disjointed to be effective for wildlife. Despite large parks and common areas being available, biodiversity areas are usually located in a small area in a corner of public land, looking more like an insignificant afterthought.

Secondly, the scale of destruction going around many of them makes their contribution negligible. For instance, one particular wildlife area close to me takes up less than 100 square metres. This summer, a similarly-sized natural wild area of grass and scrub across the road from it was heavily sprayed with weedkiller. And a little further down the road a new home owner tore out the hawthorn hedge and replaced it with beech, while the substantial grass verge bordering this hedge, again an area of similar size to the biodiversity area, is now routinely mowed to putting green level.

Effectively, an area twice the size of the biodiversity area has been destroyed since it was established. And I’m sure this isn’t an isolated situation. This isn’t progress – it is regression. Establishing a wildlife/biodiversity area doesn’t give a carte blanche for business as usual.

But the bottom line is that we need bigger and bolder measures to address biodiversity loss – something along the lines of the “wild belts” being proposed by the Wildlife Trusts in the UK. The Trusts are calling for the inclusion of areas of land or “wild belts” to be specifically designated as places for nature recovery. The wild belt areas were needed in towns, cities and the countryside to ensure that 30 per cent of England was in nature recovery by 2030, according to the Trusts. Chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts Craig Bennett described the wild belts as “our only hope” in helping nature recover rather than just talking about slowing its decline.

So if we’re serious, in reality, towns and villages should be setting aside at least half of park areas as biodiversity areas and parishes should be looking to providing bigger spaces, perhaps crowd-funding to buy land from local farmers for rewilding – and an acceptance of letting this land go wild, rather than having to be managed. Nobody has to strim around the trees and cut margins or thin out scrub – just let it be and watch nature return. The only human intervention could be the creation of an artificial pond as a water source for animals.

It’s time to end the environmental plenary indulgences. It’s time for a biodiversity reformation.

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Under Trump, Republican war on science escalates

The below comment piece ran in the Business Post in mid-September, tallying the all-out war the Trump regime has waged not just on client science but on decades of cross-party consensus on basic environmental protection. US elections almost always feel consequential, but this time the stakes have probably never been higher. 

THE EYES OF the world are fixed on Tuesday, November 3rd, with the future of the US as a democracy now on the ballot. However, a potentially even more ominous deadline looms the following day.

On November 4th, the US is scheduled to formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the key intergovernmental accord negotiated in 2015 in a bid to prevent global temperatures from breaching dangerous and likely irreversible thresholds.

If president Trump hoped his withdrawal would lead to the complete collapse of the Agreement, he has been disappointed. Perhaps underlining the decline in US influence since he came to power, not a single country followed its lead.

This week, while being briefed in California on the epic wildfires raging through much of the western US which are being driven by climate-fuelled extreme drought, Trump stepped up his war on science by replying dismissively: “it’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.”

This grotesquely anti-scientific statement mirrors repeated Trump pronouncements that the coronavirus would “just disappear.” In response, his Democratic rival, Joe Biden described Trump as a “climate arsonist,” adding that tackling it “requires action, not denial.”

As the world’s second largest polluter, the loss of US diplomatic clout on global climate action has come at the worst possible moment. While the Trump regime is increasingly isolated on the world stage, it has taken a wrecking ball to domestic environmental regulations in attempting to undo half a century of hard-won progress under both Republican and Democrat administrations.

Trump has made little secret of his wish to completely erase the legacy of the Obama administration, and has set about this in a variety of staggeringly petty ways. It is a clear sign of just how far the current president has drifted from any semblance of traditional Republicanism that much of the legacy he is currently destroying was actually put in place by ultra-conservative Richard Nixon in the early 1970s.

Trump eked out an improbable Electoral College victory in 2016 by narrowly winning three traditionally Blue, working class states. Chief among his promises was to revive the coal industry, but neither subsidies nor regulatory roll-back have slowed the coal industry’s continuing death spiral, undercut by cheap fracked gas and renewables.

Some of Obama’s most far-reaching reforms included new regulations on emissions of mercury, arsenic and other toxic heavy metals, and Trump has set about eliminating these clear public health wins, despite the fact that the coal industry had already adopted to the new standards.

Between 2012 and 2018, it cost the US energy sector around $3 billion a year to comply with the new rules, but they have been hugely cost-effective, generating public health and productivity benefits of between $37-$90 billion.

While it may seem perverse that any president, even one as vengeful and capricious as Trump, would enact policies that reduced air quality and made the population sicker and less productive, the likely motivation may be racism.

African-Americans are three times more likely to die from air pollution than whites, while more than half of the nine million Americans living close to hazardous waste sites are people of colour.

This staggering racial divide has also been echoed in coronavirus deaths, where African-Americans are dying at almost three times the rate of whites. This is nearly identical to the ratio of US Blacks killed by the police. In the hands of the regime in Washington, air pollution has itself been weaponised against vulnerable minorities.

In an Orwellian twist, the deregulatory purge is being led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), headed by a Trump-appointed former coal lobbyist. Many of the regulations brought in to make offshore drilling safer after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 have since been scrapped, making similar future incidents all-but-inevitable.

Every branch of public administration has been put into the service of Trump and the Republicans who enable him. For instance, the US General Accounting Office’s recent report put the ‘social cost of carbon’ at $11 a ton – a drastic downgrade from the Obama era estimate of $82 a ton.

Weakening of fuel economy standards for cars will lead to an additional one billion tons of emissions from this sector, while also making US cars harder to sell abroad. And, while the Coronavirus pandemic has been a political headache for Trump, his EPA apparatchiks used it as cover to suspend yet more environmental regulations.

In their indecent haste to tear up the rule book, so many corners have been cut that some 87 per cent of legal challenges against the regime have been successful. Given a second term, Trump will aim to remove this barrier by completely politicising the judiciary.

It is no small irony that much of the western US is experiencing unprecedented drought conditions, with major wildfires burning from Alaska to California, while to the east, hurricanes are growing in intensity. Since 1980, there has been an astonishing four-fold increase in the annual number of extreme weather events hitting the US, a pattern certain to worsen as global warming intensifies.

If Joe Biden prevails in November, the US will remain in the Paris Agreement, while his genuinely ambitious $2 trillion climate plan could re-ignite global action. And, whatever about the coronavirus, veteran US news anchor Dan Rather this week put it plainly: “there will be no vaccine for the climate crisis”.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
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‘Our relationship with nature is broken’

The below piece ran on TheJournal.ie in late September. It was inspired by a combination of the surreal imagery emanating from the western US and the release of the 2020 Living Planet Report, which chronicles ever sharpening declines in planetary vital signals.

ONE OF THE most iconic scenes from the science fiction film Blade Runner 2049 featured the eerie bright orange skies over a future Las Vegas.

This dystopian vision became all-too-real in recent days as smoke from the hundreds of wildfires raging out of control in the western US blotted out the midday sun, casting entire states into a perpetual twilight.  A video clip featuring drone footage filmed over San Francisco overlaid with the score from Blade Runner 2049 quickly went viral.

Picking up the movie theme, Georgia Tech climate scientist Dr Kim Cobb said: “A year like 2020 could have been the subject of a marvellous science fiction film in 2000. Now we have to watch and digest real-time disaster after disaster after disaster, on top of a pandemic. The outlook could not be any more grim. It’s just a horrifying prospect. It’s going to get a lot worse.”

A broken world

While scientists have been warning for decades that climate breakdown could have dire consequences for humanity, in reality, for the rest of nature, the apocalypse is already in full swing, as vividly detailed in recent days with the publication of the WWF’s 2020 Living Planet Report. Its findings are clear: “Our relationship with nature is broken”.

Abandoning the normally ultra-cautious language used in scientific reports, WWF director general, Marco Lambertini set it out bluntly, pointing to: “unequivocal evidence that nature is unravelling and that our planet is flashing red warning signs. Humanity’s destruction of nature is having catastrophic impacts not only on wildlife populations but also on human health and all aspects of our lives”.

The scale of the destruction almost beggars belief. Since 1970, global populations of wild mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have collapsed by an astonishing 68 per cent on average. Although not directly tracked by the Index, scientists believe the situation for insect populations is equally dire. The phrase ‘insectageddon’ has been coined to describe the collapse in arthropod numbers.

In addition, around 12 million hectares of agricultural land is being lost to soil degradation and desertification globally every year, that’s an area greater than the island of Ireland.

According to the WWF, the way we produce both food and energy as well as humanity’s blatant disregard for the environment entrenched in our current economic models, has, it warns, “pushed the natural world to its limits”.

Incontrovertible evidence

Late last year, the United Nations published a major global assessment report, which found that nature is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times more than the average over the last 10 million years.

As a result of the carnage, around one million species now face extinction, with almost unimaginable consequences for the web of life itself.  The report described the likely impacts on humanity as “ominous”. These include freshwater shortages and ever more extreme weather resulting from climate destabilisation.

Today, some 75 per cent of the land surface of the planet has been sequestered for human use and significantly altered from its natural state. Animal agricultureinvolves the feeding and slaughter of some 50 billion land animals a year and is among the major global drivers of deforestation, water and air pollution, biodiversity loss, freshwater depletion and marine dead zones. In fact, 70 per cent of all the birds in the world today are farmed chickens.

The widespread use of herbicides and pesticides in intensive agriculture has allowed for dramatic increases in food production but at the price of ecological devastation, including depleting key microbes and invertebrates in the soil as well as wiping out insects and birds.

Many of these novel chemicals also work their way into the human food chain, leading to a host of serious health issues.

The EU recently published strategies to promote biodiversity and to transform food production to make it work with, rather than against, nature. The WWF has strongly welcomed these moves, describing them as “potential game-changers”. It added that the EU’s global footprint, which it notes is “driving the destruction of forests, grasslands and other precious ecosystems outside of Europe”, needs to be reduced.

The EU’s so-called Farm to Fork strategy’s ambitious aims are to reduce dependency on pesticides and antimicrobials, reduce excess fertilisation, increase organic farming, improve animal welfare, and reverse biodiversity loss.

One key target is to increase the amount of EU land farmed organically to 25 per cent by 2030. Organic farming is crucial to the survival and well-being of wildlife, yet Ireland has among the very lowest amount of land in the entire EU(barely 2 per cent) farmed organically. Despite our carefully managed ‘green’ image, over 90 per cent of Ireland’s protected habitats are classified as being of “unfavourable conservation status”.

According to the National Biodiversity Centre, one-third of all Irish bee speciesmay be extinct by 2030, while 50 per cent of our freshwaters are polluted, leading to sharp declines in aquatic species.

Ireland’s biodiversity crisis

There is no mystery as to why Irish wildlife is now endangered like never before. It is due mainly to “the effect of monoculture and the drive to ever-higher levels of productivity characterised by a loss or neglect of hedgerows, farmland edges and scrub”, according to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NWPS).

The level of political contempt in Ireland for biodiversity and wildlife protection can be evidenced in the fact that the total annual NWPS budget is just €11 million, compared with state funding for the greyhound industry of €16 million a year and €64 million to the horse racing industry.

Whether we realise it or not, climate breakdown and biodiversity loss are two sides of the same blade that is now held to the throat of all life on Earth, including humans. What will it take to finally awaken us to take radical action?

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator who specialises in covering the climate and biodiversity emergency. He is a contributor to The Irish Times, The Business Post, The Guardian and DeSmog.uk and is a regular commentator on broadcast media. He blogs at Thinkorswim.ie and also runs the website Climatechange.ie and is on Twitter.

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Good grief: grappling with eco distress

The feature piece below appeared in this week’s Business Post Magazine, under the heading ‘Distress signals from Earth: the new condition of ‘eco-grief’. This is a subject that has long been close to my heart and no doubt for most people who have been paying attention to the parlous state of the biosphere and the relentless slide towards climate breakdown. Rather than just navel-gazing on the subject, I decided instead to draw on the thoughts of four interviewees, each with a unique perspective to share.

IN GREEK mythology, the Trojan princess, Cassandra was given the gift of prophesy by the gods, only to be cursed that she would never be believed. Today’s Cassandras are the scientists and activists who have been warning for decades that the Earth is hurtling headlong towards an ecological abyss. Yes, they were right; no, we haven’t listened.

The ever-intensifying drumbeat of relentless environmental collapse, from rapid ice melting, record-smashing wildfires and ongoing rainforest clearance to species extinctions and global plastic pollution is now also taking a heavy toll on our collective mental health.

A report in the medical journal, The Lancet in July quoted “empirical evidence showing that both the acute and chronic mental health effects of climate change have risen sharply in the last decade.” Among the commonly reported impacts were “post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, psychotic symptoms and suicidal ideation.”

Earlier this year, research commissioned by the BBC found that 73 per cent of young people aged 8-16 were worried about the state of the planet, while one in five reported having bad dreams about climate change. Tellingly, over 40 per cent of these youths say they do not trust adults to solve the climate crisis.

Among those working on the climate front line, the term ‘ecological grief’ has been coined to describe widespread anxiety, sadness, depression and suffering experienced by those witnessing at first hand the collapse of ecosystems as well as people directly impacted by extreme weather events.

And while Ireland may to the untrained eye seem like a green oasis of biodiversity, far removed from the burning forests and parched wastelands, Pádraic Fogarty, ecologist with the Irish Wildlife Trust, knows that looks can be deceiving. “When you’re working in this area, you have the burden of knowledge, you’re tuned in to all the things that are happening; it weighs down on you because the destruction is absolutely relentless.”

The overwhelming feeling for those working in the environmental sector is, he adds, the sense that time is running out. “It’s not just grief for loss that’s in the past, but things that are being lost, the frustration and the anger that comes with the inability to do anything about it.”

For Fogarty, author of the critically acclaimed book, ‘Whittled Away’, which details the sharp decline in Irish ecological well-being in recent decades, simply driving through the countryside can be painful. “When you know what to look for, you can see the wounds on the landscape, you can see it has been subject to assault.” The extinction crisis is, he notes, largely invisible. It’s happening right before our eyes but almost no one is paying attention.

“People I know who are working full time in this area, while it might be an exaggeration to say that they’re damaged, they certainly don’t jump out of bed in the morning,” Fogarty adds. “It’s a depressing job to be in.”

The term psychologist, Prof John Sharry uses to describe this phenomenon is ‘eco distress’. This includes grief for what has already been lost and also acute anxiety about the future, which can manifest itself in sleeplessness and a constant sense of dread and unease. “It’s important not to put this in a box as health professionals or to view it as some sort of pathological reaction to the world,” says Sharry.

“Anxiety is a very understandable and real emotion in the face of danger and we are in fact in a genuinely dangerous and perilous situation so it’s what you would expect humans to be feeling if they’re truly tuned to what’s happening”.

If you are experiencing these feelings, Sharry suggests the first step is to realise you are not alone. “It’s important to acknowledge that what you are going through is a normal and understandable set of feelings, given the situation”. He advises reaching out for support, including talking to people who are experiencing similar distress and going online to find support groups.

“The other stage of coping is doing something about it. Action helps a lot,” he adds. “For some, that might mean deciding to campaign to tackle climate change, for others, it’s about taking action to build resilience or build community.” Many people simply find solace in connecting or reconnecting with the natural world.

“The silver lining, if you like, of eco grief is that for many people it makes them more sensitive, more tuned in and more appreciative of the life they have right now, and to savour their relationships with their children and friends.” Realising how fragile and precious our lives really are “leads many people to live their lives more meaningfully,” Sharry adds.

Writing these words in a garden on a beautiful late summer afternoon, watching the bumble bees busily grazing the lavender and with birdsong in the air, amid this beguiling normality it’s hard to even begin to grasp the unfolding crisis, let alone that we may teetering on the edge of collapse. Yet here we are.

As a journalist and a parent, I have lived for almost two decades in the dark shadow of ecological tragedy. Some days, it feels like you’re falling, helpless, out of control. Other days, anger, but mostly, a sickening low-level sense of dread and foreboding that never fully abates.

David Wallace-Wells, deputy editor of New York magazine admits to having no particular interest in nature or wildlife, but researching and writing his harrowing non-fiction bestseller, ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ caused his comfortable world-view to come crashing down. It is, he says, “impossible to even consider our likely future without recoiling in horror and grief.”

Now in his mid-40s, he acknowledges that: “the world that I was born into, is already gone. The world I’m living in today will be gone soon, and that evolution is going to produce much more suffering than anyone ever would have found acceptable.”

His awakening to the reality of the climate crisis came in what he recalls as a panic attack. In late 2016, Wallace-Wells lost his father; shortly afterwards, Trump was elected. “My worldview was somewhat destabilised as a result, and then I read about some really unusual Arctic temperatures that were 40 degrees warmer than expected”. So began his ongoing journey of ecological awakening.

Despite everything, Wallace-Wells remains surprisingly upbeat. “One of the reasons I’ve been able to work in this material is that as a journalist, I keep a kind of a distance from it. I often joke it’s as if all journalists are somewhat sociopathic in their ability to regard stories as just stories.” He does find being able to use his public platform to draw attention to the climate crisis “a unique privilege of being a journalist…when I’m feeling especially distressed about the future of the planet, I tend to think about what I can do.”

For Dr Ailise Bulfin, coming to terms with ecological loss involves “a strange combination of nihilism plus activism; feeling complete and utter hopelessness but still doing something about it.” Bulfin, a literary and culture scholar at UCD finds that, for her, “sometimes it bizarrely works to consume really gloomy, apocalyptic fiction.”

A common theme in post-apocalyptic fiction is exploring the recovery of nature after humanity disappears. However, Bulfin prefers fiction that explores possible futures other than the Mad Max variety. “Dystopia is nearly pornographic at this stage; we talk about climate porn or disaster porn, where it’s all about re-doing the tropes, going to extremes, so as soon as things get difficult, we’ll all turn into cannibals.”

However difficult the future, Bulfin feels we have to “keep on keeping on, for our own mental health; one of the things fiction can do is offer a deeper insight into your own condition and your understanding of reality by walking through it with you.”

Denial is a common human response to the prospect of climate and ecological breakdown. “Denial is a defence mechanism that works to reduce stress in the short term, but if your denial stops you doing anything about the problem, then it will eventually overwhelm you,” says John Sharry.

While stoic about his own mortality, Sharry admits to experiencing acute anxiety over the world his children will face. “I was recently planting a tree with my son, he’s only 11, and I explained we were planting it for future generations, and he replied that he didn’t think there will be a future generation, with climate change – that was a very moving encounter with him.”

For Sharry, public reaction to the Covid crisis has given him a glimmer of optimism. Overall, he reckons, people have responded remarkably well. “Rather than looting and smashing up shops, we’ve mostly looked after one another. We’re kind as well.”

Pádraic Fogarty’s 13-year old daughter has shamed him into becoming a vegetarian. “Her generation are acutely aware of the climate crisis…I don’t like thinking about what the world’s going to be like in 30 years”, he says. “This burden is too great for any one person to bear; connecting with other people who feel the same way is in itself a remedy. I think it’s true that through action comes hope.”

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Can the farmer and the environmentalist really be friends?

The piece below ran in the Farming Independent in early September. It started out life as a rebuttal of a recent piece by a Findo columnist and dairy farmer, which did a lot of indignant huffing and puffing about an An Taisce press release highlighting escalating levels of dangerous ammonia air pollution as a result of Irish dairy herd expansion and intensification. I opted instead to pitch a (short) piece to the regular farmers out there, many of whom no doubt do genuinely care about pollution, climate change, sustainability and the collapse of biodiversity, and who must wonder why those claiming to speak for farmers so often carry on as if nature were the enemy, rather than the most vital ally of farming. 

A LINE IN THE musical Oklahoma! posed the thorny question: could the farmer and the cow-man ever get along? ‘One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow, but that’s no reason why they can’t be friends’.

These days, you could ask the same question about farmers and environmentalists. Behind the constant sniping, I believe we all want the same thing: a thriving, sustainable agri sector, where farmers get a fair price for healthy, low carbon produce and where nature also wins.

Can we also agree it’s not ok for billionaire agri food and meat conglomerates to destroy the living planet for so-called cheap food.

As a farmer’s son, it was drilled into me from an early age that it’s us farmers against the world. That was then. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, nobody imagined the climate system itself could one day fail, and that Irish farmers might be helping drive this disaster.

While I truly wish it weren’t the case, climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse are now almost upon us. On current emissions trajectory, up to three billion humans may be forced to abandon their homelands due to extreme heat by 2070. Where will all these people go?

This is the terrifying near-future our kids and grandkids will inherit. Like it or not, how we farm in Ireland is a part of the problem.

Our oversized beef and dairy sectors produce as much emissions as 20 million Africans. As for ‘Origin Green’, that’s pure marketing guff; there is nothing magically efficient or clean about Irish agriculture.

Nor is it just greenhouse gases. Huge increases in fertilizer usage in the last decade have seen emissions rise, and Irish water and air quality plummet. And, rather than feeding the world, Ireland is a major net importer of food calories, according to the UN FAO.

We import huge amounts of essential foods, such as potatoes, onions, carrots, cabbages, tomatoes and apples. We also import millions of tonnes of animal feeds and chemical fertilizers, and much of the grain we do grow is fed to animals.

As in our past, what will matter most in the future is having enough food to fill our bellies. After all, the ultimate purpose of agriculture was always to feed people, not farm animals.

As the insects and birds disappear, rivers die, icecaps melt and our seas are choked in plastic, so the ecological crisis deepens every day. By dint of the land they occupy, farmers have a massive influence on the natural world, for good or for ill.

So, can the farmer and the environmentalist be friends? I’d like to think so. It starts with mutual understanding – and respect. Environmentalists need to better grasp the challenges farmers face and to be strong champions for diverse, locally produced, organic food.

And crucially, farmers increasingly recognise that the last decade’s strategy of agri-intensification benefits big businesses but at a terrible price to nature and climate, and to many farm livelihoods. We can and we must do better. Let’s do it together.

John Gibbons is volunteer PRO for An Taisce’s Climate Committee and writes here in a personal capacity.

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

Overshooting ourselves in both feet

How much money have you got in your current account? What about your savings? Imagine if by now, you had already spent all your income for 2020, and you were forced to live on borrowings for the next four months.

Now, imagine if that was happening year after year. Pretty soon, the debt would be crushing and, barring a Lottery win, you would be pushed into bankruptcy and ruin. This, in a nutshell, is what is happening to our planet right now.

Today, August 22, is Earth Overshoot Day, the date by which scientists calculate that humanity has used up “all the biological resources that Earth can renew during the entire year”. In fact, it is calculated that the last time humanity was living within its ecological means was half a century ago, in 1970.

Since then, our ecological debt has been growing, year by year. What does this debt look like, and who is paying the price? Since 1970, half the world’s natural forests have been either destroyed or depleted, according to the World Wilderness Fund.

In the same period, the world’s seas and oceans have been over-fished and become choked with pollution, with over 8 million tonnes of plastics a years ending up in the sea. Worse, as plastics deteriorate in sea water, they fragment into trillions of microscopic particles, which now contaminate the bodies of almost every living creature in the global marine food chain. A recent study of sea water in the Atlantic found that every cubic meter contained some 7,000 particles of plastics.

The situation on land is no better. Since 1970, it is estimated that two thirds of the world’s wild animals have disappeared. The situation is equally grim for birds, freshwater fish and even insects. The term ‘insectageddon’has been coined to describe the unprecedented global collapse of arthropod numbers after decades of pesticide over-use .

These are just some of the very real, measurable consequences of one species overwhelming and sequestering the resources of the living world to convert them into food, consumer products and all the technological marvels of the modern era. In what is essentially a zero-sum game, as humanity’s numbers and resource consumption continue to accelerate, it involves burning down and polluting the world upon which we also depend.

As a short-term strategy, this has worked remarkably well for humanity, but in the medium to longer term, it is a sure-fire loser.

The Coronavirus pandemic has had dramatic impacts across the world, almost all negative. However, the global shutdown is estimated to have reduced our collective ecological impact by 9.3 per cent, according to the Global Footprint Network. In 2019, Earth Overshoot Day took place some three weeks earlier, in late July.

It is of course of scant consolation that it has taken a catastrophic pandemic to deliver the ecological benefits that government policies and high-minded international agreements have patently failed to achieve.

When it comes to using more than our fair share, some countries are far guiltier than others. The United States this year reached its Overshoot Day on March 16, while Ireland used up its share of the world’s renewable resources by April 26 last.

One country that is now close to living within its biological limits is Scotland, which, in stark contrast to Ireland, has been serious about decarbonising its economy, while promoting policies such as peatland restoration and afforestation that have markedly improved its biocapacity.

On a global level, learning to live within the finite resources available on a single planet will require fundamental changes in how we in the ‘western’ world live, what we eat, our energy sources, transport systems and our overall numbers.

Today, food systems use up at least half of the entire biocapacity of the planet. Feeding a human population of nearly eight billion would not necessarily overwhelm the natural world, if we were primarily eating plants and vegetables. However, we raise and slaughter 50 billion chickens, 1.5 billion cattle, 500 million sheep, 1.5 billion pigs and over a billion goats a year.

Each of these animals in turn requires feeding, and providing food and pasture for animal-based agriculture is the number one cause of deforestation in the world. Animal agriculture requires large amounts of artificial fertilisers and produces epic quantities of wastes, which in turn lead to widespread water and air pollution. In Ireland alone, our farmed animals produce over 40 million tonnes of slurry a year, that’s the equivalent of eight tonnes for every man, woman and child in the country.

The influential EAT-Lancet Commission on food and planetary health last year recommended a global reduction of around 90 per cent in the amount of meat being consumed, both for human health benefits and also to ease pressure on the natural world and curb forest destruction.

Similar cuts in aviation are also needed, while globally the transport and energy sectors have to rapidly move away from burning fossil fuels in order to avoid crossing thresholds into dangerous and irreversible climate change. In practical terms, this means a massive ramping up and rolling out of renewable energy, to power an electrified transport sector.

The 10 hottest years on record globally have all occurred since 2005, while 2020 is so far the second hottest year ever recorded. Ominously, a study published in May projected that if emissions continue on their present course, areas of the world currently home to between one and three billion people will become too hot to inhabit. This means a humanitarian and refugee crisis on a simply unimaginable scale.

You can calculate your own personal ecological footprint here. While the choices we make really do count, the most effective thing we as individuals can do is to lobby our politicians demanding they support strong action on climate on biodiversity, and to boycott firms and organisations actively contributing to this global catastrophe.

US author and environmentalist, Paul Hawken explained ecological overshoot concisely when he wrote: ‘We are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GPD’.

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

SUV fad puts us into fast lane towards climate breakdown

I’ll admit to having never been a big fan of SUVs. It’s fine if you’re one of a tiny handful of people who actually need a 4×4 in your trade, but there seems little reason for regular folk to be driving around in these hulking great gas guzzlers on the commute or school run. And, as the piece below explores, the climate is paying an especially heavy price for this, at the very moment we’re supposed to be slashing emissions across all sectors globally. This was the theme for my second piece for the Business Post, which appeared in early August.

AMID ALL the recent brouhaha about electric cars, hybrids and fuel efficiency, you could be forgiven for thinking the global transport sector was among the shining stars of the new low-carbon economy.

Looks can, however, be deceiving. Behind the hype, one ugly fact emerges: vehicular emissions are in fact spiralling globally, and the chief culprit is the sports utility vehicle, or SUV.

Since 2010, booming demand for SUVs worldwide has seen their market share more than double, to 39%. According to analysis by the International Energy Agency, fast-growing demand for SUVs in this period was the second largest contributor to increases in global greenhouse gas emissions.

This was borne out by the European Environment Agency’s report on CO2 emissions from cars and vans for 2019, which noted that average emissions for new cars in Europe have risen for the last three straight years.

All the motor industry’s gains in fuel efficiency over the last two decades have been wiped out by the rise of larger, heavier SUVs, which now contribute over 700 million tonnes of emissions a year. Put in context, this is almost as much as the pollution from the entire global aviation industry. Were SUV drivers a country, they would be the seventh most polluting nation on Earth.

A report published by UK think tank, the New Weather Institute last month called for a ban on all media advertising of larger and more polluting SUVs, arguing that this was essential in order for Britain to meet its international climate obligations. The report noted that some 150,000 SUVs sold in the UK in 2019 were more than 4.8 metres long, meaning they don’t fit into a standard parking bay.

Using the analogy of banning tobacco advertising, the Institute’s report argued that while ‘SUVs are marketed as providing protection for drivers, their physical size, weight and pollution levels create a more dangerous and toxic urban environment for both drivers and pedestrians’.

Arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, pressure is growing around the world, including Ireland, to limit vehicular access to city centres to make more room both for pedestrians and for restaurants, cafés etc. to use outdoor seating areas. Logically, the larger the vehicle, the less suitable it is for our typically narrow city centre streets, which were built long before the advent of two-and-a-half tonne Range Rovers.

Apart from congestion, heavy traffic brings air pollution into densely populated areas. As a measure to tackle severe pollution, mainly from diesel engines, central London has introduced Ultra Low Emissions Zones(ULEZs). While electric vehicles are exempt, most cars, motorcycles and vans are charged £12.50 to enter an ULEZ.

The dangers don’t end with pollution. A study published in the US in June found that while 54 per cent of pedestrians struck by a car travelling at 64km/hr or more died, the mortality rate rose to 100 per cent for those struck by SUVs at similar speeds. The high fronts and rears on typical SUVs mean reduced visibility for drivers. This also leads to a greater risk of small children in particular being crushed in car parks and driveways.

In physics, momentum is calculated as mass multiplied by velocity. In a typical collision, that explains why SUVs do so much more damage than regular cars. Larger commercial vehicles are often speed-limited for this reason, but, so far, SUVs have escaped such regulation.

Innovations such as electronic pedestrian detection systems are being trialled in a bid to mitigate the danger, but a major downside of such systems is that they may actually lull drivers into paying even less attention to the road.

Driving an SUV may in itself alter driver behaviour. A study by Monash University in Australia found that drivers of large SUVs had the highest ‘aggressivity rating’ of any road user. The study concluded that ‘while not improving crashworthiness overall, SUVs put other road users at a higher risk of severe injury’.

In 2008, Ireland switched its VRT and motor tax system from being based on engine size to carbon emissions. However, as emissions were calculated on the misleading NECP standard, an Oireachtas analysis found there was a loss to the Revenue of €1.7 billion from 2008-2018 with only limited emissions savings, which are now being wiped out by the proliferation of SUVs.

That standard has been scrapped in favour of the more realistic WLTP benchmark, but the Revenue have yet to implement the new system, which industry sources believe could see new car prices rise by €2,500 as well as big increases in motor tax based on the more stringent WLTP standards. Given the motor trade is enduring a torrid 2020, it’s unlikely the axe will fall in the immediate future.

As the climate crisis deepens, this is the worst possible time for a ruinous global infatuation with SUVs.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
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Ecocide: the greatest crime against humanity and nature

It is extraordinary that ecocide is not formally recognised and codified as a crime under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. There are surely few greater crimes than the deliberate destruction of entire ecosystems, in many cases leading directly to species being driven to extinction. In the frequently blood-soaked annals of human history, deliberate wide scale ecological destruction will I suspect stand out as among our most egregious and unforgivable failings. My deep dive into the topic was published in the Irish Times in mid-July.

THE YEAR is 2035; location is The Hague in Holland. Disgraced former Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro (80) is scheduled to appear before the International Criminal Court (ICC), charged with multiple counts of the crime of ecocide for his role decades earlier in setting in train the final destruction of the once-mighty Amazon rainforest.

The impacts of this devastating event have been felt across the world. According to ICC prosecutors, Bolsonaro acted knowingly and recklessly to accelerate clearance of the rainforest, with flagrant disregard for the impacts either on the regional habitat, the indigenous forest populations or the wider planetary implications of his actions. He denies all charges.

The above scenario is fictitious, for now. Today, ecocide – defined as the deliberate systematic destruction of ecosystems – is currently not treated in international law as a specific crime.

However, the recently convened French citizens’ assembly on climate recommended overwhelmingly that the new crime of ecocide be introduced, and president Emmanuel Macron has promised a referendum on the issue. Specifically referencing the Amazon, Macron noted: “the mother of all battles is international…to ensure that this term is enshrined in international law so that leaders are accountable before the ICC.”

While human destruction of ecosystems has occurred for centuries, impacts are now accelerating and are increasingly global in nature. The term ‘ecocide’ was coined to describe the devastating effects of the toxic herbicide known as Agent Orange during the Vietnam war, when US forces sprayed around 75 million litres. This caused the destruction and contamination of over three million hectares of forests, or nearly a fifth of Vietnam’s total forested area, as well as severely impacting human and wildlife populations in the region.

The backlash against the massive environmental damage resulting from this form of chemical warfare led to a draft Ecocide Convention being submitted to the United Nations (UN) in 1973, with a view to it being recognised as an international crime as part of the ‘draft code of crimes against the peace and security of mankind.’ The UN went on to ratify the Environmental Modification Convention in 1977, which aimed at limiting the use of deliberate environmental destruction as a tool of war.

However, by the time the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in The Hague in 1998, the crime of ecocide had disappeared from the so-called Rome Statute, which created the four key offenses over which the ICC has international jurisdiction: crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and crimes of aggression against states or regions.

The effectiveness of such international criminal tribunals was demonstrated in the successful prosecution of senior figures, including former Serbian military commander, Ratko Mladić and president Radovan Karadžić who were convicted at The Hague for crimes against humanity during the Bosnian War.

In Ireland, eco artist Dr Cathy Fitzgerald has been lobbying for the recognition of ecocide as a crime against humanity. In 2013, her motion on ecocide to the Green Party AGM was passed unanimously. Her passion on this subject is deeply personal, as her late father, Kevin, died aged 58 as a result of severe melanomas which he believed were due to his exposure to Agent Orange when serving as an engineer with the New Zealand military in Vietnam.

“An international law against ecocide is now inevitable if we want to maintain a liveable planet,” Dr Fitzgerald said. “There is also an urgency to address the ecological catastrophe as the Covid-19 pandemic confirms that politics-as-usual is failing to halt our assault on the natural world and the very foundations of life.”.

Minister for State for Heritage, Malcolm Noonan told me: “While there are no plans for a referendum on ecocide in the Programme for Government, such an initiative could be discussed and debated in the Citizens Assembly due to be established soon.” There is precedent. The RTÉ Youth Assembly on Climate recommended last year that Ireland move to outlaw ‘acts of ecocide’.

Dr Andrew Jackson of the UCD School of Law points out that Ireland already has lots of laws in place protecting wildlife, while he describes the Habitats Directive as “among the most powerful instruments of EU environmental law.”

Where things fall down, he adds, is on enforcement at the national level. “Wildlife crimes do not seem to be pursued with the same vigour as crimes against the person or property, while the penalties that are handed down don’t tend to reflect the scale or seriousness of the damage.”

Jackson cites the EU’s Environmental Liability Directive. This was transposed into Irish law in 2008 and since then many incidents have been reported to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, according to a European Commission report in 2019, just three cases of environmental damage have been treated by the EPA as falling within the scope of the Directive, and all were “addressed under other legislation.”

“There seems to be almost an aversion to pursuing operators using the environmental liability regime, and requiring them to remediate,” comments Dr Jackson. In stark contrast to this, he notes that what is striking about the French proposals on ecocide is just how seriously these crimes would be treated. Offenders on the upper end of the scale face 20 years in prison.

In the case of ecocide carried out by a corporation, such as an energy or mining company, apart from seeking to imprison senior executives, fines could be potentially linked to turnover.

The purpose of such sanctions, Dr Jackson adds, is “to have a dissuasive effect; you don’t want to be imprisoning people, but it has to be at a level where, say, you are the director of a company and realise I’ll have to be really careful how I operate my company because I could find myself in prison.”

An important aspect of the French proposals is that they are explicitly linked to the principle of there being nine planetary boundaries that must not be breached. These include biodiversity loss and extinctions, ozone depletion, climate change, land use, nitrogen and phosphorus flows, freshwater, ocean acidification and chemical pollution.

Several of these have clear application in Ireland. According to Dr Fitzgerald, who has been involved in campaigning for continuous cover forestry, “I would see monoculture and bog destruction as forms of ecocide.”

Last November, Pope Francis proposed that “sins against ecology” be added to the formal teachings of the Catholic Church. Explicitly endorsing the notion that ecocide be treated as the most serious of crimes, the pope added: “This is a fifth category of crimes against peace, which should be recognised as such by the international community.”

The first global assessment of the state of environmental law was published last year by the UN Environment Programme. It found that most of the environmental agreements developed over the last five decades are simply not being enforced. With all life on Earth now directly threatened by climate breakdown, pollution, resource depletion and biodiversity collapse, ecocide must at last be recognised as the gravest of all crimes against humanity and nature.

If ecocide is finally given the legal status it so urgently needs, much of the credit must go to Polly Higgins, a Scottish barrister who spearheaded a vigorous decade-long campaign to have ecocide recognised as a crime against humanity.

Higgins, who died last year aged just 50, explained her epiphany, which occurred one day in court in 2005 while awaiting a judgment in a workplace injury case. “I looked out the window and thought: ‘the Earth has also been badly injured and harmed’. My next thought actually changed my life: the Earth needs a good lawyer too.”

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Sustainability | 1 Comment

Sweden points way towards a lower carbon future

My debut contribution to The Business Post was published in early July on the paper’s Comment page. In the last year or two the Business Post has significantly upped its coverage and focus on environmental topics (reporter, Daniel Murray did an excellent  podcast series, Five Degrees, with yours truly among the interviewees last year). Right now, many would rate the Post as the best of all our national papers on this crunch topic.

GIVEN A CHOICE, would you prefer to live in a wealthy, high-emissions country or in one with low-emissions because it is poor? This is the false binary activists are often confronted with when serious climate action is being contemplated.

You will hear much about the ‘carnage and human misery’ that would inevitably ensue were green policies to ever be implemented in Ireland. This reflects a narrative that runs something like this: yes, while of course we’d love to take action on climate, we would really prefer to remain well off, so no thanks’.

And while in Ireland, emissions have indeed spiralled in lock-step with our growing prosperity and consumption, this is not as inevitable as it might sound.

Consider Sweden, a prosperous modern democracy that regularly features in the top 10 of the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness rankings. Sweden provides universal access to a single-payer healthcare system, free university tuition, 38 days’ holidays for all workers, high quality day-care and pre-schools for children and an ultra-generous 18 months’ paid parental leave.

Like most other countries, Sweden’s carbon emissions rose sharply as its economy expanded and living standards increased, but here’s where the story changes dramatically. As a result of the oil shocks in the early to mid-1970s, Sweden began the politically-led process of decoupling emissions from growth. Today, some 80% of its total electricity production comes from hydropower and nuclear energy, with another 12% from its fast-expanding wind sector.

Key to accelerating the decoupling was the introduction in 1991 of the world’s first carbon tax, levied initially at the rate of €23 a tonne. Since then, it has been steadily ratcheted up to its current level of around €110 a tonne, the highest level in the world. In contrast, Ireland’s carbon tax only reached €26 this year, though this is slated in the new Programme for Government to rise to €100 by 2030.

High carbon taxes led to residential and commercial energy use in Sweden becoming almost completely carbon-neutral, with district heating, biofuels and combustion rather than landfilling of non-recyclable rubbish, plus heat pumps. In stark contrast, the residential sector in Ireland accounts for around a quarter of total energy usage in Ireland, most of which is imported fossil fuels.

In 1970, Sweden’s per capita carbon emissions were 11.5 tons. Today, while gross national income has doubled in the intervening decades, emissions per capita have fallen to under 4.5 tonnes, or less than half of the average Irish person, despite Sweden having a colder climate. The country has also set itself the target of net zero emissions by 2045 ‘at the latest’.

“Sweden can develop a vision for transition to sustainable welfare, where we put down goals of being the world’s first fossil-free nation. We can show the world that you can build a modern welfare state within nature’s limits”, according to Professor Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

One of the most dramatic effects of a consistently high carbon tax in Sweden over three decades has been the behavioural changes it has fostered. For instance, in 1975, the average Swede sent nearly 200kg to landfill. Today, a negligible 3kg per person ends up in landfill.

Another league table that Sweden heads is the Global Sustainable Competitiveness Index (GSCI), which tallies natural capital, governance, resource efficiency, as well as social and intellectual capital (Ireland ranks 14th and the US 34th on this Index).

Their respective capital cities tell sharply different stories. While Dublin is ranked as Europe’s sixth most congested city, with drivers spending almost 250 hours a year travelling at less than 10km/hr, in contrast, in Stockholm, whose population is just under a million, some 850,000 people use public transport every day. Its entire underground system runs on green electricity and since 2017, all buses run on renewable fuels and tram routes have been extended.

Another major difference between Sweden and Ireland is in domestic energy efficiency. Many Swedish homes, including high-rise apartments, are built to ‘passive house’ standard, which effectively eliminates the need for any heating system whatever.

The small Swedish city of Växjö may be a model for how Ireland could begin to achieve the average 7% emissions reductions mandated under the Programme for Government. The city, population 61,000, has installed 150km of dedicated bicycle paths, while its bus fleet runs on biogas recovered from sewage and many of the city’s houses and apartments are built to passive house standard. These combined measures have seen Växjö’s emissions fall by over 40% in the last two decades.

While Sweden may light the way to a low emissions future for chronic climate laggards like Ireland, the country itself is no Utopia, especially in its dubious use of biomass as ‘clean’ energy. And Research published by Prof Kevin Anderson found that even ‘climate progressives’ like Sweden still are not doing enough to avoid dangerous climate change.

Perhaps the most crucial element in a county cutting emissions is public awareness. Since 1969, basic environmental literacy, from ecology to conservation, has been integrated into Swedish education, giving rise to generations of environmentally conscious citizens.

It is no accident that the world’s most famous young climate activist, Greta Thunberg, is a Swede.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism (2020)

 

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Better late than never for Irish political action on climate

My take on the Programme for Government and why I think it represents a real opportunity to break the decade-plus logjam on meaningful climate action was published in late June on Thejournal.ie 

THE BATTLE FOR the hearts and votes of ordinary members of the prospective coalition parties is underway in earnest. Without this endorsement, the historic political trinity of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party can’t happen.

The main focus to date has been on the Green Party, which has been openly divided throughout the negotiation process, and whose parliamentary party patched up an uneasy truce in endorsing the new Programme for Government with some abstentions.

Prominent climate activists have been speaking both for and against the programme, including Extinction Rebellion Ireland (XR) which described the deal as ‘a textbook example of spin, jam-packed with fluffy aspirations’.

However, XR member, Paul McCormack Cooney took a more nuanced view. “There is plenty in the programme to be hopeful about, but the language is vague where we need commitments the most. As far as XR goes, it simply isn’t good enough to deal with the climate emergency, and the threat of austerity remains a very real concern”, he told me.

Why the unease?

Much of the unease centres around the fact that the commitment to 7% ‘average annual emissions cuts’ in the programme appears to be back-loaded into the second half of the 2020s, leading to anxiety that this may simply be cover for more of the kind of foot-dragging that has dogged climate action in Ireland since 2011.

While widely presented as a ‘Green Party demand’, the target of cutting greenhouse gases by 7% a year was in fact signed up to by the Fine Gael-led government which endorsed the Paris Agreement on climate change in December 2015.

The fact that no progress towards emissions cuts has been made in the five years since then is wholly down to the political failure to act in line with the science. And, like tackling a fire, the longer you delay taking action, the worse the inferno becomes.

While public attention in Ireland has in recent months been understandably captured by the coronavirus lockdown, in the real world the climate system is showing ever more ominous signs of destabilisation.

For instance, while Irish agriculture has endured near-drought conditions since early Spring, last month was the hottest May globally since instrumental records began. And the first five months of 2020 are also the hottest ever recorded.

Meanwhile, in the first week of this month, temperatures in parts of Siberia well inside the Arctic Circle breached 30ºC. And, while there has been much media focus on air pollution falling as a result of the coronavirus lockdown, last month also saw global levels of the powerful heat-trapping gas, carbon dioxide (CO2) hit 417 parts per million, the highest level in at least the last three million years.

‘Insufferable heat’

Separately, a recent research paper made the shattering projection that, for every degree centigrade the Earth’s average temperature increases this century, around one billion people will endure ‘insufferable heat’, with crops unable to grow and animals also dying in these extreme conditions.

Based on our current level of emissions, scientists estimate that some three billion humans will be forced to abandon their homes and lands in the next 50 years as living conditions become impossible.

Apart from this human disaster on an unimaginable scale, the geopolitical consequences are stark, especially when borne in mind how the European Union was thrown into deep crisis a few years ago as a result of the influx of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war.

Since tackling the climate emergency is the most urgent challenge, by this measure, the programme for government, for all its imperfections, is by far the best step forward in at least a decade.

The aim is to reduce Ireland’s total emissions by around 50% by 2030, a highly ambitious objective for a country which even Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had to admit was a “laggard” on climate action. Debate continues as to how exactly this goal will be achieved, but the mechanisms being put in place, including five-yearly carbon budgets and a tough new Climate Action Bill, suggest this is not just another false dawn.

Vital changes

Delivering change on this scale requires big actions, and the boldest of these is the plan to retrofit half a million Irish homes to minimum B2 standard by 2030. This is likely to cost around €25 billion over 10 years. This sounds massive until you consider that over the last decade, Ireland spent around €57 billion on climate-damaging imported fossil fuels.

A national retrofit plan will bring employment to every town and county in Ireland, providing a vital post-Covid financial pick-me-up. The bonus for householders is that big savings on fuel bills should make warmer, safer homes self-financing over time.

Equally bold is the plan to have the national grid at least 70% powered by renewables this decade. This includes adding 5GW of new offshore wind farms and interconnectors to France. It is no pipe dream to say that, with political will and vision, Ireland could have electrified our transport and heating systems and by the mid-2030s be a major net energy exporter.

This should mean billions of euros flooding into our economy annually from clean energy exports capable of supplying 5% of Europe’s total electricity needs since Europe’s highest average wind speeds are located off our western coastline. What won’t feature off Ireland’s coasts are new oil or gas drilling projects, with licensing being stopped and a ban on fracked imported gas also being enacted. These are really huge environmental success stories.

The programme’s commitment to at least 20% of transport funding for cycling and walking is another decisive shift. This guarantees €360 a year for a Cinderella sector that has languished as billions were poured into motorway projects in recent decades.

The largely car-free lockdown has underlined a latent public appetite for cycling, but it has to be safe, meaningfully protected and integrated cycleways, not helmets and hi-vis jackets.

On the downside, the programme has failed to tackle agricultural emissions, almost all of which are generated by beef and dairy production, accounting for a third of total national emissions, and these have actually risen by 8% since 2015. The sector plans to use its political clout to duck doing its fair share this decade as well.

The irony here is that agriculture is highly vulnerable to climate-driven weather extremes, particularly droughts and flooding.

The best time to have gotten serious about climate action was 20 years ago. The second best time is right now. Let’s go.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator who specialises in covering the climate and biodiversity emergency. He is a contributor to The Irish Times, The Guardian and DeSmog.uk and is a regular guest environmental commentator on broadcast media. He blogs at Thinkorswim.ie and also runs the website Climatechange.ie and is on Twitter: @think_or_swim.

Posted in Agriculture, Arctic, Energy, Irish Focus | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Ambitious climate programme agreed by Irish political parties

My analysis piece for DeSmog UK was published on June 17th, as the parties concluded negotiations on a new Programme for Government. Ironically, while receiving much positive coverage internationally in terms of the degree to which the PFG is seen as progressive, even ambitious, on climate action, the reaction among many on the political and environmental left in Ireland has been altogether more muted. Time will tell as to who called this one correctly.

IRELAND’S three prospective coalition partners have just agreed the strongest commitments to climate and environmental action in over a decade.

The newly published Programme for Government, agreed after weeks of negotiations between the centrist Fianna Fáil, centre-right Fine Gael, and Green parties, is “the most progressive programme for government from a climate point of view that we’ve seen,” according to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) contributor and former An Taisce President, Professor John Sweeney.

The programme now has to be ratified by the membership of each of the parties, a process likely to take upwards of a week.

While the Green Party, with just 12 out of 84 seats in the coalition, is the junior partner, it is widely seen as the winner in terms of having much of its policy agenda inserted into the programme.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have never been in coalition before, and have been bitter political rivals since the civil war almost a century ago. Fianna Fáil is viewed as populist and pragmatic on environmental issues, but Fine Gael has been the lead party in government for the last nine years and is widely recognised to have a poor record on green issues.

While Fianna Fáil are anxious to return to power after nine years, it is less certain that Fine Gael members will support coalition proposals. And within the Green Party, despite its recent electoral resurrection, where it went from two to 12 MPs, there are deep divisions over going into government.

Leader, Eamon Ryan and deputy leader Catherine Martin have been at odds on this issue, with Martin notably unenthusiastic about entering government. This view is shared by many especially younger and arguably more radical members. Three members of its parliamentary party this week abstained when the deal was voted on. It will require the approval of two thirds majority of its wider membership to enter government, and that remains in question.

Climate commitments

The Green Party’s key demand, that Ireland commits to seven percent average annual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions throughout the 2020s, is now part of the programme. This should lead to a 51 percent total emissions cut by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050.

Ireland is also planning to scrap its existing Climate Change Advisory Council, a body dominated by economists which has been seen as conservative and largely ineffective. It is to be replaced with a newly formed Climate Action Council (CAC) with executive rather than just advisory functions. The incoming government also promises to enact a Climate Action Bill within its first 100 days.

The programme also undertakes to “work with the European Commission to advance a stronger National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP) for 2030”.

The Bill will define how five-year carbon budgets are to be set and managed. The programme is notably vague on what emissions cuts will be achieved in the term of the incoming government, however. It states that “many of the changes started in the first carbon budget period (2021-2025) will only lead to reductions in the second carbon budget period”.

Sweeney warned that “backloading of the seven percent commitment to the second half of the decade is not good, and runs the risk of repeating the experience of the past, when aspirations and commitments were not realised”.

His concerns are echoed by Social Democrat member of the Irish parliament, Holly Cairns, who told DeSmog that, “without timelines and a commitment that all sectors will work to reach this target, I have grave concerns about the seven percent annual emissions target being met”.

While the mechanisms by which Ireland can achieve a 50 percent emissions cut by 2030 are hotly debated, in contrast, in the period 2005-2019, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, it achieved “at best” around a one percent emissions cut in 15 years.

Energy and transport reforms

On energy, the programme commits to delivering at least 70 percent renewable electricity by 2030. Today, around one third of Ireland’s electricity is powered by onshore wind farms. In the near-term, the plan includes adding five gigawatts of offshore wind off the east coast, between Ireland and Wales.

However, the longer term plan envisages “at least 30 gigawatts of offshore floating wind power” in the deeper waters off Ireland’s Atlantic coast. If delivered, this would position Ireland as a significant net energy exporter for the first time in its history. A €1 billion, 500 megawatt, interconnector direct to France and bypassing the UK, spurred on in part by Brexit-related concerns, is due to be operational by 2026.

While wind power has already achieved significant inroads in Ireland, solar is virtually non-existent, unlike in the UK, where over 13 gigawatts of installed capacity already exists. The programme promises to expand and incentivise micro-generation, including roof-top solar.

A key demand of the Green Party had been to end all new oil and gas exploration in Irish waters, and this has been achieved. In addition, and as recently reported by DeSmog, the proposed Shannon LNG terminal is to be withdrawn from the 2021 EU Projects of Common Interest list, meaning it has no chance of proceeding.

The programme also commits to a dramatic 10-fold increase in the national retrofitting programme, with the aim of completing 500,000 homes to a B2 energy rating this decade, which is around one in four of all Irish homes.

Another win for the Greens in the programme is a major shift in public funding on transport. For the first time, cycling and walking are to receive 20 percent of the total capital budget, which translates into a commitment of €360 million a year. This will fund upgraded and protected cycle lanes and improved pedestrian infrastructure.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, public transport capacity is severely restricted and there has been a major increase in cycling as traffic levels abated during lockdown. The programme gives the incoming government the opportunity to put in place a high-quality cycling infrastructure.

Stalling on agriculture

One crucial area where little substantive progress has been made is in tackling Ireland’s spiralling agriculture emissions, which have risen by eight percent since 2015, despite repeated claims about improved efficiency.

The rapid expansion of the dairy herd over the last five years has driven the increases, but the sector is profitable and politically powerful.

Most Irish beef farmers on the other hand are unable to make a living, and in the last two years, an additional €200 million in taxpayers’ money has been paid to prop up a loss-making sector, cash that might have been invested in supporting organic farming, which languishes at below two percent of farm land, among the very lowest in Europe.

Such reform has been stymied by the main farmers’ organisations, as they continue to lobby for the intensified commodity production model of high volume, high input beef and dairy output favoured by the agri-food corporations and meat factories.

One third of Ireland’s annual 60 million tonnes in carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions are accounted for by agriculture, with dairy and beef production producing over 92 percent of Ireland’s methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Ireland is responsible for more than three times the EU per capita average of these emissions.

The programme for government appears to fudge this issue, referring to “the distinct characteristics of biogenic methane as described by the IPCC”. The term “biogenic” is being used by lobbyists to imply that the IPCC is saying agricultural emissions are natural and therefore of little concern. The IPCC makes it clear that agricultural methane emissions are human-caused rather than natural and therefore require serious attention.

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

Long day’s journey into the ecological abyss

‘WE ARE ALIVE in a time of worst-case scenarios. The world we have inherited seems exhausted, destined for an absolute and final unravelling’. So begins Mark O’Connell’s journey into our ever-darkening future.

There are, he notes darkly, fascists in the streets and in the palaces, while around us ‘the weather has gone uncanny, volatile, malevolent’. The last remaining truth, O’Connell proposes, ‘is the supreme fiction of money, and we are up to our necks in a rising sludge of decomposing facts. For those who wish to read them, and for those who do not, the cryptic but insistent signs of apocalypse are all around’.

The faint splattering sound that reechoes throughout ‘Notes from an Apocalypse’ is that of the shit hitting the metaphorical fan.

‘Listen. Attune your ear to the general discord, and you will hear the cracking of the ice caps, the rising of the waters, the sinister whisper of the near future. Is it not a terrible time to be having children, and therefore, in the end, to be alive?’, O’Connell muses.

Familiar Journey

The journey is a familiar one, in every sense. My mind flows back to early 2003, my first-born still an infant then, her future an unknown country. Out of the fog of broken sleep and newfound joys and terrors, I began, for the first time in my adult life, to look into the future. Not days and weeks, but years and decades.

What I found staring back was every bit as chilling as O’Connell’s more recent epiphany, and it has, to a lesser or greater degree, haunted my waking hours every day since then. As he points out, once you’ve become a parent, ‘whether it happens by choice or by chance, is that it is one of only very few events in life that are entirely irreversible. Once you’re in, existentially speaking, you’re in’.

This being the case, the next question effectively writes itself: How are we supposed to live, ‘given the distinct possibility that our species, our civilization, might already be doomed?’ While he may have lost hope, O’Connell certainly hasn’t lost his dark sense of humour, describing the curious feeling of being sick to death of the end of days. ‘I’m sick, in particular, of climate change. Is it possible to be terrified and bored at the same time?’, he wonders aloud.

Back in the good old days of the Cold War, the spectre of global annihilation was never far away. And while the risks were all-too-real, in reality it was always a binary proposition: either we would have a total nuclear war or nothing at all would happen. And, with luck, cooler heads would prevail and catastrophe would be avoided.

O’Connell notes that we civilians were pleasantly blameless, either way, mere bystanders ‘whose role was limited to cowering in terror, maybe holding the occasional placard, partaking here and there in a chant if called upon to do so’. In classical eschatology, the apocalypse, whether religious or secular, would be delivered in a blinding thunderbolt, ‘a sudden intercession of divine or technological power’.

The very real doom that encircles us is altogether more banal, more insidious and one in which we are both helpless bystanders and active, albeit unwitting, participants. To be alive today, to live in a prosperous modern society is to be an integral part of the very linear system of consumption, expansion and disposal that is fast destroying the natural world and the very basis for our current prosperity and all future prospects for every generation that succeeds us.

Footprint

O’Connell acknowledges the thin irony that his own gloomy travelogue entailed vast emissions of the very carbon that is burning down the world. ‘My footprint is as broad and deep and indelible as my guilt… I myself am the apocalypse of which I speak. That is the prophesy of this book’.

That ‘Notes from an Apocalypse’ should be published in the midst of the first global pandemic of the Internet Age seems grimly apposite, life in imitation of art as the confident certainties of our world unravel in unpredictable, non-linear ways.

O’Connell vividly describes his growing obsession with the imminent collapse of civilisation. He sees himself as being obsessed with the future, ‘an obsession that manifested as an inability to conceive of there being any kind of future at all…my journalistic objectivity, a fragile edifice to begin with, was under considerable strain’, he adds.

Many people seek to escape their demons. In this trade, that’s not so easy. ‘It is both a privilege and a curse of being a writer that throwing yourself into your work so often involves immersing yourself deeper into the exact anxieties and obsessions other people throw themselves into their work to avoid’.

The book, O’Connell accepts, probably was initially conceived as a form of therapy, though he admits to what he calls a more perverse motivation: ‘I was anxious about the apocalyptic tenor of our time, it is true, but I was also intrigued. These were dark days, no question, but they were also interesting ones: wildly and inexorably interesting. I was drawn toward the thing that frightened me, the thing that threatened to tear everything apart, myself included’.

This gave him the impetus to embark on a series of what he describes as perverse pilgrimages ‘to those places where the shadows of the future fall most darkly across the present’. Nor is the overtly religious framing accidental. ‘If I could be said to have had a faith in those days, it was anxiety—the faith in the uncertainty and darkness of the future’.

O’Connell’s research took him into many dark places; he describes being unable to click on links in his computer’s browser ‘for fear that what I gained in knowledge I would lose in sanity—my online existence was saturated in a sense of end-time urgency’.

In other circumstances you could reasonably infer that the author was in reality experiencing what is for all intents clinical depression, the key difference being that the auguries of catastrophe which he was consulting are not the product of his fevered imagination, but are a painfully accurate reflection of the world as it stands.

‘Preppers’

Avoiding the sensible options of pouring his energies into what might be seen as more constructive channels, O’Connell ‘set out towards the darkness itself’. And where better to start than with the weird US sub-culture called ‘preppers’. This group consists almost exclusively of middle aged and older white males with an unnatural interest in dried food, assault rifles and racism.

O’Connell is merciless in his depiction: ‘as a group, preppers were involved in the ongoing maintenance of a shared escapist fantasy about the return to an imagined version of the American frontier—to an ideal of the rugged and self-reliant white man, providing for himself and his family, surviving against the odds in a hostile wilderness’.

In seeking to rekindle some imaginary frontier spirit, what preppers are in fact doing, he adds, is ‘creating the necessary conditions for a return to the cleansing violence of the nation’s colonial past … In fact, you couldn’t even properly call it crypto-fascism: it was really just good old-fashioned original-style fascism’. The National Geographic’s TV channel ran a series for three years called Doomsday Preppers; O’Connell gorged on many hours of it on YouTube as part of his research. While ostensibly about gearing up for post-apocalyptic survival, he believes the show ‘is in fact a reality TV psychodrama about masculinity in crisis’.

Preppers, he concludes, ‘are not preparing for their fears: they are preparing for their fantasies. The collapse of civilization means a return to modes of masculinity our culture no longer has much use for’.

While disagreeing with them in almost every regard, O’Connell admits to relating to the ‘distributed matrix of unease from which the certainty of collapse grew. I, too, with my pessimism, my intimate imagination of the world’s unravelling, had driven my own wife, if not to despair itself, then to somewhere in its vast and crumbling exurbs’.

I can certainly attest to the strain that burdening yourself with documenting the slow, agonising death of the world imposes both on you as an individual and on your long-suffering spouse and family.

O’Connell’s perverse pilgrimage takes him to the wilds of South Dakota where, for a price, you can buy a bunker with all the mod cons. This bug-out fantasy is being marketed and sold with the characteristic exuberance of the U.S. real estate industry. ‘This was a new entry into the apocalyptic imaginary: bankers and hedge-fund managers, tanned and relaxed, taking the collapse of civilization as an opportunity to spend some time on the links, while a heavily armed private police force roamed the perimeters in search of intruders. All of this was a logical extension of the gated community. It was a logical extension of capitalism itself’.

At its cold heart, this amounts to the haves battening down the hatches against the have-nots, unequal to the bitter end. Unlike the old anti-nuclear war slogan, it appears that all men will not in fact be cremated equal. And nowhere is this inequality more apparent than in New Zealand, now the world’s favourite end-of-the-world bolthole for the excessively rich.

‘Everyone was always saying these days that it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Everyone was always saying it, in my view, because it was obviously true’, O’Connell continues. ‘The perception, paranoid or otherwise, that billionaires were preparing for a coming collapse seemed a literal manifestation of this axiom. Those who were saved, in the end, would be those who could afford the premium of salvation’.

Backup Planet

Next, O’Connell tagged along with the space colonisation enthusiasts, most notably oddball billionaire Elon Musk, who described Mars as our ‘backup planet…just in case something goes wrong with Earth’. Similar to doomsday preppers with their bags of dried food, ‘Mars colonisation is apocalyptic scenario as escapist fantasy’.

What he describes as a narrative of exit is, O’Connell argues, fundamentally male, a yearning for escape ‘as a means towards the nobility of self-determination’. The world, our world, urgently needs attention, care, rehabilitation, yet the ultra-rich techno-fantasists are instead writing it off, dreaming of new empty spaces to subjugate, to colonise, to shape in their image, without state or societal oversight, a darkly Utopian fantasy played out on the blank canvas of the cosmos.

‘The politics of exit are pursued, according to cultural critic Sarah Sharma at the expense of a politics of care. ‘Care, she writes, is that which responds to the uncompromisingly tethered nature of human dependency and the contingency of life, the mutual precariousness of the human condition’. To repudiate the Earth is to reject the imperative of care.

It goes without saying that the escapist daydreams of the wealthy elites envisage salvation only for the tiny handful; the mass of humanity will, it seems, be consigned to burn, fight and starve amid the smouldering wreckage of a plundered biosphere that has been asset-stripped to the bone.

The intuition that many of the global 0.001 percenters actually seriously believe this stuff makes sense of a circle I have long struggled to square: how can tycoons and titans so blithely ignore the ever-encroaching ecological consequences of the profitable destruction they are orchestrating? Surely they too have kids, they must ultimately breathe the same air and drink the same water as the rest of us? Well, apparently not.

The colonial mindset that saw groups of determined Europeans and later, Americans, set out to conquer, subdue and enslave every country on Earth they encountered that was incapable of fighting them off is alive and well, and the age of gunboat colonialism has been replaced by the more subtle but equally effective economic colonialism.

East India Company

Today, as before, ultra-cheap goods, minerals and raw materials flood out of the global South through trade channels controlled by powerful transnational corporations whose monopolies are operated every bit as ruthlessly as the East India Company, which enjoyed a royal charter giving it permission to ‘wage war’ and, at its peak, had its own army numbering 260,000 troops, twice the size of the then British army.

The rape, pillage and plunder of the Earth has as a project been underway in earnest for centuries, but it is those of us alive in the 21st century and without tickets to Mars, who are about to reap the whirlwind.

As O’Connell notes, capitalism, ‘which exists and thrives through expansion of its own frontiers, through a relentless force of deterritorialization, is running out of frontiers; running out of boundaries to obliterate, nature to exploit’. The legacy of what he terms its monomaniacal pursuit of cheap resources is a ‘devastated planet that soon may be unliveable for vast numbers of its inhabitants’.

Just quite how soon and for just how many was to become clearer even as I was reading ‘Notes from an Apocalypse’. It came in the publication of a new peer-reviewed study using data from UN population projections and a 3ºC global warming scenario in line with current scientific projections.

While we think of ourselves as a highly adaptable species, filling niches from the high Arctic to the tropical jungles, in reality, most human populations are concentrated into narrow ‘climate bands’ in areas where the average surface temperature is in the range of 11–15ºC.

An average global surface temperature rise of 3ºC in the coming decades would leave some three billion people in areas with average temperatures as hot as the Sahara desert is today. Wide tracts of India, Australia, Africa, South America and the Middle East will, in just a matter of decades, be essentially uninhabitable for humans and most animals.

Consider the impact of 2-3 million refugees fleeing the aftermath of conflict in the Middle East and how the impact of these desperate migrants strained the EU almost to breaking point. Now, multiply that not by 100, but by 1,000 and suddenly the idea of escaping to establish a colony on a barren neighbouring planet no longer seems quite so insane.

Back on planet Earth, the Arctic is burning. ‘That there were wildfires in the Arctic Circle felt like the most important fact in the world. This was a thing we should never not be thinking about, talking about… the subtext of every news headline now, of every push notification, was that we were completely and irrevocably fucked’.

An Island Apart?

O’Connell, who is Dublin-based, recalls sharing office space with an ecologist, who told him people often ask her how Ireland will fare with climate change. Overall, and relative to so many other countries, actually pretty well, is the short, but entirely incomplete answer.

‘What would it even mean, after all, to be fine in the context of a drowning world, a world on fire? We were a small island, with nine hundred miles of coastline and an army that would by itself be effectively useless against any kind of invasion. We would be relying, she said, on the goodwill of other countries whose people were starving, drowning, burning. We would not be fine’.

O’Connell’s meditation returns time and again to his own son, from whom he feels he is keeping a secret. ‘Just as I want him to continue believing in Santa Claus for as long as possible, I want to defer the knowledge that he has been born into a dying world. I want to ward it off like a malediction’.

He outlines the complex denialism both he and his wife engage in to shelter their son and his newly born sister from true knowledge of the world as it is. ‘There are times when it seems that we are protecting him, and protecting ourselves, from a much deeper and more troubling truth: that the world is no place for a child, no place to have taken an innocent person against their will’.

O’Connell strikes a universal chord by observing that becoming a parent means having a radically increased stake in the future. Being responsible for a person who must live in the place and time normally inhabited only by your deepest fears means ‘I no longer feel the definitive force of pessimism as a philosophy…life no longer seems to afford me the luxury of submitting to the comfort of despair’.

In what may be a rich irony, O’Connell professes to having lost his taste for cosmic nihilism: ‘Lately I have been glad to be alive in this time, if only because there is no other time in which it’s possible to be alive’.

While it might seem glib in the extreme to be seeking out teachable moments from the imminent collapse of the biosphere and the extirpation of our species among countless others, what does perhaps emerge from his journey is a deeper, visceral understanding of what it truly means to have been alive in the first place.

Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the
End of the World and Back
by Mark O’Connell, Granta, London, 2020.

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

Coronavirus an appetiser for what climate breakdown has in store

The piece below ran on Thejournal.ie in early May, and to my surprise, made quite an impact, with over 83,000 views, 142 online comments and thousands of tweets and reposts on social media. Thejournal.ie is now very much part of the Irish media landscape, attracting a markedly different demographic, mostly younger, than the typical (print-based) publications I usually contribute to, so it’s especially valuable to have the opportunity to bring these difficult messages to the very people who, by dint of their youth, have to most to fear from climate breakdown in the years and decades ahead.

IMAGINE FOR A moment that our government and others around the world had been given detailed information and warnings about the coronavirus years, even decades before it finally erupted.

Imagine also that experts had shown the path to minimising or even avoiding this global disaster, but our political and business leaders, uneasy about the costs of taking action and possible disruption to commerce, chose to ignore the expert warnings as alarmist and carried on regardless.

In reality, full-blown pandemics are vanishingly rare. Almost no human is alive today who lived in the time of the ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic of 1918-19.

In the modern era, our collective cultural experience is that of taming, rather than being at the mercy of, nature in general and deadly diseases in particular. Consider smallpox: during the 20th century, it killed an estimated 300 million people worldwide. A global vaccination campaign eventually led to its eradication in 1980. Likewise, polio, another dreaded disease, has been almost completely vanquished by vaccination.

The damage done

Until very recently, premature death had been the norm for most humans. However, in the last five decades, largely freed from the threat of predators, large and small, our numbers on this earth have more than doubled, to over 7.8 billion, while average life expectancy in the same period has increased by well over a decade per person.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that this unprecedented global expansion of the human footprint has brought the biosphere, our living planet, to the brink of collapse. There are many ways of measuring this, such as the precipitous decline in biodiversity, the average annual loss of 15 billion trees, many of them from razed ancient rainforests.

A major report on biodiversity and ecosystems published last May found that the natural world is declining globally ‘at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely’.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report concluded that around one million animal and plant species now face extinction in the coming decades. ‘The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed…this loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being’, the IPBES report warned.

The unavoidable warming

We face an equally daunting and arguably more intractable challenge from climate change. In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a special report on the likely impacts of global warming at and beyond 1.5ºC over pre-industrial temperatures.

Arising from this landmark report, it emerged that in order to keep global temperatures within relatively safe limits, carbon emissions would have to fall by at least 45% by 2030, which is just ten years from now.

This is in line with commitments made by almost all the world’s leaders, including Ireland, when we signed up for the 2015 Paris Agreement, which legally committed us to doing everything possible to avoid extremely dangerous climate change at 2ºC and beyond.

This commitment was underlined in January 2020 by the all-party Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action when it agreed a minimum targeted emissions reduction of 7%+ per annum and this, in turn, has become the Green Party’s key precondition for entering into a coalition government.

According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the economic impact of the coronavirus is likely to see global carbon emissions fall by some 6% in 2020.

We need to flatten both the pandemic and climate change curves; we need to show the same determination and unity against climate change as against Covid-19”, according to WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. Action, he added, would be needed “for many generations ahead.

What this underlines is that to achieve a compound 7% annual emissions cut every year from now until 2030 would require the most radical rethink of how we organise our society and economy since the foundation of the state.

Can you see it happening?

Many are deeply sceptical. Former ‘Climate Action’ minister, Denis Naughten dismissed the 7% target as ‘unachievable’, claiming it would equate to banning every private car and slaughtering every (farm) animal in the country.

Naughten is at least being consistent. Back in 2017, he threatened to block implementation of the Paris Agreement at the EU level, claiming it was ‘unaffordable’ for Ireland to implement.

Since 2011, a succession of Fine Gael-led governments has stymied meaningful climate action. As a result, Ireland has now the third-highest per capita emissions in the EU, with the average Irish citizen accounting for more than double the emissions of their high-income Swedish counterparts.

As Sweden shows, ultra-low carbon solutions in transport, energy, home heating, agriculture and industry are indeed possible, but in Ireland, these have been held back by vested interest groups pursuing short-term agendas and TDs engaged in parish pump politics.

Even Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has had to concede he was “not proud of Ireland’s performance on climate…as far as I am concerned, we are a laggard”.

At what cost?

Apart from constant lobbying by commercial and agri-industrial groups, another reason politicians have run scared of climate action is that the issue is consistently framed in the Irish media in terms of the cost of tackling climate change. However, international studies have shown repeatedly that the price of inaction far outweighs the costs of addressing the crisis.

It is estimated that the cost of the coronavirus to the global economy is in the range of $2–$4 trillion this year. A 2018 report calculated that failure to rein in climate change would deliver a devastating $34 trillion hit to the global economy – many times greater than the economic chaos arising from the pandemic.

Other estimates are even less sanguine. An Australian study published in 2019 argues that ‘climate change represents a near to mid-term existential threat to human civilisation’. Should global temperatures reach 3C over pre-industrial by mid-century, ‘the scale of destruction is beyond our capacity to model, with a high likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end’, the report warns.

So, the next time someone asks if we can ‘afford’ to tackle climate change, a better question might instead be: what price isn’t worth paying to avoid the collapse of civilisation?

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator who specialises in covering the climate and biodiversity emergency. He is a contributor to The Irish Times, The Guardian and DeSmog.uk and is a regular guest environmental commentator on broadcast media. He blogs at Thinkorswim.ie and also runs the website Climatechange.ie and is on Twitter: @think_or_swim.

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Pollution, Psychology, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

In climate emergency, BAU is the road to unmitigated ruin

In early May, my first post appeared on The Currency, a business-oriented subscriber-only website launched by journalists Tom Lyons and Ian Kehoe and specialising in in-depth reportage. It’s not where you might typically expect to find a fairly downbeat assessment of the climate crunch, our heavily constrained future and a critique of many of our fundamental assumptions about economics, including the belief in perpetual growth, but I felt it was an opportunity to reach a different audience and was pleased to chip in the below article:

“Amid escalating climate emergency, business-as-usual is a road to unmitigated ruin”
An enduring legacy of the coronavirus crisis may be the widespread new awareness of the extraordinarily fragile state of our world, how utterly we are at the mercy of nature, and how quickly everything we take for granted can unravel.

In early January, 2019, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof penned an article titled: ‘Why 2018 was the best year in human history’. A year earlier, his January column carried the identical title, this time describing 2017 in similar terms.

Returning to the theme, Kristof’s column on December 28 last was titled: ‘This has been the best year ever – for humanity overall, life just keeps getting better’. He outlined what he saw as as the three most important global trends in the early 21st century: ‘our progress toward elimination of hideous diseases, illiteracy and the most extreme poverty’.

Three days later, on New Year’s Eve, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was formally notified by the Wuhan Municipal Health Committee that 27 cases of pneumonia ‘of unknown aetiology’ had been detected.

One month later, with almost 10,000 cases of the novel coronavirus confirmed, the WHO on January 31 formally declared a global public health emergency. Humanity’s ongoing battle to eliminate hideous diseases had just suffered its largest reverse in over a century.

What the coronavirus has brought into dramatic recent focus is an understanding that Earth scientists have long since internalised: human civilisation, our economies and our societies, are wholly owned subsidiaries of a functioning biosphere, our planetary life support system. If this system fails, then the 100-century story of human progress and flourishing since the end of the last Ice Age comes to an abrupt, harrowing end.

To be absolutely clear: this system is failing. Or, to be more precise, it is in the process of being destroyed, wittingly or unwittingly, by human actions. And as this destruction rapidly comes home to roost, we may yet look back on the early 2020s, coronavirus notwithstanding, as among our halcyon days.

‘Our species is now at the pinnacle of its numbers, its geographic spread, its power, and the fraction of the Earth’s productivity that it commands. That is the good news’, according to anthropologist Jared Diamond. ‘The bad news is that we are also involved in the process of reversing all that progress much more rapidly than we created it. Our power threatens our own existence’.

Diamond’s book, ‘Collapse – how societies choose to fail or succeed’ charts the slow rise and often sudden unravellings of civilizations throughout recorded history. While the circumstances and factors triggering major failures vary greatly, he notes two common threads: the first is resource depletion and the second is that societies on the verge of collapse remain almost invariably completely blinded to the nature of their predicament, choosing to reject evidence of their vulnerability even as the proverbial walls begin to crumble.

A contrarian approach to growth

Take economic growth. As everyone knows, it is essential for a functioning economy, and it is something we confidently expect to continue ad infinitum. What’s more, all our modern economic models are predicated on this fundamental axiom.

But is the assumption correct? American economist, philosopher and co-founder of systems theory, Kenneth Boulding identified what he believed as a crucial error when he wrote in 1933: ‘Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist’.

Boulding’s injunction towards caution was swept aside in the unprecedented period of frenzied economic expansion that kick-started as World War II came to an end in 1945 and continues to this day. It is known as the Great Acceleration, and it has involved near-exponential growth in global GDP, primary energy use, fertilizer consumption, urban population, foreign direct investment, transport, telecommunications and international tourism.

For the 20th century as a whole, global population quadrupled, the world economy grew 14-fold, while global industrial output grew 40-fold. To fuel this explosive increase in activity, energy use increased 13-fold, water usage grew 5-fold and coal production went up by a factor of seven.

The toxic by-products of this era have piled up equally rapidly, including a 17-fold increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that plays a critical role in determining global temperatures. Sulphur dioxide grew 13-fold, while global air pollution increased 5-fold during the tumultuous 20th century.

All these trends have intensified through the first two decades of the 21st century, with the coronavirus shutdown the first significant setback on this insatiable and seemingly unstoppable growth trajectory.

In fairness to Kristof, he is entirely right to point out that humans, as a species, have never had it so good. The share of the biosphere now sequestered by a solitary species (and its agriculture, industry and domesticated animals) is entirely without precedent, as are the impacts of our planetary dominion.

Consider the half century since 1970. In that time frame, human population has more than doubled and average life expectancy has increased from 59 to 72 – an astonishing advance in a single generation. Progress, however, turns out to be a zero-sum game. As humans have gained, countless other species and ecosystems have lost heavily.

A major UN report published in 2019, based on a review of over 15,000 scientific and government sources, found that 75% of terrestrial and 66% of marine environments had in this period been ‘severely altered’ by human actions.

The same study found that around one million species are now threatened with extinction as a result. “The overwhelming evidence of the (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) report presents an ominous picture,” according to IPBES Chair, Professor Robert Watson.

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide”, Watson concluded.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been producing its annual Living Planet Report for decades, and it is considered the gold standard in the field. Its 2019report found that the wild populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians have declined, on average, by some 60% since 1970. That means that almost two-thirds of the world’s wild animals, the products of millions of years of evolution, have disappeared in just the last 50 years.

While destroying biodiversity is catastrophic for animal and plant life, researchers point to the growing number of zoonotic diseases (those passed from animals to humans), from Ebola, bird flu and Sars to coronavirus, that have emanated from human incursions into the natural world.

The US Centers for Disease Control now estimate that some 75% of new or emerging diseases infecting humans originate in animals. The persecution of wild animals for the so-called wet markets of Africa and Asia helps provide ideal opportunities for viruses to jump from one species to another, or for dangerous new strains to be incubated.

Surface temperature and biodiversity

While it achieves the most attention, wildlife destruction is not restricted to mammals and birds. Insects have existed on Earth for at least 400 million years, and possibly as far back as half a billion years, which is long before even the dinosaurs evolved.

The insect kingdom survived the asteroid impact 66 million years ago that wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs and have long been the bedrock of life on Earth. For every human, there are an estimated 200 million insects and arthropods outweigh us by around a factor of 70. Yet this world too is crumbling.

A major European study published in 2017 found that the biomass of flying insects in Germany had fallen by an astonishing 76% since 1991. Anyone over the age of 40 will understand this viscerally. I clearly remember driving at night during the summer in the late 1980s and early 1990s and having to use the wipers repeatedly to clear the ‘bug splat’ from the windscreen.

Today, you could drive the length of the country at night and only encounter the occasional flying insect. The reasons for this precipitous decline in insect life are manifold but overall there is no great mystery. While pesticides are deadly to insects in even the slightest concentrations, globally farmers spray an astonishing 2.5 million tonnes of pesticides a year, with Irish farmers accounting for well over 3,000 tonnes annually, according to data from the Department of Agriculture.

Herbicides are equally deadly to insects, by selectively wiping out the wild plants they depend on for food. Over 136,000 tonnes of Monsanto’s ‘weed-killer’ glyphosate are sprayed annually. Insects are a critical food supply for a host of other animals, from birds and bats to frogs, hedgehogs, moles and toads. Insects are also key pollinators for the bulk of the world’s flowering plants, while healthy soils depend on the work of legions of arthropods.

The only form of agriculture that is not actively destructive of wildlife is organic farming, yet despite Ireland making much play of its ‘Origin Green’ credentials, less than 2% of Irish land is farmed organically, making us the second least ‘green’ country in the entire EU.

While the chemical warfare on the natural world by agri-industrial giants continues unabated, the chemistry of both the global atmosphere and oceans is also changing rapidly. Largely as a result of fossil fuel burning, atmospheric CO2 levels have risen by over 30% since the 1950s. This is by far the fastest rate of change in Earth history.

Globally, average surface temperatures have already increased by over 1ºC versus pre-industrial. This may not sound like much, but it’s already the largest and most rapid global temperature shift in over 10,000 years. UN scientists in October 2018 published a report indicating that the danger line for global warming is just 1.5ºC.

Even at this level, severe impacts will have already occurred, but at 2ºC and beyond, significant parts of the Earth will in the near future become too hot for human or animal life to exist unless sustained by air conditioning.

However, on current projections, global temperatures this century are set to increase by 3-4ºC, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). To look at what a 4ºC world would mean, the World Bank published a report in 2012, titled ‘Turn Down The Heat’. Its president, Jim Yong Kim described a 4ºC world bluntly as a “doomsday scenario”.

A world 4ºC hotter is one in which people and countries ‘would experience severe disruptions, damage, and dislocation…there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible’. Based on current warming trends, the United Nations is projecting a median figure of some 200 million people being climate refugees by 2050, while acknowledging that this number ‘might reach one billion’ in this time frame.

The geopolitical instability and chaos triggered by hundreds of millions of desperate refugees, combined with widespread starvation as global agricultural systems fail would likely lead to the collapse of many nation states and the effective end of globalised trade and travel by mid-century.

In 2015, that most conservative of institutions, the US Department of Defense warned that climate change ‘is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water’.

*****

In short, and however wrenching it may be for us as individuals to accept, the science is crystal clear: business-as-usual is a road to unmitigated ruin, and the only sane choice remaining is to do everything in our collective power to change course while change is even possible.

The phrase ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’ is sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill in describing the unlikely wartime alliance of the US, Russia and the UK that led to the formation of the United Nations. In the three decades in which intergovernmental processes have been in place to tackle global carbon emissions, these emissions have in fact increased by over 60%.

However, according to the Global Carbon Project, the impact of the pandemic in 2020 could see a 5% reduction in global carbon emissions – dwarfing the 1.4% (temporary) decline that followed the financial crisis of 2008.

This is likely the largest emissions cut since World War II, yet it still falls well short of the estimated 7.6% rolling annual emissions reductions we require, according to UN scientific estimates, to avoid dangerous and irreversible climate impacts.

Crucially, we need to engineer a way to achieve compound reductions in emissions of this scale, year after year until the global economy is effectively completely decarbonised. If that sounds like an impossible ask, bear in mind that if we fail, we face ruin on a scale that will make the coronavirus crisis pale into absolute insignificance.

We now have to do the unthinkable to avoid the unimaginable.

This is, by some distance, the greatest collective challenge humanity has ever faced. Failure is not an option as its consequences are too terrible to even consider.

Ultimately, I believe the most enduring legacy of the coronavirus crisis may be the widespread new awareness of the extraordinarily fragile state of our world, how utterly we are at the mercy of nature, and how quickly everything we take for granted can unravel.

Tackling the pandemic has also underlined the need to restore the primacy of expertise and, crucially, to heed the warnings of science. We have also been forcefully reminded that responding to global threats requires strong national and global governance and well-funded and managed institutions.

True freedom, in short, isn’t free. It’s not even cheap.

John Gibbons is an Irish environmental journalist and campaigner and the founder of the climatechange.ie

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