Running Amoc – uncertain future for Atlantic current

Below, my first article to appear in Passive House Plus magazine:

IF YOU LOOK at Ireland on an atlas, one thing that is striking is just how far north the island is located. Follow the lines of latitude east across the Atlantic and we are parallel with the Labrador peninsula in northern Newfoundland. This bleak, chilly landscape, where average winter temperatures rarely rise above zero degrees centigrade was famously portrayed in The Shipping News, a novel by Annie Proulx.

Ireland’s coldest month, in contrast, is January, with average temperatures of 5ºC; relative to Newfoundland, this is positively balmy. The difference between Ireland and Newfoundland is the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or Amoc. This is just one part of a complex global system of ocean currents that act like a conveyor belt for currents. The Amoc transfers vast amounts of heat from the Caribbean region and brings this warmth to north western Europe.

One obvious beneficiary of this bounty is Garnish island in Bantry Bay. It enjoys an almost sub-tropical climate, as the warm surface waters drawn from the equator lap its shores, allowing it to support exotic plant species that would not survive elsewhere in Ireland.
Earlier this year, two research papers published in the respected journal Nature reached the same disturbing conclusion: the Amoc has slowed down by some 15% in recent decades, and the trend appears to be accelerating . The impacts of global warming, including the rapid melting of hundreds of billions of tons of fresh water from Greenland and into the north Atlantic is disrupting this vast current.

The idea of the Amoc (also known as the Gulf Stream) closing down suddenly has been dramatised in the 2004 film, The Day After Tomorrow, which imagined a shutdown of the ocean currents triggering a series of epic superstorms which then plunged the northern hemisphere into a new Ice Age.

While scientists scoffed at the liberties Hollywood took with science, the basic premise that the Amoc could shut down in a relatively short time frame and that this in turn would have catastrophic consequences for the entire north Atlantic region is entirely factual.
Just how severe these impacts might be was explored in depth by Nasa’s former chief scientist, Dr James Hansen and colleagues in a 2016 paper. “If Greenland fresh water shuts down deep water formation and cools the North Atlantic several degrees, the increased horizontal temperature gradient will drive superstorms, stronger than any in modern times”, Hansen explained in a video to accompany the paper. “All hell will break loose in the North Atlantic and neighbouring lands.”

To get a glimpse into just how bad, Hansen’s research team identified a previous period of rapid global warming around 120,000 years ago, towards the end of the Eemian period. At that time, a collapse of polar ice, fast rising sea level and a shutdown of the Amoc led to superstorms of epic dimensions sweeping the region.

A number of rocks, weighing up to 1,000 tons each, have been located perched on a cliff 20 metres above the Atlantic on an island in the Bahamas. Hansen believes these giant boulders were scooped up from the sea floor and tossed inland during a period of mega-storms far beyond anything modern humans have ever endured.

The Amoc shutdown would lead to the temperature difference between the newly chilled northern hemisphere and the even hotter tropics increasing sharply, and this is the fuel for storms capable of levelling cities. Storms notwithstanding, the Amoc shutdown would likely cause land temperatures in Ireland to plummet by several degrees, effectively wiping out our agricultural sector – just look at the severe impacts seen on grass growth for fodder production as a result of this year’s prolonged cold snap.

And while climate change almost never receives serious or sustained media coverage in Ireland, the recent confluence of extreme weather events has left many people wondering aloud if this is a bitter foretaste of what the scientists have been warning about for decades. The summer of 2018 has seen Ireland bask in an extraordinary sustained heatwave, triggering the worst drought in almost a century.

As recently as March 2018, Storm Emma swept in a severe snow event. A few months earlier, in October 2017, the tail end of Hurricane Ophelia battered Ireland, leaving three dead and a swathe of destruction across the country. A hurricane has never before been recorded in this part of the north Atlantic. And just two months earlier, a so-called ‘once-in-a-century’ monster flooding event in August 2017 centred in Donegal triggered landslides, with bridges and roads swept away in the deluge.

Commenting on the Donegal downpour, UCC climatologist, Dr Kieran Hickey suggested to me that: “phrases like ‘once-in-a-hundred years’ to describe these extreme events really need to be retired”. Over the last decade or so, he estimates that Ireland has experienced an extreme weather event, on average, every 6-8 months. This represents a staggering four to five-fold increase in the frequency of such extreme events versus typical Irish weather in the 20th century.

While there is little doubt the deluge in Donegal was a freak weather event, “if we were to do an in-depth analysis, I suspect we would detect a climate change element in terms of its severity”, added Dr Hickey. An EPA-funded climate attribution project involving Dr Hickey and colleagues at UCC, as well as Prof Myles Allen of Oxford University will spend the next two years investigating the specific fingerprint of climate change on recent extreme weather events in Ireland.

This may help to answer that seemingly eternal question as to whether and to what degree any specific extreme weather event may be influenced by climate change. While it is standard practice among weather forecasters to be reluctant to attribute any single event to climate change (given the huge natural variability within the climate system), climate researchers have been able to establish with a high degree of confidence that man-made climate change ‘dramatically increased’ the likelihood of the extreme heatwave that swept much of Europe during June 2017.

The researchers who carried out this work are known as World Weather Attribution (WAA), an international coalition of scientists who examine and try to quantify the role of climate change in individual extreme weather events.

The extreme temperatures that scorched the European mainland (but missed Ireland) last summer and that have left Ireland sweltering this year will become commonplace by mid-century “unless action is taken to rapidly cut carbon emissions”, the WAA stated.
“Since 1900 we have seen the likelihood of a summer as hot as 1995 increase 50-fold”, according to NUI Maynooth climatologist, Dr Conor Murphy. “By the end of the century our warmest summer on record up to now could plausibly by then be a cool summer”, he added.

The pattern of extreme weather that has rocked Ireland and many other parts of the world in just the last year fits eerily well into the more pessimistic modelling scenarios of climate specialists, who warn of the impact of ‘supercharging’ the global climate by pumping more and more of the powerful heat-trapping gas, carbon dioxide (CO2) along with other gases such as methane, into the global atmosphere is already being felt strongly.

Rigorous instrumental measurement of atmospheric CO2 only began as recently as 1958, but we have quite accurate proxy records stretching back some 800,000 years. In 1958, thanks to the pioneering measuring work of Dr Charles Keeling, we know that global atmospheric CO2 levels stood at 316 parts per million (ppm). Since then, CO2 has increased by almost 40% to today’s level of around 410ppm.

In other words, we have in just the last 60 years drastically altered the basic chemistry of the global atmosphere. Today’s CO2 levels are likely the highest experienced on Earth for at least three to five million years. Since the end of the last ice age some 12,000 years ago, humans have flourished, our numbers expanded exponentially and our impacts are now being felt in every corner of the biosphere, from the upper atmosphere to the ocean basins.
The current interglacial era, known as the Holocene, has been perfect for humans, gifting us a prolonged period of thousands of years of, by historical standards, stable, benign climate, which has made global agriculture possible. This era is now at an end. The Holocene has been officially replaced by a new era, the Anthropocene, the Era of Man.

We have known for decades that loading vast amounts of CO2 into the global atmosphere would lead to a sharp increase in global average temperatures. Already, the world has warmed by over 1C versus pre-industrial. Worse, this heating will, as emissions from fossil fuels and land use changes such as deforestation continue unabated, spike by 2,3, 4C or even more this century.

This may not at first sound catastrophic, but it represents the most rapid rate of change in atmospheric conditions on Earth since a large asteroid slammed into the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico some 66 million years ago. It triggered a devastating global extinction event that famously ended the 230-million year reign of the dinosaurs.

In 2012, the World Bank commissioned a report to better understand what a world 4C hotter than today might look like. Its president, Jim Yong Kim described this level of temperature increase as a “doomsday scenario” that would trigger widespread crop failures and malnutrition and dislocate tens of millions of people from land inundated by rising seas and regions of the Earth, such as much of the Middle East, that become too hot for human habitation or agriculture.

Consider the political impacts on Europe of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing failed states in Africa and the Middle East in recent years. Multiply these numbers by 100 or even 1,000 and you begin to grasp the existential nature of the climate crisis.

Ireland’s island status will offer only the briefest of respites from the wrenching climate-fuelled upheavals that will drastically reshape our world in the decades ahead.

– John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

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

Long day’s journey into 1.5º

Let’s get this out of the way first. On climate change, things are worse, a lot worse, than most people have been led to believe. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities”, according to the IPCC’s ‘Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, released in Korea earlier today.

From where we are today, 1.5°C is desperately close. Human actions have already driven up global average surface temperatures by at least 1°C, so we are already two thirds of the way to the 1.5°C ‘guard rail’ of what could in any terms be regarded as ‘safe’ temperature increases. (‘Stop Climate Chaos’ put out a good summary document early today, while GreenNews.ie also had excellent coverage).

As is becoming ever more apparent, even the amount of temperature increase already in the system is wielding dangerous outcomes in an ever more restive, supercharged global climate system. As the mercury rises, things can only get worse, and not necessarily in a linear fashion.

The IPCC report explains how net human-caused emissions of CO2 would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.

“Limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” in the words of Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III. He’s probably right, but it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the emissions objectives needed to make this ‘unprecedented’ situation a reality.

For starters, globally, emissions have not fallen at all since 2010, so with 2019 just around the corner, than means we have precisely 11 years to hit the IPCC’s 2030 objective of a 45% cut in CO2e emissions. In simple terms, that means every nation on Earth, starting on January 1st next, manages to cut its carbon emissions by around 4% per annum, every year until 2030.

If you think that doesn’t sound too onerous, consider that Ireland was given the (binding) EU target of achieving a 20% cut in non-traded emissions in the 15 years from 2005 to 2020; so, a much longer time frame in which to achieve a much lower rate of emissions reductions. According to the EPA, we’re on target instead to achieve “at most” a solitary 1% cut versus 2005 levels. Take the impacts of the tail end of the last recession out and the figures would have been even worse.

In an economy like ours where success is only measured in terms of expansion of economic activity, rising emissions move in lock-step with this growth, given how highly dependent our energy, transport and (in Ireland especially) agriculture sector are on highly carbon-intensive systems. Consider also the phalanx of well-funded lobbyists fighting tooth and nail to make sure the economic gravy keeps flowing in their direction.

From IBEC to the IFA, and their many international counterparts, war chests running into hundreds of millions of euros per annum are available to lobby in favour of special interests and against our shared common good. Much of this lobbying happens behind closed doors and is therefore even more pervasive and difficult to unpick.

There are nearly 2 million private cars on Ireland’s roads, powered in around 99% of cases by liquid fuels. EVs are now finally on the visible horizon, but that revolution is going to take quite some time. While renewables have made genuine inroads, our energy sector remains similarly heavily dependent on fossil fuels, from oil and gas to peat.

So, change is tough. Countries in the developing world lack the finance and in many cases are lumbered with antiquated and dirty infrastructure that make an energy transition extremely difficult to achieve quickly. Developed, prosperous countries like Ireland mainly lack political will.

Any TD, especially one operating outside of a major urban area, who dares mention carbon taxes is politically dead meat. In our multi-seat constituencies, picking TDs off, one by one, is relatively simple for lobbyists, as this amazing FG backbencher effort to thwart even the most ridiculously modest carbon taxes in the Budget shows yet again.

Fine Gael-led administrations over the last seven years have been almost comically inept on this issue. Installing a rural TD as our first ever ‘climate action’ minister showed they were not entirely lacking in a sense of humour. Denis Naughten has, as planned, floundered around ineffectually. Whatever his personal abilities or beliefs, he has been handed a no-win brief, and it shows. His toothless National Mitigation Plan has been scrapped and taken back to the drawing board.

“This Report paints in stark terms the reality of the impact of our current trajectory of global emissions and the world we will be living in later this century if our collective ambition for climate action does not increase”, Naughten said today in response to the IPCC report. He added some of his standard spiel about the billions that will flow in the coming years under the National Development Plan (NDP) towards “addressing the transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient society”.

I for one genuinely wish him well, but would be a lot more convinced if, while talking in terms of tens of billions mañana, Naughten could point in the here and now, to modest, concrete and tangible steps he and his government are taking to prepare Ireland for the greatest peacetime transition in its history. Where are the ad campaigns? Where are the billboards? Or the websites and social media campaigns explaining the stark reality of climate change and what we can do to rapidly transition our society towards a less dangerous future?

They don’t exist. What we get instead is deeply cynical glossy mega-buck ad campaigns from fully state-controlled agencies like Bord Bia (‘Origin Green’) and Bord Na Móna (‘Naturally Driven’) while other state-controlled agencies like the ESB – run by people who presumably love their kids as much as anyone – source coal from Colombia to fuel power stations that help burn down our collective future. Politicians cynically say that the reason they don’t act on climate is that they don’t hear about it on the doorsteps, yet they could, for relative peanuts, engage the public and interest groups in a national dialogue on change.

To date, Naughten’s parody of leadership has involved insisting it’s not the job of politicians to “tell people what to do”. And as Fine Gael’s recent woeful ‘Green Week’ efforts show, it’s clear that Naughten has precious little support around the Cabinet table for anything that ventures beyond facile window dressing and easy PR stunts.

The Citizens’ Assembly showed clearly that we are not simply the narrowly self-absorbed automatons the marketers and political spin doctors believe we are. Given the plain facts, guided by experts, the Irish public displayed a perhaps unexpected appetite for tough choices. This occurred once people understood that the status quo is unacceptably dangerous right now and criminally reckless when the next generation’s needs are taken into account.

Prof Peter Thorne of NUI Maynooth, a contributing author of the report, put it elegantly in the Irish Times today: “The true cost of carbon, if accounting for the warming impact, is likely somewhere in the range of €150-€200 per ton. It’s currently taxed at 10 per cent of that. The result is a huge IOU to future generations.”

The same report quoted Dr Debra Roberts, a co-chair of the IPCC working group on climate impacts. “It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now. This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency”.

Complacency is a very good word to describe the predominant mood in Ireland. How else could a 30-something Taoiseach, in the teeth of the greatest existential crisis in human history, suggest with a straight face that switching to a keep cup was his ‘big idea’ on climate change? Twenty, maybe 30 years ago, that kind of incrementalism was understandable if not exactly laudable. Today? Unforgivable.

RTÉ did a fairly good job on its coverage, with George Lee genuinely animated (it’s a real shame the agriculture part of his dual mandate sucks up so much of his considerable energy). I called out to Montrose around 11am today to do a pre-record for an earlier TV news bulletin (clip embedded in report linked here).

While the Irish Times carried reports throughout the day, I could find almost zero evidence of this story on Independent.ie. The sole story in its Environment section related instead to the issue of whether or not coal and petrol would get a hike in tomorrow’s Budget. This, bear in mind, is Ireland’s largest newspaper group, and not a sausage all day on the biggest IPCC announcement since the Paris Accord in December 2015.

The Examiner took a quirkier approach, linking the IPCC report with tips to reduce your carbon footprint when travelling. Its advice to pack lightly (“this will make your plane that little bit more fuel efficient, as it’s not weighed down with jumpers and swimming costumes you don’t actually end up wearing”) speaks for itself. To be fair, the article does later on actually suggest the need to reduce air travel, but still clings to the view that “Long-haul air travel is unavoidable”.

Actually, yes it is. Realistically, we’re going to need to drastically reduce the amount of non-essential aviation globally. A strict carbon rationing system would at least mean it could be done equitably, but imagine the kerfuffle if Prof Peter Thorne’s suggested €150-€200 per tonne carbon tax were applied to aviation? A return economy class flight from Dublin to Los Angeles generates around 2.3 tonnes of CO2e, which, at a median €175/tonne carbon tax, would slap an additional €402 on your ticket price. Now, I wonder how would an idea like that fly politically?

To bring a long day to a conclusion, BBC’s Flagship program, Newsnight, had a segment on the IPCC report. It made the idiotic editorial decision to give a platform to a flat-out denier, Myron Ebell, of the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute to “debate” the IPCC report, in the interests of balance, don’t you know. (I wrote about this individual in the IT back in Nov 2016)

In summary: we thought 2ºC represented the red line beyond which lay the dragons of climate chaos. Now we know it’s 1.5ºC, tops. This concept was first put on the public agenda in Paris in December 2015, and has now taken solid form in today’s report.

And there’s the rub. We already know that, if every country on Earth honoured each and every one of their (non-binding) Paris commitments in full (and they assuredly won’t, Ireland included) then the world is on a glide path for, not 1.5, not 2, but a calamitous 3.4ºC average temperature increase in the decades.

The real value of today I would suggest, is not to remind us of the near-impossibility of keeping global temperatures within the 1.5ºC guard-rail, but instead, as a timely, stinging final warning of the simply unconscionable consequences of not succeeding. Until we fully grasp the price of failure, the cost of striving to succeed will always seem too high.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Organised denial targets Dáil climate committee

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (JOCCA) has been in session over the last couple of weeks. It is tasked with reviewing the recommendations of last November’s Citizens’ Assembly section entitled: ‘Making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change’ and bringing proposals to government.

Already, the lobbyists (who were barred from addressing or influencing the deliberations of the 99 ordinary Irish citizens who comprised the Citizens’ Assembly) are swarming over the JOCCA. One of the more, let’s say, interesting submissions it received was from our old friends, the Irish Climate Science Forum (ICSF).

Regular readers will be familiar with this grouping of mainly long-retired engineers and weathermen which has set itself up, Canute-like, to try and hold back the ever rising tides of scientific and real-world evidence that climate change is real, it’s extremely dangerous, it’s here right now and it’s quickly getting worse.

Some people feel the ICSF are just a group of harmless science hobbyists with a lot of time on their hands engaged in the pleasant group delusion of having heroically unpicked a century and more of climate science and found it to be basically bunk. That the people who believe they have upscuttled the most powerful global consensus in any branch of the physical sciences are completely unqualified to do so (not a single atmospheric scientist/climatologist listed among the 10 signatories attached to their JOCCA submission) makes their plucky little band even more, well, remarkable.

I’m just not one of those people. This murky group includes some extremely well connected and no doubt influential individuals. The scope for this mischief-making to do real and lasting damage to climate action in Ireland is too real for them to be laughed off as harmless amateur science meddlers. Below, the report I filed for the investigative site, DeSmog.uk yesterday detailing their latest play:

CLIMATE DENIAL group the Irish Climate Science Forum (ICSF) has significantly escalated its lobbying campaign to prevent climate action.

The group’s main function until now has been to hold behind-closed-doors meetings with infamous climate science deniers as guest speakers. But it has now submitted a document to the Irish Parliament insisting climate change simply isn’t as bad as scientists make out, DeSmog UK has learned.

The group, which has no publicly accessible membership or officer list, has run a series of ‘invitation-only’ events in Dublin over the last 18 months allowing familiar faces from the world of climate denial, such as Richard Lindzen, William Happer, Henrik Svensmark and Nicola Scafetta to showcase their debunked arguments against taking action on climate change.

Its seventh talk, which once again bars media and NGOs, took place on Wednesday September 26 in Dublin, and featured William van Wijngaarden, who was expected to make his oft-repeated claim that the greenhouse gas influence of agricultural emissions are “significantly less than hitherto estimated by the IPCC”.

As a result of the strong recommendations arising from a Citizens’ Assembly report on climate change issued late last year, the Irish parliament recently convened a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (JOCCA) to examine the Assembly’s findings and make recommendations for action to government.

Ireland is one of the worst performing countries in the EU in terms of meeting its mandated obligations on emissions reduction, largely due to the lobbying power of key interest groups, including the agri-industrial and transport sectors. Instead of meeting its 2020 EU obligation to achieve a 20 percent cut in emissions versus a benchmark of 2005, Ireland is currently on track to achieve “at most” a one percent emissions cut, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

Submission

The ICSF submission to the JOCCA, which has been seen by DeSmog UK, runs to 25 pages and includes almost 100 references. None of the people whose names accompany the ICSF submission have relevant qualifications or expertise in climate science. No scientific advisors are identified.

The document was submitted by the chairman of the ICSF, Jim O’Brien, a retired engineer. The submission was ‘supported’ by nine other named individuals, mainly retired engineers. They include Former Siemens and Science Foundation Ireland chairman Brian Sweeney and Dr Ed Walsh, former chair of the Irish Council for Science Technology and Innovation.

The submission, entitled ‘Latest Climate Science, Sept 2018’ is a mish mash of charts and graphics from a range of contrarian and denier sources, including the London-based Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) and its references section is a who’s who of climate science denial, including John Christsy, Richard Lindzen, Judith Curry, Roy Spencer, William Happer, Matt Ridley and Willie Soon.

Among its claims are that current global temperature trends continue below IPCC model predictions and that ‘recent research’ shows lower climate sensitivity than estimated by the IPCC. The main source for the latter is retired meteorologist, Ray Bates, founder of the ICSF. It also quotes papers by Lindzen and Yong-Sang Choi which have been thoroughly debunked.

According to John Sweeney, Emeritus Professor at the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Unit, Maynooth University, the ICSF submission: “cannot be taken seriously by any responsible atmospheric scientist”.

He added that it: “perpetuates long-debunked science, such as the non-existent temperature hiatus, the myth of discrepancies in thermometer observations and the spurious explanation of urban heat islands as the cause of higher temperatures on land”.

Also commenting on the ICSF submission, Green Party senator, Grace O’Sullivan told DeSmog UK: “it puts forward cherry picked data that does not represent either the consensus or the lived reality on any of these issues. They claim to be a sceptical group, checking the science. Yet every single conclusion on every single issue comes out against mitigation measures. Surely this is a bizarre and unlikely coincidence?”

Senator O’Sullivan added that she could not “begin to fathom the group’s true aims and motives, but these materials need to be viewed with the deepest ‘skepticism’ themselves”. She added that the work of the committee “is too important to be set off course with distractions and misrepresentations such as these”.

DeSmog UK made numerous efforts to contact ICSF chair, Jim O’Brien, to ask him about the submission, as well as the funding and ongoing lobbying activities of the Forum, but he did not respond to an invitation to comment.

Ireland’s Regulation of Lobbying Act requires all individuals and groups engaged in lobbying to register and verify their details on the Lobbying.ie website and make written returns every four months. Environmental groups such as the Stop Climate Chaos coalition and An Taisce publish details of their lobbying returns as required, but nothing has been filed on behalf of the ICSF at the time of writing.

Under current regulations, groups engaged in lobbying must register if they have at least one paid employee. As it does not disclose any operational details publicly and has declined to answer questions from DeSmog, it is unclear whether or not the ICSF has any paid employees and if so, if it is required to register its lobbying activities.

The ICSF has recently launched its website, where it sets out its contrarian agenda plainly, attempting to claim the IPCC ‘got it wrong’ on key issues. From there, it revisits debunked denier talking points, such as: “there are solar-related and other natural influences on earth’s climate… the relative magnitudes of these influences may be comparable to or possibly even greater than those of GHG.”

“ICSF members do not foresee a planetary climate emergency”, it continues. The organisation claims that its members are “characterized by an open and enquiring mind on climate science, driven by the imperative of objectivity without any vested interests”.

This open-mindedness does not extend to answering media questions, however. Its events have hand-picked attendees lists, the group has a secret membership and officer list, and there is no visible process for applying to join.

It has also yet to explain how it has funded seven meetings involving international guest speakers. It claims to be “modestly self-funded through member contributions only”.

The ICSF’s ‘Useful Links’ page gives an insight into its approach, in which legitimate sites such as the AMA and Climate Home are interspersed with denier blogs such as Watts Up With That and SEPP plus pseudoscience from Bjorn Lomborg. Tellingly, the ICSF chooses not to provide a link to the UN’s official advisor on climate science, the IPCC.

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

Creed gets creamed over dodgy dairy data

Going right back to late last year, a concerted campaign has been led by folks in the Department of Agriculture to create ‘alternative facts’ about emissions emanating from our rapidly expanding dairy herd. A new phrase – decoupling – was rolled out to promote the idea that amazing technological breakthroughs had allowed the dairy sector to ramp up production without any commensurate increase in carbon (specifically, methane) emissions.

Were it true, this would be very good news indeed. But, of course, it’s not. An eagle eyed Dáil researcher first tipped off An Taisce to this newly minted ‘decoupling’ lingo, and it was duly investigated and found to be, well, complete nonsense. On June 25th, I drafted a release on behalf of An Taisce calling on Minister Creed to ‘retract misleading Dáil statements on rising dairy emissions’.

To be absolutely fair, we had given the minister two full months to deal with this before going public, and he had declined to take a step backwards. In his written response to An Taisce, Creed had stated: “The 8% increase in emissions I referred to is the growth in total agricultural emissions and reflects that while dairy numbers (and emissions) are increasing, other sub sectors of agriculture are contracting. It is valid to consider the sector as a whole in presenting this data”.

Briefly, Creed & Co. had tried a favourite statistical sleight of hand: talk on the one hand about dairy production rising by around 27%, then switch when describing emissions to talking about emissions for the entire agriculture sector, which in this case had risen by a still quite scandalous 8%. To the unwary, this could be sold as a massive increase in dairy output, with “only” an 8% increase in emission. Et Voila, decoupling!

No doubt some clever principal officer in the department, or perhaps in Teagasc, dreamed this one up, but it’s still just a simple three-card trick. Since Creed decided in his wisdom to double down, we took the story to the Farming Independent, and they did a reasonable job with it, albeit capping it with a desperately bland and somewhat misleading heading that framed this as a simple dispute between Creed and An Taisce, rather than pointing out where he had been deliberately misleading, and the fact that, when challenged, he had no answers.

I had also had a chat with the editor at the investigative website, DeSmog.uk and he had no difficulty in recognising the deception involved, so I filed a piece for them, which they labelled: ‘EXCLUSIVE: Ireland’s Government Using Fake Data to Pretend Dairy Emissions Aren’t Rising Fast‘. That was a lot closer to the truth.

From there, the wheels kept rolling. While it was probably easy enough to ignore a specialist website, next, the science editor of the UK Independent picked up the story, sourcing DeSmog, under the heading: ‘Irish government using wrong data to downplay greenhouse gas emissions from cows’. And, to add insult to ignominy, the Guardian’s environment editor, Damian Carrington tweeted out a link to my DeSmog piece, which he captioned: ‘Fake Moos’.

Nor did the fun end there. Nearly a month later, the Irish edition of the Sunday Times contacted me about the piece and filed their own report, headed: ‘Dairy row heats up – An Taisce calls on minister to correct ‘misleading’ GHG figures’. Maybe what still bothers me and others most about this story is that, even when caught red-handed telling whoppers on the Dáil record, Creed has, as of right now, still not retracted his statements.

On a positive note, they have at least got the message and ‘decoupling’ has been quietly excised from the lexicon of Agri Spin, so it was not in vain after all. Creed and his officials are quite entitled to have their own views on dairy expansion, and their critics are equally entitled to challenge these, but there is, I believe, absolutely no excuse for allowing our public representatives to manufacture their own ‘alternative facts’ to support these views. That’s a red line we must hold at all costs.

Below, for the record, is my piece as it appeared in DeSmog:

IRELAND’S AGRICULTURE Minister, Michael Creed and his officials are mounting a co-ordinated campaign to mislead the Irish parliament (Dáil) about the true state of spiralling dairy emissions, DeSmog.uk has learned.

Emissions from Ireland’s rapidly expanding dairy sector have shot up in recent years, in direct conflict with government policy. But the government continues to use bunk data to assert that this is not the case.

On 26 April 2018, Minister Creed told the Dáil: “in the five-year period 2012-2016, dairy cow numbers have increased by 22 percent and corresponding milk production by 27 percent while emissions increased just 8 percent, demonstrating a level of decoupling is occurring.”

This point was amplified by one of Creed’s senior officials, Jack Nolan, at a parliamentary joint committee hearing, when he claimed: “S​ince 2015 we have increased milk output by 13.5 percent, whereas emissions have only increased by 1.6 percent. Massive efficiency gains are happening at the moment”.

Junior Agriculture Minister, Andrew Doyle in December 2017 made the same point about apparent dramatic decoupling of dairy output from carbon emissions.

All these claims are refuted by data compiled by Ireland’s Environment Protection Agency (EPA). This indicates that carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from dairy rose by a massive 24 percent from 2012 to 2016,​ ​which closely tracks the 22 percent increase in national dairy cow numbers and a 27 percent milk production hike in the same period.

An Taisce, Ireland’s national trust, became aware of the statements being made within the parliament and wrote to Creed on May 4th last, pointing out the erroneous data and requesting that he formally correct the Dáil record.

In response, Creed admitted to An Taisce that his claim of ‘only’ eight percent emissions increases arising from a 27 percent increase in dairy output “is the growth in total agricultural emissions and reflects that while dairy numbers (and emissions) are increasing, other sub-sectors of agriculture are contracting”. It is, the minister added, “valid to consider the sector as a whole in presenting this data”.

However, An Taisce told DeSmog UK that the minister’s response was “simply indefensible”. ​By not correcting his statement, “it seems the minister is now willing to mislead the Dáil and the public, even when called out. This is unacceptable. We now publicly call on the minister to correct the Dáil record as a matter of urgency”.

The reason officials like Creed are prepared to go to such lengths to present a rosy picture of agricultural emissions is that rapid expansion of the national dairy herd is de facto  government policy, even though it flatly contradicts the Irish state’s EU and Paris Agreement obligations to slash carbon emissions.

Recent EPA projections showed that, instead of meeting its EU obligations to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020, Ireland would “at best” achieve a negligible one percent cut versus 2005 levels. Agricultural emissions, meanwhile, continue to spiral, hence the pressure on ministers to massage the figures to present a ‘good news story’ on dairy emissions.

More pressure was ratcheted on Irish government inaction with the publication earlier this month by Climate Action Network Europe of its ranking of EU countriesin terms of their ambition and progress in tackling climate change. Ireland was ranked 2nd worst in the EU, only ahead of coal-dependent Poland in the rankings.

Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar is clearly uneasy at the growing reputational damage arising from what he admits is its status as a climate “laggard”. He told the European Parliament earlier this year that he was “not proud of Ireland’s performance” on climate, but domestically, the grip of the powerful agri-industrial lobby on government policy remains unshaken.

Having failed to manage emissions, it appears at least some in the Irish government have switched focus to concentrate on managing climate change messaging instead.

Disclosure: John Gibbons is a volunteer member of An Taisce’s climate change committee.

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Epic emissions targets failure: it’s the politics, stupid

Below, an article I ran in a well-known satirical publication in mid-June:

FOR YEARS, whiny environmental types have been warning repeatedly that the Irish state is treating its legally binding international obligations to cut our carbon emissions as a bit of a joke. This in turn has prompted indignant responses from both politicians and their civil servants to the effect that this was grossly unfair and that, given enough time, Ireland would surprise everyone.

And, in a sense, we have. Not even the gloomiest eco-NGO type could possibly have predicted that instead of cutting emissions by 2020 by 20% versus 2005, we would instead “at best” achieve a 1% cut. Or, put another way, we’ve squandered the last 15 years doing sod all about the biggest crisis in modern history.

Imagine that the Department of Finance set a key revenue target of €20 billion, but ended up only raising €1 billion. That might sound like an almost impossible level of incompetence, leading to mass resignations, but it’s precisely the degree of abject failure Ireland has shown on curbing carbon emissions. Continue reading

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The Big Questions that Irish broadcasters shy away from

Other than on the very odd news bulletin wearing my An Taisce hat, I very rarely appear on Irish TV talking about climate change. Much as I might like to paint this as some sinister conspiracy against me personally, the facts are that nobody else does either. Neither RTE television nor TV3 touch serious environmental or climate issues from one end of the year to the other.

And, as recently reported here, RTE’s rare forays into the field are not, let’s just say, universally successful (please let’s not mention the otherwise excellent PrimeTime and its wojus, cack-handed attempts at ‘ studio debates’ on climate). As I reported here recently, Derek Mooney’s woeful ‘Turf Life‘ documentary (covertly sponsored by Bord Na Móna) would suggest that the best thing the national broadcaster can do is to just keep avoiding the subject.

Prior to that, I have to go back almost two full years, to August 2016, when TV3 decided to dedicate nearly an hour on its ‘Tonight’ programme to a pointless ‘Climate Debate‘. Myself, Cara Augustenborg and Eamon Ryan were put in to pitch for ‘science’ and the dreaded consensus, while serial looper, John McGuirk (he who went on to front the PR for the disastrous ‘Save the Eighth Amendment’ campaign earlier this year) found himself in the happy position of cranking up the Fake News machine to full tilt.

He had good reason to be confident in believing that presenter, Charlie Bird, would be absolutely unable to stem the torrents of bullshit spewed that night by McGuirk. I’d like to say these two programmes are the exceptions in terms of Irish TV coverage, but this is simply not the case.

So much for the Irish media then. I was delighted to be invited by the BBC in March 2017 to travel to Newcastle to appear on the panel of its live Sunday morning current affairs show, ‘The Big Questions‘, and took the opportunity to get across my 2 cents on the environmental dimension to the global population debate. OK, I did perhaps have to sneak it in a bit, but presenter Nicky Campbell was both knowledgeable and supportive, on and off camera, which I can honestly say is a first in my limited experience of doing TV.

A year and more passed since then, and….well, nothing much to report really when it comes to Irish broadcasters and climate/environmental coverage. In early June of this year, I got the call once more from the BBC, this time to travel to London to do a pre-record of a one hour special edition of ‘The Big Questions’, this time with a single topic for the show: ‘Is the liberal world order in crisis’?

BBC TBQ 10-6-18 clip 1 from MedMedia Group on Vimeo. Continue reading

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Citizens’ Assembly has spoken on climate change: Ireland must listen

Below, my article as it appeared in the Irish Times on June 1st, in which I pitched strongly for the findings of the Citizens’ Assembly on climate change to be taken on board via an Oireachtas committee in the same way the Assembly’s findings on the 8th Amendment had been handled politically. The Green Party pushed hard for this to happen and, lo and behold,  the new Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change met for the first time on July 11th, its remit being to examine the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly, consult with the Secretary Generals of government departments, and report on recommended policy actions. Of course, I’d like to claim this article played some minor role in tipping the political scales towards this committee being formed, but in truth, it’s far more likely a simple albeit happy case of serendipity. 

DEMOCRACY, said George Bernard Shaw, “is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve”. For all its many strengths, democracy suffers some egregious flaws. The ability of powerful interest groups, be they political, economic or ideological to “capture” the democratic process and to drown out genuine deliberation in the white noise of spin and fake news represents a clear threat to the healthy functioning of any democracy.

This is where deliberative democracy comes in. The concept that underpins it is the notion that democracy cannot simply be the process of counting ballots after a shouting match. True democracy requires that people make informed decisions, guided by the best available evidence, freed as far as possible from the bullying and badgering of special interests. Continue reading

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RTE bog broadcast sinks into mire of low standards

Below, a piece I ran in a well-known satirical magazine in May 2018. It was subsequently picked up by the Sunday Times, who also gave the show a bit of a scalding under a piece headed: ‘RTE turfed into trouble over bog show sponsorship’. The paper put a query in to the BAI as to the legality of this unflagged advertorial being run on the national broadcaster. The BAI responded by saying it was: “aware of reports in respect of this programme and will be in touch with RTE to discuss this matter in due course”. Sadly, the show has since disappeared from the RTE Player, which is a shame, as its craven, brown-nosed woefulness really had to be seen to be believed. I’ve done my best in the piece below to give you at least a flavour of this execrable confection.

“THIS IS THE STORY of Ireland’s best kept secret”. So RTÉ’s Derek Mooney began ‘Turf Life – a day on the bog’. This statement was true in more ways than the presenter might have imagined. The TV programme, broadcast on May 4th, was sponsored by Bord na Móna, Ireland’s chief bog destroying enterprise.

Due to what RTÉ told me was “an oversight which has since been corrected”, there was no mention whatever of Bord na Móna’s involvement, either in the opening or closing credits. RTÉ’s say they have“adjusted our internal processes to ensure this does not happen again”. However, despite this, the programme remained on the RTÉ Player sans any kind of sponsorship line whatever for at least two weeks after it aired. Continue reading

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LNG at Shannon: selling our future down the river

Below, my article as it appeared on DeSmog.uk on May 15th.
 
ENVIRONMENTAL groups have united in opposing a massive new terminal that would receive fracked gas from the US in a protected area on Ireland’s west coast. They fear the plan runs counter to Ireland’s newly agreed climate commitments and is contrary to the country’s decision to ban fracking.

The public consultation on the proposal closed yesterday.

Brexit fears played a key role in the reactivation of plans to develop a massive liquid natural gas (LNG) deepwater terminal in the Shannon estuary. Irish government ministers were alarmed that in a post-Brexit situation, LNG being piped into Ireland from the UK via interconnectors could be subject to tariffs.

The proposed terminal, which would be capable of docking the world’s largest LNG carriers, is to include four massive LNG storage tanks, each with a capacity of 200,000 cubic metres. Some 23 environmental groups from Ireland, Germany, Belgium and the US have united to oppose the terminal, with the principal objection being that its principal source of LNG would be from fracked gas fields in the US.

Last year, Ireland became one of only three countries in Europe to introduce a total ban on onshore fracking.

According to Friends of the Earth: “we banned fracking in Ireland, it would be absurd to import fracked gas instead. It would lock us into fossil fuel dependence and blow our chances of containing climate change”.

Friends of the Earth added that the Irish planning regulator, An Bord Pleanála “should not extend the planning permission for Shannon LNG. The Government and the EU should not support or subsidise it”. Permission was originally sought for the project in 2008, but the original backer, the US investor, Hess, pulled out after wrangles with the regulators over compulsory contributions towards the cost of linking to the Ireland-UK interconnector.

Some 99 percent of the total Irish gas supply is currently imported via the UK through the two undersea interconnectors.

Another anti-fracking group opposing the terminal, ‘Not Here, Not Anywhere’ pointed out the “quite hypocritical position that Ireland, having introduced a domestic fracking ban, thinks it’s fine to import fracked gas from the US”, spokesperson Ciara Barry told DeSmog UK.

“The promotion of natural gas of any kind as a ‘transition fuel’ is deeply flawed, and ignores for instance the highly damaging methane emissions associated with extraction”, Barry added. “This also locking us in to infrastructure with a 40-50-year life span, which makes any transition to a low carbon economy in the time scale needed completely impossible”.

The spectre of Brexit has breathed new life into a once-mothballed terminal proposal. Among the strongest advocates for it has been Irish MEP, Seán Kelly. Largely due to his lobbying, the project has now been designated as a European Project of Common Interest. This means, crucially, that the project, with an estimated cost of €500 million, may become eligible for investment from both the European Investment Bank and the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund.

“This project is not just an option, it is becoming an imperative We’re actually by far and away the most vulnerable of all the 28 member states in the EU now”, Kelly told the Irish Examiner. “The countries that are vulnerable in terms of energy requirements across the EU are well advanced on plans to sort that out by building their own energy terminals but we’re not doing that”.

According to the NGO Food and Water Europe, The Shannon estuary, the proposed site of the LNG terminal, has been declared by the EU an Estuaries Special Protection Area (SPA); however, Ireland has a very poor record of enforcing protection for its EU-designated SPAs and has frequently faced EUlegal enforcement actions on SPAs, most notably sensitive peatlands.

Campaigners against the LNG project point to the decision in November 2017, by BNP Paribas, a leading European and global financial services provider to “no longer do business with companies whose principal business activity is the exploration, production, distribution, marketing or trading of oil and gas from shale and/or oil from tar sands”.

BNP Paribas explicitly singled out “LNG terminals that predominantly liquefy and export gas from shale” as being among the projects it would no longer provide finance for. This is a hugely significant shift, as major banks and financial institutions like BNP Paribas switch to: “financing and investment activities in line with the International Energy Agency (IEA) scenario, which aims to keep global warming below 2°C by the end of the century”.

Ireland’s energy and ‘climate action’ minister, Denis Naughten is understood to see the Shannon LNG project as an important tool in maintaining security of supply for energy, the Irish Examiner reported. Domestic political anxiety about Ireland being at the very end of a gas pipeline network stretching thousands of miles across Europe has been heightened by the political and economic uncertainties posed by the shambolic Brexit process.

Ireland’s largest coal-fired power station, the 915 megawatt Moneypoint facility is located just across the Shannon estuary from the site of the proposed new terminal. The Irish government is under pressure to exit from both coal and peat burning, and while renewables are now providing around a fifth of electricity production (with over 2,800 megawatt wind energy capacity), it still leaves major gaps in supply, with both gas and biofuels being touted in government circles as so-called ‘bridge’ fuels.

The energy and environmental landscape has shifted significantly since the original Shannon LNG project was granted planning permission in 2008. Three years ago, the Irish parliament passed the Climate Action law to give effect to government policy of reducing Irish carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

A subsequent Energy White Paper adopted by government upped the target for the energy sector of cutting emissions by 80 to 95 percent by 2050. Campaigners point out that these ambitious but essential targets for decarbonising Ireland’s energy system would be impossible to realise if costly new LNG infrastructure is locked into place for the next several decades.

A ruling on the public consultation that closed yesterday is expected in the coming weeks.

Continue reading

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Mainstreaming doubt and nurturing climate denial

Fake news has, since January 2017, received a whole new lease of life, with peddlers of misinformation greatly emboldened by the installation of the Liar-In-Chief at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. However, climate science denial has been in full swing for decades; hardly surprising when you consider the trillion-dollar interests its (factual) findings threaten. Organised climate denial is, however, a new phenomenon in Ireland, first rearing its head in May 2017.

There are those who argue that by covering the activity of these jokers, you’re simply empowering them, since most are needy attention-seekers to begin with. But I would counter-argue that it it precisely because we have failed to take deniers and liars seriously that we find ourselves in our present global imbroglio. Below, my piece as it appeared on DeSmog.uk in April: Continue reading

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World awakens slowly to unfolding plastics catastrophe

Below, my article as published in the April 2018 edition of Village magazine. I’ve been writing for years about the pervasive and ever-expanding threats posed by plastic wastes, but have found few takers in the mainstream media; given the staggering numbers and absolutely undeniable havoc these persistent environmental toxins were causing, I always found the lack of interest on the part of many editors puzzling, to say the least. It seems the tipping point (if that’s a phrase you can actually use here) on plastics occurred with David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, which brought the issue of the devastating impacts of marine plastic into the homes and onto the TV screens of millions of people. Suddenly, the wider media seemed to twig that this was a ‘real’ story, and since then, awareness of plastics as a truly massive problem has gone mainstream. Of course, as regular ThinkOrSwim readers will know, plastic pollution is but one of a phalanx of vast, seemingly intractable and interconnected crises gathering strength on our near horizon.

FOR YEARS, it was widely ignored, even as the evidence grew more and more overwhelming. Reports had been flooding in from some of the remotest places on Earth, from the middle of the Pacific Ocean to the North Pole. Researchers found its impact was hammering every ecosystem, disrupting natural processes and spreading havoc across the living world. Continue reading

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Failing farmers, the environment & wider society

My article on our broken agricultural system, as it appeared in the Irish Times on April 7th last. Getting a decent splash on the main OpEd page in the Saturday edition (the IT’s most read day of the week by a distance) meant it garnered a good deal more attention than I’d normally expect.

It may be just an impression, but I’m beginning to sense that the IFA in particular are no longer winning the war for ‘hearts and minds’ with the general public, something they’ve been amazing effective at over several decades. Even the deferential armchair ride they’ve come to expect in the media is no longer assured as the hard questions about emissions and environmental impacts pile up and their answers so often seem threadbare and evasive.

IN OCTOBER 2013, just months after that year’s fodder crisis, a study by researcher Dr Stephen Flood warned of severe future impacts of climate change on Irish agriculture. Then agriculture minister Simon Coveney launched the report, and promised that climate projections would be incorporated into plans for the sector. Continue reading

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Day of reckoning on global extinction crisis draws near

Below, my article as it was published in the Irish Times last month, with some referencing added back in. To borrow one of my own lines, “A solitary species has, in a heartbeat of geological time, overturned and routed half a billion years of evolutionary history”. That, rather than the extinction of yet another species of charismatic megafauna, is what this story is really about.

NATURE IS falling silent. From the once-common cry of the curlew to the roar of lions, buzzing of bees and the cacophonous chatter and chirping of countless billions of creatures and critters, now an ominous, ever-expanding wave of stillness is spreading across the natural world like a slow tsunami.

This week’s news of the death of the world’s last remaining northern white rhino in Kenya caused a mild ripple of interest in an ocean of public indifference and incomprehension. While everyone agrees it is sad that another iconic species has disappeared, media attention quickly shifted back to “the real world” of economics, politics and social media. Continue reading

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

Pinker serves up a Panglossian three-card trick

“Things can only get better”, went the lyrics to the hit by D:Ream which became the anthem of the incoming New Labour government in 1997, fronted by the relentlessly upbeat Tony Blair. Six years later, Blair joined the US in its illegal invasion of Iraq, a move that plunged the entire Middle East into a new era of violent instability and a refugee crisis that today, some 15 years later, shows little signs of abating.

Things, it turns out, can also get worse. Statistics can, however, be schooled into presenting a beguilingly different picture of the true state of the world, and the darling of global optimism, psychologist and author Steven Pinker is a skilful inquisitor of data. His scholarship seems to have caught the zeitgeist of latest wave of techno-optimism, and his data-fuelled Panglossian creed is being enthusiastically embraced by global influencers like billionaire Bill Gates. Continue reading

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Tall tales trump Varadkar’s Washington debut

Below, my piece published on DeSmog.uk from March detailing our Taoiseach’s travails when attempting to cosy up to the US president during the traditional St. Patrick’s Day visit.

IRISH prime minister, Leo Varadkar dropped a major climate clanger in Washington this week, when boasting about intervening with Irish planning authorities on behalf of Donald Trump. The incident occurred in 2014, prior to Trump’s presidential run and when Varadkar was then Irish tourism minister. Continue reading

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