Guardian seeks to rouse media from its climate torpor

Below is my article as it appears in the current edition of Village magazine:

THERE is nothing new about newspapers striking poses over climate change. On December 7th, 2009, some 55 major newspapers from all over the world (including the Irish Times) ran a joint editorial just ahead of the opening of the Copenhagen UN climate conference.

Who could forget the dramatic call to arms from some of the world’s most respected newspapers, which began: “humanity faces a profound emergency”.

“Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting… In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world’s response has been feeble and half-hearted.

“Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over short-sightedness. The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history’s judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.”

Stirring stuff indeed. The Copenhagen conference, mired in phony controversy and crippled by internecine squabbling, was a wretched failure. Less than four weeks later, with Ireland in the grip of a (climate change-related) freezing spell, the Irish Times editorial writer had a Damascene conversion. So much for all of that guff about global warming! Are world leaders having the wrong debate? We are experiencing the most prolonged period of icy weather in 40 years and feeling every bit of it”.

Humanity’s ‘profound emergency’ turned out to be little more than a nine-day wonder, as the media folded up its collective tent and moved on to more promising editorial fare. After all, who could be bothered reading (or writing about) the dull, technical and seemingly interminable non-story that climate change and the relentless destruction of our planet’s biodiversity and habitability had become.

Sprinkle this journalistic ennui with a side order of character assassination of selected individual scientists and voila, the greatest crisis humanity ever faced morphs into the greatest non-story of the century. That may be how the media works, but nature itself continues to be stubbornly cooperative with the grimmer prognostications of those wearisome scientific eggheads.

“Climate change is one of those stories that deserves more attention, that we all talk about,” Jeff Zucker, president of news network CNN said last year. “But we haven’t figured out how to engage the audience in that story in a meaningful way. When we do do those stories, there tends to be a tremendous lack of interest on the audience’s part”, was Zucker’s candid appraisal.

Paul Weller opened The Jam’s 1980 single, ‘Going underground’ with the line, “the public gets what the public wants”, but as the song unfolds, this inverts to become: “the public wants what the public gets”.

The Irish public today knows far more about the disturbed sexual fantasies of one south Dublin architect than it does about the existential noose that draws ever tighter around our collective neck. Since these salacious stories, along with exhaustive ‘economic’ analysis predicated solely on growth and consumption, are what the public gets, day after day, ergo this must be what the public wants. Small wonder then that our politicians and public servants shrug off environmental angst as being not on the public agenda, and therefore nothing for them to bother with.

To put a number on our collective failure, consider the following: the world’s political leaders have known since 1990 that CO2 emissions were putting humanity in jeopardy. Countless conferences, protocols, treaties and solemn declarations later, and, rather than reducing, global emissions have instead spiralled by 61% since Jack Charlton led the Irish team to the World Cup quarter finals in Rome. In the same period, species extinctions have intensified and global biodiversity has gone into freefall.

The neoliberal assault on the foundations of life on Earth is fast approaching its triumphant, albeit suicidal, apotheosis. Anyone who pays more than fleeting attention to the output of the world’s leading climate journals and scientific academies will realise this is not mere journalistic hype. It is instead an unremarkable observation on a species that has run amok and has been blindsided to the fact that its own fate is inextricably linked with the very fabric of the natural world it is carelessly unravelling.

In recent weeks, the UK Guardian newspaper, under outgoing editor, Alan Rusbridger, has sought to break this communications impasse. And it has done so in the most spectacular style, beginning its campaign with full wraparounds on several editions of the newspaper carrying in-depth articles from Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben, among others.

Both the newspaper and its editor are out on a limb, and success is far from assured. Explaining his thinking, Rusbridger described journalism as a rear-view mirror. “We prefer to deal with what has happened, not what lies ahead. We favour what is exceptional and in full view over what is ordinary and hidden.”

Vast, complex stories with no apparent beginning, middle or end, in which there is no clearly identifiable bad guy and in which we in the rich world and almost everything we do is to blame are an exceptionally poor fit for the news paradigm.

“Changes to the Earth’s climate rarely make it to the top of the news list. The changes may be happening too fast for human comfort, but they happen too slowly for the newsmakers – and, to be fair, for most readers”, he expanded. “These events that have yet to materialise may dwarf anything journalists have had to cover over the past troubled century. There may be untold catastrophes, famines, floods, droughts, wars, migrations and sufferings just around the corner. But that is futurology, not news, so it is not going to force itself on any front page any time soon”.

Unless, that is, an editor, backed by his newspaper, refuses to accept the failed and increasingly dangerous model of journalism that has us all stumbling blindly off a cliff, too distracted by trivia and bedazzled by celebrity to even notice our world rapidly vanishing behind us.

“To my mind, the science of climate change is without doubt. The threat to the species is so severe that this is one of those rare subjects where you can move from reporting to campaigning,” Rusbridger explained.

The Guardian has taken this campaign up a notch, by launching its ‘Keep it in the ground’ campaign to encourage and shame institutions and organizations, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the Wellcome Trust, to dump their investments in fossil fuel companies. The Guardian Media Group has itself divested from any such interests.

The numbers here are surprisingly simple. For there to be any reasonable prospect of preventing global warming from breaching the +2C ‘red line’, at least 80% of the world’s proven fossil fuel reserves can never be burned. Since these reserves are worth trillions of euros on the balance sheets of the major energy companies, nothing short of a revolutionary shift in public attitude can have even the slightest prospect of preventing their being burned, and humanity being destroyed in the process.

From where we are now standing, the prospects for success seem slim. The energy industry is the richest business the world has ever known, and its wealth buys political and media obsequiousness. But since the alternative to fighting is to sit helplessly and wait for everything we know and value to be destroyed, that’s reason enough to battle on, no matter how unpromising the odds.

History reminds us that there are invisible social tipping points, moments where the unimaginable becomes, almost overnight, inevitable. The ending of the global slave trade, the women’s suffragette movement and even the spread of democracy itself are examples of ideas that initially appeared to have few powerful advocates and little chance of success. South Africa’s Apartheid system and the Soviet Union also once seemed unassailable – just as neoliberal capitalism and globalised consumerism appears today.

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking”, remarked Albert Einstein. “It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

- John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

An economic analysis that just doesn’t add up

I was pleased to spot economist Prof John Fitzgerald among the audience at the recent EPA lecture in the Mansion House, Dublin, presented by Prof Myles Allen. As it transpires, Fitzgerald was doing some field work for an opinion article that appeared in the business section of the Irish Times earlier this week, under the headline: ‘Solution to global warming is technology’ (authors rarely get to write the headline, so we won’t hold that one against him).

This is one of only a handful of articles the otherwise prolific Fitzgerald has dedicated to the topic of climate change. It is always welcome to see a senior Irish economist to turn his quill to this vast, challenging topic (two fairly strong critiques of Fitzgerald’s piece, by Profs Barry McMullin and John Sweeney appeared in the Letters Page a week after publication)

To be fair, it started well enough, with phrases such as: “If urgent action is not taken the world’s climate will get worse at an accelerated pace”. That’s as good as it gets, alas. “Governments rarely choose to go to their electorates and tell them they are going to make life more expensive and that there will be no go financial reward for their pain” is how Fitzgerald sums up moves to address climate change.

You will note he repeats uncritically the standard canard that addressing climate change is all about costs and ignoring it is a rosebed of benefits. Had he read and absorbed the 2006 Stern review for the UK government on the economic costs of action versus inaction on climate change (our failure to tax carbon pollution was famously described by Lord Stern as “the greatest market failure in history”) Fitzgerald might have had an altogether more nuanced approach to the topic.

“It is our grandchildren and great grandchildren who would benefit from applying the brakes today to bring the momentum of climate change to a slow halt. Like development aid, action on climate change involves an appeal to altruism on the part of voters – there is little in it for people living in Ireland today.”

This quite staggeringly inept summary shows Fitzgerald to be hopelessly out of his depth, a figure from another era who has simply been unable (or just not bothered) to keep up with the science of climate change, as well as its rapidly unfolding physical realities. Perhaps he failed to notice last year’s €100 million Irish ‘once-in-a-century’ flooding event, and the one before that, and the one before that. And as for the virtually unprecedented 2012 fodder crisis, news clearly didn’t make it as far as the ESRI. And as for the once-in-a-lifetime freezing events of 2010 – and 2011 – well that’s weather for you, right, John?

To describe tackling climate change as ‘an appeal to altruism’ makes about as much sense as my not bothering to tackle a smouldering fire under the stairs in my house on the grounds that, by the time it becomes a conflagration, I’ll be at safely at work and it’ll only be my kids/grandkids who’ll be killed and my house burned down. Unless, of course, I was feeling particularly altruistic that morning and decided to tackle the fire…

While Fitzgerald’s ethical framework resembles a colander, it’s when he starts trying to work out the economics, his arguments unravel even more spectacularly. He starts with the (not unreasonable) point that shifting economic activity from, say, Europe to China could be counter-productive from an emissions standpoint. This is not, however, news.

Fitzgerald then joins the ever-lengthening line of Irish pundits queuing up to make the case for Irish dairy products as being somehow uniquely carbon-efficient. Given the slippery nature of emissions (including the emissions embedded in the goods we import from China, India, etc.), Fitzgerald points out the obvious: “in theory this pattern of trade would suggest that, instead of taxing producers of goods for emitting carbon, we should tax consumers based on the carbon embodied in the goods they consume. This would mean that there would be no incentive to relocate production and consumers would be encouraged to reduce consumption”.

No sooner had he uttered the vile heresy (“reduce consumption”) than Fitzgerald poo poohs the very notion of taxing carbon as “utterly unworkable”. And that two-word analysis is about as deep as he goes in explaining the utter unworkability of simply applying a market price on pollution that, left unchecked, will quite certainly destroy human civilisation and most of the natural world in the coming decades.

Maybe Fitzgerald is simply so completely out of touch that he is unaware of the crystal clear warnings and time frames set out by the world’s scientific community on our countdown to carbon armadeggon as global average surface temperatures smash through the +2C ‘red line’ in the next two to three decades, leading to climate collapse, regional and global famine, water and food wars and the evisceration of international trade so beloved of economists like Fitzgerald (you can read what those lefties over at the World Bank have to say here).

But wait, he has an answer! “In the long run the solution to global warming will have to be found in new technologies”. Hurrah! Technologies that don’t exist will somehow magically appear in a matter of years to ‘solve’ global warming. A report issued by no less a body than the US National Academy of Sciences last month stated bluntly: “current technologies would take decades to achieve moderate results and be cost-prohibitive at scales large enough to have a sizeable impact.” There is, the NAS reiterated, “no substitute for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change”. No ifs, buts or maybes.

And of course, we don’t have decades to wait for some technological rabbit to be pulled from the hat. The ‘long run’ that Fitzgerald mistakenly believes our unfolding ecological disaster is unfolding over, is in fact quite a short trot…right off a cliff edge.

In Fitzgerald’s world, it is just too crazy a notion to even imagine that our current (and utterly unsustainable) global consumption binge could be reined in, or that the pollution that is destroying our shared atmosphere might actually carry a price tag for the polluters. And heaven forbid that this is “unlikely to prove acceptable” when governments meet later this year to ponder the fate of the world.

In a delightful piece of unintended irony, an article adjacent to Fitzgerald’s piece from Clifford Coonan pointed out that “10-15% of all China’s infant milk formula comes from Ireland”. Here, in a nutshell, is the mad logic of globalised food production: use marketing to persuade and embarrass Chinese mums to abandon breast feeding, then import powdered milk from 12,000km always, from the ‘greenest little country in the world in which to flog just about anything’, then tell the public and fool yourselves that this madhouse logic is necessary to ‘feed the world’.

I said at the outset that I was pleased to see Prof Fitzgerald attending a climate change lecture. Every public official and elected representative should be fully informed on the science of climate change before opening their beak in public, or drafting papers such as the Department of Food, Agriculture & the Marine’s recent discussion document on GHG mitigation in agriculture & forestry (An Taisce’s full-blooded response/rebuttal is here).

The DAFM, with more than a little help from its friends in the IFA, has dreampt up something called ‘sustainable intensification of food production’ to paper over a policy that has little to do with sustainability and everything to do with promoting its favoured model of ramping up the most emissions-intensive forms of export-oriented agriculture, namely intensive dairy and beef production.

But back to Prof Fitzgerald and his late, late outbreak of interest in climate change. Given that, on the evidence of his Irish Times article, he has nothing but his misconceptions to bring to the discussion, why the sudden interest? People far more cynical than me might suggest that he is in fact brushing up his CV to be in the running for a spot (possibly as Chair) of the forthcoming Government-appointed Expert Advisory Council to oversee the roll-out of Alan Kelly’s shambolic ‘Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2015’.

The Climate Act is set to become a toothless paper tiger beloved only by the assorted special interest groups who lobbied so tirelessly to ensure that none of what Australian PM, Tony Abbott memorably called “that climate crap” gets in the way of Irish industry and agriculture raking in the cash while steering the Good Ship Planet Earth straight for the rocks.

FOOTNOTE: There is a line where tragedy slopes into farce, and here it is Prof Fitzgerald’s referencing in his article of the ill-starred ‘ESRI Medium Term Review, 2008-2015’ – this is the ‘expert report’ that completely and utterly failed to spot that the Irish economy was a gigantic building boom-cum-pyramid scheme of crooked bankers lending to crooked builders and preparing to drop the tab on the entirely uninformed Irish public. (What kind of wilful blindness or wishful thinking leads seasoned experts to miss a bubble that size is a topic will doubtless keep economic historians busy for years to come).

This underlines the capacity for eminent economists to screw up spectacularly when projecting in the very areas they profess actual in-depth expertise. There have been fewer more comically awful reports ever produced by a Government think tank, in this country or elsewhere. Its two most senior authors: Prof Fitzgerald and…Prof Richard Tol, the Panglossian climate economist who has single-handedly pedalled the fantasy that climate change is about good as well as bad outcomes. This author sincerely hopes that Prof Fitzgerald is not depending too much on his former ESRI colleague for his views on the actual economic costs of dealing – and not dealing – with climate change.

Posted in Economics, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sceptics | 13 Comments

Come back, Liz McManus – your country needs you!

In case you haven’t heard, our current Minister for the Environment is a Labour party TD called Alan Kelly. He is the man who brought us the no-lobbyist-left-behind Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2015, a piece of draft legislation that has been warmly welcomed by the IFA, ICOS, IBEC, etc., i.e. by the folks who have worked tirelessly over the last several years to ensure that no meaningful climate legislation ever found its way onto our statute books. In that regard, the Climate Bill looks like ‘Mission Accomplished’.

Kelly was interviewed by Sean O’Rourke on RTE Radio yesterday. It was, in a sense, revealing. Kelly is “a person of conviction”, we learned. We know this because he told us he was. We also learned that Kelly’s proudest boast is that Ireland has the “highest growth rate in Europe” (again), and that he pursues what he calls a “progressive agenda”. Kelly is also deputy leader of the Labour party, therefore the proverbial heartbeat from being Tánaiste.

To wind him up a bit, O’Rourke played a clip of former minister, Eamon Ryan describing Kelly as “an anti-green Minister for the Environment…he reads the political tea leaves and sees there isn’t a constituency (in tackling climate change)”. Ryan went on to describe Kelly as “our greatest electoral asset, every time he goes out, he saying Labour doesn’t give a damn about that vision of the future”.

It had the desired effect, as Kelly snarled back (not unreasonably) about the Green party’s utter failure, after four years in power, to get a good, bad or indifferent Climate Bill to the floor of the Dáil (the Green Bill got as far as the Seanad in 2010).

Back to Kelly’s Bill. Wearing my An Taisce climate committee hat, I set out at length the many shortcomings of a Climate Bill last month, which we believe was deliberately ‘designed to fail’. The statement concluded: “This Bill only pretends bare compliance with our EU targets and lacks any enforceable sanctions to ensure they are achieved. Failure to act now will mean that in the near future, these EU targets will need to become more, not less, onerous. Time is not on our side. As it stands the Bill does nothing to address the existential threat climate change now poses to every society and economy in the world, and yes, that includes Ireland”.

Maybe these criticisms are harsh. Kelly had an open microphone yesterday to reassure those cynics who may sneakingly suspect he couldn’t give a stuff about climate change or the, um, environment generally. If so, he completely passed up the opportunity.

O’Rourke pointed out the obvious, ie. that the Bill contains no targets whatever. “We have targets, set by the EU, 2020 targets and will have 2030 targets…I’m very happy with what we’re bringing forward, it’s a step in the right direction. We’re committed to adaptation and mitigation plans that every Government will have to sign up and report on every five years”.

Well, that at least is reassuring. Our Climate Bill has no targets, sectoral or otherwise, but no problem, we’ll just go with EU targets…or maybe not. Here’s what Kelly recently said about these wretched interfering EU types and their bothersome targets: “I am on record as stating that the (EU) 2020 targets were unrealistic and unachievable and that did not take into account Ireland’s dependence on agriculture or the fact that we have one of the most climate-friendly agricultural systems in the world.”

So, to recap: while eschewing a solitary target within our national Climate Bill, Kelly is equally determined to pick and choose whatever bits of EU targets the folks over in Farm Centre aren’t too unhappy with.

This, the minister went on to explain in his interview with O’Rourke that it “is absolutely necessary and it will ensure we deal with all the issues that we have from climate change need in this country, but in a structured and formatted way. We have huge issues here in relation to transport, agriculture, the built environment and energy, and we need a framework for doing that”.

As I listened to Kelly talk about frameworks, structure and formats, my mind drifted back to a packed press conference I attended in Leinster House back in October 2009, as the all-party Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change and Energy released their report, ‘The case for a climate change law’. Committee rapporteur was the formidable Labour party TD and then environment spokesperson, Liz McManus. Here’s what I wrote at the time about that conference:

Committee rapporteur, Liz McManus likened the position we now find ourselves in and the scale of what is required to address it as being “like a war effort”. This, from the Opposition, is extremely encouraging. McManus has for the last year or so, given the distinct impression that she realises this is no phoney war. In that regard, she remains in a small minority within Dáil Eireann.

Roll forward a year, to November 2010, and here’s what I wrote about her then: “A climate change bill will finally make its way to the Cabinet next week. Much credit here is due to Labour’s Liz McManus, rapporteur on the Oireachtas Climate Change Committee and tireless campaigner for a strong climate law for years.

“As the threat of global warming grows inexorably the case for a legislative response is compelling”, McManus wrote in the Forward to the committee’s Second Report on Climate Change Law, published last month. The bill provides for aggressive emissions reductions targets, with the meeting of these targets the direct responsibility of the Taoiseach of the day.

Compare and contrast McManus’s direct, urgent language and tenor with Kelly’s detached, world-weary cynicism, as evidenced on numerous recent occasions and again in yesterday’s radio interview. A member of an environmental NGO who was present when Kelly attended a recent briefing described his body language to me as disengaged, to the point of boredom. “He really looked like he just wanted to get up and leave practically from the moment he arrived” was how it was put to me. Which is, I’m told, exactly what he did at the first available opportunity.

McManus would have breezed back into her Dáil seat in the 2011 election, but chose instead to retire, and concentrate on her extra-mural interests, including writing her second novel. With hindsight, her decision has had disastrous consequences.

McManus represented the principled, scientifically informed Labour party stance on the environment, and it was obvious to those of us who knew and dealt with her that she was not only master of her brief, she was also passionate that climate change was the overarching issue of our time, above and beyond politics of the next election. OK, it’s undoubtedly easier to make grand statements from the Opposition benches than when faced with the daily grind of civil servants and lobbyists, but it does help to at least understand that climate change is a huge problem, however difficult it may prove to address in the real world of politics-as-usual.

The vacuum the departing McManus left was filled in the current Government first by the entirely disengaged Phil Hogan. After he took the golden parachute to Brussels, this portfolio finally fell to Labour…and Alan “whatever you do, do nothing” Kelly, a politician whose meteoric rise to senior ministry having only been a TD since 2011 appears to have more to do with a quirk of the scramble for party leadership after Eamon Gilmore stepped down. While Kelly never had a snowball’s chance of actually winning the leadership race, he secured a juicy Cabinet post as his runners’ up medal. That it included the word ‘Environment’ in the title is pure happenstance. Such, in all its glory, is how our democratic system works.

On a more positive note, another altogether more substantial new Labour minister, Alex White, is now in charge at the Dept. of Communications, Energy & Natural Resources. White gave a hint of his mettle on new year’s eve, when issuing a statement to the effect that nuclear power cannot remain ‘off the table’ as his department works on publishing a white paper on Ireland’s future energy needs, challenges and options this summer.

An Irish minister prepared to open and front an honest public discussion about nuclear energy? That’s got to be a first, at least since Des O’Malley tried (and failed) back in the 1970s.

White clearly has a decent grasp of energy systems, but he is also equally clear that they are a subset of a functioning biosphere. While this might sound like a statement of the obvious, there isn’t a shred of evidence that his colleague in the Custom House has troubled himself to be even slightly aware of the existential nature of the gathering climate crisis.

It may be soothing for Kelly to tell us that: “tackling climate change so that future generations of people in Tipperary can live in a safer, cleaner environment is a critical issue”, but remind me again how that differs from the waffle emanating from Enda Kenny at the UN in New York last September (“The hand of the future beckons, the clock ticks and we have no time to waste”), or, for that matter, the utter tripe his predecessor, Brian Cowen read from the autocue at the same venue in 2009 (failure to immediately tackle global warming would “put at risk the survival of the planet”).

Come back, Liz McManus – your country needs you!

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Breaching our planetary boundaries, one by one

Below, my article, as it will appear in the latest Village magazine:

BACK IN 2009, some months before the ill-fated UN climate conference in Copenhagen, an Earth system framework was proposed by an international collaboration of environmental scientists. Their aim was to establish a measurable set of ‘planetary boundaries’ with a view to identifying a “safe operating space” for humanity.

The research team, involving scientists from a range of disciplines, developed a set of nine key boundaries, beyond which lay the risks of “irreversible and abrupt environmental change”. In January 2015, the team published an in-depth update on their investigations in the journal Science, and it was discussed in depth at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos. The findings took even seasoned environmental commentators and observers by surprise.

The paper confirmed that humanity has already breached four of the nine key boundaries, namely biodiversity loss, deforestation, atmospheric CO2 levels and the flows of nitrogen and phosphorus used in agriculture into the world’s waterways and oceans.

The era known as the Holocene began almost 12,000 years ago, just as the last Ice Age was in full retreat and climatic conditions favourable to humans led to our exponential surge. Human expansion was marked throughout this period with spasms of extinctions, as well as major changes in land cover and use. Our mastery of fire in particular allowed humanity to radically alter entire ecological systems thousands of years before the industrial revolution. We have been a significant force on the planet for millennia; what has so profoundly altered in the modern era has been the rate and scale of change.

In the last two centuries, human numbers increased more than seven-fold. In the 20th century alone, we consumed more energy than used by all humans in the preceding 10,000 years. And in the first decade and a half of the 21st century, the exponential surge in human numbers and impacts has continued unabated.

Growth, expansionism and the meeting of human needs and desires primarily by consumption is the dominant ideology of this era in human history, and it essential to the ever-expanding engine of globalised capitalism. In this paradigm, the entire natural world is both a quarry from which we can extract an unlimited supply of ‘resources’ to fuel the Age of Man and a dump into which we can quietly excrete the toxic by-products of this whirlwind of activity.

To downscale the biosphere into a single human body, you could also identify nine key systems which operate both independently and as part of a closely integrated biological system. The heart, lungs, liver, endocrine system, brain, nervous system, kidneys and digestive system are all ‘boundary’ systems, and each in turn support a myriad of sub-systems, as well as combining to define our overall health and well-being.

The ‘planetary boundaries’ report is the planetary equivalent of the doctor informing an individual that his heart is badly damaged, his lungs are diseased, his liver is barely functioning and his kidneys are showing signs of acute organ failure. The good news is that his brain is still functioning well, his digestive system is in reasonable shape and his neurological function appears normal. After the initial shock, how would you expect the patient react to this news? Humanity’s collective response thus far has been to call the doctor a quack, accuse him of faking the x-rays and lab results and head out the hospital door with a bottle of scotch in one hand and a cigar in the other.

While all nine boundary systems are important, by far the most critical are biosphere integrity and climate change, as these are what are known as overarching systems, upon which all other systems depend, and “operate at the level of the whole Earth System, and have co-evolved for nearly four billion years”.

Prof. Will Steffen, lead author on the ‘Science’ study describes the pace of change as the most striking aspect of their findings. “Almost all graphs show the same pattern; the most dramatic shifts have occurred since 1950”. It is, he added, “difficult to overestimate the scale and speed of change. In a single lifetime, humanity has become a planetary-scale geological force”. This is genuinely new, he pointed out, “and indicates that humanity has a new responsibility at a global scale”.

In a masterful piece of understatement, the study authors advise: “The precautionary principle suggests that human societies would be unwise to drive the Earth System substantially away from a Holocene-like condition. A continuing trajectory away from the Holocene could lead, with an uncomfortably high probability, to a very different state of the Earth System, one that is likely to be much less hospitable to the development of human societies”. That is scientist-speak for a future that looks somewhere between Mad Max and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Another of the report’s authors, Dr Steve Carpenter argued that the study’s findings mean “we’re running up to and beyond the biophysical boundaries that enable human civilisation as we know it to exist. It might be possible for human civilisation to live outside Holocene conditions, but it’s never been tried before. We know civilisation can make it in Holocene conditions, so it seems wise to try to maintain them”, he added wryly.

As one of 18 experts in the group which completed this study, Carpenter’s main focus was on nitrogen and phosphorus, elements which attract far less headline attention than they actually merit. “We’ve changed nitrogen and phosphorus cycles vastly more than any other element. The increase is of the order of 200–300%.” In contrast, he pointed out carbon has ‘only’ been increased 10–20%.

Nitrogen and phosphorus are the inevitable byproducts of the ‘Green revolution’, in which global agricultural output increased dramatically as a result of the massive input of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. In the short term, this bought humanity several decades reprieve from the risk of widespread famine, which had been predicted in the 1950s and 1960s, as world population boomed.

The father of this revolution was a gifted scientist, Dr Norman Bourlag. In his speech accepting the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in boosting food output, he warned: “The green revolution has won temporary success in man’s war against hunger… but the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed.” Failure to rein in human numbers and impacts, Bourlag added, would mean that: “The (21st) century will experience sheer human misery on a scale that will exceed the worst that has ever come before.”

It was a coincidence in timing if nothing else that as the ‘Boundaries’ paper was being debated, news came through in joint statements from Nasa and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that 2014 had been confirmed as the hottest ever year in the global instrumental record that stretches back to 1880. Indeed, 14 of the 15 hottest years ever recorded have all occurred in the 21st century. The statistical odds on that sequence being a coincidence are reckoned to be of the order of 27 million to one. What really astonished researchers about 2014 is that it occurred in the absence of an El Niño warming event.

UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon solemnly wrote in recent weeks that “we are the last generation that can take steps to avoid the worst impacts of climate change”, a theme echoed recently by Mary Robinson.

What is truly difficult to believe is that while we have the great misfortune of living in an era of unprecedented ecological and climate crisis, these extraordinary facts are in no way impinging on our national discourse, either through the media, civil society groups or our political classes. Instead, the gathering ecological storm is fenced off into an obscure corner tagged ‘environment’, where it is left to a handful of activists to try, against near-impossible odds, to draw the attention this existential crux so desperately demands.

John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

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

Milking the (climate) system, Irish-style

Below, article as it appears in the current edition of ‘Village’ magazine. (I co-authored this piece with Paul Price).

“IT IS DIFFICULT to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”. Novelist Upton Sinclair’s famous observation could well have been describing Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney, a rare ambitious and ascending star on an otherwise jaded Fine Gael front bench.

Coveney’s understanding of the most basic of scientific facts will clearly not encumber his possible trajectory towards the goal of being Cork’s first Taoiseach since Jack Lynch. So, when Coveney appeared on a recent edition of RTE’s PrimeTime, only the thinnest of smiles betrayed the fact that he was selling a series of fat porkies on national television.

Coveney’s claim that the Irish dairy herd could be expanded by over 300,000 cows in the next five years “while maintaining the existing carbon footprint of the agriculture sector” is, he must well know, nonsensical.  To defend it, he engaged in some unconvincing waffle about higher yields per animal somehow magically offsetting the massive increase in our national herd.

This manifest nonsense is blown out of the water by data from the Environmental Protection Agency, which show that methane (CH4) emissions from ‘enteric fermentation’ in Irish dairy cows actually increased, from 101kg per head per annum in 1990 to almost 113kg per head in 2012.  Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, at least 28 times more powerful as a heat-trapping gas per molecule than CO2. The reason for the large increase in as few as 20 years? Almost certainly, it’s greater dairy intensification. So much for Coveney’s blarney about higher yields lowering emissions.

This sleight of hand also conceals a much wider truth about the nature of greenhouse gas emissions. And that is, what goes up, for all intents and purposes, stays up. Each year’s emissions are yet another warming addition to the human-caused accumulation in Earth’s atmosphere. So, even levelling annual emissions adds to total emissions and climate risk.

It is the sum of accumulated emissions to date, and the future emissions we choose to add to that absolute total that counts, not any efficiency measure such as emissions per animal or per kilogramme of milk or beef.  The atmosphere does not care about ‘efficiency’ or ‘yield’ it just traps more heat as humans add to the sum total amount of resident greenhouse gases.

This is important because anyone who tries to argue that improving efficiency somehow reduces emissions does not understand reality, or does not want us to. Simply put, any given global warming policy limit, such as the 2ºC Ireland has signed up to, has a related amount of remaining emissions that can ever be emitted.  Taking from Ireland’s share of the global carbon budget is a zero-sum game; more, used now by us, simply means less for others, elsewhere or in the future.

In opposition, Coveney had a clear grasp of the reality of climate change. Indeed, he spoke publicly that what he knew about the science of climate change “sent shivers down my spine”. But of course, Coveney was merely the Environment Spokesperson then, and free to speak truthfully since he had no actual political power.

That was then. Since becoming Agriculture Minister, Coveney has quickly embraced the first rule of his office: keep the IFA off your back. And the IFA has applied its formidable muscle to vehemently opposing even the most modest steps towards addressing climate change. This is deeply ironic given that agriculture is, by definition, highly weather-dependent, and therefore uniquely exposed to the impacts of the very same climate change that farmers’ leaders are busy convincing themselves and us is “not our problem”.

The IFA is following the same mad, tragic logic as the global fishing lobby which has stymied every effort at imposing science-based fisheries quotas and which, in its thirst for short-term gain, is systematically wiping out the very basis of their livelihood for the future.

While Coveney is snared by his ambitions, and the IFA blindsided by its inability to think strategically, where are the expert advisors in all this? Teagasc is the semi-state body, 75% paid for by Irish and EU taxpayers, that supports science-based innovation in the agri-food sector. Is Teagasc’s definition of ‘carbon footprint’ the same as climate science’s ‘sum total’?  No, it is not. Instead Teagasc repeatedly redefines carbon footprint as ‘production efficiency’ based on emissions per unit product.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the 2011 publication Irish Agriculture, Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Climate Change: opportunities, obstacles & proposed solutions, in which, Section 3.4, “From absolute emissions to emission intensities” spells out the codology:

Under Section 5(9) of the Climate Change Response Bill, sectoral plans must account for the need to (a) promote sustainable development, (b) safeguard economic development, (c) take advantage of economic opportunities within and outside the State and d) be based on scientific research. Under these criteria, Teagasc contends that an ‘absolute emissions’ metric is inappropriate for the agricultural sector. (our emphasis).

The Earth’s climate system is entirely indifferent to economic imperatives. All that matters is physics. X amount of additional emissions begets Y increase in average surface temperatures. And known increases mean measurable, extremely dangerous and largely irreversible impacts on all life on Earth, be it human, dairy-cow or polar-bear.

All that matters to the climate system is absolute emissions. For Teagasc, a body claiming to be science-driven, to describe this metric as “inappropriate for the agricultural sector” strongly suggests the organisation has undergone ‘agency capture’. Instead of being the arbiter of the best available scientific evidence, it sees itself as ‘pulling on the jersey’ for its many friends and colleagues in the agriculture sector, the people it works with every day, the people who it identifies with.

If the facts about the impacts of climate change are inconvenient or likely to create tensions between Teagasc, the Minister and the IFA, well, let’s find some other, less unpalatable facts, dress them up with some scientific-looking charts (while burying the uglier realities deep in the bowels of their reports) and, just like Coveney on PrimeTime, poof, the problem magically disappears.

Lest we forget, in October the EU agreed a new target of a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and a 27% target for renewable energy use, by 2030. It also set a 27% target for improvements in energy efficiency. This is just 15 years away. Precisely how is Ireland planning to meet these binding obligations for dramatic emissions reductions at a time when Harvest 2020 adds millions of extra tonnes of emitted CO2 and methane? Perhaps every car in the country should be taken off the road and electricity rationed to six hours a day?

Given that agriculture, which accounts for some 30% of Ireland’s total annual emissions, has given two fingers to bearing any of the burden of emissions reductions, then clearly either the remaining two thirds of our emissions are going to have to virtually stop dead or, more likely, the whole exercise is another ghastly sham.

Globally, meat and dairying produces a colossal 14.5% of global emissions. That’s more than all the cars, trains, planes and ships in the world – combined. A recent Chatham House study in the UK found that the public grossly underestimated the carbon impact of agriculture. This lack of awareness is the main reason most people are unwilling to consider changing their diets away from meat and dairy-intensive choices.

Despite its massive contribution to climate change, beef and dairy “attracts remarkably little policy attention at either the international or national level”, the Chatham House study noted. “In the absence of policy, livestock will consume a larger and larger share of a rapidly-declining carbon budget”. Report author Rob Bailey added: “You can make a compelling case that without dietary change at the global level, the two-degrees goal is pretty much off the table”.

But as we see over and over again, one man’s global ecological disaster is another’s economic opportunity. By now it should be abundantly clear that Coveney and the IFA, aided by Teagasc, are not going to allow any number of uncooperative facts to get in the way of Ireland’s ambition to be the best little country in the world at trashing the planet.

John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer & commentator

Paul Price has an MSc in Sustainable Development

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | 37 Comments

The Dream (A Fantasy at Christmas)

It was still dark when Enda Kenny fell awake from a fitful sleep. He rose unsteadily, exhausted, almost stumbling as he made his way to the bathroom. With the light on, he noticed his pyjamas were almost completely soaked in sweat; beads clung to his forehead and over his upper lip. He washed his face, changed his clothing and sat silently in near-darkness in the kitchen for around twenty minutes.

“Jesus H. Christ”, he muttered almost inaudibly, his thoughts interrupted by the ring of his mobile phone. It was Leo Varadkar. “Sorry boss to call so early, but there’s something really strange going on. My phone has been ringing since just after six am. People are freaking out”, said the Health Minister. “Slow down Leo, for feck’s sake”, said Kenny. “Who’s freaking out, what’s this about?”

“I really don’t know how to explain this without sounding like I’m losing my marbles, boss, but it’s this dream…” Kenny froze. “Dream…what…dream?” The words tumbled out, almost afraid of the answer. “Jesus boss, don’t laugh, but I’ve just had the worst dream of my life. I woke an hour ago and nearly threw up. Then, the phone started ringing. First, it was Coveney, crying like a baby, then Reilly, then a couple of lads from the constituency office, then my pal from Trinity…” His voice trailed off.

“Christ, man, get to the point”, said Kenny, who became aware that his own lips were bone dry and almost stuck to one another as he spoke. “Sorry boss, this sounds completely mental, I know, but everyone I’ve spoken to in the last hour has had the same dream…seriously, the same actual goddam dream, the same dream. And people are phoning in and emailing from all over the world saying the same thing. Twitter has nearly exploded. Jesus boss, I’m a feckin’ medical doctor and I can tell you for a fact this is impossible, completely impossible. But it’s also true.”

Kenny slumped back into the chair, the mobile phone almost slipping from his sweat-soaked grasp. “This dream, Leo, did it have anything…you know…to do with some kind of… disaster…. anything like that?”

“Em, yes boss, it was that exactly; I felt like I was trapped alive in the worst horror story you could ever imagine…everything had fallen apart, there was floods, storms, looting, rioting, chaos, the lights were out, no water or food, the guards, firemen, hospitals, army, everything gone…but it was right here in Dublin, well, all over Ireland in fact. There wasn’t much contact with the outside world, but from what we could make it, it was at least as bad everywhere else. I know it had to have been a dream, but I’d swear to you it was real, I knew exactly what was going on every moment of it…” added Varadkar.

“Hello, hello, boss, are you still there?” After several seconds of silence, Kenny replied haltingly: “You’ve just pretty well described my dream…Leo, call a Cabinet meeting for noon today; whatever ministers are away, get them back. We need to get the general secretaries of all departments in as well. The Garda commissioner, Civil defense, army chief of staff, you know, the usual suspects. We’ll meet with them later this afternoon. We need to get all the ambassadors on a teleconference too, see if we can get a clearer picture from around the world.”

“What about a press briefing?”, Varadkar enquired half-heartedly. “Christ Leo, what are we going to say to them, some kind of Martin Luther King ‘I have a dream’ moment, I don’t feckin’ think so. Get the press officers in and let them get together and figure something out”. A fit 63-year old, this morning Kenny felt more like 93. His wife Fionnuala appeared. She too looked exhausted and ashen-faced. “Christ Enda, you won’t believe the dream I’m after having…”


And so it spread, all over the world. Billions woke that day frightened, confused and anxious. As news spread, churches, mosques and temples quickly filled to overflowing. The impossible had just happened. Years of warnings by leading scientific agencies that the world was on the path to catastrophic climate change and an epic global extinction event had gone unheeded. Nobody knew how it happened but now, everyone knew. The realisation fell like a hammer.

An emergency session of the United Nations was summoned, and leaders of over 190 countries, including Kenny, flooded to New York for an intensive behind-closed-doors briefing session with senior scientific members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the US National Academy of Sciences, the UK Royal Society and their counterparts from another 20 or so major nations, including China and Japan. Even the Russians came in from the cold. Long-standing enmities and even the bitterest of rivalries were, for now, put on ice.

CEOs and chairmen of the world’s major transnational corporations were also invited to participate, as were the publishers and senior editors of over 300 newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and news websites. Senior delegates from all the world’s major religious organisation also attended.

After several days and nights of intense negotiations, four figures emerged to make a joint address to the UN General Assembly. They were US president, Barack Obama, China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Jean-Claude Juncker on behalf of the EU. This was their statement:

“Something truly unprecedented has happened in the last few days. While we may never fully understand what has just occurred, its import is crystal clear. Together, we stand at the edge of the greatest crisis in human history. It is, quite simply, without precedent. Our scientists have been telling us this, in so many words, for years, but we, the politicians, the business community, religious and civil society, we haven’t been listening. We have been asleep. It took a dream to wake us up.

“Having consulted with other world leaders, we are today declaring a global climate emergency. With immediate effect, all energy production is being nationalised, and energy rationing will begin shortly. Every coal-burning plant in the world is to be fully decommissioned within 10 years. A trillion dollars is being ring-fenced for a multi-national renewable and nuclear energy programme. Work begins immediately.

“We are also declaring 500 million hectares of land off-limits to all human activity or encroachment. All logging and mining in these conservation areas is hereby declared illegal, and these will be rigorously enforced. We are also declaring the entire Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland regions, including surrounding oceans, as completely off limits to anything other than strictly regulated scientific activities. New laws are being put in place to enshrine the right of the natural world to exist and to flourish, and to be strictly protected from human encroachment.

“With immediate effect, couples will be limited to one child. To support this policy, policies, customs and religious rules restricting the rights of women and girls to full educational equality, including free access to family planning services, will be outlawed. Stringent new carbon taxes will be targeted at non-essential or luxury items. All tax shelters for corporations and rich individuals are being shut down, and we are restoring the top rate of income tax for high earners to the levels that applied in the early 1960s – ranging from 70–92%.

“Much of the proceeds of these new taxes will be used to improve conditions for the low-paid and those in poorer countries. Our shared ambition is to tackle income inequality, both between individuals and between states, as the only safe way of ensuring the social cohesion that is going to be essential in the extremely difficult times that lie ahead.

“Yes, these new regulations will impose hardships on some, but, as we all now know, the alternative is to be complicit in the greatest calamity in all of human history, and the destroy this world for all future generations. This would be the gravest stain on our species. We stand together, collectively determined that this generation will not and must not let this catastrophe come to pass.”


Some called it a communications failure, but it might be better thought of as a failure of imagination. Decades of growth and seemingly endless economic and population expansion and its accompanying ideologies had inured the world to the reality of the ever-tightening resource crisis, spiralling emissions, collapse in global biological diversity and the great unravelling of complexity across the biosphere.

The consequences of this massive fraying of the very fabric of life on Earth were, until that fateful night, beyond the reach of people’s imagination, and thus, in a very real sense, unreal, remote and of no great consequence.

And so began a new era in human affairs, one that would, in time, become known as The Great Contraction. Whether even such radical steps could avoid or forestall the severe impacts of a battered biosphere and a restive climate system would only become apparent by mid-century.

But, in starting over, there was reason to believe once more.

Merry Christmas.

Posted in Global Warming, Psychology | 2 Comments

What next for the apes who went to space?

I have no idea where I was on the night of July 20-21, 1969, being far too young to grasp the historic events that were unfolding, as Apollo 11 became the first spacecraft to land humans on a world other than our own. It was, in every sense over my head, albeit in this instance by a good one third of a million kilometres.

In its specially extended coverage, RTE television was still on air at the then-scandalous hour of 3.56am on July 21st as Neil Armstrong took those famous first steps onto the surface of the moon. The RTE Guide, in its edition dated July 18, 1969, featured four solid pages detailing its planned radio and TV coverage of the monumental event.

The usual domestic news stories were swept from the editorial agendas as the dramatic story of Apollo 11’s eight-day journey to the moon gripped audiences around the world. I don’t know what the 1969 version of the water-metering saga was, but even a political soap opera on this scale would surely have been swept away in the dizzy excitement of Apollo 11.

Back then, scientists really were virtually rock stars – presidents and prime ministers listened to and – as often as not – acted under the guidance of the great scientific institutions, be they Nasa and the AAAS in the US, or the UK Royal Society.

Politicians and the media still argued furiously about how best to respond to given scientific findings, but only the truly bone-headed and marginal argued about the facts themselves. The 1969 moon landing was an astonishing triumph for science in its most literal sense, i.e. scientia, the Latin for knowledge. An insatiable thirst to better understand our world had actually propelled one insatiably inquisitive species of higher primates all the way from the African savannah to our neighbouring moon – and back.

A curious side-effect of Nasa’s space programme was that it offered us, for the first time, clear images of Earth as a small blue sphere cradled against the ink-black infinity of space. A famous photo known as ‘Earthrise’ was taken by a crew member of Apollo 8 on December 24th, 1968, the first vessel to complete a lunar orbit. From this new perspective, our limitless world suddenly appeared finite, delicate, yet exquisitely precious – the merest blue smudge in the Cosmos.

Less than two years later, 20 million people took to the streets of America for the first Earth Day, in April, 1970. That massive direct action shook up the political classes and, sensing the new zeitgeist, Republican US president, Richard Nixon signed the Environmental Protection Agency into being in December of that year.

For a long moment in the early 1970s, it really seemed that humanity’s relationship with the natural world might, for the first time since the start of the Industrial Revolution, be placed on a sustainable trajectory. This would mean awakening to the reality of our place within the living world, not as its master but its child, entirely dependent for our well being, our prosperity and our very lives, on the only known biosphere for a trillion kilometres in any direction.

The influential book ‘Limits to Growth’ was published in 1972, having been commissioned by a think tank known as The Club of Rome. It was chillingly prescient:

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

What the authors could not have foreseen back then was not just that growth trends would continue, but that they would in fact ramp up sharply, along an exponential curve, especially since the late 1990s, when vast countries like China and India began the most rapid spurt of industrialization in human history.

Fast forward some 45 years from the moon landings to another historic day: November 12, 2014. On this day, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta reached the comet known as 67P/C-G, a roughly 3-by-5 km chunk of rock (first detected in the year of the moon landing, 1969) last August.  Rosetta has travelled some 6.4 billion km since it blasted off in 2004 – the mission has cost around 1.4 billion euros – if you think that sounds like a lot, it’s less than a quarter of what our government pumped into just one rotten institution – Irish Nationwide – after the banking collapse.

Comets are flying time capsules, fragments that pre-date the formation of our solar system some 4.6 billion years ago, so they offer us unique opportunities to better understand our own planetary origins, including tantalising clues as to the origins of life on Earth, as well as possibly trapping ancient organic molecules. I herded the kids into the living room just ahead of 9pm RTE main evening news, so they could see coverage of this truly amazing story. We waited, and we waited, and we waited some more. Gerry Adams, water protesters, Ivor Callely, Ian Bailey, the 1916 commemorations were among the ‘top stories’ that filled the screen.

Not one of them was in any sense ‘new’; all have been rumbling along for days or even weeks. Nor did the bulletin offer any particularly notable advances on any of these stories. Eventually, after around 14 minutes, RTE News carried a piece, running to two minutes and 15 seconds. You couldn’t fault correspondent Will Goodbody’s report, but the same cannot be said for the rabbits who are operating the editorial levers in Montrose.

Wondering if I was simply losing my marbles about the significance of this story, I switched over to the BBC’s flagship TV news bulletin at 10pm, where, sure enough, it was the lead item, with the entire opening segment of almost six minutes dedicated to its coverage. Ditto for CNN and Sky News.

To recap: Rosetta is probably the biggest astronomy story since Apollo 11. Yes, the Mars Rover was another technological triumph, but chasing Comet 67P/C-G for billions of kilometres across the solar system and finally successfully intercepting with and then landing a probe on a rock hurtling along at over 50,000 km per hour, is one of those truly rare moments when science fact brilliantly eclipses even science fiction.

The triumph of the Rosetta mission shows how cutting edge science, enabled by ever more powerful computing resources, has continued to advance in the last four decades. Compare and contrast this latest titanic achievement with the media caricature of science being a disconnected series of random events and ever-changing ‘evidence’ and scientists a bunch of self-serving chancers who make stuff up to get research grants.

This incident also brought it forcefully home that, apart from being uninterested in science, just how entirely provincial the outlook of Ireland’s national media really is, whatever its pretentions to the contrary might be.

This point was hammered home the following morning, when our Newspaper of Record relegated the comet landing to the inside pages. If on the other hand Roy Keane is spotted out walking his dog, well hold the front pages! George Bernard Shaw once mockingly described a newspaper as being an institution unable to distinguish between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilisation. It doesn’t seem quite so far fetched a put-down now.

Cast your mind back a couple of weeks, to Sunday, November 2nd and the launch of the IPCC’s AR5 Synthesis Report. This was the Big One, pulling together the main threads of its findings, while weeding out some climate policy trolls (most notably the pseudo-scientific Panglossian hokum pedalled by one Prof Richard Tol) along the way.

To its credit, RTE did a fine job that day, leading its 6pm and 9pm bulletins, with environment correspondent George Lee leaving viewers in no doubt that as to the gravity of this report (I was interviewed by Lee for the bulletin wearing my An Taisce climate change committee hat).

Within 24 hours, the story was a dead letter as far as the Irish media was concerned. It didn’t make a line on the front page of the next day’s Irish Independent, with the Irish Times managing a meagre 2” single column front page piece. By Tuesday, it was business-as-usual, as the Independent’s knuckle-dragger-in-chief penned his latest piece of bilious anti-science twaddle.

In what I can only assume is a desperate search for attention, the author (who confuses being able to type with being able to write) plumbs the sewers of journalism every time he mentions climate change. The irony here is that the Indo’s actual environment corr, Paul Melia, seems to really know his stuff, but get precious little editorial space, while the poo-flinging Ian O’Doherty is promoted, presumably to serve as Daily Mail style click-bait.

When it isn’t conducting intricate manoeuvres with probes half a billion kilometres away, the European Space Agency is, along with its US counterpart, Nasa, at the bleeding edge of research into climate change. Both agencies deploy satellites to take a range of ultra-precise ongoing measurements of ‘the home planet’, from assaying atmospheric CO2 to sea level and ice thickness measurements.

Measuring and understanding the vital functions of a dynamic living biosphere and its ever-changing weather systems involves as phenomenally complex collaborative science as guiding Rosetta across the Solar System to rendezvous with comet 67P/C-G. Curious how as soon as the same scientists who deliver mind-boggling breakthroughs such as the Rosetta mission apply their expertise to measure the degree to which Earth systems are being impacted by climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, glacial ice loss, sea level rise, extreme weather events and widespread pollution, they are suddenly cast as cranks, alarmists and venial grant-seekers who’ll say anything for a couple of hundred euros. Like a certain kind of hack, come to think of it.

Well, that’s what the poo-flingers would have us believe anyhow. Personally, if forced to choose between believing the semi-literate babbling of neoliberal fantasists and the collective expertise and data sets of the world’s scientific institutions, frankly, it’s really not such a tough call.

I was interviewed on Monday’s RTE Drivetime (clip starts around 00.49) about the report. The interviewer asked me straight off the bat whether the IPCC’s findings could in fact be trusted. Seriously. Had he been tuning in, George Lee would probably have been pulling his remaining hair out in tufts. In the movie Groundhog Day, it’s always February 2nd, and nobody ever remembers anything about the day, no matter how many times the hapless weatherman, Phil Connors has to endure it.

As far as the media coverage of climate change is concerned, it’s always February 2nd, and the story is inevitably handled with the same eyebrow-lifted surprise and scepticism. Perish the thought that somebody might open their eyes wide enough and stay focused for long enough to realise: ‘holy crap, this is real, it’s happening, we’re stuffed, and absolutely everything I know, everything I’ve learned and pretty much everything I care about is either irrelevant or dead wrong’.

Not many people, especially media people, are queuing up for a cold shower epiphany like that. But, as the IPCC has laboured to warn us, the “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” of climate change are coming our way, ready or not, and, it appears, sooner than we feared.

*Hat-tip to Prof Brian Cox for inspiring the title of this post.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Another Fine (Gael) mess on climate change

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has in the last week or so taken political recklessness and cynicism to new lows. History may judge that he did more than any other politician of his generation to destroy the future of Irish agriculture. In attempting to dodge Ireland’s responsibility for dealing with climate change, An Taoiseach is also flying in the face of the scientific evidence that confirms that the greatest threat to Irish agriculture is not the regulations dealing with climate change, but climate change itself, to which agriculture is almost uniquely vulnerable.

A 2013 report, authored by Dr Stephen Flood of NUI Maynooth (‘Projected Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Irish Agriculture’ – this report was formally launched by Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney) states:

“Agriculture is one of the most climate-sensitive industries in Ireland, as its primarily outdoor production processes depend on particular levels of temperature and rainfall. The report projects the total economic costs of climate change in the region of €1-2 billion per annum by mid-century. This figure represents 8.2% of the current contribution of the agricultural sector to the national economy annually, and at the upper level is greater than the Harvest 2020 targeted increase of €1.5 billion in primary output”.

Enda Kenny over the last week expended valuable diplomatic capital in Europe attempting to argue why Ireland should be exempted from shouldering its fair share of the burden of the rapid and immediate decarbonisation that science says is now critical if the most severe impacts of climate destabilisation are to be avoided.

Barely four weeks ago, the same Mr Kenny, addressing the UN Climate Summit in New York, demanded that world leaders show “conviction, clarity, courage and consistency” in responding to climate change. Given the extreme urgency of the crisis, Mr Kenny added solemnly: “The hand of the future beckons, the clock ticks and we have no time to waste…Global warming is a stark reality that can only be dealt with by a collective global response. We are all interdependent and interconnected … we share a common humanity… and each of us must play our part.”

In less than a month, Mr Kenny appears to have suffered the political equivalent of a lobotomy – in September, climate change is the world’s greatest crisis, and “courage and consistency” is needed in dealing with this “stark reality”. And in October, the same Mr Kenny warned that Ireland would be “screwed” if it attempted to comply with emissions reductions targets it has already signed up to.

It’s a surprisingly short journey from demanding conviction, clarity, courage and consistency to espousing cowardice, cynicism, cute hoorism and chicanery.

According to the October version of An Taoiseach: “It would not be feasible to have targets set that are completely impractical for a country like Ireland. Targets, indeed, that were set and that were agreed by the administration before this one, for 2020, were based on different variations of information that does not stand up…but I don’t want whatever administration or whatever government is in office in Ireland from 2020 to 2030 to be completely screwed by virtue of a wrong base upon which targets were set originally for 2020.”

Mr Kenny’s conversion to the IFA position on climate change appears to follow closely the path taken by his cabinet colleague, agriculture minister, Simon Coveney. When in opposition, Coveney spoke passionately in public about the need for binding, no-excuses climate legislation, stating publicly that what he had read about the science of climate change “sent shivers down my spine”. Back in 2008, Coveney described climate change as “Ireland’s challenge – and we need to meet it”. More recently, Minister Coveney said that the EU’s climate change policy, the very policy he championed in 2008, “makes no sense to me, no sense on any level”.

It is easy to understand why public trust in politicians and the political process is now at such a low ebb. Given the scale and gravity of the global ecological and climate crisis, it has never been more vital that we our politicians break free from the lobbyists and spin doctors and exercise principled leadership guided by scientific evidence, not polling data. (for a quick recap on what FG, pre-election, said they would do on climate change, click here).

During his inauguration speech in 1961, as the world teetered on the edge of a nuclear conflagration, president John F. Kennedy said: “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Hilariously, Enda Kenny had the temerity to quote JKF in his New York speech, when saying: “President Kennedy reminded us over 50 years ago that we all live on the same planet, we all breathe the same air, and we are all mortal. These words are still true.” If JFK were alive today, he might well wonder what planet Kenny et al do in fact inhabit.

Today, the stakes are every bit as high as in the darkest days of the Cold War, yet all Ireland’s political leaders can offer are weasel words in public while doing highly damaging deals with powerful vested interests like the IFA in private.

Politicians like Mr Kenny and Mr Coveney appear to be prepared to put the safety and security of every citizen of Ireland at grave risk while also jeopardising the future of Irish agriculture in pursuit of a quick buck from ‘Harvest 2020’ – gains that, as the NUIM study confirms, will be quickly reversed as climate destabilisation yields the bitterest of harvests.

Mr Kenny is right: the clock is ticking. He and his government are on the wrong side of science and the wrong side of history and are engaged in a monumentally misguided and foolish policy. As the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) put it: “We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts. The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do. Waiting to take action will inevitably increase costs, escalate risk, and foreclose options to address the risk”.

Dithering and further delaying action displays just how profoundly out of touch the Irish government is with the state of science on climate change, and calls into question the calibre of scientific advice it is receiving – or responding to. Kenny and Coveney appear to believe Ireland can free-load on the efforts of other countries to address runaway climate disruption, while we continue a policy of ratcheting up our emissions from agriculture and transport in particular in pursuit of growth-led prosperity.

Environment Minister, Alan Kelly is clearly fully on board with this policy. In a press release last week, he bragged: “Having met two weeks ago with outgoing climate change Commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, I made it clear that Ireland would not be signing up to any future targets that would be unachievable”. And in a paragraph that reads like it was drafted in Farm Centre, Kelly added: “I am on record as stating that the 2020 targets were unrealistic and unachievable and that did not take into account Ireland’s dependence on agriculture or the fact that we have one of the most climate-friendly agricultural systems in the world.”

The Irish government’s disavowal of its sovereign responsibility to step up to the mark on addressing climate change, despite the overwhelming evidence that this is a vital strategic national interest, is a grossly immoral and inequitable position, and one that does untold damage to Ireland’s reputation as a good faith actor in international negotiations.

I honestly thought the electoral obliteration of Fianna Fail in 2011 must signal an end to the gombeen era in Irish politics, and would usher in a new phase of more responsible, accountable and transparent leadership, and a lowering of public tolerance for sleevenism. More fool me.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | 18 Comments

Which to choose: bare-knuckle capitalism – or a habitable world?

I finished reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything just as a major study by the WWF confirmed that, in a mere four decades, more than half of the wild animals on Earth had been wiped out. From the time I was in primary school to today, life on Earth has been impoverished more rapidly than at any time in the last 65 million years.

The calculus used to measure this is known as the Living Planet Index. It might be more accurately called the Dying Planet Index.

Humanity’s relationship with almost all life on Earth can be defined as extractavist – a phrase used repeatedly by Klein, in her sweeping, angry polemic against the rapidly unfolding madness of one species run amok in the world, destroying everything in its ever-expanding path.

Klein made her name in 1999 with No Logo, a withering assault on the hidden underbelly of the global brand business – the sweatshops, the crooked trade deals and the structural violence of the rich against the poor. This time, however, it’s personal. A neophyte to climate change, Klein admits to only having really tuned into it as an issue as recently as 2009.

She is, however, a quick learner and in the last five years, it has gone from being fodder for her next book to the awful realisation contained in the book’s title: climate change does indeed change everything – and truly understanding this issue inevitably changes you. “I denied climate change for longer than I care to admit. I knew it was happening, sure…but I stayed pretty hazy on the details and only skimmed most of the news stories, especially the really scary ones. I told myself the science was too complicated and that the environmentalists were dealing with it”.

Having, like Klein, come from an entirely non-environmental background, and slowly, reluctantly, coming to realise the true import of climate change, I could personally relate to her initial desire to look the other way, and simply tune out this avalanche of ecological bad news. “Remember and then forget again. Climate change is like that; it’s hard to keep it in your head for very long. We engage in this odd form of on-again-off-again ecological amnesia for perfectly rational reasons. We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything. And we are right”

As a society, as a civilisation, our response thus far has been about as nuanced as curling, child-like, into a ball and hoping it will just go away. “All we have to do is keep on denying how frightened we actually are. And then, bit by bit, we will have arrived at the place we most fear, the thing from which we have been averting our eyes”.

We’ve become truly accomplished at both understanding and ignoring climate change. In the 24 years since international climate negotiations began in earnest, global CO2 emissions have risen by 61%. Crisis, what crisis? I vividly remember watching on in horror as the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit ended in bitter failure. The Irish Times was one of 55 major newspapers that, in December 2009, ran a joint editorial urging – demanding – that world leaders grasp this last ditch opportunity to avert calamity. One month later, the same paper ran an editorial complaining about the severe cold snap and wondering aloud if global warming wasn’t all just a big ol’ hoax after all.

From the ashes of disaster, sprung clarity. “I have come to think of that night (in Copenhagen) as the climate movement’s coming of age: it was the moment the realisation truly sank in that no one was coming to save us”, writes Klein. After all the guff and rhetoric, this emerged from the ruins of Copenhagen: “our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on Earth, including human life”.

Klein spares some of her harshest critique for Big Green, namely those multi-million dollar environmental organisations, specifically the Environmental Defence Fund (EDF) and the Nature Conservancy. Hilariously, it turns out that the latter actually operates its own oil wells, while the EDF regularly partners with Big Energy and helps it sell the myth that shale gas can be a ‘bridge’ to a mythological renewables-powered future (Klein’s own rejection of nuclear energy as proven low-carbon technology is argued with little conviction and sounds to this observer more like a sop to her readership than a strongly held position).

Klein lambastes the various ingenious schemes, from emissions trading to carbon offsets, many backed by Big Green, that have given the illusion of action while achieving precisely nothing. In its early days, the unofficial slogan of the EDF was “sue the bastards”, and it and other groups enjoyed dramatic successes on a range of environmental issues. Latterly, the joke goes, the new EDF slogan is “creating markets for the bastards”.

Under the leadership of business-friendly Fred Krupp, the EDF ballooned 40-fold from an annual budget of $3 million to $120 million. With the cash rolling, the emphasis for Big Green was developing industry-friendly “solutions” to the obliteration of the planet and the wrecking of our climate system (‘green growth’ is a particular favourite). Anything, in other words, as long as it didn’t fundamentally challenge the neoliberal narrative.

“The refusal of so many environmentalists to consider responses to the climate crisis that would upend the economic status quo forces them to place their hopes in solutions… that are either so weak or so high-risk that entrusting them with our collective safety constitutes what can only be described as magical thinking”, Klein opines.

There should be a special place in hell reserved for cuddly, lovable Virgin chief Richard Branson, who, to huge acclaim, announced in 2006 his commitment to invest $3 billion to develop ‘greener’ fuels for his gas-guzzling airline fleet. His epiphany was Al Gore’s Powerpoint presentation: “As I sat there and listened to Gore, I saw that we were looking at Armageddon.”

Behind the crocodile tears for the future, Branson’s real message was: forget regulations, leave it to industry to innovate and solve climate change! And sure enough, the $3 billion evaporated as the new airline routes expanded. Waiting for telegenic messiahs like Branson or techno-optimists like Bill Gates to lead us out of the ecological wasteland their fortunes are helping create is delusional in the extreme.

Geoengineering is starting to surface in polite circles as our best hope for dealing with the symptoms of climate change, without of course troubling ourselves to actually address the causes. “The earth is not our prisoner, our patient, our machine, or, indeed, our monster. It is our entire world. And the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves”, says Klein. Fiddling with untestable global ‘climate management’ schemes is simply an extension of the hubris that brought us to this dire predicament.

In the words of environmental author Kenneth Brower: “The notion that science will save us is the chimera that allows the present generation to consume all the resources it wants, as if no generations will follow. It is the sedative that allows civilization to march so steadfastly toward environmental catastrophe. It forestalls the real solution, which will be in the hard, nontechnical work of changing human behaviour”.

Neither Big Green, nor Big Energy (or the political process it has captured) can save us from the unfolding cataclysm that is the Sixth Extinction, which daily gathers pace and steadily builds towards its furious denouement. Change, Klein observes, is coming, ready or not. Whether this begets more barbarism and profiteering or a wider social change that recognises neoliberal growth-obsessed capitalism as a tragic aberration depends on how we react now, in the time that remains.

Klein offers the example of the abolition of slavery as perhaps the best recent analogue for the rapid dismantling of an entire economic system. The slave-driven economic model didn’t end because it wasn’t successful; it ended when it lost its social sanction to operate.

If there is to be hope in challenging a system that seems bent on destroying the living world and everything in it, it must be along similar ground. “We will win by asserting that such (economic) calculations are morally monstrous, since they imply that there is an acceptable price for allowing entire countries to disappear, for leaving untold millions to die on parched land, for depriving today’s children of their right to live in a world teeming with the wonders and beauties of creation”, Klein concludes.

- John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator.
This article was published in ‘Village‘ magazine 

Posted in Global Warming, Media, Sceptics | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Clowns to left, jokers to the Right, stuck in middle with George

This may not be a news flash to most people, but science is hard. Really, really hard. Just how tough was brought home when I recently attended an international congress on multiple sclerosis (MS). The event brought together some 8,000 senior researchers academics and medical specialists from all over the world to spend several frenetic days attending symposia, reviewing poster presentations and debating controversies and advances in our understanding of the disease.

MS is a progressive inflammatory neurological disease. Much is known about the condition, but nature yields its secrets grudgingly, and lots remain unresolved. However, as science advances, more and more incorrect ideas are tested and then discarded, leaving medics and researchers with the least wrong version of reality. That’s how science advances, be it in medicine, technology or, for that matter, climate science.

The conference took place in Boston, home of the original 18th century Tea Party, but it occurred to me that what was missing were the counter-protests by the ‘MS is a hoax’ brigade, those who insist that the scientific research is purely driven by personal greed and ego, or is entirely manipulated by pharma companies and is fundamentally corrupt and its output is junk science.

In the view of the anti-MS folks, someone who develops this crippling disease would be far better off at home with a couple of jars of homeopathic remedies and a nice vapour rub than all these new-fangled intravenous corticosteroids and assorted interferons.

Yes, some scientists are egotists, and some doctors are arrogant asses. Yes, Big Pharma is profit-driven, yet only an utter fool facing a diagnosis of MS would turn his back on the immense strides in disease understanding and treatment in recent years and decades in favour of quack remedies, no matter how ‘natural’ they may claim to be. By and large we trust medical scientists, for no better reason than we simply do not have enough expertise ourselves to either confirm or refute the ‘consensus’ conclusions.

That doesn’t mean slavish obedience. There is still plenty of room for questions, just not the really, really stupid questions that just waste everyone’s time. It may sound offensive to suggest we have no choice but to trust experts, but it’s true nonetheless. Every time you use the internet, a smartphone, get onto an aircraft, swallow a pill or drive across a bridge, you are putting your trust – or even your life – completely in the hands of countless thousands of anonymous experts.

Modern society is far too complex for any one person to develop hyperspecialism in more than a tiny handful of areas. Even within such a seemingly narrow field as MS, there is a vast spectrum of sub-divided expertise, with teams focusing separately on fields from disease biomarkers and MRI imaging to PET scanning and autoimmune disorders. High science is also highly competitive – new ideas are rigorously challenged and ruthlessly dispatched if they fail to withstand repeated scrutiny. Does pharma money influence this process? Undoubtedly, but while the medical profession and industry may have quite different motives, they are bound by a shared objective of delivering better patient outcomes, and so the painstaking process of medical discovery and innovation rumbles along relatively well.

What if, on the other hand, the streets of Boston had been clogged with angry protesters decrying medical corruption, what if Fox News and the Wall Street Journal were demonising the medics who attended the conference and endless MS denier blogs were restating a set of well-rehearsed talking points to bring the science of neurology into disrepute, while harassing and making legal and personal threats against the researchers?

Yet, despite all the uncertainties, despite the many research cul de sacs encountered, despite the various areas of disagreement between leading experts in the field, this branch of science and its practitioners isn’t dragged through the mud on a daily basis. Why? Quite simply, it’s because it doesn’t threaten, by dint of its findings, to upscuttle the world’s political and economic status quo.

In contrast with the relatively narrow field of neurology, climate science is a behemoth, drawing on scores of specialist fields across the physical sciences with physicists, biologists, chemists, meteorologists, computer modellers, systems specialists and many more besides. The work is unfathomably complex, even to most insiders.

For all its well-advertised shortcomings, the IPCC has managed the near-impossible task of synthesising and unifying the most relevant findings from across this vast spectrum of scientific endeavour and drawing conclusions in its Summary for Policymakers that even you and I can, if we are so minded, clearly grasp with no more than an hour or two of close attention. That is no mean achievement.

The five massive IPCC Assessment Reports published over the last 22 years build up into an ominous catalogue of a rapidly evolving global crisis. With every report, the margins of uncertainty diminish as the full scale of our climate imbroglio becomes ever clearer. It’s worth repeating that the basic science of climate change, and the fact that it poses a unique threat to life on Earth, has been well understood for at least half a century. In 1965, president, Lyndon Johnson told the US Congress: “this generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through . . . a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

Since these scary scenarios were still, at that time, safely in the distant future, politicians and industry joined hands in making soothing noises about being ready and determined to act…at some indefinite future point, long after they were safely retired, of course.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny attended the UN Climate Summit in New York earlier this week. His attendance among 130 or so world leaders was of course welcome. The flatulent ooze that emanated from his speech, less so. The world needs to show “conviction, clarity, courage and consistency” in its response to climate change, according to a Taoiseach who has displayed precisely none of the above on this issue in his first three years in office. The blather continued: “The hand of the future beckons, the clock ticks and we have no time to waste.” Back in 2009, then Taoiseach Brian Cowen told a UN conference in the same building in New York that failure to immediately tackle global warming would “put at risk the survival of the planet”. He then flew home and did… nothing, just like Enda assuredly will this time.

While our Taoiseach was sounding off in downtown Manhattan, closer to home NewsTalk thought the Climate Summit an opportunity to re-run that hoary old chestnut called: ‘is climate change for real?’ Their vehicle to channel this nonsense is motormouth US radio presenter and Tea Bagger Michael Graham, who has a weekly teapot-stirring slot on The Right Hook. (Shortly before becoming president, Michael D. Higgins engaged in a public debate with Graham, and famously lambasted him as “a wanker” – the audio clip has been accessed over 2 million times on YouTube).

Screenshot 2014-09-28 20.39.58


NewsTalk asked me to ‘debate’ the issue with Graham and I decided it was better to engage than to cede the floor. It’s a tactic many on the environmental side of the argument would strongly disagree with, but we must each make our own decisions, depending on the circumstances.

As Graham began rolling out some standard denier speaking points and straw man arguments, the slightly wicked thought occurred to me that, rather than trying to battle each talking point to a confused standstill, might it not be more revealing to find out what Graham actually understood about the science he was noisily dissing.

When I stated that global average surface temperatures could rise by a catastrophic 4C this century, Graham audibly and repeatedly scoffed at this preposterous notion (the not-so-Leftist World Bank’s own report, here, says we’re bang on track for +4C this century) so, I asked him instead if he knew what the global average surface temperature actually currently is? Long pause, followed by no, he was forced to admit, he had no idea.

Once knocked off his script, Graham’s complete lack of even the most basic understanding of the science shone through. And, as the guy used to dishing it out, he was not taking this very well at all. Graham then rolled out the latest denier meme about there being no global warming since the early 1990s, something, apparently, that all those IPCC reports and models ‘failed to predict’.

The global warming ‘pause’ myth has been debunked countless times. But rather than try to explain the mechanics of how heat is transferred from the earth’s surface and atmosphere to the deeper oceans (“when you’re explaining, you’re losing”) I reversed the question and asked Graham if he could tell me how many of the hottest years on the instrumental record (i.e. since 1850) have occurred since 2000? (um, no he couldn’t).

Obviously, if ‘warming has stopped’, you would reasonably expect there wouldn’t be a cluster of record-breakingly hot years to be found since 2000.  The folks over at the US NOAA keep global instrumental records, and their Top 10 hottest years ever globally are, in descending order: 2010, 2005, 1998, 2013, 2003, 2002, 2006, 2009, 2007, 2004 and 2012. That’s quite some ‘pause’ alright.

Graham got his foot stuck firmly in his mouth when I challenged him, repeatedly, to defend this ‘warming pause’ line in the face of irrefutable instrumental evidence, so he switched instead to wondering aloud how come, given the colossal amounts of CO2 being ejected into the atmosphere annually, temperatures aren’t rising even faster? (a reasonable question, as it happens; the IPCC have it covered).

I then asked Graham if he had any idea how long a typical molecule of CO2 persists in the atmosphere as a heat-trapping agent? (see further down for the detailed answer) “Uh, ah, I don’t know, and you don’t know”, was his reply. When pressed further, he added: “what I know are the thermometers, that’s what I know, and the thermometers aren’t reading the way the IPCC said they would read….” Et ecetera, et cetera. I’ll put this one down to genuine ignorance on Graham’s part.

The problem with carbon emissions is their persistence, at least as much as their volume. “Carbon dioxide emissions and their associated warming could linger for millennia”, according to a report in Nature Climate Change, in an article headlined ‘Carbon is Forever’. For every 100 molecules of CO2 released into the atmosphere today, it takes between 20-200 years for 65-80% of them to be drawn down, principally into the oceans. The remaining 20-45% will persist in the atmosphere, trapping heat for many thousands of years into the future.

Anyone familiar with the exponential function will be aware that cumulative problems (like atmospheric CO2) tend, well, to accumulate. And they get very big, very quickly. This year’s 35-40 billion tonnes joins last year’s, and the last 50 years’ emissions in ratcheting up temperatures (and acidifying the world’s oceans in the process – this WMO report confirms ocean acidification now at its fastest rate in 300 million years). (please note my sources here: peer-reviewed papers from top specialist journals and an official report from an international science agency, not links to fact-free ‘news’ reports in the Daily Mail).

The debate ran on for a full 20 minutes. I don’t know Michael Graham personally, but he sounded mightily unhappy by the time George Hook brought proceedings to a close. It may even have been keeping him from his sleep. And sure enough, at 5.15am the following morning, he posted this 1,280-word riposte, complete with my mug shot, with the catchy heading: ‘Shouldn’t an “environmental journalist” know more about science than a dopey talk show host?”.

Screenshot 2014-09-28 21.29.41

Here, Graham engages in faux humility, with his aw schucks folks, why did he have to beat up on poor ol’ me line. He adds to the guy-next-door effect with: “But I’m sure that in the heat of an ad libbed radio debate I got some stuff wrong too.” That is putting it mildly.

By paragraph 3, I’ve been lumped in, inevitably, with “climate zealots”. Para 4 sees a long-since corrected typo in a supporting document to the 2007 AR4 report (Himalayan melt by 2350, not 2035) being wheeled out. Again.

Blogging in the middle of the night is never a great idea. Graham opens strongly, by accusing me of being “wrong during our debate on specific, glaring facts, like the warmest year on record…” Now that’s a zinger – if he’s right. According to Graham, 1934 was the warmest year on record. If you check the NOAA list above, you’ll note 1934 does not appear anywhere in the global top 10. 1934 was the warmest year in the US, alright, but the US accounts for 2% of the surface of the Earth. The source Graham links to for this, Bloomberg, is accurate. It says: ‘NASA has revised climate data to show 1934 as the hottest year on record in the US, ousting 1998…’. Graham was so busy copy-n-pasting he failed to notice the phrase “in the US”. Oh dear, this is what happens when you double down on dumb.

A caller to The Right Hook asked if Al Gore hadn’t said the Antarctic would be melted by 2013 (this, of course, is nonsensical). In 2008, after the record-breaking drop in Arctic sea ice extent in 2007, Al Gore did indeed suggest that, if that rate of decline were to continue, the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer within 10 years. He may or may not be right about the precise timing, but he’s on the money about the clear trajectory of Arctic collapse.

For the record, Al Gore is not a climate scientist, but he is entirely correct to be raising alarm about the ongoing disastrous retreat of Arctic sea ice (2014 is the 6th lowest summer extent on record) so quite what point Graham was trying to make in his midnight ramblings, I’m still unclear. Graham’s blog is full of hyperlinks, but when you follow them, it’s t o the usual denier factory sources, including the Daily Mail, Wattsupwiththat and Murdoch’s business rag, the once-respected Wall Street Journal.

Graham name-checked the IPCC numerous times in his radio interview. I searched in vain on his blog post to find a single reference that links to a primary scientific source, such as NASA, the IPCC itself, NOAA, NSIDC etc. Not one. Instead, he quotes serial liars like the disgraced ex-bank chief Matt Ridley to prop up his piece. And of course, everyone’s favourite eco-spoofer, Bjorn Lomborg gets a link too.

Graham explains: “Notice the embedded links for my information. Notice they aren’t “”  I’m reporting what organizations like the New York Times, the BBC and the Wall Street Journal have reported.  Mr. Gibbons will point you to other sources. Who’s right? What’s really going on? Don’t take my word, or the word of the oddly uniformed “journalist.” Just think for yourself”.

That is excellent advice, and a pity Mr Graham couldn’t take it on board himself. I checked back over his blog to find the New York Times and BBC links he described above. They’re not there (I did warn earlier about the hazards of blogging in the middle of the night). The “other sources” I will point you to are, whenever possible, primary scientific sources. Graham will never point you to a primary source, mainly, I imagine, because he doesn’t use them, preferring instead to re-heat myths cooked up by serial dissemblers like David Rose .

Having already given an on-air masterclass in how poorly he understands climate science, Graham took to his blog to drive this point home: “Greenhouse gases (including water vapor) make up less than 2 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere.  Humans emit less than 4 percent of that 2 percent. So for us to get GHG levels down in any meaningful way, we have to drastically cut our little slice of the GHG pie”.

The link for this waffle is to a right wing ‘think tank’ called the Manhattan Institute. And it’s a favourite sleight of hand by deniers. The global carbon cycle is huge, but it’s a cycle, i.e. it’s in balance. Atmospheric CO2 levels have remained in the narrow range of 180-280 ppm (parts per million) for at least the last 800,000 years, and probably as far back as 3-4 million years.

Anthropogenic interference in this cycle over the last 150 years has thrown it wildly out of balance. Today, there is 40% more CO2 in the global atmosphere (400ppm, and rising) than at the highest level ever recorded prior to 1850. What Graham calls “our little slice of the GHG pie” is again simply putting his science ignorance up in lights. We’ve known since the mid-19th century that the trace gas CO2 is the critical greenhouse gas. More CO2 also begets more water vapour, hence still more warming.

While CO2 is indeed a trace gas (0.04% of total atmosphere), without it, average surface temperatures would plummet from their current c.15C to minus 18C. Nitrogen (77%) and oxygen (21%) have no atmospheric heat-trapping characteristics whatever. When you fiddle with CO2 (and related trace GHGs, like methane and nitrous oxide) you are literally fiddling with the thermostat for all life on Earth.

So, while the radio debate didn’t go so well for him, and his follow-up blog is risible, Graham did at least manage towards the end to inject some of that trademark Tea Party anti-libberul, um, humour: “they’re not going to agree to keep cooking on cow patty fires so EU liberals can feel good about themselves. Which means even there’s even less “magic unicorn wind” to distribute per person”.

I opened this post by pointing out just how hard science is. Attacking science, on the other hand, is so easy that any idiot with access to a microphone can do it. Effective science communication is hard too. Given the desperate gravity and urgency of the climate crisis, making it as hard as possible for climate deniers to flood the airwaves with misinformation, and calling them (and the media outlets who facilitate them) out at every turn seems to me like genuinely useful – and occasionally, enjoyable – work.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics | 5 Comments

If we tolerate this, then our children will be next

I’ve spent more than a decade first researching and then writing almost exclusively on  a range of ‘environmental’ topics, with a special focus on climate change. I joined Twitter in 2010 using the @think_or_swim moniker, determined to use it as a channel for strictly environmental pursuits and networking.

However, in the first week of July, something changed. I began to tweet about the Israeli onslaught into Gaza. Hearing the Israeli Ambassador, the disgusting Boaz Modai brag on radio: “I don’t feel even a bit of shame, I feel pride” for the carnage his country’s military was unleashing on a virtually defenceless civilian population left me shaken and outraged.

After all, this wasn’t the psychopathic dictator Assad pounding civilians in Syria with barrel bombs, this was the suave and sophisticated Israel, ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’, the folks with sleek PR and friends and fans everywhere from Dáil Eireann to Capitol Hill that was, in full gaze of the international media, launching a massive (and entirely illegal) collective punishment assault against the hapless and besieged population of Gaza.

Monitoring the assault, often in real time, via Twitter became a ghastly and emotionally distressing daily, often hourly pursuit for the last several weeks. As the bodies, especially of children, piled ever higher, my sense of anger grew apace. The cold-blooded murder of four young boys playing football on the beach was one of the egregious early outrages. Dr Mads Gilbert, Norwegian volunteer surgeon put it plainly: “the Israelis are relentlessly killing and injuring children”.

For me, one five-day-old baby girl will always symbolise the Israeli pogrom of 2014. The infant named Shimah was delivered by emergency caesarean from the body of her mother, who was pulled from the rubble when her home was bombed; she quickly became known as the ‘Miracle Child’. The miracle was short-lived. Shimah died a few days later when the power to her incubator failed as a result of Gaza’s main power plant being bombed by Israel (deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure is – yet another – war crime). It was a “telegenic death”, as the prime minister responsible for this double murder might well have put it.

Just a few weeks before the third round of slaughter unleashed by Israel on Gaza in the last seven years began, Charlie Flanagan was appointed as our Minister for Foreign Affairs. The timing was, to put it mildly, unfortunate. Back in 2010, Flanagan said this in an interview: “Israel has been demonised by an Irish media slavishly dancing to the Palestinian drumbeat for decades [yet] Israel has a far better and more progressive record on human rights than any of its neighbours. The truth must be told”.

The same truth-telling Flanagan is a member of the Oireachtas Friends of Israel group. I’m unsure whether he would be happy describing himself as slavishly dancing to the Israeli drumbeat, but it was instructive to watch Flanagan et al squirm as the naked racism and genocidal intend of Israel’s army and politicians (who enjoy 90%+ domestic public support for their latest bloody crusade into Gaza) drew widespread, perhaps even unprecedented, international odium on Israel.

I broke my own unwritten rule of trying to stay out of ‘politics’ to pen the below article, which appears in the current issue of Village magazine, under the heading ‘If Ireland were Palestine’.


IT IS ALMOST 30 years since an IRA no-warning bomb exploded in the Grand Hotel, Brighton, killing five people. Its primary target, British PM, Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet, escaped serious injury.

Thatcher defiantly responded by saying that “all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail”. Her composure in the immediate aftermath of the blast won admiration even from among her critics. Just over a year after the attack, Mrs Thatcher and Dr Garrett Fitzgerald met in Hillsborough Castle in November 1985 to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Imagine for a moment that the British government instead chose to respond to this brazen terrorist attack the way in the style of the Israeli cabinet under prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. First off, air raids batter Dublin city. Large areas are leafleted, telling terrified citizens to flee. As they abandon their homes, some are blown to pieces in the streets. Others, unable or unwilling to leave, die under the rubble of their houses.

The brutality generates a reaction. More bombs explode across British cities, killing civilians. An army barracks is also targeted, while an effort to drive a lorry bomb to the House of Commons is foiled. This time, a massive wave of British armour sweeps over the border. Dundalk, then Drogheda, are pounded by 155mm mobile artillery pieces, while jets scream across the skies. Tens of thousands of refugees clog up the roads as they flee south.

The RAF cripples Ireland’s airports while the Royal Navy imposes a blockade on our ports. Goods can only enter or leave the country with direct British oversight. Food piles up and rots at the ports while officials refuse to allow it to be shipped. Imports are reduced to a trickle.

A police station in Manchester is blown up. The British retaliate to this ‘vicious act of terror’ by bombing Dublin’s main water treatment facilities. Next, they target power stations, permanently disabling Moneypoint in one air raid, while the Aghada and Tarbert stations are next to be destroyed. The Whitegate oil refinery in East Cork is also bombed. Most of Ireland is in darkness, with no clean running water and a growing health crisis as a result of untreated sewage.

International observers are shocked when British ground forces begin shelling UN-run schools and hospitals, where thousands had crowded for shelter as the attacks intensified. A British army spokesman explained how their military were the most moral in the world, and went to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties. Who knows, the attacks on hospitals and schools may have been IRA mortars that mis-fired, he explained.

British army howitzers pound Dublin’s Beaumont hospital, killing 18 and wounding 60, mostly patients and medical staff. “The civilian deaths, if they were as a result of our measured response, are regrettable, but the IRA terrorists bear the full responsibility for operating near a hospital”, the British army spokesman added.

Vatican-based journalist David Quinn, reflecting on the deaths of some 1,900 Irish (85% civilians, including 400 dead children), for the loss of around 60 British troops and three civilians, explained: “Britain* has the right to defend itself against brutal foes that are hell-bent on destruction”.


The above vignette may seem a little fanciful, but it’s one way to try to bring home the savagery of the ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign waged by the world’s fifth most powerful army against a defenceless enclave.

Rather than cowering in shame for his army’s criminal rampage into Gaza, Israel’s prime minister instead took the time to ridicule the “telegenically dead” Palestinian babies and children being piled up just to try to make his army look bad.

And it certainly does look bad, and not just for the Israeli army. Former US president Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson jointly penned a devastating critique of the latest Israeli incursion in early August. What is not widely reported is that Israel’s brutal assault was both tactical and entirely premeditated.

“This tragedy results from the deliberate obstruction of a promising move towards peace, when a reconciliation agreement among the Palestinian factions was announced in April”, wrote Carter and Robinson.  Hamas had in fact made a huge concession, agreeing to open Gaze to joint control under a consensus government with no Hamas involvement.

The likelihood of reconciliation among the Palestinian factions leading to a peaceful framework for resolving conflict in the region with international approval and oversight was clearly a step too far for Israel, which prefers its own ‘open prison’ policy, where it keeps a semi-starved, humiliated and terrorised population on the edge of despair, presumably in the hope that they will eventually just beg to be deported from their own homeland.

“The new (Palestinian) government also pledged to adopt the three basic principles demanded by members of the International Quartet (UN, US, Europe, Russia): non-violence, recognition of Israel, and adherence to past agreements. Tragically, Israel rejected this opportunity for peace and has until now succeeded in preventing the new government’s deployment in Gaza”, they wrote.

While Israeli’s latest attack on Gaza is entirely illegal under international law, its conduct went even further this time: “There is no humane or legal justification for how the Israeli Defence (sic) Force is conducting this war, pulverising with bombs, missiles and artillery large parts of Gaza, including thousands of homes, schools and hospitals, displacing families and killing Palestinian non-combatants.

“Much of Gaza has lost its access to water and electricity completely. This is a humanitarian catastrophe. There is never an excuse for deliberate attacks on civilians in conflict. These are war crimes”, wrote Carter and Robinson, who also called for international judicial proceedings “to investigate and end these violations of international law”.

The appropriate channel for such an investigation should be the International Criminal Court (ICC) but neither Israel nor its sponsor-in-chief, the United States, accept the jurisdiction of the ICC, which conveniently keeps their personnel beyond the reach of the law.

Within Israel, the mood is increasingly hawkish, with some 90% of Jewish Israelis fully supporting the attack on Gaza, and just 4% feeling the slaughter indicated the IDF used “excessive firepower”. A popular view in Israel is that since the people of Gaza voted Hamas into power, the entire population is somehow culpable and therefore subject to the war crime known as ‘collective punishment’.

In a terrifying escalation, some politicians are now openly debating the ethnic cleansing of the entire population of Gaza. Martin Sherman of the Israel Institute of Strategic Studies published the following in the Jerusalem Post on July 31st last: “To prevent an even more brutal and extreme successor from taking over, Gaza must be dismantled and the non-belligerent population relocated.” The ICC regards “incitement to genocide” as a crime against humanity.

The delusional Sherman continued: “As counter-intuitive as it might sound, the policy of restraint fuels orgies of delegitimisation and demonisation of Israel across the world.” To his mind, the slaughter of 1,800 people, wounding of 10,000 more, the levelling of entire neighbourhoods, the repeated bombing of hospitals and UN-run schools, the destruction of vital civil infrastructure such as water, power and sewage treatment plants and the killing of 400 children all result from a “policy of restraint”.

Knesset member Ayelet Shaked took this ethnic hatred to its logical conclusion when demanding the deliberate slaughter of Palestinian mothers and their “little snakes”. She explained: “They have to die and their houses should be demolished so that they cannot bear any more terrorists.”

Meanwhile, back in Ireland, our Foreign Minister is a proud member of group known as the ‘Oireachtas Friends of Israel’, along with minister Leo Varadker, former minister Alan Shatter and Labour’s Joanna Tuffy. Ireland has to date pledged 500,000 euros to help rebuild Gaza ahead of the next Israeli blitz.

A far more useful step might be to offer the Palestinians some of the US-made Javelin anti-tank missile systems that the Irish military, at enormous expense, purchased. These compact weapons can destroy Israeli Merkava main battle tanks at a range of up to 2.5km, and would be ideal as a purely defensive weapon – and deterrent – against any future armoured assault on Gaza. When violence no longer pays as state policy, Israel may be forced to resort to politics.

[The seeds of the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, when over 750,000 were driven from their ancestral homes and lands by Israeli terrorists, can be traced back to even before the Second World War. In 1938, historian George Antonius wrote: “the cure for the eviction of Jews from Germany is not to be sought in the eviction of the Arabs from their homeland; the relief of Jewish distress may not be accomplished at the cost of inflicting a corresponding distress on an innocent and peaceful population”.

A year earlier, in 1937, Winston Churchill ruminated that “if ever the Jewish army reached the point (of being extremely powerful), who can be sure that, cramped within their narrow limits, they would not plunge out in the new undeveloped lands that lie around them?” This chillingly prescient observation is recalled by Bob Fisk in his definitive tome, The Great War for Civilisation – The Conquest of the Middle East. It’s recommended reading on the roots of the Palestine tragedy as well as the wider imbroglio in the region.]


Posted in Irish Focus, Media | 3 Comments

‘We asked for signs. The signs were sent’

We are the children of the Enlightenment. Our ancestors lived for countless centuries with only the vaguest idea of the world around or beyond them. Education and literacy was the preserve of tiny elites, usually in the service of religious or political ends. In the absence of the scientific method, bad ideas, superstitions and false reasoning held humanity in what must have felt like a permanent penumbra.

The Enlightenment swept in a brave new world. Science and technology raced forward in lock-step and those earliest to react found themselves masters of the Earth, as countries like England, Spain and Holland swept all before them in establishing and then gorging themselves on vast colonial empires thanks to their new-found technological edge in navigation and warfare.

The template for today’s globalised consumer society was laid down by the imperial powers, who were both the drivers and main beneficiaries of this astonishing leap forward. Human numbers surged exponentially forward, from fewer than a billion in 1800 to more than seven billion in 2014. No one species had ever come to so dominate the biosphere.

And then, in what felt like little more than the blink of an eye, the period historians refer to as ‘Western Civilisation’ had abruptly ended. Of course, civilisations have bloomed and failed many times in the past, but none of these were global in reach, and none before had the capacity and scale to drive humanity itself, along with much of the living world, towards the abyss.

“To the historian studying this tragic period of human history, the most astounding fact is that the victims knew what was happening and why. Indeed, they chronicled it in detail precisely because they knew that fossil fuel combustion was to blame”. This is how Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway frame it in their extended essay, The Collapse of Western Civilisation – a View From The Future.

The authors’ previous collaboration was the critically acclaimed Merchants of Doubt, an in-depth exposé of how the tobacco industry manufactured doubt and bogus controversy to protect their profits for decades, and how this highly effective blueprint for deception and disinformation came to be adopted by the global hydrocarbon industry in its trillion dollar battle to maintain its energy hegemony.

Oreskes and Conway’s latest project allows them to engage in literary and historical hindsight by setting the essay at the end of the tumultuous 21st century and casting a historian’s eye back at the unfolding tragedy of what they call the Penumbral Period (1988-2093).

There was enough, more than enough, clear scientific evidence available to both governments and corporations by the first decade of the century to signal that the current system was unsustainable, unstable and, unless radically altered, certain to lead to disaster. We knew, yet we did not act. The generation with access to more information than any other in human history chose not to act to save itself. Why?

“Our historian concludes that a second Dark Age had fallen on Western civilization, in which denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fixation on “free” markets, disabled the world’s powerful nations in the face of tragedy.

“Moreover, the scientists who best understood the problem were hamstrung by their own cultural practices, which demanded an excessively stringent standard for accepting claims of any kind – even those involving imminent threats.”

Western civilisation, the authors suggest, had become “trapped in the grip of two inhibiting ideologies: positivism and market fundamentalism.” Despite all the research undertaken in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the knowledge that accrued from this vast scientific enterprise did little or nothing to dent the powerful economic and political forces wedded to hydrocarbon extraction, a network they label the carbon-combustion complex.

“Maintaining the carbon-combustion complex was clearly in the self-interest of these groups, so they cloaked this fact behind a network of “think tanks” that issued challenges to scientific knowledge they found threatening. Newspapers often quoted think tank employees as if they were climate researchers, juxtaposing their views against those of epistemologically independent university or government scientists.”

The emergence of a powerful new ideology known as market fundamentalism, especially after the end of the Cold War in 1990, deepened the crisis. Market fundamentalism took on all the trappings of a quasi-religious cult, its proponents bitterly opposing even the most rudimentary forms of government intervention in the ‘free market’, such as ensuring broad access to healthcare, education and birth control, or implementing progressive taxation and environmental regulations to protect ‘the commons’.

The founding fathers of market fundamentalism, such as Friedrich von Hayek, respected science and saw it as the natural companion to capitalism. However, “when environmental science showed that government action was needed to protect citizens and the natural environment from unintended harms, the carbon-combustion complex began to treat science as an enemy to be fought by whatever means necessary. ”

The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change was published in 2006. Commissioned by the UK government, the 700-page report concluded that climate change was “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen”. This analysis was roundly and repeatedly attacked – by neoliberal economists and right wing media commentators.

Arguing against regulation of any kind had become so ingrained (and profitable) for corporations that even the repeated presentation of clear scientific evidence failed to shake them from their certainties – with tragic consequences. “It is hard to imagine why anyone in the 20th century would have argued against government protection of the natural environment on which human life depends. Yet such arguments were not just made, they dominated the public sphere.”

The irony here is rich: “The ultimate paradox was that neoliberalism, meant to ensure individual freedom above all, led eventually to a situation that necessitated large-scale government intervention”. Neoliberalism collapsed under the weight of its sheer irrationality, and took much of the world with it.

It is, the authors contend “difficult to understand why humans did not respond appropriately in the early Penumbral Period, when preventive measures were still possible. Many have sought an answer in the general phenomenon of human adaptive optimism”. Even more puzzling to future historians is how scientists, the very people whose job was to understand the threat and to warn society, they too mostly failed to grasp the sheer magnitude of the threat of climate change.

The key to understanding how poorly science responded may lay in its very structures, where science is divided up into precise disciplines. This meant scientists with deep expertise in one tiny area could in fact be relatively inexpert in related fields. “Even scientists who had a broad view of climate change often felt it would be inappropriate for them to articulate it, because that would require them to speak beyond their expertise, and seem to be taking credit for other people’s work.”

The establishment of the IPCC was supposed to provide this overarching system-wide perspective. While the collective expertise of the IPCC was vast, it concentrated on physical sciences, often ignoring the all-important social science dimension. “Scientists understood that those greenhouse gases were accumulating because of the activities of human beings—deforestation and fossil fuel combustion – yet they rarely said that the cause was people, and their patterns of conspicuous consumption.”

Many scientists shied away from addressing overpopulation, for instance, wary of being drawn into complex moral, cultural and religious debates they were ill equipped to address. This is despite the fact that exponential population growth, in lock-step with massive increase in average per capita consumption, were driving the very phenomena scientists were painstakingly cataloguing.

Another block for scientists was the concept of statistical significance. The gold standard of 95% confidence means reaching a level of certainty that a given event could have only happened by chance at being less than one in 20. In reality, this is setting the bar impossibly high when trying to make assessments of highly complex systems and the likely distribution of stochastic processes.

More importantly, this gave a field day to skeptics and deniers, who were able to throw back these impossibly high levels of proofs in the face of scientists and repeat the line that events that didn’t meet this level of certainty could simply be dismissed as ‘unproven’.

It is a canon of Western science that it’s worse to fool yourself into believing in something that wasn’t the case than not to believe in something that is. In science, these positions are known as ‘type 1” and “type 2” errors, the authors explain. “So while the pattern of weather events was clearly changing, many scientists insisted that these events could not yet be attributed with certainty to anthropogenic climate change” (Ray Bates comes to mind here).

“Even as lay citizens began to accept this link, the scientists who studied it did not…scientists missed the most important opportunity in human history, and the costs that ensued were indeed nearly “all costs.”

While the scientists dithered, the world burned. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was put in place in 1992. By any reasonable yardstick, it can be said that from that date, the world was in no real doubt other than that GHG emissions would have to be first reined in, then phased out entirely, as part of a global energy transition. Instead, the opposite happened. Between 1992–2012, total CO2 emissions skyrocketed by 38% globally. The ‘shale revolution’ began in 2005 in the Bush-era US, and gathered pace as ‘unconventional’ fossil reserves flooded onto world markets, lowering energy prices and crowding out low-carbon alternatives, be they renewables or nuclear.

Our historian from the future observes that the IPCC had projected a global doubling of atmospheric CO2 by 2050 – in fact, it arrived ahead of schedule, in 2042. The projected 2-3C surface temperature rise turned out to be 3.9C.

“By 2040, heat waves and droughts were the norm. Control measures – such as water and food rationing and Malthusian “one-child” policies – were widely implemented. In wealthy countries, the most hurricane- and tornado-prone regions were gradually but steadily depopulated, putting increased social pressure on areas less subject to those hazards”.

Much worse was to follow. The brutal Northern Hemisphere summer of 2041 led to global food crop failures, famines, food riots and unprecedented panic. “Mass migration of undernourished and dehydrated individuals, coupled with explosive increases in insect populations, led to widespread outbreaks of typhus, cholera, dengue fever, yellow fever, and viral and retroviral agents never before seen”.

By the early 2050s, social order was crumbling – first in Africa, but quickly sweeping through Asia and Europe. The US government declared martial law as its breadbasket dried out and famine swept the continent. As the situation became ever more desperate, the Unified Nations Convention on Climate Engineering & Protection (UNCCEP) began planning a global climate cooling project. Aircraft fuel was seeded with sulphate particles.

For its first three years, the project appeared to be succeeding, and temperatures began to edge downwards. However, an unintended consequence of this desperate geoengineering gamble was the virtual shutdown of the Indian monsoon, leading to famine sweeping across the sub-continent. The experiment was abandoned in 2063, but the shutdown led to a ‘termination shock’ as the heating rebounded fiercely – a projected 0.4C cooling quickly became a +1C of additional heating, pushing global temperatures to +5C over pre-industrial.

By the mid-2060s, a global climate tipping point was passed. There was a sudden and dramatic thaw of permafrost and methane (CH4) release. “Estimated total carbon release of Arctic CH4 during the next decade may have reached over 1,000 gigatonnes, effectively doubling the total atmospheric carbon load. This massive addition of carbon led to what is known as the Sagan effect (sometimes more dramatically called the Venusian death): a strong positive feedback loop between warming and CH4 release. Planetary temperature increased by an additional 6C.”

This methane pulse disrupted ocean temperatures and circulation, and dealt the death blow to the West Antarctic ice sheet. Between 2073-2093, rapid Antarctic melt sent global sea levels surging by five metres. Around this time, the Greenland ice sheet split down the middle and began to quickly slide into the north Atlantic, adding another two metres to sea levels.

Globally, some 1.5 billion people were displaced from coastal regions by the 7-8 metre sea level rise. Coastal cities, towns and ports were inundated and abandoned. Vast swathes of once-fertile agricultural land disappeared. Waves of ‘eustatic refugees’ caused huge disruption in the already distressed communities into which they poured. A second Black Death swept Europe and North America. There were no functioning health systems to arrest its spread. Up to half the affected populations died. Some 60-70% of all species on Earth went extinct during this period.

At +11C, we would assume the Sagan effect (named after Carl Sagan, the famous astrophysicist and science communicator) would have led to the obliteration of all life as a series of positive feedbacks led to runaway global warming and the death of the oceans. However, the authors flinch at such an outcome (after all, who’d have been left to tell the sorry tale of a civilisation that knowingly destroyed itself?).

Our (exceedingly improbable) redemption sprung from a Japanese genetic engineer, Akari Ishikawa, who synthesized a form of lichenised fungus which consumed CO2 highly efficiently during photosynthesis. “This pitch-black lichen, dubbed Pannaria ishikawa, was deliberately released from Ishikawa’s laboratory, spreading rapidly throughout Japan and then across most of the globe. Within two decades, it had visibly altered the visual landscape and measurably altered atmospheric CO2, starting the globe on the road to atmospheric recovery and the world on the road to social, political, and economic recovery.”

The authors can’t help concluding by ridiculing neoliberalism’s role in what happened next: “It might be viewed as a final irony of our story – China’s ability to weather disastrous climate change vindicated the necessity of centralised government, leading to the establishment of the Second People’s Republic of China and inspiring similar structures in other, reformulated nations. By blocking anticipatory action, neoliberals did more than expose the tragic flaws in their own system: they fostered expansion of the forms of governance they most abhorred.”

‘We asked for signs. The signs were sent’ – Leonard Cohen, ‘Anthem’


Posted in Global Warming, Media, Psychology, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 13 Comments

A monkey trap of our own construction

In parts of Asia, indigenous populations have developed an extremely simple yet ingenious way of catching the otherwise elusive wild monkeys. The trap involves a hollow object such as a gourd, which is securely staked to the ground, with a narrow opening on the top, just about wide enough for a monkey to squeeze its arm through. Inside, something sweet, like a banana or rice, is set as the bait.

Attracted by the smell, a curious monkey comes along to investigate, and pushes his arm into the gourd or jar to reach the treat. Then, because the hand is full, the monkey is unable to withdraw it. So far, nothing too unusual. What happens next is quite extraordinary.

The monkey continues to pull and twist his hand to no avail, and even the sight of the hunter returning to the trap is not enough to persuade the hapless monkey to give up what it believes is its prize. The trap in this case is entirely of the monkey’s own construction.

That inability to accept a modest, temporary loss of something seemingly within its grasp, even when weighed against the enormous loss that such tenacity entails would, at first, sound like one of those parables about how our cousin primates are, let’s face it, not very clever at all.

That judgement is harsh. Monkeys are powerfully programmed by evolution to hunt relentlessly for food, and to hang onto it for dear life – in this case, literally. What this primate is suffering from is an extreme example of short term reasoning, and a fatal weakness in an otherwise skilled scavenger and survivor.

Author Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance describes what he calls value traps. Of these, “the most widespread and pernicious is value rigidity. This is an inability to revalue what one sees because of a commitment to precious values…the facts are there but you don’t see them”. In the case of the monkey trap, Pirsig writes: “the monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped – by nothing more than his own value rigidity. He can’t revalue the bait. He cannot see that freedom without the bait is more valuable than capture with it”.

The wisest of apes, the highly evolved genus homo sapiens on the other hand would of course never trade certain future disaster for the possibility of avoiding modest losses in the here and now – right? The evidence that we have indeed evolved to be able to detect and so evade latterday monkey traps is, to put it mildly, unconvincing.

Over the 200 millennia or so since our species first evolved, we gradually overcame just about every obstacle that nature could fling in our path, from sabre toothed tigers to lethal microbes, expanding our numbers and our reach to now occupy almost every habitable square kilometre on the surface of the planet. While there are today over seven billion humans alive, our numbers have more than quadrupled in just over a century, and risen seven-fold since the 1830s.

Despite much talk of the population explosion having been defused, Earth’s numbers continue to balloon by the population equivalent of the Republic of Ireland every two-and-a-half weeks.

In just the last two centuries, we have figured out how to harness the colossal power of fossil energy to literally reshape the world to our enterprises. More than half the forest cover on the entire planet has disappeared since 1800, as humans pushed ever deeper into uncharted regions and brought them under the plough.

The evolutionary monkey trap has now been well and truly sprung. Science has, for probably the last half century or so, begun to grasp and quantify this massive unstructured reshaping of the biosphere by the actions and waste products, some deliberate, many incidental, of billions of humans simply going about their business.

Veteran broadcaster David Attenborough put it in the plainest of language recently: “We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.”

Oceans cover two thirds of the Earth’s surface and, since humans don’t actually live there, you would expect our impacts on these vast systems to be limited. The opposite is the case. A lethal cocktail of chronic overfishing, widespread pollution, eutrophication, increases in near-surface water temperatures, reef destruction and rapid ocean acidification has already taken a fearsome toll on the web of marine life.

Even if all human impacts stopped tomorrow, “the recovery from the changes we’re making will probably take a million years”, according to Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). A million years, bear in mind, is five times longer than the evolutionary history of our species. But of course we won’t stop fishing, we won’t stop polluting and, rather than conserving the world’s greatest reef system, the current Australian government plans to use parts of them as an offshore dump for mining waste.

The greatest monkey trap of all is climate change. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that our current business-as-usual trajectory will see average global surface temperatures increase by between 4 and 6 degrees centigrade this century, with ‘positive feedbacks’ in the climate system causing temperatures – and sea levels – to continue rising for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years into the future.

Back in 1992, leaders of all the world’s governments got together for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Even though the data was nowhere near as robust as is available today, scientific guidance on the scale and severity of the growing climate crisis was unequivocal. Climate change poses an existential threat to life on Earth, including human life.

What emerged from the conference were the 27 Principles of the Rio Declaration, a bold document drawn up to guide humanity onto a sustainable path with the natural systems upon which we depend. Environmental protection was finally to be placed as a key pillar of all future human progress, rather than some annoying afterthought.

And to make sure the politicians were left in no doubt as to the scale of this crisis, later in 1992, a panel of 1,700 senior scientists issued a public appeal, headlined: “Warning to Humanity”. Humans and the natural world were, they wrote, “on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment . . . if not checked, many of our current practices . . . may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life as we know it”.

What followed instead were two decades of the most relentless resource plunder, habitat destruction and pollution in the last two centuries, as China, India and much of the Far East raced to play ‘catch-up’ with the world’s major polluters. This unprecedented evisceration of the rich diversity of life on Earth has been celebrated as an era of record “economic growth”.

So what exactly is at stake? A major paper in the science journal Nature argued that Earth is on the cusp of one of the greatest ever die-offs, involving mass extinctions of species.

“When we kick over into a mass extinction regime, results are extreme, they’re irreversible and they’re unpredictable,” according to Dr David Jablonski of the University of Chicago. Prof Stuart Pimm of Duke University added: “We are living in geologically unprecedented times. Only five times in Earth’s history has life been as threatened as it is now.”

Mistaken ideologies and distorted politics make a resolution of our ecological crux all but impossible within the prevailing growth-fixated paradigm. “The current political system is broken,” according to the British government’s chief science adviser, Dr Bob Watson. “Nothing has changed in 20 years, we are not remotely on a course to be sustainable.”

Tackling climate change was, for a short few years, beginning to gain traction on Ireland’s political agenda. The electoral wipeout of the Green Party in 2011 heralded the sudden end of that brief dalliance. The appointment of a political fixer with zero interest in or understanding of the Environment brief was Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore’s two-fingered salute to sustainability.

In the 20 years since the Earth Summit, Ireland’s average temperature has increased by 0.75C, exactly in line with a projected 4C calamity this century. The last five years in particular have seen our once-benign climate turn distinctly hostile, with record-breaking flooding events followed by almost unprecedented Arctic conditions, followed by still more flooding. The fodder crisis in 2012 in particular was a wake-up call to those in Irish agriculture who think that climate change is somebody else’s problem.

Three major recent reports, from the World Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the European Environment Agency all point to the same stark conclusion: the climate crisis is rapidly turning into a planetary emergency that is fast moving beyond humanity’s ability to contain, let alone reverse.

“This isn’t about shock tactics, it’s simple maths,” according to Leo Johnson of PwC. “One thing is clear: businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world – not just 2 degrees, but 4, and, at our current rates, 6.” While this is strikingly unvarnished language coming from a firm of management consultants, PwC’s Johnson did gloss over one salient fact – neither individuals nor societies can possibly ‘plan’ for a 4-6C apocalypse.

The climate change monkey trap is a self-constructed trap into which humanity has plunged its right arm. Its left arm is up to the elbow in another gourd labelled ‘ecological overload’.

Extinction: Evolution and the End of Man’ was written by Prof Michael Boulter of London’s Natural History Museum. He summed up our existential conundrum pithily in an interview in 2008: “I think human beings are a failed species – we’re on the way out. Our lives are so artificial they can’t possibly be sustained within the limits of our planet.”

If this all sounds like bad news, Boulter, with the cold eye of a scientist, was able to point to a silver lining: “The planet would of course be delighted for humans to become extinct, and the sooner it happens, the better.”

Persisting in the belief that once the world wakes up to the certain fact that we’re in the process of wiping ourselves out we will decisively to draw back from the brink appears little more than a comforting myth. Author Chris Hedges explores this painfully when he wrote “We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilizations will blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.”

Even now, at two minutes to midnight, there are real steps we can take to at either delay or (if extraordinarily lucky) even dodge disaster. For starters, scientists now estimate that 80 per cent of all known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground to avert disaster.

We now have no choice but to forgo the easy wealth that comes from burning this vast carbon store and switch to low-carbon sources. Like it or not, this also means the winding down of consumption-based capitalism and major declines both in energy consumption and living standards.

And this remains, perhaps the greatest challenge of all. Homo sapiens, the ‘wise ape’, having struggled to overcome all natural obstacles, is now facing the most intractable evolutionary conundrum of all – learning and accepting our own limitations as but one species among many, which together form the web of life on Earth. Only by letting go can we hope to escape the trap our ingenious rapacity has sprung for us.

This description coined by the great 19th century naturalist, John Muir has never been bettered: “when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world”.

John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim. This article was first published in the summer 2014 issue
of An Taisce’s magazine.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Psychology | 5 Comments

Musing on the Climate (In-)Action Bill…

The Prologue

As anyone in Ireland with an interest in climate change is well aware, the present Government promised significant legislation on climate policy already in the programme for government agreed between the coalition parties when they took office:

Climate Change: We will publish a Climate Change Bill which will provide certainty surrounding government policy and provide a clear pathway for emissions reductions, in line with negotiated EU 2020 targets.

That was March 2011.

And funnily enough, we are still waiting.

But sure, that’s only three years. Thirty-eight months. We want to get this right after all. For goodness sake, it’s not like there’s any rush, and this Government has an awful lot of other Very Important Business to sort out. It’s Ireland — you know what they say: “if you don’t like the climate, just wait five minutes and it’ll change anyway”. Or is that weather? Ah but sure it’s all the same, isn’t it?

Anyway: it’s not like there hasn’t been any progress in the meantime. There’s been loads of it. Huge progress altogether. Absolute gobs of it. A consultation. A Roadmap. An Interim Report. A Statement of Progress. A Final Report. A Draft Heads of Bill. Submissions and opening Statements for Oireachtas Committee Hearings. Resumed hearings. Continued hearings. Still more hearings. A Ministerial meeting. Concluding hearings. (Yet another) Report.

But then … yes, well worth waiting for, a real result: Government agreement (yay!) and, wait for it … a revised Draft Heads of Bill. Taa daa!

Oh well. We are where we are, I suppose.

When Physics and Politics Collide …

So, without further ado, here is my entirely personal brain dump of visceral reactions to this long, long, awaited, revised, updated, and thoroughly modern Climate Action and Low-Carbon Development Bill (while there’s still maybe a tiny lingering chance to improve it before it finally becomes law).

  • In essence, the primary effect of the Bill is simply to enshrine in national legislation that the State will indeed abide by international agreements that it enters into. On the face of it, this seems to be of somewhat — what shall we say? — convoluted value. Surely, agreements are, and will remain, agreements, regardless of such hyperbolic belt and braces? Indeed, it suggests that the Bill might be cynically read as political posturing designed to deflect attention from a lack of genuine understanding or engagement with the true scale and urgency of the climate challenge.

    But on more mature reflection, maybe this core substance of the Bill does actually say something important — albeit more a possible insight into the Irish national psyche than the existential threat of climate change. In fact, a very literal reading of the Bill would seem to mean that the only thing it actually binds us to is that we will not, in any circumstances, act in advance of or go beyond mitigation obligations that arise through international (EU/UNFCCC) agreement. That is, the Bill seems to propose (accidentally? tacitly? covertly?) to bind us, as a matter of law, to make the minimum achievable contribution to global mitigation. This is hardly a recipe for good faith engagement in negotiations; but I can see that it’s an entirely “rational”, pragmatic, position to adopt. After all, the presumption is always that we are too small to matter either to actual absolute global mitigation, or to diplomatic engagement by the large scale emitters; so the logical thing is to keep our heads down, and just maximise our own scope, at the margin, to continue using the cheapest available global energy sources (i.e. fossil based).

    Ah, ‘twould be a great stroke, altogether.

  • In any case, scientific understanding has moved on even since the initial Heads of Bill were published: the IPCC has now definitively endorsed the finite GHG budget approach to global mitigation policy (see e.g., IPCC AR5 WG1 Technical Summary, Fig TFE.8, pp. 102-5). It follows that the Government now has a number of obvious obligations both to the Irish people and to the global community with whom we share a single atmosphere. Firstly, it should explicitly articulate our claim to a specific share of this finite and rapidly depleting global resource. Secondly it should explain how, in their view, this claimed share conforms with global justice and equity. Finally, given this budget claim, the Government should elaborate a timeline for its prudent consumption: one focussed on putting in place the best measures possible to adapt to the absolutely necessary aftermath of zero — or better, negative — nett GHG emissions.

    Now that would have been a Climate Bill worth waiting for.

  • And for the record: “low carbon development” is simply no longer an option. As a very minimum gesture of political honesty, that phrase should certainly be struck from the title and the text of this Bill. Only “zero carbon”, or, preferably, “negative carbon” development is now defensible.

  • Moving on. In a context where effective global mitigation will require approximately 80% of proven fossil fuel reserves to be left in the ground, the Government should clearly declare a moratorium on exploration for new fossil fuel resources in the national territory, whether conventional off-shore resources, or unconvenional on-shore resource extracted by so-called “fracking” techniques, and an explicit plan to ensure winding down of extraction from currently licensed deposits (including peat and off-shore gas).

  • But yes, Ireland is a small country, and its emissions are, in absolute terms, a relatively small part of the global challenge. It follows that Ireland’s climate and the welfare of its people in a globalised economy are now, in practice, at the absolute mercy of mitigation decisions by the large scale GHG emitters. Therefore, it is absolutely central to our national interest that we engage in intensive and sustained diplomatic effort to facilitate and encourage collective agreement to radical mitigation on a global basis. I can’t conceive of any higher national priority in the unique historical predicament in which we now find ourselves. Of course, that would require a commensurate allocation of dedicated, highly qualified, diplomatic resources. In fairness, in comparison to just about every other area of state expenditure, this would represent a tiny absolute investment in the interest of literally incalculable returns: what price a livable planet?

  • Of course, the credibility, and hence effectiveness, of any such diplomatic effort would depend completely on a willingness to show good faith: which would surely mean proceeding with aggressive unilateral mitigation ahead of global agreement. It seems to me that such “leading by example” represents the only significant leverage we might still have remaining under our own control that could be effective in mitigating the intensity of future global climate disruption. And without such mitigation, all efforts at effective adaptation will surely be rapidly overwhelmed.

  • To be clear, our own entirely selfish long term national interests absolutely rely on effective global action to bring nett global GHG emissions to zero with extreme urgency – within the next 20-30 years at the very most. (And yes, I’m painfully aware that the three years already squandered on this pitiful legislative tokenism already represents a tenth or more of that time period — just thrown away!) This points precisely at an overwhelming argument for unilateral local mitigation (ahead of EU/international agreements): it is the only way to achieve credibility in our diplomatic efforts — essentially trying to “shame”, or at least “embarrass”, the big emitters into the scale and urgency of action that we desperately need them to achieve.

    Now realistically, I don’t really believe that that sort of “short term sacrifice for long term security” approach is — yet — a “saleable” political proposition in this country. To the extent that we collectively think about the problem at all we either hope that maybe all those pointy-headed scientists have got it wrong after all (i.e., they are just all “over-alarmists”); or else that other “small nations” will take on the fight in our place (Costa Rica? Denmark?) and we can then simply be “free riders” on their early “sacrifice”. (An important irony here: this presumed “sacrifice” may be largely imagined anyway: facing reality, transcending denial and division, can be empowering for societies as well as individuals.)

    So is free-riding really the national vision of ourselves that this generation of Irish political leaders wishes to bequeath to their children and grandchildren? As we approach the centenary of the sacrifices of 1916 — which, regardless of any other judgement, were certainly selfless, idealistic, and dedicated to achieving freedom from tyranny — was it really for this kind of choice that those founders of this nation fought and died? Shall we really now fix forever the ne plus ultra to the progress of Ireland’s nationhood at the level of aspiring to be “the best small country in the world for business” — while that very world is being recklessly degraded around us?

    An Béal Bocht was intended as satire, not a policy manual.

  • But back to practical national and local policy action. Even with the most optimistic view of the prospects for urgent, radical, global GHG emissions reduction, we know that serious, disruptive, climate change is already committed to. While there will be significant regional disparities in the particular speed and severity of these impacts, Ireland will certainly not be immune. Accordingly, all Irish infrastructural investment should now be reviewed and prioritised to focus on building maximum resilience to unpredictable climate shocks, including the real possibility of abrupt regional climate regime shifts. The government should lay out their projected 50-year risk assessment scenario of “worst case” climate change impacts for Ireland — including international conflict, global food shortage, disruption of trade etc. — as a basis for gauging the adequacy of adaptation investment.

  • And what, you ask, of the “Expert Advisory Body” to be established under the new Act (when finally it arrives)? Surely that, at least, is worthwhile progress? Surely that, at least, will ensure that this, and future, Governments can have their policies informed by the best available, completely objective, scientific evidence, decoupled from denial, vested interests, and wishful thinking; and further, will be continuously held to independent account?

    Well, I hope so. I dearly wish so.

    But … a truly independent Expert Advisory Body would not contain any members who are constrained — by their employment — in commenting on government policy. And all appointments to the body would be made manifestly free of political influence through rigorous and transparent public scrutiny. For the moment at least, this Bill offers none of that. But yes, if there is still scope for something meaningful and useful to be recovered from this dismal and seemingly interminable legislative process then that is probably still the one aspect where it might be achieved.

The (Still) Open Future

They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent. Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger. The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences. We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now. — Winston Churchill, November 12, 1936

The climate change challenge is unprecedented and affects all aspects of government and societal well-being. It represents a “long emergency” of indefinite duration and severity. We are sleepwalking our collective way into a genuinely existential challenge for human civilisation. Merely passing an Act of the Oireachtas was never going to be an adequate response. But still: it could have been symbolic, it could have put down a marker. It could have said clearly that we recognise that it is no longer any use saying, ‘we are doing our best’: we have to do what is actually necessary.

So let me put my cards fully on the table at last: I long since gave up seeing this legislation as important in itself. To me, it has manifestly been a device to delay, procrastinate and deflect attention from any need to actually do anything at all — and it has served that purpose extremely well. I don’t see any scope at all for it to be somehow reformed, at this eleventh hour, into anything meaningful or effective. At the risk of repeating myself, it seems to me that the unpalatable truth remains that, neither at political or societal level is there remotely the degree of understanding or engagement with the climate issue that would allow serious debate about the steps that might now be physically necessary (as opposed to “politically possible”).

So: where are we in the end? Shall we just resign ourselves to a fatalistic acceptance, a prospect of hopeless inaction in the face of overwhelming fate?

Of course not. First, it is possible that the new Expert Advisory Body will confound my doubts and skepticism, and deliver firm, unflinching, truth to power; and further, that power will listen, will digest, and will, ultimately, act. But secondly, of course, this predicament is not going away. The laws of physics don’t compromise, they don’t listen to reason, they don’t do negotiation or engage in brinksmanship. So climate change impacts will grow, in both clarity and severity. This will be discontinuous — but inexorable. So, action will also grow. Tragically, it will be later than necessary, and much less effective for that. But there are good tipping points as well as bad. There will certainly be tipping points for progressive societal and political recognition of the reality of our situation, and the conviction that planetary boundaries are real and tangible forces constraining — but never dictating — our collective future. The future is open: and we can, always, choose how we engage with it. If politics truly is the “art of the possible” then political leadership can and must be the art of changing the politically possible to encompass what is actually necessary.

In the meantime, here and now each of us has the chance, the opportunity, and yes, even the moral obligation to do whatever we can to bring those good tipping points forward in time. So, honestly, pragmatically, knowing that our knowledge is always imperfect, yet knowing still that we must act anyway, let us speak the truth as best as we can know it, and plead for what is collectively necessary. Right now, the facts of the climate change threat are so stark that, in truth, the only rational response is to raise a commensurate, honest, alarm that can start to fuel truly effective action. By facing reality squarely we can still take a first great step.

“Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable;–and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made.” “It is no loss of time,” said Phineas, “to have taken the first great step in making it.” “The first great step was taken long ago,” said Mr. Monk,–”taken by men who were looked upon as revolutionary demagogues, almost as traitors, because they took it. But it is a great thing to take any step that leads us onwards.” — Phineas Finn (Anthony Trollope, 1868)

Barry McMullin is Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Computing at Dublin City University. He is also the Chair of the Climate Committee of An Taisce.

However, he rants (and occasionally tweets) on an entirely freelance basis!

Special thanks to Paul and Lizzie, and John G. for very helpful comments and improvements on the original draft: responsibility for the remaining excesses (grammatical and otherwise) rests, of course, with the author.

Posted in Global Warming | 4 Comments

The meteorologist and the scourge of climate ‘over-alarmism’

Back in March, there was quite a kerfuffle when RTE PrimeTime tried to set up a ‘debate’ about the reality of climate change by initially loading a panel 3:1 in favour of the 3% ‘skeptical’ position that rejects or downplays the reality and gravity of man-made climate change. Under pressure, specifically from An Taisce, PrimeTime relented, eventually giving the 3% position a mere 50% of the panel slots.

In the course of a lengthy posting after the event I described one of the panellists, retired UCD meteorologist (as distinct from ‘climatologist’) Prof Ray Bates as “a bona fide scientist but one with a long track record in ‘low balling’ the risks and talking up the ‘benefits’ of climate change. Bates is perfectly entitled to his views, which are no doubt earnestly held; it just needs to be pointed out that his views are his own, but would place him in or adjacent to the 3% “sceptical” view within mainstream climate science.”

Bates was not best pleased. On April 4th, I received the following email, which he also cc’d to PrimeTime editor, Donagh Diamond, reporter Robert Shortt and correspondent, George Lee. He clearly wanted this exchange to be as public as possible.

Hi John,

I’m not in the habit of reading blogs, but it has been drawn to my attention that my name has appeared in a blog of yours commenting on the RTE Prime Time programme of 18 March:

Naturally, this arouses one’s curiosity.

I wonder if you could possibly back up a couple of things you have said about me:

1) Could you give me a reference to some instance in which I have talked up the benefits of climate change?

2) On what grounds do you describe me as a climate sceptic?



The questions clearly merited a response, so I took a few days and replied, on April 8th, in some depth and detail (see below). As a professional courtesy, I did not cc the email to third parties, preferring to put the points privately initially to Bates and allow him to respond, privately or publicly, whichever way he decided.

That was over five weeks ago, and to date, no reply, not even an acknowledgement of receipt of my email has been forthcoming. The matter might well have rested at that, until yesterday’s Irish Times, which devoted a large chunk of its op-ed page to more of the same-old-same-old by Bates under the lurid (not to mention tautological) heading: ‘Warning of over-alarmist’ stance on climate risk’.

The author’s apparent lack of respect for many of the world’s top practising climate scientists and for the highly complex processes used to develop IPCC consensus positions shines through this article, as he picks and chooses the bits of the IPCC report that he “approves of” while dismissing out of hand much of the thrust of the 2nd Working Group (WG2) Report. Bates also floats a favourite red herring of the skeptical lobby by decrying the ‘failure’ of climate models to account for “the warming hiatus”. And, while decrying the inaccuracy and sloppiness of everyone bar himself, Bates attacks this report as follows:

“Multiple tipping points” – a concept that is not endorsed by the report of the first working group even under the most pessimistic of model projections for the 21st century – are freely referred to.”

Good point, except, as Paul Price points out, it’s not true.

The phrase “Multiple tipping points” is not “freely referred to” by WG2. The phrase is used precisely ONCE in the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) and ZERO times in the Technical Summary. In the draft SPM the IPCC says:

“The precise levels of climate change sufficient to trigger tipping points (thresholds for abrupt and irreversible change) remain uncertain, but the risk associated with crossing multiple tipping points in the earth system or in interlinked human and natural systems increases with rising temperature (medium confidence).”

This, Price adds, is “sound science and far from alarmist”.

“As with his shaky ‘hiatus’ ‘evidence’ and his overlooking of the stark warnings in Working Group 1’s report, this example illustrates Bates’ bias toward low balling climate risk despite the abundant, and alarming, evidence given by both the WG1 and WG2 reports”, Price adds.

What most informed observers of the rigorous (if not tortuous) process by which large panels of expert reviewers argue line by line over each section of the report before it’s agreed is that this process is innately conservative. In fact, one of the strongest criticisms of the IPCC AR process is that it constantly lags behind ‘real world’ scientific advances.

Also, it is deeply cautious and conservative by simple dint of having to find consensus not just among thousands of scientists, but also among government and diplomatic representatives of the 154 participating countries. When you consider these include petro-states like Russia, Canada and Saudi Arabia, it’s not hard to imagine the level of political pressure being brought to bear on participants to downplay climate risks and impacts. All of which makes Bates’ claims even more fanciful.

Here’s a link to the full list of AR5 Authors and Review Editors – over 800 in all. Have a look in particular at the institutions represented in WG2 – including the US Geological Survey, Goethe University, Polish Academy of Sciences, Stanford University, King’s College, London, US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, South African Space Agency and the Russian Academy of Science. In fact, there’s even a representative from that notoriously climate alarmist corporation, Exxon Mobil on the WG2.

But, according to Bates, this bunch are really just hand-waving alarmists.

“…The (WG2) report conveys no corresponding sense of caution. The most pessimistic climate model projections are taken as if they were completely reliable and are applied to deriving the most alarming impacts in various sectors”.

The WG2 has precisely 309 Contributing Authors and Review Editors, all with internationally recognised expertise in the highly specialised fields of ‘Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’. Imagine just how large any one person’s ego would have to be to casually dismiss this huge array of practising (and publishing) experts as being simply wrong, wrong, wrong.

So what, you might ask, is Ray Bates’ actual point? Well, it appears to all boil down to the desire to protect Irish agriculture (yes, agriculture) from any possible negative effects of pesky GHG emissions controls. In his own words:

“The over-alarmist stance of the second working group’s report should not induce the public or our legislators into supporting blanket policy options affecting agriculture that serve neither the interests of this country nor those of the wider world.”

Interestingly, Bates’ performance on that PrimeTime back in March was another billet doux to the unique entitlement of the Irish beef and dairy sectors to produce as much meat and butter as the Chinese middle classes can eat, and devil take the hindmost when it comes to the massive carbon footprint that both industrial beef and dairy farming entail.

But here’s the thing. The IFA and ICMSA already have well-oiled PR machinery working around the clock to make sure that climate legislation doesn’t affect agriculture, and that, presumably, when we fail to meet our legally mandated GHG reductions targets as a result, said organisations will throw their hands in the air in faux surprise and demand that ordinary taxpayers cough up the multi-million euro fines. But to be fair, that’s their job (whether ordinary farmers will thank their leadership in the longer term for their coyness on climate change is another matter entirely).

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 all very much includes our agriculture sector.

Here’s what I wrote to Ray Bates on April 8th:


Hi Ray

Thanks for your email. It reminds me that our correspondence now stretches some six years. I still have the cutting of the Irish Times letter you wrote about one of my early columns on climate; you were correcting my interpretations of some data, as I recall, but in a constructive way, which I certainly appreciated at that time.

First off, I haven’t cc’d this email to various RTE staff, as I’m not sure what this has to do with them. The statements I made were on my blog, not on RTE. Whatever difference of opinions or emphasis you and I may have, I’d hope we can resolve between ourselves.

Let me take them in sequence:

1) In the PrimeTime debate, you focused to what I would regard as inordinate degree on Irish agriculture; late in the debate, long after agriculture had been discussed, you brought the discussion straight back, stating: “climate models are projecting that by the end of the century, most of the warming will be concentrated in the southern Mediterranean countries, they’ll become very dry and hot in the summer whereas the Irish climate will be relatively much less affected, so agricultural capacity in European countries is going to be greatly diminish because of climate change…whereas the Irish agricultural capacity will be relatively unaffected…it’s important that we maintain agricultural production in Ireland so if we have to adhere to the 80-95% (GHG) reduction targets we won’t be able to do this…Irish food output per unit of output has a very low carbon footprint…”

First, a question: as a meteorologist: can I ask why your overriding focus in that PrimeTime programme appeared to be on agriculture? Granted, food security is important, so are many other topics, but none of these warranted much comment from you. Why?

My second observation is that most climate scientists I’ve spoken with – including a lengthy recent interview with Prof Michael Mann of Penn State University – state that the overwhelming imperative for civilisation is that we urgently, drastically and permanently reduce GHG emissions, including emissions from agriculture. Irish agriculture produces huge quantities of beef and dairy products. Neither of these are, as you know, in any way “low carbon”. I thought you might have suggested that we need to adopt our diets to reduce meat and dairy consumption, not just to cut GHGs, but also to reduce obesity and heart disease. You could have pointed out that the ‘western diet’ is driving the clearance of rain forests, desertification of agricultural land from over-grazing, etc. but instead, you chose what I see as ’special pleading’ that Irish agriculture be allowed to shirk its GHG reductions commitments.

You were the sole scientist on that panel, yet where did you set out the utterly dire consequences of allowing global average temperatures to spiral +2, +4 or more this century? (RCP8.5) Is it that you don’t accept that is likely? What I personally find astonishing is that these projections fall within the BAU, i.e. we can and mostly likely will achieve these in the coming decades to century, thanks largely to the public being unaware that this is where business-as-usual takes us, and more specifically, that climate change of that magnitude will cause far-reaching, devastating consequences, including setting in train irreversible sea level rises for centuries into the future, mass coastal abandonment, huge drops in global agricultural output, water stresses, etc. etc. In this ghastly set of scenarios, which as the IPCC report put it: “increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts”.

So, pitching to an Irish audience that “it’s important that we maintain agricultural production in Ireland” when you are referring to highly GHG-intensive forms of agriculture, is to me, surprising. The fact that you also believe that Irish agriculture will be “relatively unaffected” until the end of the 21st century by climate change I also find surprising. I’m sure you’re aware of the work by Dr Stephen Flood et al. of NUIM, specifically his paper: ‘Projected Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Irish Agriculture’. Its summary states:

“Agriculture is one of the most climate-sensitive industries in Ireland, as its primarily outdoor production processes depend on particular levels of temperature and rainfall. The report projects the total economic costs of climate change in the region of €1-2 billion per annum by mid-century. This figure represents 8.2% of the current contribution of the agricultural sector to the national economy annually, and at the upper level is greater than the Harvest 2020 targeted increase of €1.5 billion in primary output” (my emphasis). This of course is only to mid-century. We can expect impacts to accelerate later in the century, as warming intensifies.

Let me contrast this with your PrimeTime statement, inter alia: “the Irish agricultural capacity will be relatively unaffected…”. I’m surprised that you never sought to point out that agriculture everywhere (including Ireland) is highly vulnerable to climate change, as the expert evidence has shown. Instead, as I saw it, you “talked up” the (relative) benefits of Ireland being “relatively unaffected” by climate change this century and being able to take advantage of the (presumed) collapse in central and southern European agriculture to export food to these devastated regions. As I’ve demonstrated above, I don’t believe your opinions here concur with the ICARUS research work, which, unless I’m mistaken, is the benchmark in Ireland for measuring likely climate impacts on our agriculture.

Having looked at your very impressive list of Scientific Publications  I couldn’t find a single paper there that dealt with the impacts of climate change on agriculture or food security (if I’m mistaken, of course, please feel free to correct me). Therefore, am I right in saying this is not an area in which you are a published expert? Why then all the focus on agriculture and climate change/food security? I’m aware this is a topic you regularly speak on. As a non-specialist in this field, would it not be prudent to reference the ICARUS research and the clear warnings set out therein for agriculture in a warming world, specifically including Irish agriculture? Or even to caution that your views may be at variance with the ICARUS research regarding Irish agriculture.

2) I stated that your views “would place (you) in or adjacent to the 3% “sceptical” view within mainstream climate science”. That is not the same as calling you a ‘climate sceptic’. For instance, I understand that you have spoken and corresponded recently in support of the view that there has been a ’15 year pause in global warming’, i.e. little or no warming trend since 1998. I was very surprised to hear this attributed to you, but the sources were unequivocal that this is your stated position. Perhaps you could, without going into tremendous depth, clarify this?

Ray, I’m well aware that you are a scientist of the highest repute, and we’ve enjoyed a cordial exchange of views over the years, including agreeing to disagree on a number of occasions. You got to express your angle on climate change to several hundred thousand people via that Prime Time programme; I got to reach maybe a few hundred via my humble blog, so Advantage to you on that front! I didn’t write to RTE management or the BAI complaining about the broadcast; I made some – very brief – references to your contribution in the midst of a 3,200 word posting looking at the overall framing of this “debate”. I’m a little disappointed that you chose to involve three people from RTE, none of whom I know or have engaged with, into your complaint about my blog posting. That is of course your right; feel free if you so wish to circulate this response to RTE, but if you do so, please do so in full, so context is not inadvertently lost.

To conclude: both of us know that climate change is a huge problem and both of us presumably agree that BAU is simply not an option. I think we could both agree that the Irish media largely ignores this story, and when it is covered, often focuses on dissent rather than consensus. As a journalist, citizen and parent, I feel compelled to do what I can to try to improve our understanding and communication of climate change, and will happily work with anyone to that shared end. Unlike you, I am not an expert, nor do I pretend to be. I occupy that ill-defined niche of a science communicator.

There’s a bigger fight here to be waged than you and I exchanging volleys of emails. I’d like to believe that we’re both ‘good faith actors’, i.e. we’re both broadly on the same side, seeking the same outcome – a safer future for all and urgent steps towards climate stabilisation for the sake of posterity, both for humanity and for the natural world. You may well find my ‘advocacy’ approach frustrating, and I admit to finding your approach at times similarly frustrating, but relative to what we agree on, these are or should be trifles.

Finally Ray, have you reviewed the AAAS publication, ‘What We Know ? I’d love to hear you step up and talk about the overwhelming consensus among top published scientists and academies about the need for urgent, immediate no-excuses action, while we still can, to arrest climate change. When the AAAS states: “We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts”, I think that is far, far more important than Harvest 2020. Don’t you?

When the AAAS states: “The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do”, I don’t see how lobbying for sectoral special interests to be exempted from contributing to the urgent, critical task of GHG reductions could possibly be more important than us all working together, in good faith, to avoid, at all costs, “abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes”.

Ray, if you want to meet up for a chat at any time, I’m happy to do so. I’m not deliberately trying to be on your case here, but I do hope you’ll reflect, rather than just react, to at least some of the foregoing. I’m assuredly wrong from time to time, and hope I’m big enough to accept that and to learn from it and try and be less wrong next time. But I’m not sure I’m entirely wrong about this.


John Gibbons



Postscript: At exactly the same time Bates was taking the ‘over-alarmist’ professional climate experts who warn about possible tipping points to task, stunning news was breaking of “unstoppable, irreversible” accelerated western Antarctic collapse.

The over-alarmists this time came in the shape of two papers due for publication this week in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters. “This is really happening,” said Thomas Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research. “There’s nothing to stop it now. But you are still limited by the physics of how fast the ice can flow.”

“The collapse of large parts of the ice sheet in West Antarctica appears to have begun and is almost certainly unstoppable, with global warming accelerating the pace of the melting… Today we present observational evidence that a large sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet has gone into irreversible retreat,” glaciologist, Dr Eric Rignot said in a NASA news conference. “It has passed the point of no return.”

Disgracefully, NASA climatologists seemed to show little concern for what some might well regard as the real threat here: what possible impacts their scare-mongering research findings could have on Harvest 2020!

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments