In many respects, 2018 has been another thoroughly dispiriting year on the climate and environment beat. The publication in October of the IPCC’s SR1.5 report extinguished any remote hope that the pace and severity of climate breakdown might be less than feared.
Paul Krugman in the NYT last month surveyed the horrific damage being done by climate deniers and contrarians in a column titled: ‘The depravity of climate change denial – Risking civilization for profit, ideology and ego’. And frankly, that’s exactly how I see it.
Domestically, the hope that the faucet of anti-science nonsense infecting the Irish media had been finally turned off were well and truly dashed just before Christmas, with the publication of a ‘report’ by retired meteorologist Ray Bates for the secretive London-based climate denier think tank, the GWPF.
As anyone with even a passing understanding of how science works will know, if a scientist has prepared a bona fide critique of mainstream science, the next step is to submit it for peer-review and publication in a relevant science journal. That way, the claims and underlying assumptions presented can be thoroughly fact-checked and challenged if necessary by qualified scientists before publication and certainly, before you go rushing to the Farmers Journal or a climate denial think tank with secretive funding sources and a long record in spreading doubt and disinformation.
Unsurprisingly, the Farmers Journal chose to splash this in its columns. It has cynically enabled the peddling of anti-science dogma for at least the last 18 months, and shows no sign of letting up.
Bates’s column was grandly titled: ‘I do not see the current scientific evidence as indicating we are in a state of planetary emergency’. Had that been the end of it, I wouldn’t have even bothered mentioning it here, given the Journal has long since abandoned all pretence at journalism on environmental and climate matters.
However, worse, much worse, was to follow, the next day, when, quite inexplicably, the Irish Times chose to reheat some of Bates’s red herrings in a news report headed: ‘Irish scientist questions warnings on climate change’. This was catnip to deniers everywhere, and sure enough, this report was quickly lapped up by denier blogs and publications worldwide. What makes this even more unfortunate and difficult to fathom is that the Irish Times has significantly upped its game on climate coverage in the last year or two
Every action has, however, an equal and opposite reaction. First, Prof Peter Thorne of Maynooth University, an actual practising climatologist and IPCC Lead Author, issued a quite devastating take-down of Bates’s scholarship in a detailed posting on the ICARUS website. He explained Bates’s “wilful misinterpretation of AR5 attribution findings” and continues: “Ray Bates goes on to throw in a couple of red herrings on the Oceans for good measure”.
Thorne then went on to explain the painfully obvious: despite his protestations, Bates is simply not a climatologist. “Ray has had a long and distinguished career. But that career has been in atmospheric dynamics and not climate. Yes, both are to do with the atmosphere, but when your toilet is backing up you call the plumber and not the electrician. In the same way when looking for guidance on climate change it is advisable to listen to the climate scientists”, Thorne expanded.
Then, the most damming of all: “The analysis of Ray Bates is not a peer reviewed paper and finding substantive flaws in it is really not that hard. This has taken me all of an hour of an evening”. Worse, much worse, was to come for Bates. The coup de grace was delivered the following day, by no less an authority than Dr Gavin Schmidt, eminent climatologist, climate modeller and Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
“As dark nights draw in, the venerable contrarians at the GWPF are still up late commissioning silly pseudo-rebuttals to mainstream science”, Schmidt began, and it didn’t get any better from there. Bates’s attempt to claim the SR1.5 report was at odds with the IPCC’s core findings was dismissed as: “categorically, absolutely, and totally, untrue”. After tearing several more strips off Bates’s repeated misrepresentations of science, Schmidt concludes wearily: “Overall, this is basically a dialed-in work-for-hire. It’s incoherent, inconsistent, a little bit funny and adds nothing to our understanding of the science behind the SR15 report, or indeed any aspect of the attribution issue.”
For anyone with a shred of concern for their own standing among their ‘peers’ this is beyond devastating, but lest any of Bates’s fan-base at the ICSF and IFA/IFJ were still a little unclear as to how the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies regards their star climatologist, Schmidt sums it all up with a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
“It is a tale
Told by an idiot,
full of sound and fury,
Separately, earlier this month, taking a cue from the absolutely inspirational 15-year-old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, I pitched a piece to the Irish Times, and was beyond chuffed when they commissioned an article in two parts, one section written by me, the other, by my 16-year-old daughter, Sophie (her very first venture into print). The link to the article I posted on my Twitter account has been viewed and shared over 60,000 times, so it clearly struck a chord. The full text is below.
Finally, to everyone who continues to fight the good fight on climate and environmental action and activism, I salute and applaud you. The odds have never looked worse, but to borrow a line from author Harper Lee: ‘Real courage is when you know you’re licked but you begin anyway, and see it through, no matter what’.
In 2019, let’s begin, once again. Happy new year.
‘WHY SHOULD I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly means nothing to our society?”
It is hard to argue with the razor-sharp logic of 15-year-old Greta Thunberg, as she spelled out to the UN climate conference in Poland last week the reason why she has embarked on a “climate strike” in Sweden since September.
“Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago,” Thunberg added.
She has a point. And if you doubt it, consider the recent statements made by Ireland’s most senior civil servants representing the “public interest” to the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action. Flanked by advisers, they trooped in, day after day, to explain why Ireland, a wealthy nation, cannot possibly be expected to meet even its minimum legal and ethical obligations on climate action.
Their positions both reflect and amplify the political lacuna that engulfs almost every effort at meaningful environmental stewardship in Ireland. These same officials and politicians doubtless have children they care deeply for and actively plan for their future. Yet their actions and inactions are in a very real sense helping to burn that same future to the ground.
Naturalist, David Attenborough (92) was a young teenager just as Europe exploded into the deadliest conflict in human history. Today, he is adamant the threats facing the world are immeasurably greater than even the second World War.
“Right now we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change”, Attenborough told a stunned audience in Katowice, Poland. “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”
Last month, thousands of Australian students, inspired by Thunberg, walked out of their schools for a one-day strike. Some were threatened with disciplinary action. Australian resource minister Matt Canavan jeered that they should be in school learning about mining, and all they would learn on their protest would be “how to join the dole queues”.
It takes profound cognitive dissonance for otherwise intelligent adults to pretend not to grasp basic science. “Why should we go to school when you won’t listen to the educated?” read one of the posters at a rally in Sydney.
“Nothing could be more damaging for our democracy than for budding citizens to be told by the powerful to get back in their boxes and shut up,” ethicist Prof Clive Hamilton wrote last week. “Thank God the kids have decided they won’t be bullied.”
School protests have now spread to the Netherlands, Germany, Finland and Denmark. When will we see the first one in Ireland?
As a citizen and journalist, I am angry and frustrated at the appalling cynicism in Ireland’s collective non-response to this unfolding tragedy. But as a parent, I am simply terrified.
John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator
Why I would like to see a strike in my school
When I think about the world around me today I can’t help but fear for my own future. Every single day, fossil fuels are being burned and more species are going extinct. The natural world has been so severely damaged, I honestly don’t see much hope for my adult life.
When people talk about climate change it is never described as a crisis or something that should be dealt with now. It is not something that many people think about going about their day to day lives but it is what will have the most effect on our lives in the coming years.
We are treating this earth like we have a second one to go to or a “plan B” but we don’t. This is where we live, this is the only planet we can live and thrive on and we are throwing it all away. Politicians and other adults who we children and teenagers look up to and who we are told to trust are just ignoring this crisis. I know that scientists have been trying to warn them that the world is in danger due to human actions.
More action needs to be taken, this is our future more than theirs. Many of today’s adults won’t have to worry about what’s happening in 40 or 50 years. It is us, the children of this generation who will be so greatly affected, we will have to pick up the broken pieces of our world once we become adults. Our children may never know what an elephant or a tiger is because they were all killed off before they were even born. Even the birds are disappearing.
I admire what the school strikers are doing and I would love to see it happen in Ireland – and in my own school.
Sophie Gibbons (16) is a transition-year student in Dublin