We had better hope Jim Hansen is wrong this time

Former NASA chief climatologist, Jim Hansen has an unfortunate knack of being right a lot more often than he’s wrong. And when it comes to projecting the future path of climate change, he has an equally unfortunate habit of being well ahead of the scientific posse.

Back in the sweltering summer of 1988 Hansen testified to the US Congress on climate change, a phenomenon that was, until his electrifying presentation, seen as something of a scientific curio, an issue that some distant future generation would, eventually, have to confront. Hansen confirmed that not only was it real, it was already happening. Calculations Hansen published in the late 1980s of likely future climate change track what has actually occurred with uncanny accuracy.

Fast forward to 2015, a year in which global temperatures were smashed by record margins to make it, by some distance, the hottest year ever recorded. And temperatures recorded in first two months of 2016 have been described by climate scientists as “off the charts”.

The February 2016 global temperature anomaly is +1.35C above average. It took from the beginning of the industrial revolution until October 2015 to record a +1C global temperature rise. To add another 0.35C within less than six months has left the scientific community running out of superlatives.

And now Hansen is back. He and 19 colleagues have just published a blockbuster paper in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry & Physics. While the IPCC’s assessment reports represent the conservative mainstream view of climate science, Hansen and his colleagues can be said to be at the bleeding edge.

What their research has concluded is profoundly disturbing, throwing into question almost everything we think we know about how climate change is likely to play out in the 21st century. While the IPCC plumped for a likely maximum sea level increase this century of around 1 metre, Hansen argues this may be a hopeless underestimate.

“The models that were run for the IPCC report did not include ice melt, and we also conclude that most models, ours included, have excessive small scale mixing, and that tends to limit the effect of this freshwater lens on the ocean surface from melting of Greenland and Antarctica”, Hansen told a press conference marking the launch of his paper last month.

How Hansen sees this playing out in the real world reads like apocalyptic science fiction. Instead of a slow, incremental increase in sea levels, he believes we are looking at multi-metre sea level rise in the coming decades, not centuries.

Nor will this be a gentle process: he predicts devastating superstorms quite unlike anything since the last Ice Age, and the near-shutdown of major ocean currents such as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), or the Gulf stream, that vast current of warm tropical water that keeps northwest Europe, including Ireland, from not being frozen solid for several months a year.

If this is beginning to sound familiar, you’re probably thinking of the movie ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, where abrupt climate change triggered a massive freeze in the northern hemisphere. That, of course, is purely speculative; there is already far too much excess heat in the system for the return of widespread Ice Age conditions anytime in the next hundred millennia.

What is truly alarming, according to Hansen, is that as the heat differential between the equator and the northern hemisphere increases, this is likely to fuel powerful mid-latitude storms, on a scale not endured in thousands of years.

Such storms could be powerful enough indeed to pick up massive boulders weighting thousands of tonnes and toss them hundreds of metres inland. We have clear evidence that this has happened before – and he believes it can happen again.

With severe storms battering the world’s coastal regions, compounded by rapid sea level rise, the nightmare scenario of most of the world’s great cities being lost to coastal inundation moves from being some distant spectre far beyond the year 2100 and bang smack into the middle of this century. Cork, Dublin, Galway, Belfast, Limerick, Wexford… the list goes on, and that’s just on this tiny island.

Apart from the unimaginable human misery and forced migration of millions, the economic impact is almost incalculable Most of our critical infrastructure, including all the world’s great ports and trading hubs would be lost.

Not everyone agrees. Prof Peter Thorne of NUIM was among those who reviewed Hansen’s paper, and while not ruling out worst-case scenarios, he believe publicising them may be counterproductive.

“Does this actually confuse, does it cause despair, does it help or hinder? I don’t know whether communicating something like this actually elicits a response that says: let’s do something”, added Prof Thorne.

*This  article is published in the April 2016 edition of Village magazine

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One man’s meat is another’s global ecological calamity

The article below is a referenced version of my piece that appeared in the Weekend Edition of the Irish Times on Saturday last (and was the ‘most read’ piece on the full IT website for just over 24 hours). Writers don’t get to choose the headlines  –’Meat is madness’ – my preference would have been to emphasise the stark choice we face: unbridled meat consumption locks in climate havoc, yet compared to other swingeing lifestyle changes we face, cutting back sharply on meat is in fact among the least unpalatable. Lack of awareness that meat (especially from ruminants) is a key driver in just about every environmental crisis you can mention, is widespread. That’s what this article is really about addressing.

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IRELAND HAS a serious obesity problem. By 2030, this will have spiralled into a full-blown public health emergency. World Health Organisation projections show that, on current trends, one in two Irish adults will be clinically obese within 15 years.

Ireland also finds itself among the very worst in the league table of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, where we are 45 per cent above the EU average in per capita emissions. And, despite binding international commitments to rapidly reduce this pollution, data from the Environment Protection Agency confirms our emissions, like our waistlines, are instead continuing to expand.

At first glance, there might seem little to connect GHG emissions with an obesity epidemic, but they can also be seen as two sides of the same dysfunctional coin. This is the conclusion of a major new study from researchers at Oxford University.

The current global food production and marketing system is generating a glut of cheap processed meats which are fuelling dangerous climate change while also feeding a pandemic of diet-related ill health which is costing between $700 billion and $1 trillion a year in healthcare and related costs.

If people in developed countries like Ireland and the US simply ate no more than the recommended levels of meat, some 5.1 million premature deaths could be avoided by 2050, according to the Oxford study. They further calculated that a worldwide switch to a vegetarian diet would yield 7.3 million lives saved.

While these would be welcome reductions in ill health, hospitalisation and premature death from heart disease, cancers and diabetes, the carbon dividend of such a dietary transformation is no less significant. Researchers calculated that reining in our meat consumption to the recommended levels would cut GHG emissions from agriculture by a hefty 29 per cent.

A global shift to a vegetarian diet would deliver a profound reduction in agricultural GHG emissions, slashing them by 63 per cent, while also easing a host of related chronic ecological problems, from deforestation to desertification, eutrophication and water stress.

This would have the vital co-benefit of also freeing the land available to grow food directly for humans and so reducing hunger levels among the poor.

Globally, the production of just meat and dairy products generates some 14.5 per cent of all emissions – this is greater than the output of every car, bus, lorry, train and ship in the world – combined.

The influential UK think tank, the Chatham House institute in 2014 produced a study that found low levels of awareness among the public about the true costs of their dietary choices. However, “consumers with a higher level of awareness were more likely to indicate willingness to reduce their meat and dairy consumption for climate objectives”.

Closing what they call the “awareness gap” is a vital first step. The study noted the “striking paucity of efforts” to rein in consumption. They also suggest that both governments and environmental groups have been “reluctant to pursue policies or campaigns to shift consumer behaviour”.

The reason seems to be the fear of backlash, principally from powerful vested interest groups, and in few countries is this more apparent than Ireland, where national food policy is shaped primarily by the agri-industrial lobby.

It’s worth considering what is at stake. “Without a significant reduction in global meat-eating, keeping global warming below 2˚C will be nearly impossible. Tackling unsustainable meat consumption is therefore a necessity”, the Chatham House report added.

Left unchecked, by 2050, global meat and dairy consumption will have risen by 76 per cent compared with today, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). This would represent a lethal double whammy for both human health and the biosphere.

Change in human behaviour is difficult, but not impossible, to achieve. A separate study by researchers at Reading and Oxford universities recommended taxing the ‘carbon footprint’ of foods such as beef and dairy products to reflect their true health and environmental costs.

They warned, however, of the risk of pushing the public towards sweeter dietary options that are equally unhealthy. Their solution: a CO2 tax of around €4 per tonne on high-emissions foods combined with a 20 per cent sales tax on sugary drinks. They estimated this intervention alone would reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas output by 18.5 million tonnes, while avoiding some 1,250 premature deaths annually.

The practical impact of such a tax would be to significantly push up the price of red meat, including beef and lamb, which could lead to a 20 per cent drop in consumption.

Shortly after this study was published, the UK government took the unexpected step of introducing a levy on sugary drinks. The Irish industry, backed by finance minister Michael Noonan, has been quick to decry such a move here. Taxes do work. A 10 per cent tax in Mexico on sugary drinks saw consumption fall by 12 per cent within a year.

The Irish agribusiness lobby is, unsurprisingly, fiercely opposed to levies on high carbon foods. Ireland’s national beef herd comprises over five million animals, with another 1.2 million dairy cows. The dairy sector, following the euphoria of last year’s lifting of quotas, is now in crisis as milk prices have slumped to barely the cost of production.

Dramatic expansion of Ireland’s dairy herd has run roughshod over our need to sharply cut agricultural emissions, which today count for around a third of all our GHGs. Irish taxpayers may soon be facing multi-billion euro EU fines as a result of this complete failure to manage either agriculture or transport-related emissions.

While dairy farmers struggle, the beef sector remains on life support, surviving thanks to massive EU transfers. Prof Alan Matthews of TCD quoted Teagasc figures last year confirming that, were it not for EU subsidies of around €400 per hectare, beef farming “could not continue”. If, he explained, “you were to add in the additional costs of greenhouse gases, those net margins would be even more negative”.

As a way of making food, beef production is strikingly inefficient. “Beef has one of the lowest ‘feed-to-food’ conversion efficiencies of commonly consumed foods. Only 1 per cent of gross cattle feed energy and 4 per cent of ingested protein are converted to human-edible calories and protein. As a result, beef uses more land and freshwater, and generates more GHG emissions per unit of protein than other commonly consumed food”, according to the 2016 Global Food Policy Report.

Defence of our high-emissions national agricultural policy is often based on the argument that, as a ‘food island’, we are a special case. This claim is severely dented by FAO data for 2011, which shows that Ireland is in fact a net importer of food calories – shockingly, we import food calories for 1.4 million people more than we export for. Rather than Ireland feeding the world, we’re not even feeding ourselves, according to research to be presented later this month in NUI Galway by Dr. Colin Doyle.

Shifting away from an excessively meat-based diet will directly benefit human health, while reducing hunger among the poor, easing animal welfare concerns and offering farmers a genuinely sustainable future.

High-tech alternatives, such as ‘Beyond Meat’ are fast emerging, using plant-based ingredients to closely mimic the taste, texture and smells that make meat so alluring, while trimming the health impacts and global environmental havoc our ancient carnal predilections are now wreaking.

 

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Choosing to fail: Prof Kevin Anderson interviewed

Prof Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester and deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, is one of the world’s best known and most influential – and outspoken – climate specialists.

He was in Dublin for several days in early March at the invitation of An Taisce’s climate change committee (of which I’m a member), and he completed a whirlwind schedule with talks in DCU, NUIM, the RIA and the IIEA among other appointments, as well as a visit to Áras an Uachtaráin to brief President Higgins on the state of climate science.

I met him* in Dublin city centre just ahead of his final formal engagement: a lecture in the RIA on the chasm between where the physics tells us we need to be heading to avert disaster and where the timid steps proposed by our political classes are actually taking us.

As an aid to navigation, the first 10 minutes or so deal with Kevin’s observations on Ireland’s response to climate change. The next five minutes deal with the aftermath of the Paris Agreement, then he moves to address the growth paradox; then, he deals with his own decision not to fly. From there, he deals with climate sensitivity and extreme events. Next, he deals with the relative merits of carbon taxes versus rationing. From here, he examines the fitness for purpose of the neoliberal economic and political model. He also discusses the ‘new normal’ of life in a climate-changed world, where human impacts have already wrought disastrous changes to much of the natural world upon which we depend. The interview concludes by placing a moral framework on humanity’s relationship with the world. He remains deeply concerned that society, despite the overwhelming evidence of the need to act, that “we will choose to fail”.

*A full version of this interview will appear in the April edition of Village magazine

 

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Election 2016: more fudge and waffle on climate change

Below, my article written for Village magazine’s post-election special issue. The election campaign was notable for the fact that environmental issues generally and climate change specifically were completely written out of the political and media script. Twenty, maybe even 10 years ago, this might have been at least understandable. But, in 2016, just weeks after the historic Paris Agreement, and after the hottest year ever recorded, it seems nothing short of delusional.

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To say that environmental issues didn’t have much of an impact on Election 2016 would be a bit like observing that feminism hasn’t exactly been the defining feature of Donald Trump’s US presidential run.

The topic was completely ignored in the botched opening Leaders’ Debate on TV3, and again, on RTÉ’s seven-way debate the following week. The Green Party had fallen foul of an internal RTÉ decision to exclude it from a slot among the extended parties. Continue reading

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2011-2016: five more lost years for Ireland’s climate response

Below, my article as it appears in the Election Edition of Village magazine. This was written ahead of the publication of the assorted party manifestos (these are just now starting to trickle out) but it seemed a more useful exercise to step back to looking at the 2011 FG/Labour Programme for Government and see, from the environment/climate standpoint, how they actually performed. Here’s what I concluded.

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THE OUTGOING Fine Gael/Labour coalition government did manage to pull off one headline act that had eluded the previous FF/Green administration, and that was they got climate legislation, of sorts, onto the statute books for the first time ever. Continue reading

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Every sector must pull its weight on curtailing climate change

Below, my article as it appeared in today’s Irish Examiner. I wrote this piece on behalf of An Taisce, prompted by this self-serving and misleading piece by the IFA in the same paper last week. The agribusiness lobby has been working flat out to twist the outcome of the Paris Agreement into (yet another) blank cheque for industrialised food production, including of course the exporting of vast amounts of meat and dairy produce to sate the appetites of the world’s emerging middle classes.

Rather than simply serving the ‘need’ for this energy and emissions-intensive foodstuff, the Irish state is actively using all its political, commercial and marketing nous to stoke up demand for these products, at the behest of the rancher class of Irish farmer that the IFA now primarily represents, and, more particularly, the giant agrifood PLCs, such as Glanbia, Kerry and APB Foods. Continue reading

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Met Éireann & climate change: time to break the silence

What is it with Met Eireann and climate change? Take the below, entirely typical, recent comments from forecaster Joanna Donnelly:

“It is a global phenomenon that needs to be looked at globally over decades and not days…Our climate is changing but you could not use the weather in any one country in any one month, day or year to say that this is the evidence of climate change…Climate change is evident all over the globe all of the time”.

The above quote is from a news article in the Irish Independent, dated December 3rd last. Just four days later, the Irish Examiner carried a report headed: ‘Storm Desmond: All the evidence points to climate change, says Met Office’. The Met Office in question is of course the UK version. Its chief scientist, Dame Julia Slingo had no difficulty stating the obvious, which is: “all the evidence points to climate change”. Continue reading

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On the brink of history, at the edge of the abyss

News tonight from Paris is surprisingly good. The latest Draft text catches up with scientific reality in emphasising that the mythical +2C global average temperature rise is not some political bargaining chip; rather, it is the place no sane climate policy dare take us – not soon, not ever.

The critical phrase that has made it into the new draft is as follows: “Hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C, recognizing that this would significantly reduce risks and impacts of climate change”. Continue reading

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Never mind the bullocks, Enda isn’t cowed at COP

And so, to Paris. COP21 kicked off on Monday with each of the almost 200 world leaders chipping in their opening contributions. The feeling at the last mega-COP (in Copenhagen in December 2009) was that leaders only engaged at the very end, by which time the bones of the conference had been picked clean of any meaning, leaving a hollow shell as its legacy.

Quite how many more ‘final warnings’ anyone can seriously think the global scientific establishment can issue before anyone pays heed remains unclear. What we do know is that the mood music in Paris is significantly more sombre and serious than in any of the previous 20 Conferences of the Parties since the whole UNFCCC jamboree kicked off in 1994. (a year probably best remembered for Ray Houghton’s winner against Italy in the World Cup). Continue reading

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Brave new world – or dystopian wasteland? Visions from 2100

CT_tUVGUsAAIN8O.jpg-largeEver stop to ponder what kind of a world might await our
descendants by the end of this century? Irish-Australian entrepreneur and author, John O’Brien has spent more time than most gazing towards the year 2100 through the environmental prism. The fruits of his labours were published earlier this month in his book Visions 2100 – Stories From Your Future.

Visions assembled a panel of 80 environmental writers and thinkers from around the world and from a wide range of backgrounds, each of whom was asked to contribute a short précis of the kind of world they expected – or perhaps hoped – might come to pass at the beginning of the 22nd century. Continue reading

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“Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”

Coalition partners Fine Gael and Labour are fast becoming the Laurel and Hardy of environmental regulation, with chaotic, contradictory and just plain wrong statements emanating from the government parties as they attempt to talk their way out of their shambolic non-position on tackling climate change.

Last week, Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes announced that ‘Ireland can meet 2020 emissions targets, according to the EU Commission’. Hayes claimed to have been told by EU Climate Commissioner Arias Canete that, allowing for flexibility mechanisms under EU rules, “Ireland is on course to meet its (2020) obligations”.

This statement may have come as a surprise to Commissioner Canete, whose actual report stated that while the EU overall would beat its 2020 emissions targets, “the report warned that Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg and Austria would miss the 2020 target”, according to Euractiv. Continue reading

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Microbeads – tiny pollutants with a fearsome impact

Below, my article, as it appears in the Sept/October 2015 edition of Village magazine:

THERE ARE some products, notably tobacco, that are only tolerated by dint of having been around for a very long time. These days, no one in their right might would expect to deliberately bring such a toxic product to the market in western countries and be allowed promote and sell it to the public.

Or so you would think. Back in the late 1990s, the product development team in a cosmetics company came up with a brilliantly simple – and cheap – solution for how to add texture to personal hygiene products, such as exfoliants.

Until then, the industry used natural materials, including dried coconut, crushed and finely ground walnut shells to add an abrasive touch to cosmetics. Continue reading

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We’re in a war with the Earth where no one wins

Below, my article, as it appears in the September edition of Forum, journal of the Irish College of General Practitioners

BY ALMOST any measure, climate change poses the greatest threat to human health and well being in the 21st century. An international scientific consensus attributes the same level of certainty that climate change is both extremely dangerous and primarily anthropogenic in origin as exists linking tobacco and a range of life-threatening conditions.

There are, of course, those who disagree. That a handful of historians continue to dispute that the Holocaust actually occurred, or that a tiny minority of doctors oppose all vaccinations hardly weakens the consensus evidence, accumulated over decades, supporting both the terrible reality of the Holocaust and the enormous health benefits that have flowed from vaccination programmes. Continue reading

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We mourn for Cecil while ignoring destruction of natural world

Below, my article, as it appears in this weekend’s Irish Times.

WITH modern technology and firepower, it takes little courage and even less skill to kill wild animals. This week US dentist and recreational ‘big game hunter’ Walter James Palmer found himself squarely in the crosshairs as an international controversy exploded over his casual slaughter of an iconic Zimbabwean lion known as Cecil.

Palmer had paid $50,000 for the privilege of killing a lion for ‘sport’, an activity that is technically legal in Zimbabwe. Cecil was, however, based in the protected Hwange National Park, but was lured out using bait and inexpertly shot by Palmer with a crossbow.

The semi-tame lion, which had been fitted with a GPS tracking device as part of a long-term Oxford University study, fled, wounded, and survived for 40 agonising hours as the weekend warrior and his guides stalked it across the savannah. Continue reading

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Challenging Ireland’s climate contrarian-in-chief

Back in May 2014, UCD meteorologist, Prof Ray Bates penned a heartfelt plea for continued inaction on climate change, under the lurid headline: ‘Warning of over-alarmist’ stance on climate risk’. It was a weak, poorly argued exercise in that most unscientific of pursuits, namely cherry-picking. The piece was duly taken apart on this blog and elsewhere.

The most comical aspect of Bates’ stirring call to climate inaction was that, as far as we could tell, the reason this scientist was demanding that we low-ball the real and rapidly accelerating risks from climate change was his passionate desire to ensure that the expansionist agenda of the Irish agricultural sector not be in any way constrained by such irksome burdens as our legally mandated requirements to cut GHG emissions in the near and medium term. What, you might ask, has exporting beef and milk powder got to do with climate science? Yes, precisely nothing.

As I wondered aloud at the time: “What I am curious to know is why Prof Bates – a meteorologist – spends so much time lobbying for agriculture, and much less time taking about the very real threats that climate change poses to us all – and that very much includes our agriculture sector”. Continue reading

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